Posts Tagged ‘Ernest Bour’

My First Commission

September 10, 2022

After graduating from Stanford in 1984, I was fortunate to get two big breaks from Earle Brown. I met Earle for the first time at the 1985 BMI Student Composer Awards, where to my surprise he was on the jury that year. I was 24 and had studied his works for many years. If it had not been for Earle, I would not have been invited there.

The piece that got his attention was Pentateuch, a grand divisi orchestral work in quarter-tones, including three choral groups and soprano solo with strong hints of György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis. Pentateuch was used to fulfill the requirements for my masters thesis. Because of its unwieldy and impractical size (back then, only blueprint shops could make copies of oversize paper and reductions were prohibitively expensive) Earle was the only judge who took the time to open it up and give it a look. ‘I had to fight for your score,’ he told me. ‘No one else wanted to look at it.’ Earle did not mind ‘rolling up his sleeves,’ so to speak. It was serendipity that he was a judge that year. My life changed!

Excerpt from Pentateuch (1983-84)

Shortly after meeting Earle, I received my first commission. Earle presided over the Fromm Music Foundation and asked me to write a piece for sinfonietta (one each winds and brass, percussion, piano and string quintet). The piece, called Trailing Vortices, was based on a musical interpretation of photographs of trailing vortices and other flow phenomena in Milton Van Dyke’s An Album of Fluid Motion. I discovered the book while browsing at the Stanford Bookstore. Milton Van Dyke was a Stanford professor in fluid mechanics and even signed the book for me! I spent the good part of 1986 composing the piece. In a sense, Trailing Vortices is a tone poem, however instead of program music with a story line, photographic images of flow phenomena are musically depicted.

Trailing vortices from a rectangular wing (An Album of Fluid Motion, Milton Van Dyke, 1982).

Trailing Vortices was premiered at the Aspen Music Festival in the summer of 1987. A few months later, it was performed at the Gaudeamus Festival by the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra with Ernest Bour, conducting. Here is the recording of the live performance at the VARA radio headquarters in Hilversum.


Earle Brown | Available Recollections: Fans

July 24, 2012

National Gallery Hirshhorn Museum with giant Alexander Calder Mobile

Earle’s seminal masterpieces Available Forms I and II are based on the mobile form of Alexander Calder’s constantly changing sculptures. So many composers, including many contributing to this journal, were influenced by Earle’s work (Pierre Boulez’ Rituel (in memoriam Bruno Maderna) comes  to mind).

Last year, I saw Calder’s gigantic steel mobile hanging at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC and it was not moving! I pointed out the problem to the curator and she said, ‘There is not enough air circulation; the fans are off’ Even Calder needs a conductor.

Originally published in: “Earle Brown: From Motets to Mathematics” Contemporary Music Review, Volume 26, Issue 3 & 4 June 2007 , pages 371 – 375

Earle Brown | Available Recollections: Jazz

July 24, 2012

Earle had it down. Like all great composers who develop a style all their own, Earle refined and honed his craft and sound throughout his career. I remember him mentioning to me that he was trying to compose in a way as freely, spontaneously and quickly as if he were playing the part live.

Earle played trumpet in jazz bands in his youth. It was as if he were creating an ‘improvisation-in-writing’ in real time. He knew his harmonic and melodic vocabulary inside out and attempted now to write ‘freely’ in the same amount of time that it would take to play the line. Certainly, MIDI and keyboards today are commonplace for such procedures, but Earle heard it and could get it down as quickly as Pablo Picasso could sketch a figure. He was an artist.

PIcasso drawing with light


Originally published in: “Earle Brown: From Motets to Mathematics” Contemporary Music Review, Volume 26, Issue 3 & 4 June 2007 , pages 371 – 375

Earle Brown | Available Recollections: Smart

July 22, 2012

English Horn


Earle was probably one of the finest orchestrators I have ever heard. One needs only to listen to pieces such as Available Forms I and Available Forms II and later works such as Cross Sections and Color Fields and Windsor Jambs: these are lush scores, rich in orchestral textures and bold, brilliant chords. After composing Trailing Vortices (1986), my Fromm commission, I visited New York City.

I showed it first to a composer of some renown – with a Pulitzer Prize, Academy Award and the Metropolitan Opera in his pedigree – and he correctly identified a problem in the work but only offered criticism (I am grateful that he pointed it out). A low oboe line that appeared throughout would not blend softly as desired, but would instead stick out like a sore thumb.

The part could not simply be bumped up an octave, as it was part of a unison chromatic pattern that was integrally staggered with the ensemble. I left the meeting with one thought, ‘How can I fix this part without wrecking the whole piece?’

The next day, I met with Earle at his home and showed him these problematic sections. He took one look at the score and said, ‘Oh, that’s no problem, just give those lines to the English horn!’ (The result was that it sounded great. Thank you, Earle!)

