Monday, October 31, 2011

A Performer's Perspective: Ways of Listening

When I imported a recording of Elliott Carter's Triple Duo into my iTunes, the program categorized it as “Easy Listening.” I think I laughed out loud when I saw that. Carter's music is many things – rigorous, inventive, beautiful, complex, fascinating – but “easy” is not an adjective that springs to mind, either for playing or listening. It made me start thinking, though: what do we mean by saying that music is difficult or easy to listen to? Why is some more “difficult” than others? I associate the term “easy listening” with a bland, saccharine wash of sounds that makes no demand on the ear or the intellect. (Think smooth jazz, soft rock, and cheesy massage CDs with fake fountains splashing.) Yes, sometimes we want to listen to music that is relaxing, that can soothe or entertain. But music can be beautiful, graceful and pleasing without being soporific. And it can create many kinds of experiences, not all of them relaxing. Sometimes it can be more like a fast train, or a steep climb, or a bracing sea breeze. It might be a demented puzzle, or a cathartic wail, or a deep meditation, or a moment of flying.

As a musician, and as a listener, I want music to be all these things and more. The festival's directors invited me to do some blog posts from a performer's perspective, and I want to share a few thoughts here on various ways of listening as related to the process of practicing and rehearsing for the festival concerts.

Carter's music is notated in very clear and specific detail, and requires much individual attention by the players before and throughout the rehearsal process. Working on a piece alone in the practice room might be likened to a laboratory. Is it calm, sterile, a controlled environment: just you, the music, and the metronome. Bringing it into rehearsal, the first step out into the real world, you hear it all differently. It's not the same as studying the score and listening to the recording. Suddenly, other people are involved, and like most human endeavors, this makes the musical experience both richer and more complicated. Several members of the ensemble mentioned this in rehearsal: the way it sounds and feels so different to put it all together, the way that hearing the other parts changes your perception of your own.

I spent most of Saturday rehearsing the Carter, and the evening at a Bach Festival concert in which a friend was playing. Listening to Bach, I thought again about this idea of easy versus difficult listening. I don't think many people would describe Bach as “easy listening.” His harmonies and counterpoint are extremely complex. In fact, I was also struck by the way that both Bach and Carter, though working with different materials, have a similarity in their deeply structured music and use of overlapping layers. However, Bach is more familiar to many listeners (and many performers as well), and therefore is often perceived as easier to listen to.

Music that is less familiar challenges us to release our conditioned responses and expectations. Carter's Triple Duo consists, as the title suggests, of three pairs of instruments (winds, strings, and piano/percussion). Each pair is closely connected, often interlocking, and uses the same primary rhythmic subdivision (the winds have groups of three and six, the strings two and four, the percussion five). These rhythmic layers form an intricate counterpoint, sometimes dense and frenetic, at others suddenly calm and floating.

Do you need to know these things in order to listen to the piece? No. Does knowing them change the way you listen? Probably. Is one way “better” than the other? I don't think so. As with any piece of music, the experience of listening for the first time will be different from repeated hearings. But I think there is a magic to that first time: a sense of the whole, of a new discovery, of the “beginner's mind.” And listening to something unfamiliar, while it may not be “easy,” doesn't have to be viewed as difficult. You don't necessarily have to follow anything in particular or “figure it out.” I think a lot of people have this fear about new music – that they won't “get it,” that there's some secret they're missing. I don't think that's true. I firmly believe that no specialized training – no training at all! - is necessary in order to appreciate this music. All that is required is curiosity. The way you listen, the way I listen, the way the pianist or the clarinetist or the conductor or your grandmother listens – these are all equally valid experiences.

So why not try this? Open your ears to the sounds. Let them wash over you. See what catches your attention. Let your mind follow whatever it wants to. Maybe patterns emerge, maybe they don't. Maybe you notice relationships growing and changing. Maybe thoughts or emotions arise. Maybe the music meets your expectations, maybe it contradicts them; maybe it leads you to form new expectations and fulfills them and then contradicts those, too. Whatever you hear, trust your own way of listening.

We look forward to sharing the experience with you this week. There's nothing quite like being in the middle of music while it's being made, that sense of connection, of shared endeavor and energy. When the audience arrives, they add the final piece. This is the last step into the real world, out of the lab. The music is alive, in this moment, and people are listening.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Composer Paul Thomas

This Thursday and Friday, come hear the world premiere performance of Paul Thomas' new work, Two Manifestations. Selected from our world-wide Call For Scores, Paul's music has an electricity and depth that will reward you for days after the performance!

Paul’s acoustic and electronic music has been presented throughout the United States and Europe including the SCI Student National Conference, Florida Electroacoustic Music Festival, Electronic Music Midwest, Most Significant Bytes Festival, Threshold Electroacoustic Music Festival, among many others. He has had the privilege of having his works performed by such ensembles as the Mendelssohn Piano Trio, Ensemble Green, Zen Franglais, and the Delta State University New Music Ensemble, and on Thursday, Ars Nova Dallas.

Join us later this week for incredible concerts that will energize and excite you! More information is always available at

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Composer Monica Lynn

This November, join us at the Dallas Festival of Modern Music as we present the world premiere of Monica Lynn's A Soldier's Heart Beats, a new work created as the special companion piece to Igor Stravinksy' The Soldier's Tale. Lynn's music has been performed across America, Europe, and Asia, and she has garnered significant recognition, placing as a Finalist in the 2011 International Music Prize for Excellence in Composition and serving as Featured Guest Composer for the 9th Annual Woman Composers Festival at the Hartt School of Music. Join us on November 3 or 4 to experience the exhilarating synergy of Stravinsky and Lynn. More info is always available at

Sunday, September 4, 2011

We did it!

