Composition

The #1 Rule for Making Art, Part 1

The time has come. My  2nd, full-length novel is soon to be published. I’m currently waiting on some last-minute fixes to my cover. Formatting is not always my friend, alas…Anyway, if you want to get caught up before the next one drops, just click on these links and buy my first two stories (The Vampire Conspiracy [Book 1]; Shadows & Nightmares [book 1.5]). I highly recommend it as my books are part of a series, The Giftless Chronicles.

As I approach publishing this story, I’ve been pondering what makes art meaningful and enjoyable. What principle can I apply to my art, regardless of what it is, that will make it profound and moving? Is there even a unifying principle?

I believe that there is, at least for me. I use this principle when I sing, conduct, write, and teach. Abandoning this principle creates boring, insipid art. Following this principle will create, at least for them, meaningful art.

Are you ready? Here it is:

Say something interesting, or say something interestingly.

Now, you might say that this is too simple or a pedantic playing on words. I say that you’re wrong. Let me explain by breaking the principle into its two parts.

#1 Say something interesting.

By this, I mean that the artist should tell me something I haven’t heard before, something original. This might be a new idea, or a new twist on an art form, or a new blending of an art form. Something that makes me pause and consider and say, “Wow, I’ve never thought of that before.” Whether it’s synthesizing information in a new way or forging a completely new path, this kind of creation is exhilarating.

Out of the two parts of my rule, many creators want this one the most. It’s flashier to be Debussy, Tesla, Steve Jobs, or Picasso rather than Mendelssohn, Edison, Bill Gates, or Rubens. That’s pride. We want to think of ourselves as our own people. There’s also more forgiveness for mistakes. We forgive someone’s clunky writing or sloppy artistic execution if they’re charting a new path.

Unfortunately, saying something interesting is the harder one to do.  So often people try to be original and come off sounding like they are trying too hard. There are only so many original ideas that people come up with at any given time. Even brilliant, original thinkers only come up with a handful of truly revolutionary ideas.

It is a dangerous thing to pursue originality too much. Too many people obsess over it as if it’s the be-all end-all. Instead, obsessive pursuit of originality can freeze an artist, creating the dreaded artist’s block. They’ll throw away a perfectly good piece of art because it’s not “original enough.”

And, sometimes people think that they’re saying something original when they’re not. They think that they’re profound when they’re actually spouting nonsense. All too often, writers mask lack of profundity with excessive verbosity. To quote the great philosopher Bane from The Dark Knight Rises, “Theatricality and deception are powerful agents to the uninitiated.” Blathering on and on doesn’t mean that you are smart or creative. It means that you can’t communicate clearly and concisely.

All of this leads me into the 2nd half of my rule. Unfortunately, we’re out of space for today, so I will continue this thought in my next post.

Celebris Ensemble Concert Feb 15, 2020

Choosing a Valentine’s Day concert was an immensely rewarding task. I got to choose some of my favorite music of all time, including Dirait-on by Morten Lauridsen. I haven’t had the opportunity to perform it since my sister-in-law walked down the aisle. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces ever!

Read to the end and there will be a song for you to listen to!

We also have a world premiere by our Composer in Residence, Jane K (Evgeniya Kozhevnikova)! She has set a poem by Christina Rossetti, a wonderful and sometimes under-appreciated British poet. If you are in the Kalamazoo (or even if you are not) on Feb 15, come on down to Bethany Reformed Church at 5:00 pm. You can find our Facebook event here. Follow us for more info!

Without further ado, here is the program. Enjoy!

I

Sing We and Chaunt It (Robert Lucas Pearsall)

Shall We Go Dance? (Charles Villers Stanford)

II

I Sat Down (Edward Bairstow)

Set Me as a Seal (René Clausen)

Dirait-on (Morten Lauridsen)

III

Echo or Come to Me (Jane K [Evgeniya Kozhevnikova])

A Birthday (Jane K [Evgeniya Kozhevnikova])

IV

And So It Goes (Billy Joel arr. Bob Chilcott)

Fix You (Coldplay arr. Philip Lawson)

Stand by Me (Ben E. King arr. Mac Huff)

As promised, here is the world premiere of Pity Me Not (poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay) by Jane K (Evgeniya Kozhevnikova).

Celebris Concert Program Sept 27 & 29, 2019

This year, we will be performing this beautiful concert twice, so if you miss the first one, you can make it to the second! Or, you could come to both. 🙂 The first concert is on Sept 27th (7:00 pm) @ Bethany Reformed Church in Kalamazoo; the second concert will be on Sept 29th (6:00 pm) @ Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Allegan. You can find our event on Facebook here.There will be no charge for these concerts, but we will be taking up a collection. This helps pay for our musicians and funds future projects (of which I always have a few up my sleeve) with our ensemble. The best part of all is that we are now a 501c3! This means you can donate and take it off your taxes.

