This blog documents the creative processes of composers Craig Biondi, Alphonse Izzo and Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn as they compose new works for a concert funded in part through Meet The Composer's Met Life Creative Connections Program in association with the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Since the posts here chronicle a linear progression of a piece's creation, it is suggested that new readers scroll to the bottom of the blog and work their way forward. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Wrap Up

I spent the week prior to the concert in Alabama and had an opportunity to see what Birmingham has to offer.  Did you know that Birmingham was earliest and heartiest industry was iron?  Well, there's a huge statue of the Roman god Vulcan that looks down upon the city as proof.

Craig, Aleks and I had a blast visiting Sloss Furnaces, a former Iron Foundry that is now open for tours and also hosts artists whose medium is appropriately enough, metal.  If you go, be sure to spend a cpl of bucks to create your own cast iron tile. 

Ever wanted to experience an authentic Japanese tea house? Birmingham's got you covered... seriously.  The folks at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens generously gave us a tour of the beautiful Japanese gardens and tea house.  It's amazing that such a place exists in AL, though we're told that the climate in AL does resemble certain parts of Japan so the trees/plants etc. do thrive.

On Wed. the 24th. Aleks, Craig and I presented our solo cello music to the students at UAB.  My piece, The Madcap Laughed, contains elements of graphic notation which is what I centered my presentation on.

In addition to attending rehearsals throughout the week, one of our preoccupations was trying to get the live ustream feed set up correctly for the concert.  After many, many hours we finally had everything set up nicely for the concert on Saturday night so it was a surprise to find out after the concert that sound was completely distorted...  Apparently there was a problem with the levels on the mixing board that we weren't aware of.  Live and learn as they say..

Despite the fiasco with our online stream the concert was a success.  We had a full house and received some nice feedback after the concert.

I've included excerpts of the premiere of my piece Memory Theater as well as the entire performance of The Madcap Laughed. 

The Madcap Laughed, (feat. Craig Hultgren, cello):


Powered by Podbean.com

Excerpt from Memory Theater (feat. Craig Hultgren: cello, Kathryn Fouse: piano, Denise Gainey: Clarinet)

Powered by Podbean.com

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Izzo: Public Speaking

Now that Memory Theater has been completed it's time change direction and think about public speaking.  Ahh, public speaking my favorite thing in the world to do...  It's an odd thing because there are times when I'm completely at ease and other times when I sound like the guy stranded on an island who's been talking to a soccer ball for 5 years. 

Be that as it may, as part of our residency in Alabama, we three composers have been given a few opportunities to address an audience directly:

On Wednesday, March 24th. we're going to be presenting our solo cello music to the undergrad student convocation at UAB.  Basically we'll be giving a quick nuts and bolts description of the music followed by a performance by Craig Hultgren of the piece in question.

On Saturday March 27th. we'll be giving a pre-concert talk at 6pm.  After weeks of going back and forth trying to decide what form this discussion will take we decided to do a question and answer session with a slight twist.

The purpose of these lectures/talks is to help introduce classical music, (more specifically new classical music)  to a public that might not know much about this world.  We've decided to solicit questions from people that we'll answer throughout the course of our talk.

With that in mind, we'd love it if you'd be so kind as to send us a question.  Specifically, if you had the opportunity to ask a composer anything at all, what would it be?  The question can be deep and serious, or silly, or even provocative; it doesn't even have to address questions of music directly.

The idea is that rather than trying to guess what an audience might want to know about the topic, we've decided to allow the audience to tell us directly.  We hope it sets the tone for a fun, informal prelude to the evening.

If you have a question, please send it my way:  Tom at tizzo5@yahoo.com
We'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Izzo: Memory Theater

So far we've gotten nostalgic, fought off a swarm of bees, floated in the air with a ballerina, sang a hymn to the heavens and looked in fear and wonder at those same heavens.  This leads to the final movement which I titled Memory Theater and which incidentally isn't named after a Cornell piece.

I came across the phrase in Charles Simic's book/tribute to Cornell called Dime-Store Alchemy and I think it fits the music well.  In fact I've decided to use Memory Theater as the title for the entire piece.

And as it turns out, the piece is almost exactly 20 minutes long as opposed to my initial 10 minute estimate.
Now, I knew that I had the freedom to think a bit bigger which is why I let the duration grow as my ideas developed, but had there been a specific duration limitation I would have kept to it.

Anyhow, I say this simply to illustrate that if you've been following along you're experiencing the piece in fragments and as such the larger scope and journey that the music takes you on gets lost.  If you'd like to hear the entire piece please click the concert links at the top of the page--you can listen live online.


    Electronic Realization:

Powered by Podbean.com

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Izzo: Landscape With a Figure

This piece is going to be longer than I expected.  When I first began working on the music I planned to make each variation around 2 minutes long.  There are times however, when your calculations need to be discarded no matter how nice they look on paper.  That's what I find so fascinating about this process; it truly is a balancing act between logic and intuition.   