Thanks to the wonderful support of modern music fans across Dallas, the state of Texas, and America, the Dallas Festival of Modern Music has successfully completed our 2011 Kickstarter fundraising campaign! Words cannot express how grateful we are to everyone who pitched in, but we will try with a huge THANK YOU! With your help, this year's festival will be the best yet!

Nicole Murphy

The Dallas Festival of Modern Music has a history of drawing on talent from across the world, and our involvement this year with composer Nicole Murphy is no different. An Australian composer of significant note, Murphy is the winner of multiple awards and has had her music performed by orchestras including the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and the Ku-ring-Gai Philharmonic. In addition, she has been commissioned by the Australian Ballet, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and Orchestra Victoria to create new music.

On November 5 and 6, 2011, Ars Nova Dallas will be presenting a world premiere by Ms. Murphy, so make your plans to attend this amazing concert or any number of other fantastic offerings. More information is always available at

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Composer Timothy Kramer

Timothy Kramer is a composer you need to know! And fortunately, you can get to know his music at this year's Dallas Festival of Modern Music. Kramer is one of the featured winning composers from this year's Call for Scores, and his "Three Pairs Suite" is the perfect musical response to Elliot Carter's "Triple Duo." Kramer is currently the Chair of the Music Department at Illinois College, and his music has been performed by noted ensembles including the San Antonio, Detroit, and Indianapolis Symphonies, as well as as the SOLI and ONIX ensembles. Hear his music this November 5 and 6, and learn more at

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Introducing Composer Jeremy Beck

The Dallas Festival of Modern Music is pleased to introduce you to composer Jeremy Beck, one of our featured composers from this year's Call for Scores. Ars Nova Dallas will be performing his exhilarating "In Flight Until Mysterious Night," scored for the set of instruments famously known as the "Pierrot Ensemble," the versatile instrumentation first used by Arnold Schoenberg in his "Pierrot Lunaire." A widely recorded and performed composer, Beck's music perfectly walks the line of being both extremely accessible, but also firmly rooted in high art. Learn more about Jeremy Beck at

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

2011 Call For Scores Results Announced

The Dallas Festival of Modern Music is pleased to announce the results from our 2011 Call For Scores. The quality of the field was especially high this year, but 80 applicants and 3 days of judging later, we have named our award winners!

The following winners have been selected to have a work of theirs performed by Ars Nova Dallas at the festival this November.


Timothy Kramer of Jacksonville, Illinois
Nicole Murphy of Queensland, Australia
Paul Thomas of Denton, Texas
Monica Lynn of Santa Cruz, California
Jeremy Beck of Louisville, Kentucky

The finalists listed below were not selected, but their contributions are deserving of particular note.


Stephen Cohn of Los Angeles, California
Gregg Wramage of Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey
Greg Dixon of Denton, Texas
Charles Halka of Houston, Texas
Alex Silva of New York, New York

One award was also granted to a young composer with significant potential, and an already well developed artistic voice and craft.


Miles Friday of Bellingham, Washington

Thank you to all 80 applicants for your interest in our project! Check back next spring for information regarding our 2012 Call for Scores!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Kickstarter Donor

Find out why Kenneth Pyron is a great guy!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Kickstarter Initiative Launched!

We've officially kicked off our Kickstarter campaign and donations have begun to come in! This initiative will provide the bulk of our funding for the 2011 Dallas Festival of Modern Music, so we encourage everyone who supports our vision to donate what you can and spread the word!

  • Our concerts are always free
  • Educational initiatives are a big part of the festival
  • We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, so donations are tax-deductible
We also invite you to explore our new website, which includes audio and video from last year's festival. Thanks for your support as we work to plan the best-yet Dallas Festival of Modern Music!
Huge thanks to Neena Weng, our first Kickstarter funder! Thanks Neena! Everyone else check out and do your part!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hello from Dr. Rachel!

I'm happy to announce that I have joined the Dallas Festival of Modern Music team as Executive Director! I've been a fan of this project since the beginning, and last year became more involved both as a clarinetist and volunteer. Now, I'm excited to take on a larger role and help make the Festival the best it can be!

A bit about me and my background... I currently make my living as Adjunct Professor of Clarinet at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and private teacher and freelance musician in the DFW area. I recently completed my D.M.A. in Clarinet Performance at the University of North Texas where I studied clarinet with James Gillespie and contemporary music with Elizabeth McNutt. At UNT, I also had the privilege of being a Priddy Fellow in Arts Leadership for the 2007-2008 school year. This gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse myself in the world of arts administration and advocacy, and led to my internship with Dallas new music ensemble Voices of Change.

My interest in new music dates back to my undergraduate years at Ball State University, where I first began collaborating with composers to perform new works for clarinet. I was hooked, and since then new music has always been a big part of my identity as a performer. Since coming to Denton, Texas in 2006, I have had the chance to work with student and faculty composers at UNT's Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia on pieces for clarinet and electronics. Chamber music is another passion of mine (I currently perform with the Madera Wind Quintet and the Chameleon Chamber Group), so working with the Dallas Festival of Modern Music is right up my alley!

I am now hard at work with Jordan, Ryan, and the rest of the team on planning this year's festival. In the coming days and weeks, look for a new website, announcements about programming and guest artists, and the launch of a fundraising initiative (not to give anything away, but it starts with "K" and ends with "ickstarter"). We'll keep you posted!

To learn more about me and what I do, please visit my website.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Festival 2011

The Dallas Festival of Modern Music is pleased to announce our 2011 festival dates! Mark your calendars now to hear great music November 3-6.
RIP Milton Babbitt. Love or hate his music, he served an indispensable role in the history of musical thought.