CONCERT PREVIEW: Town Music Season Finale: Q&A with Andrius Žlabys

by Joshua Roman

On Tuesday, I’ll be joined on my chamber music series Town Music by Johnny Gandelsman, Arnaud Sussman, Kyle Armbrust, and Andrius Žlabys for a program of 20th and 21st Century works. We’ll present the world premiere of “Movement for String Quartet and Piano”, written by Andrius and commissioned by Town Hall Seattle. Andrius is a fantastic musician and a regular collaborator of mine, so I jumped at the chance to interview him over the phone about composing, performing, and his new piece.

download (2)By the way, you can hear this performance LIVE on Second Inversion – tune into the 24/7 stream on Tuesday, May 24 at 7:30pm PST!

Joshua Roman: When was the first time you thought about writing your own music?

Andrius Žlabys: Well, actually from childhood. I started by improvising, before I began formal piano studies, to the horror of my piano teacher, because my whole setup was fairly developed in an amateur way. So I had learned, on my own, the Bach Toccata and Fugue for organ, but my fingers were all over the place, so it was a kind of promising disaster.

JR: What style did you improvise in?

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AŽ: I started to come to the keyboard (we have a grand piano where I grew up) – and I would begin just tinkering with the piano, finding any sonorities I could. I don’t know what style that was. Kid style. But I think I might have made some sense, because my parents thought “it’s not just regular banging on the piano”, and I would spend a lot of time on it. So they decided maybe it’s a good idea to try lessons. And so I kept improvising, and the style was kind of baroque for a while, and then some contemporary elements were added as I was exposed to more contemporary music. And at some point I did try to write it down, fragments, but I didn’t have any formal composition studies until I came to the U.S. to Interlochen, where I studied composition.

JR: Did you ever write anything that was performed at Interlochen?

AŽ: Yeah! I wrote a piano sonata, a piece for violin and piano, and actually a suite for cello and piano. When I auditioned for schools, I got into Peabody as a double major; composition and piano, but I chose to go to Curtis as a piano major. So for a while, I didn’t compose, and then started up again later. But I kept improvising.

JR: Who are some of your influences as a composer?

AŽ: I have composers that I love and play all the time like Bach, and obviously Mozart. Looking at more current composers, I love Messiaen, and I love Shostakovich, Schnittke, and Arvo Pärt. But I was also influenced by many of my close friends who are composers. For example, Dmitri Levkovich, and Yevgeniy Sharlat, who was a tremendous influence. He wrote a piano quartet for me; through that and other pieces that I observed him writing I got to see the process, the struggle, and moments of joy when it comes through.

Somehow I was so in a piano mode that I never developed the ability to write lengthy things. Because the actual technique of writing is to be able to capture the ideas before they float away. So once I became able to capture longer ideas, there was more possibility. The ideas were always there, I just never had the capacity to capture them until I took up composing in a more focused way.

JR: Do think that composing affects your piano playing at all?

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AŽ: Absolutely. Yes, they’re so interconnected. In interesting and sometimes strange ways. For example, when I compose – as a piano teacher, I change a lot. Because I start to see all kinds of motivic connections that I would never see otherwise. I remember once I was teaching Mozart Fantasia in C minor, and at the time I was actively writing a piece, and I saw all kinds of things in the Mozart that were totally out of my vision when I was practicing the piece myself. So yes, it affects my interpretation. First of all, you get to see how the thought is developed. So I get to see what is the core idea, which influences the piece mostly on a subconscious level. I get to see how everything revolves around that idea, which is usually just a couple of notes. And to see the whole, not just the parts – that musical cognitive process, a kind of inner logic.

Since I started composing more, Beethoven has become a total mystery. In his case, there are so many rather simple harmonic progressions; we have tonic-dominant, dominant-tonic; fairly straightforward. And then you get ornamentation in the form of the melody, which is also often just very simple arpeggios. And the real genius is somewhere in between those two things. Because by themselves, harmonic progressions are just harmonic progressions, right? And without them, those ornamentations would not make sense. So something happens in this very thin area, a kind of boundary layer. So I began to see more of those things when I started really composing.

As a performer of my own music, I always hear “how it should really sound”. It makes me much more demanding of what my sound should be. On the other hand, I realize that how the piece should sound is not defined by, you know, precise dynamics. When I analyze the great works I now see how masterfully the composers placed those dynamics. They are precise enough, but leave just enough room for freedom, and every composer does it differently. It’s such an important element, and when I compose myself, I can imagine the music being interpreted in different ways, as long as the underlying thought is somehow expressed.