I also discovered that the 2nd. half of the piece wants to be more serious in nature than the first half.  This is pretty evident in the 4th. variation titled Landscape With a Figure; the character of the music is brooding and at times explosive.
Electronic Realization: 


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sternfeld-Dunn: Coming up against History

As a composer I often find that I am happiest writing music for ensembles that aren't standardized. The benefit of this is there is no literature set for the ensemble for your music to be compared to. The bad news is it's harder for you to get these pieces performed because you have to create your own group.

Of course writing for solo cello means you are putting yourself up against hundreds of years of solo cello literature and that means going up against the big man himself...J.S. Bach. You can't write a solo cello piece and not have Bach's Cello Suites looming over your shoulder. Maybe this means you react against the grain or maybe you embrace what he did but either way he is there waiting to make your solo piece look like chump change.

While my solo piece has at times been a reaction against the Cello Suites I have also decided to embrace certain aspects of these works. The second movement, Crackle!, is really an homage (or maybe a desperate attempt) at the contrapuntal writing that Bach is famous for. This movement focuses on two main aspects, two voices interacting with each other and interesting colors.

While this midi recording doesn't really capture the colors of the piece I hope you can hear the counterpoint.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Izzo: Celestial Navigations

Joseph Cornell created a series of works with a similar theme that he called Celestial Navigations.  In these pieces he used items such as star maps, diagrams of trade winds and solar and lunar eclipses to create a personal inquiry into the cosmos.

This series inspired my third variation.  For some reason I kept thinking of an old wheezy pump organ as I was working on the music.  I may have been juxtaposing the grand themes of the space & time with Cornell's involvement in Christian Science which creates a picture in my mind of Cornell with a small, humble group of followers gathering in a backroom to sing hymns.

Electronic Realization:

Friday, February 26, 2010

Biondi: One Outta Two Ain't Bad

It's pretty gratifying to finish a piece of music. It's pretty daunting to release it to the public via a blog. And while I've really completed only one movement of a piece titled Two Psalms, I am still basking in the glow of the movement's final barline, and have decided to post the entire movement here.

The composition of the piece actually took substantially less time than the notation of it. If you're accustomed to looking at musical scores, you'll see that there are many unusual features to this score, all of which are designed to communicate something specific to the performers who will be reading from it.

This opening movement constitutes just under ten minutes of music, with the second Psalm (which does not yet exist) expected to be somewhere between four and five minutes long. It is now very, very late, and I must go to bed.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sternfeld-Dunn: Composing Under Duress

In my humble opinion there is nothing more frightening for composers then the dreaded deadline. It sits on your calendar, taunting you and it always approaches much faster than you think. In my case this deadline has crept up significantly faster than I thought and while my work for English Horn and Cello is wrapped up, my solo cello work is still a work in progress.

Whenever I am faced with the blank page I tend to try to grab onto anything I can for some musical inspiration and in the past it has always been some musical thing that has been in my inspiration. Some rhythm, pitch, scale, etc. becomes the momentum for the work. However with the deadline quickly approaching I find that I don't have the same amount of time to really sweat over the beginning of the process like I usually do. Instead I tried to think of descriptive words that would serve as the inspiration for the work. So now I have a three movement solo cello piece in the works titled: Snap!, Crackle!, Pop!

Yes I realize this may be one of the dumbest titles ever, but this is why I'm a composer and not an author.

Posts will come soon sharing audio and

Monday, February 22, 2010

Biondi: Proportionality Issues

I've been deceiving myself this entire process. I was sure that the new challenge I was facing while composing this piece was incorporating the various improvisatory elements. But as I get more and more into the piece, I realize that the biggest challenge I'm having is determining the correct proportions and overall shape of the piece.

Many of my single-movement pieces have a pretty similar shape to them, with a gradual development climaxing near the end of the work. For this piece, I made the early decision to begin the piece amidst the climax, allowing the piece to "devolve" from there. In a way, I have chosen to compose in mirror image to my normal tendencies. This puts me at a serious disadvantage, as I can't refer to my usual bag of tricks to progress the piece forward...to push the music over the finish line. Measure 1 WAS the finish line!

Despite my hand-wringing over the improvisatory nature of the piece, this dilemma of shape may be the factor which has most retarded the composition process, whether consciously or not.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Izzo: The Murky Lens of Time...

I've decided to divide the piece into two sections:

Var. I
Var. II
Theme Redux
Var. III
Var. IV

The theme acts as a line of demarcation between these sections while also providing a structural touchstone.  I could repeat the theme as a literal repetition at each of these points but I feel that it would be better to alter it in some way at its return.  From a musical standpoint I think it'll make the piece more interesting, but since I'm dealing with the subject of memory, I'm also mulling over how our memories become murky through the lens of time. 

