Yes, there is musical life after your 20s!

What is the cut-off for being a “young composer”? Everyone defines that line a little differently, but I’m in my mid-30s, and in my case anyway, I certainly feel like I’ve moved onto the next thing.

This transition is more a state of mind than anything else. Over the past few years, when I’ve found myself in young composer settings, I’ve gotten that awkward feeling of being somewhere you no longer belong, like when you visit your old high school a few years into college.

Also, much to my amazement, I’ve found myself confronted on occasion by composers younger than me asking for career advice. Thinking back on the past few years, I suppose I did learn a few things that would have been useful to my 20-something self. So in the spirit of paying it forward, here are some reflections on composing after young-composer-hood.

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Elevate Ensemble in rehearsal

I recently did an interview with Elevate Ensemble about my two upcoming premieres on their Stravinsky: Reconstructed program. In it, I talk about my first musical experiences, my compositional process, and the inspirations for my two pieces. I also explore similarities in the planning process between composing and computer programming.

Check out the interview!

And if you’re in the bay area, come to the concert on October 2nd. It promises to be a very interesting program, focused around Stravinsky’s Octet for Winds, with smaller pieces exploring each of the subgroupings of the instrumentation, plus a new concerto for piano-four-hands duo ZOFO, written by Nick Vasallo.

“Mashups of the Mona Lisa” created by Dave Winer, via Flickr CC

The predominant ideology in composition today, across all genres, is rooted in pastiche. Most composers in the new music community aren’t consciously thinking about this, but we’re involved all the same. I mean, just look at the names: new complexity, neo-romanticism, post-minimalism—three of the broadest trends in contemporary music, all with echoes of pastiche baked right into their labels. Of course not everyone is writing “in the style of” or explicitly quoting other pieces, but the desire to build perceptible bridges between musical traditions is nearly universal.

And it’s not just in classical composition. Virtually all of the most celebrated new art of our time, across genres and disciplines, whether high art or populist entertainment, relies to some extent on pastiche. You will find a healthy serving of the stuff in everything from the music of Jennifer Higdon to Nico Muhly to Thomas Adès, not to mention Taylor Swift, the Star Wars movies, and the memes in your Facebook feed. Pastiche clearly strikes a chord with the cultural zeitgeist of the moment.

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What role should unions play in new music?

Virtually all the new music musicians I know are left-leaning and pro-labor, yet much of the new music field is non-unionized. Why is that? The AFM and other unions play a significant role in the realm of larger, more traditional music making—orchestras, musicals, film recording, opera, et cetera—but they are far less visible when it comes to performances of new music. In the Bay Area, where I live, AFM local 6 lists only one new music presenter with a collective bargaining agreement.

Size is probably part of the equation, since a handful of orchestras is easier to unionize than the ever-shifting ecosystem of small chamber ensembles more typical in new music. But it goes beyond that. The AFM certainly represents chamber musicians, and it has initiatives designed specifically for smaller groups, such as its Fair Trade Music program. Yet most of the new music musicians I interviewed for this piece held a dim view of the musicians’ union, and many had experienced hostility from their AFM locals… Read the rest of this article on NewMusicBox ››

PEP volume 2 CD cover

Check out Andrew Timar’s review of Piano and Erhu Project Volume 2 on WholeNote. The album includes my piece Who Made the Inch of Grass, of which Timar writes: “[It] haunted me the most, prompting repeated pleasurable listening.”

Piano and Erhu Project is a collaboration between two fantastic Vancouver musicians, Corey Hamm and Nicole Li. They commissioned Who Made the Inch of Grass in 2014 and have put on several fantastic performances of the piece since.