JR: How do you feel playing the piano affects your composition? This is kind of the opposite question.

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AŽ: Playing the piano of course gives me access to polyphony. For me, voice leading in composition is probably the most important thing. The lines follow a certain kind of logic – almost like physical laws. And then, when they try to break the boundaries of those laws, those have to be intentional moments, not accidental. Voice leading, polyphony, the importance of independent yet strongly interacting lines, are the most important values for me, no matter what style. I think that if you look at any music that we consider great music, the voice leading is almost always impeccable, unless intentionally not so. Then, of course, it’s breaking those rules quite purposefully.

Writing for piano, it helps to know how to write for my own hands. Sometimes it makes me write kind of demanding stuff for the piano, and then of course I have to deal with it.

JR: Aside from knowing the idiom of the piano, do you think being someone who interprets other people’s music and performs it for audiences affects your compositions at all?

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Photo Credit: D. Matvejavas

AŽ: Oh yes, absolutely. It’s been kind of a tradition throughout classical music; every composer was a performer and every performer a composer, up to a certain historical period when they began to separate. Ideally you should be able to play every instrument that you’re writing for. I can only play piano, but I try to strongly envision how it would be on the other instruments, so I can write in a way that would be comfortable. Or if uncomfortable, there would be a good reason for that.

For me, I want to write as few notes as possible to convey the feeling. I try to avoid unnecessary complexity. It’s like words; I like to be laconic if possible. Get to the point.

JR: Let’s talk about your piece, A Movement for Piano Quintet.

AŽ: Movement for String Quartet and Piano. Actually, somehow I prefer — “quintet” for me is not as noble sounding as “quartet”, because for me it implies a kind of mesh. I think the string quartet is such a complete sonority. The piano is like a guest, that gets to join for a little while.

JR: Fair point. What was the inspiration for your piece, Movement for String Quartet and Piano?

AŽ: The initial sketches for the piece, and the original motive – a rising three note line – came from a feeling I had during the events in Ukraine in 2014. In fact, the piece is dedicated to the memory of the victims of the war in Ukraine. So the whole piece comes from that feeling or thought. It’s definitely not a very happy piece. There’s a sense of things going wrong, and kind of a protest against that.

This was very close to home – Lithuania. I felt solidarity with Ukraine, and we felt that this could happen to Lithuania as well. To this day, there’s a lot of uncertainty about that.

JR: How does the feeling affect your compositional process?

AŽ: Well, there’s nothing explicit on purpose. There’s an intention, and I think that intention directs the whole process. The obsessive rhythm, and the images that might be seen, come from that intention. It’s not a peaceful piece, even though it has peaceful moments, maybe. There’s kind of an underlying feeling of foreboding.

JR: Is that the ostinato?

AŽ: Yes, the ostinato, with its obsessive quality.

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There’s another place with strong images – after the big climax there’s a solo quartet section, which is kind of like a Sarabande. And then the piano eventually comes on top, and that feeling was of disjointed, parallel realities, that kind of coexist, but not necessarily coincide. That creates a hallucinatory feeling; it’s not quite a cadenza, but elaborate passagework that comes on top of quite a nice harmony and destroys it.

Then there’s a pizzicato canon, which feels like a person who’s locked into a room of a certain number of dimensions, and cannot get out of it. It’s just perpetually repeating. And again, the piano comes in with little scales which are really a rearticulation of the theme from the beginning.

One of the reasons I couldn’t write for a while when I was – back at Curtis was that I felt I wasn’t allowed to write tonal music. So when I would write, the stuff that would come out would be tonal, and I would dismiss it because it’s just not contemporary. And at some point I said “OK, if that’s what’s coming out then that’s what I have”. That’s my natural language. So, of course, everybody looks for their own style, but my idea is that if I have something that sounds a certain way in my head, and it sounds enough that I want to write it down, then that takes precedence over style. For me, if I can express a certain idea to the best of my ability, or state of mind, then the style will take care of itself.

I hope you’ll be able to join us at Town Hall for the Town Music season finale on Tuesday, May 24, 7:30pm. If you’re not in Seattle, you can listen worldwide on the webstream here at Second Inversion!

Joshua’s May 2016 Playlist

Girl Power!

by Joshua Roman

Damn, those girls can sing!

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Photo credits: Rachel Clee

I recently had the honor of collaborating with an incredible group of young women. Lisa Bielawa, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, asked me to join them for a concert of canons spanning a timeline from the 13th Century to this year, with a world premiere of “Our Voice”, which I wrote this year for the girls and my cello.