The Celebris Ensemble invites you to an evening of stunning, uplifting music featuring works by Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, Elizabeth Poston, and Craig Courtney, as well as world premieres of several pieces by Evgeniya Kozhevnikova. Entitled “Exaltation & Resolution,” the program deals with pivotal moments in our lives: moments of love and death, heartache and hope, and—above all—taking joy and strength in moments that may never come again.

I

Magnificat octavi toni (Orlandus Lassus) 

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (Elizabeth Poston)

II

Abendlich schon rauscht der Wald (Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel) 

Blue Moon (arr. Jonny Priano)

III

Four Love Songs (World Premieres by Evgeniya Kozhevnikova)

A Birthday (Poem by Christina Rossetti)
Pity Me Not (Poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay)
Departure (Poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay)
Remember (Poem by Christina Rossetti)

IV

Abschied vom Walde (Felix Mendelssohn)

V

I Will Rise (arr. Craig Courtney)

Jesus, Our Friend Indeed (J. Aaron Greene)

Program for Celebris Concert on June 1, 2019

Hello Everyone,

I’m excited to share our program with you. We will be performing at First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo on June 1, 2019 (7:00 pm). We have some amazing, professional singers and some very moving music. As with many of my concerts, some of the music is very old, some is very new. I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of ancient and modern.

The theme for this concert is Remember Me: Songs of Hope, Love, and Longing from America and the British Isles. We’ll be looking at songs (folk, pop, and classical) that have American and British composers/poets. Some songs are British songs arranged by Americans, and vice versa. Through looking at songs from both countries, I’m hoping that the songs will speak to the universality  of the human condition. All humans hope, all humans love, and all humans long.

We’ll be premiering a piece by Evgeniya Kozhevnikova, a recent graduate of Western Michigan University’s school of music and winner of a 2019 Downbeat award! She plays the piano beautifully, and her piece reflects that sensitivity and creativity.  She will also be gracing us with some solo piano pieces.

Cost is $10/person at the door. Follow us on Facebook.

Come. You’ll enjoy it!

I

My Sweetheart’s Like Venus (Gustav Holst)

The Turtle Dove (Ralph Vaughan Williams)

Danny Boy (Arr. Ryan Block)

II

And So It Goes (Billy Joel, Arr. Bob Chilcott)

Fix You (Coldplay, Arr. Philip Lawson)

III

A solis ortus cardine (Gilles Binchois)

Easter Anthem (William Billings)

IV

Remember (Evgenia Kozhevnikova)

My Lord, What a Morning (Arr. Harry T. Burleigh)

Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Arr. J. David Moore)

V

Jesus, Our Friend Indeed (J. Aaron Greene)

The Unforgivable Sin in Music

As musicians, we are always pursuing the perfect performance. We spend years honing our craft. We practice incessantly, sometimes for hours every day. We pay experienced teachers lots of money, hoping that they give us the skills to play that one scale perfectly or sing that beautifully placed high note.

I’m here to tell you that all of that will only take you so far. There are lots of people who can play technically proficient music that I don’t want to listen to, and there are lots of people with significant flaws in technique that I do want to listen to. For crying out loud, computers can play things more accurately than a human ever could. It doesn’t mean I’m gonna go to a concert played by computers.

So what do I look for in a performance or a composition? I want to feel something. Make me feel the thrill of love or the despair of abandonment, the grandeur of the Grand Canyon or the sheer power of Niagara. Draw me in. Give me no chance to look away. Do this, and I promise you I will pay attention.

The ability to express these powerful emotions engages the listener. This is what separates a good artist from a great one.  Ultimately, audiences will forgive a musician who plays wrong notes; they won’t forgive a musician who consistently fails to move them.

This is what I strove to do when I recorded the ballad that I wrote, The Hunter and His Love (SpotifyAmazon, and itunes). Did the musicians and I perform it 100% correctly? Nope. There will always be mistakes even if others don’t notice them. That’s not the most important question. Did you feel the darkness of a world where even the heroes can die? Did you feel the dark, personal tole paid by the heroes? That was what I was going for.

A good musician plays the right notes; a great musician feels the right notes. Sadly, students often miss this in their pursuit of musical mastery. Technique is not the end in-and-of-itself. Technique is what frees us to express ourselves exactly as we want, without the distractions of wrong notes and sloppy playing. And it is when we express ourselves clearly, honestly, and beautifully that people will stop to listen.

The Ballad I Wrote Is Coming Out Next Week!

I recently told an extended family member that one of my goals in life is to create things. Hence, if you look at my Instagram account, you will notice it is called @joel_creative. This is not a label of what I think I am, but rather what I aspire to be.

