Drawing the Double Bar Line

One of my hopes in life has been to write a piece of music for orchestra. I got a very late start in life learning anything significant about music and an even later start writing music. I had a guitar when I was in high school, but no lessons, and no ability to read music. So I made up stuff or I went to coffee houses and watched other guitarist's hands to learn pieces. It was only after I struck out on my own at the age of 18 that I began to learn about music and to become able to read it.

After the guitar, my first foray into composition was creating pieces for Buchla synthesizer, a beast without a keyboard. I enjoyed it because there was freedom from thinking about notes and notation. The Buchla was part of a community access studio in Seattle, called Soundworks. Periodically those of us who used the studio would share our pieces at a public performance. At other times, Soundworks would host visiting artists such as Alvin Lucier, Frederic Rzekski, and my favorite Ellen Fullman.


At some point, I heard about a graduate program in systematic musicology, i.e., looking at music from the standpoint of psychoacoustics, psychology, and sociology. Although this degree was a musicology degree and not a performance degree, to enter, one had to demonstrate proficiency in music. Thus I began a journey to make up for my misspent youth. I took private lessons in baroque recorder and performed at some church services with my flutist roommate. I studied music composition with Seattle composer Carol Sams and conducting with George Shangrow, who also also let me sit in on Orchestra Seattle rehearsals. Besides all the private lessons, I attended community college for a year to get up to speed on music history, theory, and voice. My theory teacher was the unorthodox experimental jazz musician Al Hood, whose music did anything but follow theory. It was an eye-opening experience. Finally, I volunteered to sing in a church choir conducted by a friend of mine and that allowed me to get in hours as a chorus performer.


From community college I moved on to the University of NY at Albany for a fifth year baccalaureate. I chose that school because it was in my home town (and I could get employment) and because I wanted to study composition with Leonard Kastle. Although he was known as a composer, his claim to fame is that he wrote and directed the cult classic The Honeymoon Killers. Kastle was a character, but someone who taught me the most about music and music composition. He also told me that his teacher's teacher's teacher was Johannes Brahms himself. I had plenty of counterpoint lessons from Mr. Kastle!


Kastle was a traditionalist who had no kind words for the other person with whom I took composition, Joel Chadabe, a pioneer in interactive electronic music. The SUNYA studio had a classic Moog, one without a keyboard. Between studying with these two, loading up with plenty of music history classes, and taking private voice lessons, I learned enough to get accepted into the University of Washington's School of Music masters program in Systematic Musicology. At SUNYA, I also had my music performed and got to attend a variety of concerts by friends of Joel Chadabe's, such as Pauline Oliveros.


As much as I enjoyed musicology, I wanted to continue to study composition. Although I took a UW composition class with classical and jazz clarinetist Bill Smith, I wanted private lessons, so I had to be evaluated by the music faculty. Perhaps the most famous of the faculty at the time was William Bergsma. After the evaluation, I learned that Paul Tufts would take me on. At some point, I inadvertently got a look at the remarks on the evaluation form. To the question "Would you ever take this student?" Mr. Bergsma wrote "Never!"


Mr. Tufts was an excellent teacher but not as prolific a composer as the others. Like many composition teachers, he was quite opinionated. At one of our weekly composition labs where all composition students and faculty gather to workshop pieces, a student who had written a minimalist piece said "I wasn't sure how to end it." Mr. Tufts exclaimed, "With a double bar line!" I liked him because he was honest and encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and try a few different approaches in composition, including organic form.


No matter who I studied with, I was advised to avoid orchestral pieces because they would never get performed. It is true that only the well established can hope to market themselves enough to get an orchestra interested. Most orchestras these days are committed to dead composers because it is the war horses of the past that bring in audiences. When I started this orchestral piece about 10 years ago, it was a purely intellectual activity. But it was made possible by the creation of Notion software and its fantastic orchestral sounds. Notion has sampled every orchestral instrument from members of the London Symphony Orchestra. Every attack, every way to play an instrument (e.g., for violin, pizzicato, legato, portato, spiccato, and more), all were sampled. While the playback of a Notion score does not replace a live orchestra in a real hall, it is close enough for me. Back in the day when the only sounds that could be produced by notational software were purely electronic, the result was abysmal.


Today, after I worked out the last few issues with my piece, I followed Mr. Tufts advice and drew the double bar line. I'm likely to tweak the piece in the upcoming weeks, but I finally feel as if it is done. And that's a good feeling! It's one movement, 10 minutes 41 seconds. I'm not sure why I named it Transitions, but I choose the name years ago. It seemed a bit more creative than "Piece for Orchestra."



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