I had worked with the chorus and their music director Valérie Sainte-Agathe last year on Vireo, a filmed opera by Lisa, and had been impressed by their musicianship and enthusiastic approach to new music. Our musical interaction in that work was mostly tangential, but it was enough to get the wheels turning in my head about how the cello could fit in the group, or contrast in a powerful way. There was lots of room for experimentation, and not just in the song I wrote. A lot of the canons we performed could easily be complete on their own, without the cello butting in, so it was in some ways a leap of faith that I would be able to complement the girls without distracting from the point of each little piece. I have to say, it was really Lisa’s daring vision that convinced me to embark on this project, and in the end she was spot on.

Most of the program was filled with canons that stuck pretty close to the “rules” – so creativity was definitely necessary to keep things from becoming too formulaic. In “Duo Way Robin” (Anonymous, 13th Cent.), I experimented with starting the canon myself and then moving to drones and rhythmic percussion on the body of the cello. In our selections from Haydn’s “The Ten Commandments of the Arts and other secular canons”, I improvised connections between each short canon. After leading the girls into each canon by playing a predetermined cue, I would mix it up by doubling a voice, taking a voice myself, or sitting out for a while and adding appropriate harmony below. The Franck and the Brahms had violin or viola solos which were easy to transcribe and didn’t require additional arrangement.

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“Our Voice”, the song I wrote for the girls, went through several forms before taking its final shape. In the end, I wrote the lyrics myself, something I had never done before. I found it quite difficult, and tried to imagine what I would want if I were in their shoes. I realized that the temptation to write something cherubic was front and center, and thought they must certainly be excited for characters to contrast with that, something with a little more bite. I ended up writing something I hoped would be empowering and also a bit defiant. “Listen to our voice”, and “we can be anything we choose” countered the tongue-in-cheek use of angelic harmonies on the word “angels”. One line, which I never felt I got exactly right in wording, but really felt like the right tone; “sure we’re angelic, but we’re so much more than that” was a transitional phrase that I heard repeated and sung in the hallways backstage. I was surprised and delighted to find it was actually some
of the girls’ favorite line
, and to that end felt very gratified that perhaps some of my words might prove useful to the girls as they build their own identities.

That was both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward; going after the goal of writing more than just a nice-sounding piece. Empathy is an important skill in any music-writing, but setting myself up with something so specific was rather daunting. Especially given the task of writing lyrics for the first time, decided to only play slightly with vocal techniques and canon intricacy, leaving the structure through-composed and letting the voices flock or join together in other ways as obvious turning points in the piece. All I really wanted was to write something they would enjoy, and that would make them feel strong, capable, and proud of themselves. Once again, hearing other people take notes I had written – this time even words – and make real music out of them, moved me far beyond what I expected.

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Thank you, girls, for showing me I can do this, too!

Four Simple Ways to Make the Most of Your Practice Session

by Joshua Roman

I’m gearing up for the next trip as my 3 week stint at home in NYC comes to a close. It’s been nice to have so much time in one spot, especially as I’m putting the final touches on my new(ish) apartment space and getting my taxes out of the way. I love to use my time at home to prepare for upcoming performances, so that I can be present as much as possible while traveling. Lately I’ve been thinking about how to best use the practice time I have, whether at home or on the road, and some basic principles came to mind. I think they’re worth sharing. In fact, some of these principles are applicable to many tasks, pursuits, or other focus and skill-dependent activities – like writing a blog post!

Joshua Roman by Hayley Young 11(Joshua Roman. Photo credit: Hayley Young)

1. Have a clear goal.

This is something that I’ve learned over the years, and I wish there were more emphasis placed on it when we are developing our practice habits. When you pick up your instrument, make sure you already know what you want to accomplish, and how much time you have to do it. Hours spent in the practice room are not the signifier of progress. Playing with the vague intent to generally “get better” is not as effective as having a basic plan to follow, and it’s better to change that goal mid-way through than have no goal at all. This goal can be as detailed as nailing a particular passage, or learning a certain amount of music and detail (I find this works best when you’ve studied the score beforehand with no instrument) or it can be a less tangible but still important goal, like setting aside time to:

2. Explore.

While task-oriented practicing is effective in achieving specific goals, music is also about exploring and finding your voice. New techniques, new sounds, sometimes even entirely new approaches or styles are waiting to be discovered if we would just experiment a little. I like to explore as part of my warm-up; mixing scales with little fragments of music I like, often adding some improv and loosely structured goofing-off. And by loosely structured, I really just mean setting a time limit so that I don’t neglect the more schedule-dependent results that I need to achieve. It’s nice to have time for this at the end of practicing, as well. This practice technique is particularly fun to throw into rehearsals. 🙂

3. Take breaks.

Breaks are an incredibly important part of practicing. Sometimes it feels like I get into a zone, and things just click. Often, after a practice session where I stay in that zone for too long, I find I didn’t really do anything once I got there other than just repeat things or run them for my own pleasure. That’s also important, but in terms of the lasting effects of any particular session, science and anecdotal evidence have shown us that letting the brain rest in between exercises (muscular or mental) increases our ability to retain the progress we’ve made. How many breaks you should take depends on the nature of what you’re practicing and way it fits into your day. I like to never play for more than 50 consecutive minutes, and if I’m working on something particularly gnarly or have a fast-approaching deadline, I cut that down to 30 minutes max. It might seem counter-intuitive, but in the end I get more out of the time I use and my muscles feel better as well. You can still do intense sessions; if I have a limited amount of time within the day to get things done I might do 50 min on, 10 min off for a few hours. I use a timer to help manage this, and generally stop right when it goes off unless I’m within one or two minutes from finishing whatever I’m working on at the moment. The timer I use is on my phone, which leads me to the next very important point:

4. Turn off distractions.

Phones have airplane mode, but mine might as well be called “practice mode”. It’s very important to make sure your mind is with you when you are practicing. This is the time you are developing the habits on which you will rely in performance, and the ability to focus is paramount. Shut the computer, hide the iPad, and turn off notifications on all of your devices. If you’re really concerned about missing an important message, many devices have features that will let you control just who can reach you at certain times. Otherwise, FOMO is not an excuse! You can check in on Snapchat and Facebook when the timer goes off; you’ll have to grab the phone to stop the timer anyway. For random ‘to do’s’ and inspirational thoughts that jump into your mind, set a pen and paper next to you to catch those items, and move on quickly. Personally, I do not consider the vibrate or silent mode extreme enough – airplane mode is the way to go.

One exception to this: I do enjoy experimenting with distraction sometimes, and think it’s worth it as a way to test your level of focus. I grew up in a house full of practicing, talking, and sometimes yelling (four kids, what do you expect?). Tuning out the noises around me was a necessity, and in some ways I’ve found that a busy practice environment can sharpen your focus if you approach it with the right attitude. Now, I will sometimes turn on the television and/or radio in my hotel room, and practice “against” it. I always feel good when I realize I have no clue what show is on even though it’s right in front of me. On the other end of the spectrum, I also like to practice with a sleep mask, and even earplugs, just to force myself to focus on the ear/mind/body connection.

Joshua Roman by Hayley Young 1There are many elements to a good practice session, and everyone has their own unique personality which influences the nuances of their practice habits. What to practice, how much to practice, and when to practice are all important questions, and maintaining enough objectivity to know whether your practice technique is effective can be tough. I used to think I practiced best at night, but eventually realized that was just when I liked playing the most, because physical technique somehow gets easier for me later in the day. However, my best and longest lasting results currently come from first-thing-after-I-wake-up practicing. Ugh. Not a fun discovery. Sometimes that just means I take more naps, though…

(Joshua Roman. Photo credit: Hayley Young)

I strongly recommend that no matter how advanced you are, or happy with your routine, you change it up every once in a while to see what you might be missing. There’s always another way to look at things, and often we get comfortable with “good enough”, when “great” is just around the corner, waiting for us to look up and adjust our path.

These four simple tips are ways you can help bring the best attention to your practicing, whatever stage of a routine you may be in at the moment. Soon, I’ll be posting a few more specific thoughts on practicing in the 21st century. We may not be able to ask Brahms or Bach about fingerings, but we have a few tools of which they might well have been envious!

PLAYLIST:
Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (full album)
John Cage – “Dream” from
Maurizio Grandinetti – Cage & Dowland: Equivoci
Ayub Ogada – En Mana Kuoyo (full album)

Finding the Music

by Joshua Roman

Fraud. Faker. Sham artist.

Roman_2 (Joshua Roman. Photo credit: Hayley Young)

These are just some of the things that ran through my head as I tried to push through the internal noise and jot down a few melodic ideas to match the words in front of me. The negative voice in my head can be quite derisive. I’ll avoid, for your sake, typing the more profane things it comes up with to keep me from making progress.

