I have trouble separating the "creative" process from the day-to-day "getting notes down" process. For me, they mostly happen at the same time; it's not very glamorous. I almost always work directly into Sibelius. I've been composing on computers since I was a kid, so it feels natural. Occasionally I'll start with an audio mockup in Logic. The only thing I'll do by hand is the very outset of writing a piece, sitting at the piano and improvising and occasionally jotting down incomprehensible little notes to myself.
That's in addition to all the other things computers help to do: recording, editing, playing random keyboard instruments, doing all my design and layout, doing my website, exchanging scores and recordings with fellow musicians—I even read most music off my iPad now, so there are pitiably few hours in a day that I'm not in front of some sort of screen.
It's not one that I would have anticipated even a couple of years ago, and that is men's clothing. Out of school I dressed like any number of Liberal Arts College Graduates—that is to say, in striped t-shirts and skinny jeans. When I moved to New York I found myself in a meeting at my record label or something, and all of a sudden it was—I feel like a child right now, and not in a good way. Also around that time a friend of mine bought me a really beautiful jacket, and I realized I had not a single thing in my wardrobe that wouldn't look ridiculous alongside such a garment, so that started me down the path. Now I spend most of my free time trawling eBay or thrift shops, searching for, I don't know, the perfect houndstooth bow tie or something equally foppish.
There are a number of other things I waste time on including bicycles, cooking, and repeatedly cleaning all surfaces in the apartment.
Here are some things you should know about Old Keys: it's an uncharacteristically neurotic piece for me, full of little details and inflections. It's a piano concerto but only in outward appearance; the piano part is not flashy or even that difficult. The entire thing is basically stitched together out of transitions, or at least each section is agitating to move on to the next; it never sits still and just contents itself with one or two things.
Yes and no. West coasters, in my experience, tend to be genuinely open minded, which is so great. If there's rivalry it is solely between the East coast and its own self.
Over here, critics and curators love to repeat that old saw about how today's young composers have no stylistic limitations, how we just "let it all hang out" all of the time, but in reality things are much more like that old Tom Lehrer song "National Brotherhood Week"—everyone comes out to Miller or Merkin to hear their friend's piece and puts on a friendly face for precisely as long as is needed ("be grateful that it doesn't last all year!"). At one of these things someone asked me if I was an "uptown or downtown" composer, which… just… never ask anyone that.
Competition among composers is a funny thing. If you're, say, a violinist and you bomb an audition, it's easy to say "I had an off day" or "so and so practiced harder" and kind of take the brunt of the blame yourself. Composers are never like that. It's more along the lines of "Orchestra X didn't program my piece because they like that Euro crap/that post-minimalist crap/That New Complexity/That New Sincerity" etc. etc.—they think there must be some terrible extenuating circumstance or conspiracy turning things against them.
My strategy is to remind myself that "a rising tide lifts all boats". If your friend gets commissioned by the LA Phil, how is that anything other than fantastic? It means the LA Phil is paying attention to your immediate sphere, your field, and bringing that music to new and bigger audiences. And you never know, your friend might drop your name at Deborah Borda or John Adams and they'll end up commissioning you next time.
At first it was just pure harmony what did it for me. When I learned how to play major chords I thought they were the most beautiful sound imaginable. Somewhat later it was Beethoven, Brahms, and Ravel. Now hundreds of different things make me want to compose.
Need you ask? Nixon in China.
Whenever the hell you want? As long as it's not during a super beautiful quiet part?
The two are linked quite inextricably. I perform my own stuff a great deal, of course, but it will never challenge me as a pianist in quite the way a score from someone else does. Ted Hearne's Parlor Diplomacy totally schooled me on how to play trills, I learned how to hocket and groove from playing Reich and Adams and Brad Mehldau, and Rzewski taught me about playing ridiculous counterpoint with one's forearms. And whatever I'm currently practicing finds its way into what I write, sooner or later—it's just unavoidable. It works the other way, too; I think I get a "leg up" on deducing a composer's intentions by being one myself.
Playing the piano is also my primary means of discovering new music—I don't listen to contemporary music regularly (though I'm trying to find more time for that) so I'll often find out about a great composer by performing one of his or her works.
The proximity to fellow composers is a nice thing, and the Sleeping Giants are close friends and we love getting drunk together, so that's great. But technically we could collaborate from anywhere in the world—one doesn't need to occupy the same space in order to share work, create work together, critique said work, talk trash, and get silly.
The Brooklyn/Greater NY area really comes in handy for performing. I love playing with groups like Metropolis Ensemble or ACME, chamber ensembles, bands, bandsembles (that's French), just any random and interesting gig that comes my way. Since college, my M.O. has been to stay as busy as possible at all times, and living in the midst of such an active community has allowed me to support myself doing just that. I'm grateful for it literally every day.
Some things I'm particularly excited about this Spring: playing a solo "opener" for the Brad Mehldau trio in Denver, then giving a full recital at Le Poisson Rouge here in New York, leading into my London début at Wigmore Hall in June.
Also some new pieces in the works for next season that I'm thrilled about: a solo piece for the amazing young pianist Kirill Gerstein, a quintet for Jonathan Biss and the Elias Quartet, my first choral piece (!) for Present Music in Milwaukee, scoring a documentary, perhaps a song cycle, and some big new collaborative works with the Sleeping Giants.
And a bit down the road, my next album—a collaboration with the wonderful young orchestra Metropolis Ensemble.
Theater of Voices
Royal Opera House
Massenet Don Quichotte
Mariinsky Opera Orch
Berlin RIAS Chamber Chorus