50 State Sonata/Drumming on the Highline/Sinfonia Concertante

[How am I? What am I working on? HOW IS LIFE IN NYC!? - Questions my friends/fans/family are asking me nonstop. Wohoo, how about some answers in a consistent blog format? Also, since Mondays sort of make or break the week for me, #motivatedmonday (though today definitely feels more #magnificentmonday), The Blog, will help me codify strong starts to the week. Here goes:]

Project I Am Putting Together: 
Being a composer is eversomuchmore than just coming up with and organizing notes. Organizing projects and the people involved is where I exert at least half of my available elbow grease and brain power! So I’ll talk next week about the music I’m currently writing (a cello concerto influenced by Italian Futurist Architecture) and talk now about the project I’m currently assembling. 

The 50 State Sonata
Over the past two years I’ve had many violinist friends (as an ex-violinist, they are My People, after all) who’ve wanted me to write them music. They were all in different states, so I thought let’s make this bigger and better - I’m sure I can find one person in each state who would be interested in playing a new violin sonata. Thus the tendrils for this project began. It’s a tricky thing, to be sure, to find and vet and engage amazing artists in states whose music programs I’m well versed in and those I’m not, but we’re off to a good start, with the final list of violinists to be announced at the beginning of the 2015/2016 season. So in the autumn I’ll write a sonata while consulting all 50 co-commissioners, and every violinist will perform the work in their state in the coming year. 

There’s a subtext to this project. The greatest pedagogue I ever had the honor of working with (big words, I know, but he deserves them) was John Kendall. He learned to play and teach violin all the way in the past when one pretty much only had the option of either studying at Juilliard or Oberlin for a conservatory education (he chose good ol’ Ohio), and after studying with Galamian (insert Ivan’s “...Eight is enough” answer to the question “How many hours should one practice every day?”) eventually BROUGHT THE SUZUKI METHOD TO AMERICA. 

I don’t count myself as a zealot for many things but I do for the way this guy taught. His impeccable memory and overall genius allowed him to steer his students in a way completely unique to them, remembering as much (or more than) the student about every lesson prior, and calling upon his vast knowledge of so many techniques and tricks and stories on all levels so as to present and apply only those techniques/tricks/stories that were of the upmost relevance to the student’s learning process. This is/was efficiency, pedagogy, love, and musicianship at its best. I became friends with him while I was in high school where we both lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and studied with him for three years prior to his passing in 2011. I was enthralled with his endless supply of words and wisdom and always felt like we made quite a pair: he in his early 90s, shuffling, wizened, bent/me at 16, talltalltall, bored to tears with ALL THINGS HIGH SCHOOL and aching with adolescent existential angst, him with his vivacious and literally glowing light blue eyes/me with my often-morose dark blue ones. 

To my literal joy I often got to work with him on projects outside of my lessons, one of them being setting up a map of the United States and a map of the world in his studio and putting pushpins in each city he had a student from. I was shocked and awed with how, as a nonagenarian, he remembered quite clearly over FIFTY YEARS WORTH OF STUDENTS and the cities they were from, calling them out faster than my callused violin fingers could stick pins through map paper and into the wall. He called himself a Peripatetic Pedagogue, both jokingly and in earnest. (This was to become concrete in the title of his memoirs, Recollections of a Peripatetic Pedagogue). Well aware of my young compositional pursuits, Mr. Kendall (or Grandfather, as many close ones called him) encouraged my writings and wrote my recommendation letters in anticipation of my undergrad years. The 50 State Sonata Project is Part 1 of a two year project dedicated to John Kendall’s life and work. The second year of this project will see a second sonata co-commissioned by 50 violinists from around the world. Pretty soon I’ll also have two maps in my studio in New York City, populated by 100 more pushpins, all touched in some way by him. 

Snapshot while walking on the Highline

Snapshot while walking on the Highline

Quintessential New York City Experience: 
While waiting for my dear friend and brilliant Australian conductor Nathan to arrive via a belated bus for a visit last week I took a walk on the Highline, an elevated railway from 34th street to 14th street, that has in recent years been transformed from industrial skyway to public parkspace. Somewhere above 23rd street I just about passed a man drumming on two drums that looked very familiar thanks to a class at NEC in the autumn on traditional Ghanaian music. He caught my eyes and held out the smaller of the drums. We drummed together nigh-on fifteen minutes, drums speaking and mouths not, moments of reaaaaally awesome mutual improvisation constantly in ebb and flow. I kept quiet about my career of choice through his emphatic “Let the music flow! Don’t think about it - the rhythms have to emerge of their own volition, they exist already on their own” before we started drumming. His name is Brian. Go say hi next time you’re on the Highline. Needless to say I was smiling ear-to-ear and in a tremendous mood by the time Nathan’s bus finally landed on 33rd.

Cappuccinos under Alice Tully Hall with Nathan happened twice last week. 

Cappuccinos under Alice Tully Hall with Nathan happened twice last week. 

Recommended Listening: 
As part of Doing My Research for the cello concerto, I’ve been listening to recent contributions to the genre. I’ve fallen deeply in love with Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante, Op. 125, a work written for Mstislav Rostropovich (what a surprise). From the flute haze in the first movement to the tiny cadenza passages in each movement to how the third movement begins in the most ordinary way and ends with unapologetically loud and deep low brass pedal tones that practically scream TUBA TIME, the whole piece speaks to me of shades of dark blues, these characteristically memorable melodies hanging around and haunting (as his often do) far after my recording has been shut off. Yo-Yo Ma’s recording is stellar; Rostropovich’s (2007 remastered recording) authentic. 

Stephanie BoydComment