While that voice was not helpful at all, it was not entirely without ground to stand on. I’d never taken someone else’s words and set them as music before. I’d never written for an ensemble of such size, or a piece of such scope. It was yet another creative stretch past my previous efforts and it was, at times, very painful. There were times when I really did feel like I was faking it until I could make it.

But that’s the thing about doing something for the first time, isn’t it? You don’t know what will happen. Not that you can ever truly know, and be 100% sure, of any future. But at least you can have an experience-based sense of what to expect.

So how did I end up in this stress position, reaching for something new? I tend to say “yes” a lot. It’s one of the things that has been a blessing and a curse. Sometimes, both. In this particular case, I’m super glad that I did say “yes”, because those intense, stressful periods were short, and interspersed with real glimpses of inspiration. Were it not for the deadline, I might have had nothing but joy and a synergetic experience. Truth be told, though, without a deadline I might have never finished. And, once the piece was complete, I had the thoroughly moving experience of performing it with committed and powerful musicians. And there’s more to come!

41xrjOsUnvLThis project, my setting of Tracy K. Smith‘s poem “Life on Mars”, from her Pulitzer prize winning book Life on Mars was an outgrowth of an earlier collaborative seed. Scott Reed, at the Music Academy of the West, had approached me about working with Tracy at some point, and as an intro to her work, had given me a copy of Life on Mars as well as another one of her books, Duende. I’d read them multiple times when there suddenly was the need for another composer on one of Town Hall Seattle’s concerts full of premieres. We wanted four new works with our available forces – Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was the big work on the program, scored for Soprano, Violin, Cello, Flute, Clarinet, Piano, and a few doublings – and had run out of contacts with time on their hands. I was convinced to set two of the nine pieces from “Life on Mars” for that concert, and when Music Academy of the West found out I was already in that project, they commissioned me to finish the 9 song cycle.

I chose “Life on Mars” because to me it represented a colorful, modern voice using creative analogies to probe some of the deeper questions about complicity and empathy. Up to that point, the little music I’d written down on paper had been more fanciful in nature; playing with the idea of light traveling through different atmospheres, or exploring the naïve quality of young love. I wanted, this time at least, to look something straight in the face and tell it I was not afraid.

Tracy’s work does this. In “Life on Mars,” we circle around the darkness, toying with theories about what binds us together or pulls us apart. We also take the time to more directly confront episodes of moral error, looking at the horrifying story of a man who kept his daughter in a cage in his basement for years, a girl recounting the rape and destruction wrought on her village, and the actions at Abu Ghraib.

Finding a musical way to embrace the variety of tones, even among those darker passages, was a unique challenge. The nine poems had a few through lines – a character named Tina (a real-life friend and colleague of Tracy’s) muses about scientific connections to emotion and language while the author’s voice responds in the text – and a rhythm of wild fantasy in contrast with the depths of depravity emerges – but my initial and pervading instinct was to follow the many colors within the poems to their most natural musical styles. Thus, I began to search out the most obvious clues and go from there.

One of the first things that jumped out at me was the sarcasm in the poem about Abu Ghraib (“Strung Up”). As I heard a voice in my head speaking the text, enunciation became stronger and a blues rhythm began to emerge. There was no going back from this, and it became a hardcore blues riff with bass clarinet taking center stage along with the soprano. In “They”, where the girl has been dragged from her village, the italicized text and hauntingly stark descriptions of the event made me feel an incredibly discordant juxtaposition of stillness with bubbling energy underneath. More whispered than spoken, with moments of beautiful reverie that become disturbing for their context.


At other times, it was not a voice that captured my imagination so much as connections to the structure or the words themselves. The first movement references “dark matter” (which I chose as the title of the song), and the rhythm of those words began popping up as a unifying music gesture. In “Back and Forth”, violin and cello exchange false harmonics in an easy dancing rhythm, and the singer alternates between two notes as she sings the line. I used a simple inversion technique in “In Error” as the words “and told in reverse” are sung, and amplified the effect with a sudden stop on the word “hacked.”


As for structure, one of the happy things about writing based on an existing piece of art (or anything, really) is that I am able to come up with a musical structure based on what I perceive as the existing narrative. Rather than coming up with a new abstract form, or imposing my own, I was able to just spend a lot of time with the text and watch as the shape began to emerge, seemingly on its own. Obviously this is my interpretation, and is based on my musical associations with the text, as well as my understanding of the text on its own merit. Other artists might not have gone off so playfully with passages like the one in “A Pair of Them” where words like “spaces”, “nothing”, and “equation” are repeated in the text, and so repeated as flourishing musical gestures in the song. Also, someone else might not have bothered to count that there were 12 statements about “The earth” and decided that a “Passacaglia” was in order, with each phrase starting on a different chromatic tone over the same ground (earth).