Many creative endeavors are linked. Sometimes, I’ll write a solo song and then turn it into a choir song, and vice versa. I wrote a solo arrangement of Danny Boy and then gave it to a friend to write a piano accompaniment. Instead, he turned it into a choral arrangement, which my Celebris ensemble sang at our concert a couple months ago (he was in the group).  I call this confluence of ideas, people, and products “synergy.”

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of my ballad. If you want a sneak peak, please sign up to my email list by Wednesday, July 11!

My Ballad: A History

Another example of synergy is when I wrote my young adult novel The Giftless Chronicles: The Vampire Conspiracy. I decided that one of my characters would sing a portion of a folk ballad. Since he’s part of a community that hunts monsters, that would be the subject matter. Folk ballads tell a story, so I chose to have two characters (a hunter and his love) go into the woods to fight an evil witch. Things get messy from there.

The Melody

Inspiration hit me like a Mack truck. I’d already written a folk melody (in Dorian mode, for all you music nerds) that would work perfectly. What if I wrote the whole text? I decided it would be like an old ballad, with old-timey words and everything. I finished it, and that was that.

Arranging the Song

Then another thought occurred to me. What if I made a recording? It would work well for promotional purposes. Other authors use skills that they have to promote their work. As a singer, conductor, & composer, I have a very particular set of skills (say that in your best Liam Neeson voice). Why not use them? I’d need to arrange the song, so I spoke with a friend, Joel Myers of The Founding, and he gave me some wonderful ideas.

Corralling the Musicians

After that, it followed that I would need to record it. I started corralling musicians, which is a lot like herding cats. Getting them all into the same room at the same time is quite difficult. In fact, I had two different musicians bail on me at the last moment. I was afraid that the recording wouldn’t happen, but I eventually ended up with Flute (Maria Gugliemina), Alto soloist (Daniela Peña), Bass-Baritone soloist (Me), Violin (John Robey), Cello (Samuel Kelly), and Mandolin (Joel Myers).  They’re all talented, dependable musicians, and you should hire them!

Recording the Song

Eventually though, we ended up in the recording studio and knocked it out. I sang and conducted at the same time, which I think helped keep us together and cut down on rehearsal and studio time.

Next, my studio technician (Garrett Gagnon) worked his magic. He cut/spliced things together, changed the balance on things, and then sent his versions to me. I listened and asked for some changes. All-in-all, it turned out to be a fun project, and I’m excited to share it with you soon.

One of my sisters told me that it was weird to write a song that goes into my book. It probably is. I’ve never been accused of being a normal person! Normal is boring, right? She also said that I should say that it was inspired by my book. I think either way works: the song can stand on its own or fit into my Giftless Chronicles universe. You can decide what you want it to be.

Brand New Choral Ensemble in Kzoo!

Hello Everyone,

I thought I’d take a break from promoting my young adult novel and talk about a new ensemble that I formed! We’ll be singing our inaugural concert at Bethany Reformed Church in Kalamazoo on Tuesday, May 22 (7:30 pm).

I guess I should give you some context. During my time at WMU, I met a bunch of wonderful, talented, and committed singers. It killed me that I could no longer consistently sing with them or at that high level of artistry.

The goals of this small ensemble are to unify the community through love of music, empower musicians young and old through education and presentation, enrich the artistic life of the community through creative collaborations performed at a high level, and enkindle a love of music through engaging performances in new places. I’m open to innovative ideas performed in interesting places!

Though we’ll sing music from a bunch of different eras, we’ll be specializing in early music, jazz, and contemporary music—these are strengths of the music scene in Kzoo, and I think we can add to it. We’ve got an amazing group of singers, including Bri Rigozzi, Melanie Walker, Laura Healy, Libbie Hayden, Max Wagner, Ryan Block, and myself. We’ll be singing music from the Middle Ages (Machaut) all the way to a brand-new arrangement of Danny Boy composed by local jazz pianist and singer Ryan Block!

Since this is a new venture, we really need your support! We’ll be asking a suggested donation of $10/person for the concert. If you want more choral awesomeness in Kzoo and the west Michigan area, you are free to give more! Please support your local artists. Regardless of what you can give, we want you to come and enjoy it! 

BUYC Choir Camp 2017 Recap

Choir camps always prove to be enjoyable, busy, and exhausting weeks. Last week was no exception. We played games, worked hard, learned much, and sang a lot! Our theme this year was Songs of Childhood. We learned about how children are raised in different countries, and we even played children’s song games from all over the world. We will be doing one more this summer in Detroit (July 17-20). If you’re interested, here’s the site you need to visit!

Every year, I am amazed how much the kids can learn in 4 days, especially since some of the children have had little to no musical training! Here’s a quick overview of what I taught them:

IMG_1412Day 1:

First we started out with some fun camp songs. It is a choir camp, after all. You have to start with singing :). We then learned how to sing with good posture and how to sing in tune. We also began working on some songs that we would perform at the concert on Thursday. I made a new arrangement of “A la puerta del cielo,” which they sang pretty well.