So the real question is who cares?  Why do I need an extra musical justification to make changes to the music?  On a personal level I feel the need to make connections to my own beliefs/ponderings whether they're hidden within the music or not.  Each time I compose it requires a bit of self exploration, otherwise I feel as if I'm just spinning notes without purpose.

  Electronic realization:

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Biondi: Chaos to Canvas

Click to view score in new window.

It didn't take long for me to decide to implement a pretty substantial element of improvisation in this work, at least here in the beginning. But as you'll see in the score, there are definitely parameters set in place. In essence, I'm trying to control a sense of chaos, and I've used a few different methods here.

1) Improvisation which must include some given elements
2) Completely free improvisation, but as a dialogue with another musician
3) Improvisation embedded within notated music

This last method is the one I'm particularly excited about, and have been thinking about trying this for several years.

This music (as with all improvisatory music) is highly dependent on the performance (and the caliber) of the players involved. And as one might imagine, this can cause a great deal of consternation for a composer. The performers for this concert, however, give me the utmost confidence. This leaves me with one area of trepidation concerning the piece, which is the overall pacing. My job as communicator then becomes possibly more difficult than if the piece was notated in a more traditional fashion. Keeping fingers crossed...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Izzo:Tilly Losch

At this point I've got about 8 minutes of music: Theme/Variation1/Variation2.  My goal is to compose another 4 minutes or so, specifically a slow variation and an ending/final variation.  I find that as I write these variations, I'm matching the music to specific pieces of Cornell's, as opposed to simply trying to communicate the general themes that run through his work.  As such I've decided to use the titles of these works to name each of my variations.

The music in this post is called Tilly Losch, which is the name of a famous ballerina from the early 20th. century.  As you can see, the piece consists of a young girl floating in mid-air perhaps supported by a giant balloon that we can't see, though we can see taut strings behind her.

Electronic realization: 

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Biondi: Drafting

For several years, I have been wanting to compose a piece based on some aspect of the biblical king David. The upcoming concert provided a good forum for this, and I have chosen an ensemble of soprano voice, cello, piano & percussionist. For text, I have selected two Psalms of David and plan on presenting them in the original Hebrew.


The above image is a collage of some of my early thoughts for the opening of the piece. Even if you don't read music, you can see that this is truly a very "rough" draft. And it isn't necessarily a linear presentation of how the piece will unfold, but rather an assortment of random musings as I begin to formulate the piece in my brain.
Hopefully all of this will begin to make some sense soon.
The text you see is Psalm 3, and I hope to convey a sense of urgent conflict in the opening of the piece.

Lord, how are they increased that trouble me!
Many are they that rise up against me.

Now at this point in my compositional process I am generally trying to calm the chaos in my head. But interpreting this text is encouraging me to do the opposite. I'm finding that the chaos wants to come out in its raw, unabashed original form. My challenge will be to find a way to unbridle this beast, while not getting bogged down in the strict notation. In other words, when hearing to the piece, I want the listener to be enveloped in the turmoil of the music, and not be subjected to an overly complicated science project.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Izzo: You Are Here...Again

O.k., so the music that I last wrote about doesn't work, mainly because I it's simply too sappy.
After failing to convince myself that I could work with the music in question, I was reminded by my friend Craig that I can go back and work directly from my original thematic idea. I'd completely lost sight of this due to my desire and panic to move forward, (deadlines will do this to you). 

Based on his sage advice I re-evaluated the theme and wrote a direct response in the form of a first variation. As you'll hear in the clip below, the theme has got a nostalgic, Romantic sound.  The first variation is playful but somewhat abstract; very different from the theme.  The theme to me represents a sort of dream world that I plan on quoting from throughout the piece.  I'm hoping that the juxtaposition of these different styles will make for an interesting formal tension.  

Electronic realization:

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Izzo: Disturbing The Surface

Hmmm.. I worry about the "tone" of a bit of music that I've been working on this week. Well, that's not entirely true. I'm self conscious because it's a little too sweet and simple, yet it also has some features that resonate with me.

The truth is that this snippet of music represents the "problem" that I'd like to explore in this piece. How do I transform a naive sound world into something deeper? This is what makes Cornell's (see first post) art tick; the tension between sentimentality and more disturbing/provocative sub layers.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sternfeld-Dunn: Color and Orchestration

So, as I begin to rework my piece for English Horn and Cello, I have decided that I have some rather interesting music in the middle section of the work. Specifically it's the moment where the Cello and English Horn are in unison. I actually think it's a rather striking moment, and it was conceived to be the climax of the piece. I think that material is interesting and beautiful enough that it would make a great opening.

Here is my dilemma. Should I present it in it's unison state? I want it to occur where it already does in the piece acting like the climax, but will it loose its weight by being up front as well. I'm probably not explaining myself well so let me explain it in another way.