Originally published in: “Earle Brown: From Motets to Mathematics” Contemporary Music Review, Volume 26, Issue 3 & 4 June 2007 , pages 371 – 375

Earle Brown | Available Recollections: Getting Lost

July 17, 2012

Luigi Nono conducting his music

After one of his concerts in San Francisco, I drove Earle and his wife Susan back to their hotel. As is not uncommon, I got lost and we ended up having a wonderful conversation (this was in the 1980s, before cell phones). He told me how he loved Luigi Nono, who had championed his works in Europe and brought Earle to the attention of the publisher Universal Edition. We talked about the absurdity and impracticality of my large divisi work for orchestra, yet he knew that someday it would prove to have been a worthwhile endeavour. It had already secured his respect: ‘Who writes such a piece when they’re 23?’ Thankfully, we eventually found his hotel…

Originally published in: “Earle Brown: From Motets to Mathematics” Contemporary Music Review, Volume 26, Issue 3 & 4 June 2007 , pages 371 – 375

Opus One Memphis Interview Part 1

February 23, 2012

At a mixing session for OCTET at The Site in San Rafael, California

MSO’s Opus One will be performing William Susman’s Zydeco Madness in the upcoming performances with Marcela Pinilla on March 1 & 2 at the Rumba Room. William Susman lives in the San Francisco area. His composition, Zydeco Madness, was dedicated “to the forgotten of Hurricane Katrina” in Louisiana. With the recent Mardi Gras celebration, and the fact that it’s awesome to be able to interview a living composer, I thought you would all enjoy hearing what William Susman has to say about being a composer and particularly about the piece the MSO musicians will be performing next week.

Tell us about your background: where did you grow up, and where do you live now? How did your musical career begin?

I grew up in a suburb of Chicago and now live near San Francisco. I did my undergrad work in music at the University of Illinois and went to grad school at Stanford in order to work at CCRMA (Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics). I’ve lived in the SF Bay area since then. As a teenager in the Chicago area, I studied with a variety of teachers in classical and jazz piano and, counterpoint. I also played in my high school big band and gigged with jazz combos. My influences back then were all the jazz greats such as Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, Monk, Miles, and Coltrane.

My first big break was when I got a BMI award for a large divisi work for soprano, choir and orchestra (Pentateuch) which also happened to be my Stanford master’s thesis. At the BMI award ceremony in New York, I met one of the judges, the seminal American composer Earle Brown. At the ceremony, he said “I had to fight for your score. No one wanted to look at it because it was too big. I was the only one willing to spread it out on the floor!” (that was before you could reduce things cheaply at Kinko’s. I had made copies of the score at an architectural blueprint shop. Not long after BMI, I was staying at the Chelsea Hotel and met Virgil Thomson who lived there. He gave me the practical advice of, “The print is too small and the score is too big!”)

excerpt from PENTATEUCH (1983/84) for soprano, 3 choral groups and orchestra

It was very exciting to have a composer of Earle’s stature champion me. He helped secure a Fromm Music Foundation commission. I wrote a chamber orchestra piece (Trailing Vortices) with that commission and it was premiered at the Aspen Music Festival. It was also selected for the Gaudeamus Festival in Holland and was performed by the VARA radio orchestra (now Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra) conducted by Ernest Bour. Bour was a legend with the European avant-garde having premiered many works by Berio and Ligeti among others. Needless to say, I was honored to work with these musicians while in my mid-20s.

Read the whole interview Opus One Memphis

Muziek Centrum Nederlands is under threat of termination

June 23, 2011

MCN is under threat of termination following the recent announcement from the Dutch Government to cut all funding.

Please sign the petition at

Here are my thoughts on the value of MCN in a letter of petition.

To whom it may concern,

Please do not close Muziek Centrum Nederlands. This organization is vital to the promotion and enhancement of Dutch music within its borders and around the world. Through MCN the music culture of the Netherlands is given a worldwide stage.

I first heard about the magnificent way in which the Dutch support contemporary music through the Gaudeamus Music Festival. For a week every year composers from around the world meet in Amsterdam to have their music performed by the best Dutch performers, ensembles and orchestras.

My music was performed by the VARA radio orchestra with Ernest Bour many years ago. This performance and the entire festival was an unforgettable experience. Do not forsake the prestige and international relations that arise and are enhanced by such cultural encounters which MCN and Gaudeamus (through their performance and composition competitions) have promoted for decades. Thousands of musicians and composers from around the world have benefited and are indebted to this unique Dutch organization.

Great nations are remembered by the culture which they create and support. It is my hope that the Dutch Government’s support of the arts and MCN (which has been the envy and apex of music centers around the world) will continue for decades to come.

William Susman