Day 2:

We reviewed the words and melody to an Argentinian children’s game called “Caracol.” The game is kinda cool, but it takes a little while to be able to sing and play it at the same time if you don’t know Spanish. The kids played an Indian (from India) game called “Fire on the Mountain,” which they liked a lot.

Day 3:

IMG_1415The kids finally got to play “Caracol.” The word means “snail.” It’s a line game where one side of the line twists the other into “the shell.” Then, the opposite side of the line pulls everyone out again. The group picks up speed, and the children are flung outward onto the ground. Children love these kinds of games; they are played all over the world. Learning these games are a great way for kids to connect with other cultures.

Day 4:

IMG_1418One of our board members also leads a drumming circle at her church. She led a short djembe drumming class. This provided a nice change of pace as we were preparing for our end-of-camp concert later that night. The kids sang four songs. Some had harmony, because it is very important for children to sing in harmony if they want to grow musically. Children need to develop their ability to hold their own part while other parts are happening. This grows their musical hearing and performing skills.

IMG_1416Well, that about sums it up. The kids had a great time. They really seemed to enjoy learning about children from other cultures. They immensely enjoyed playing children’s games from other countries. What a fun and informative trip through the musical world!

 

My Recap of the Composers’ Workshop

Composing has always been a little intimidating for me. I enjoy doing it, but can never escape the feeling that I could be doing it better. Additionally, finding people who are open and honest about the craft can be difficult. For this reason, I was drawn to the John Ness Beck Foundation Choral Composers’ Workshop that I attended last week. The workshop is presented through Beckenhorst Press. This publisher has always been one of my favorites. They strive for accessibility without sacrificing artistry.

Anyway, it was an excellent workshop, and I learned a great deal. There was so much information that I often felt like I was taking a drink from a fire hose!  Consequently, I don’t feel like I am doing the workshop justice by condensing it to a short blog post. However, it would be a greater injustice for me not to try. So here goes nothing:

First off, let me say that Dan Forrest, Craig Courtney, and Howard Helvey are wonderful teachers. Having worked in the industry for years as composers, editors, and pedagogues, they brought a wealth of wisdom and experience to the workshop. Additionally, each participant had the opportunity to present pieces for critique. That can be a terrifying proposition, but Dan, Craig, and Howard tempered forthrightness with kindness. They took a scary situation and made us feel at ease. This is no easy feat!

They also taught us to delve into our compositional process. When are the best times of day for us as individuals to compose? How long should you try to compose per day? They answered these and many other questions with personal anecdotes as well as stories from other composers.

This year, they invited lyricists to join us for a day, and we got to pick their brains and collaborate. This experience was very exciting. Working with lyricists gives you a different perspective. You gain a new appreciation for the craftsmanship of the words, as well as an understanding of how much effort goes into choosing each word.

Lastly, they told us about the composing industry. Specifically, when are the best times for submitting pieces for publication? What about self-publishing? How difficult is it to get published? To which publishers should I submit my pieces? They answered all these questions and more.

Composing was always something I wanted to do better. I had ideas, but they did not always come together into a coherent whole. The composers’ workshop I attended this past week helped me figure this out. I think this will make my future compositions more cogent and compelling.

It also helped me as a conductor. Good conductors must understand why the composers and lyricists made the choices they did. This understanding, in turn, enables conductors to perform pieces precisely and expressively. The workshop provided that insight.

I would highly recommend this workshop to aspiring composers of choral music (particularly church music). The teachers are honest and kind, the fellow participants are talented and affirming, and the sessions were informative and life-changing.

I’m Heading Back to Greenville!

Next Week, I’ll be heading back to a city I have not seen since 2010: Good ole Greenville, SC. I’m going there for a week-long composition seminar with Dan Forrest, Craig Courtney, and Howard Helvey! Over the years, my choirs have sung much of their music, and I am thrilled to finally meet them in person. They are all highly successful composers, their music is frequently published, and–most importantly–they strive for that elusive balance of artistry and accessibility in their pieces.  In particular, Dan Forrest has become one of my favorite contemporary composers. His pieces are beautiful and lyrical.

I am extremely excited and just a little nervous. I’ve done a lot of conducting and a ton of singing, but composing is something I’ve always done on the side. I write a piece every summer for my children’s choir camps. I’ve also composed pieces for my choirs to use in concerts and tours. I am truly honored to be allowed to attend this workshop, and I am hopeful that I will gain a great deal of insight into the composition process. I’m also looking forward to making new friends and meeting with old ones!

Plus, I’ve heard Greenville has extensively renovated its downtown. Greenville is consistently ranked as one of the best towns in the South. It will be fascinating to see how much it has changed and grown. On to Greenville!