As a composer I would not say I fall into the timbrel type of composer (i.e. early Penderecki, or Early Ligeti), however orchestrational color has become very important to me in the last five years or so. I tend to find colors and orchestrations that I find really interesting and captivating and then save them for dramatic moments. So the question becomes will this unison section be dramatic if that color is presented at the beginning. The follow up question is of course is what makes this material interesting, the color or the pitches?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Izzo: Variations Of Variations

I jotted down some of the features and themes that I find in Joseph Cornell's work that I believe can give me a little guidance as I write this piece: nostalgia, exotica, ephemera, dilapidated finery, irrational juxtaposition, memory and whimsy.

An idea that came to mind was that each variation could illustrate one of these themes. So, for now I'm working with this game plan though as often is the case,I'll probably need to make Frankenstein-like adjustments.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sternfeld-Dunn: Admitting your music is boring!

As an active composer I find I spend a lot of time going to hear contemporary music concerts either put on by new music ensembles or composer conferences. Today I will say what many will not...the majority of these concerts are boring. They just are, it's a fact of life. I would say at a typical conference with three days of music with 8 or more concerts there may be one piece (if you are lucky) that is truly memorable. There are certainly quite a few pieces that are good (maybe competent is a better description) but that you won't remember the next week, and then there are a handful of truly bad pieces.

So why am I bringing this up? Because one of the pieces I am working on for this project is a piece for English Horn and Cello and right now it is boring. That's right I said it. I feel comfortable saying that it is a competent piece, perhaps even a good piece, but it is certainly not memorable.

The impetus for the piece was taken from a line of poetry by Edna St. Vincent Sinclair titled Savage Beauty. The line is "...and I will love the silence...", this is also the title of the work. To me this line was simply stunning and lent itself to some beautiful musical ideas. So I set to work trying to write a piece that explored movement from moment to moment, silence (of course), beauty and timbre.

The piece was premiered by two wonderful  musicians Keri McCarthy on English Horn and Ruth Boden on Cello. I think the performance was fantastic and they lent a ton of musicality to the piece, and I was still left a little...well...bored. I know it was not them, it was me.

Ultimately I think the piece is just not beautiful enough, specifically the opening. It's a good opening but not great. It's a pretty opening but not beautiful! It explores color but not as deeply as it could. Perhaps this is the problem I see with much of the new music out there it does what it needs to but only half way, it doesn't go far enough.

I know I haven't sold the piece to you yet, but give it a listen and see what you think. My thoughts are that as it stands it's a good piece but not a great piece. I think the world has enough good pieces.

Izzo: The Aesthetic of Uncertainty

I began thinking about and sketching ideas for this project in Feb. 09.  I just counted and I have 121 files from Feb.09 through Nov. 09, and here's where it becomes a little sick; these are all false starts.

Now, I know composers who are clear about the form, length and proportions of the piece they're writing before they even put a note on the page.  I admire this immensely, in large part because I can't do it!  Like Cornell, (see my first post) I need to wander the "streets" and collect bits of ephemera that I think might come in handy somewhere down the road. 

With that in mind, it was only a week ago that I came upon an idea that I think might kickstart this piece.  Why do I think this idea has promise?  I'm not entirely certain, but here are a few thoughts:

The musical language, an old fashioned and quasi romantic sound world, is not one that I live in and this creates a creative tension in my mind.  What does this music represent to me and why did I come up with it in the first place?  How does it fit into what I think I'm trying to say?  Is this idea meant to be a foil of some sort for other musical ideas within the piece?

I have no idea, and with about a month left to compose the piece I've decided to commit to pursuing these questions.  That said, I've chosen to write a theme and variations for clarinet, cello and piano based on this music.  We'll see where it leads..

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Izzo: Nostalgia For The Unknown

The work of artist Joseph Cornell has long been a fascination of mine. Cornell was famous for his boxed assemblages in which he would create haunting, surreal pieces by arranging disparate objects, such as Victorian dolls, coins, sheet music, etc. into incredible works of art.

He lived all of his life in NYC. Other than a three year stint in MA. he never left NY, yet his art deals with the faraway and impossible. What speaks to me about this is the sense of nostalgia for things, people and places that he never directly experienced; a nostalgia for the unknown.

I feel a certain kinship toward Cornell's aesthetic.  I have a tendency to use small unpromising bits of ideas that I juxtapose into what I hope becomes an interesting musical statement, much like the bric-a-brac that he collected for his work.

Also, I realize that I've been addressing the themes of nostalgia, melancholy and escapism in my music. It's taken time to formulate these connections in relation to Joseph Cornell's work, but I feel that I now have a way to address these themes head on in the piece that I'll be writing.

Learn more about Joseph Cornell here: http://josephcornell.org/