I could geek out all day over this, hehe. That’s the fun part. Once you get an idea, it can be absolutely exhilarating. My parents, who hosted me at their farm in Oklahoma for much of the writing of this piece, probably thought I was nuts as I would shout and repeat just-discovered harmonies over and over again on the piano. Especially as I’m not really a trained pianist or vocalist, but have no shyness at home.

But even that might not compare to hearing this sung and played live. I’m very grateful to all the musicians who have performed notes I’ve written – each time it has been a humbling and invigorating experience. And, as someone fairly new to composition, mind-bending as well. With this piece, with my short chamber work “take me all the way,” and again with my cello concerto “Awakening.”

The latest performance of my own work, which you can hear in its entirety, was with Jessica Rivera singing “we do it to one another” at Town Hall Seattle, and all of the musicians brought their best in a performance that left me feeling amazing gratitude. Jessica and the others really got into the characters, and left me with goosebumps from intensity as well as beauty (yes, there are moments of great beauty in this poetry as well). Jessica Rivera is someone who takes the roles she inhabits very seriously. She is not only a singer with a beautiful voice, but one that uses it with a great sense of responsibility and deep preparation.

I was especially grateful for their dedication as a fever had me horizontal for much of the week, and shaky on my feet even during the performance, which I conducted. So, a brief but heartfelt thank you is necessary to:

Jessica Rivera (soprano)
Mae Lin (violin)
Richard Belcher (cello)
Todd Palmer (clarinet, bass clarinet)
Andrew Rehrig (flute)
Conor Hanick (piano)

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(February 25, 2016 performance at Town Hall Seattle. Photo Credit: Libby Lewis)

As part of this very special event, Tracy was able to join us and read some of her poetry, including “Life on Mars.” You can hear this, as well as our panel discussion with Rebecca Hoogs, below. Tracy shares some of her insight into the writing process, as well as her feelings about having her work turned into a musical piece after the fact. Spoiler: we feel the same about that – it is a unique situation when compared to either setting poems from an author of the past, or working with a librettist in a real-time collaboration.

Thank you for supporting my artistic journey by reading this blog. Please feel free to comment, and even suggest topics for future posts. There are plenty on the docket, but it’s always nice to know what you are most interested in hearing about, as well. In a process that is not too dissimilar from my composing, that negative voice pops up during the writing of blog posts as well. One thing I’m slowly learning: sometimes that voice just means you’re breaking new ground, and it’s important to keep going as you expand your artistry, and ultimately, your concept of self.

I hope you have a chance to listen to the concert in its entirety. Back to my initial impulse to write this particular piece; I am a fan of music that helps us escape, celebrate, etc. I know I am in part, an entertainer. But sometimes, I think it’s important to explore a little deeper, within the safe place that art can offer. Then we have the opportunity to challenge ourselves to look within, with fearless scrutiny, and face every aspect of our collective nature together.

Memorization : Internalization

by Joshua Roman

I write this post as I head towards a concert in an unusual situation. I might actually use the sheet music.

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This is very rare for me. I was brought up to not use music – in fact, it was not allowed in lessons at all. Memorization was not another step, it was simply part of “learning the piece”, and if you had learned the piece, you wouldn’t be using the music. It seemed simple enough, so that’s what I did for the first ten years of my musical life – never having the sheet music in front of me at a lesson, unless my teacher wanted to show me a rhythm or note I’d misread.

I do believe that as an approach, when coupled with the right techniques for internalizing music, this is the most effective method. It makes memorization a natural part of the process instead of something to be feared. Also, many of my friends growing up would save memorization for last, and in my experience, the thing saved for last is always the one that carries the most anxiety. This is as much to do with the placement in the order of things as it is to do with the actual task itself.

In order to make memorization part of the learning process, I like to start getting away from the music as early as possible. Even after the first reading, one should play through what you remember. Don’t worry if it’s not much at all. Over time, you’ll begin to remember more. Draw upon whatever senses help you. Visualizing the page, hearing when the theme returns, or similar (or unusual) sounds occur, the feeling in your hands in passagework, the emotional effect of the structure, etc., these are all useful. The main thing is to get an overview. Then, go back and use the music again, or even just look to see what you missed.

This is a very effective way of internalizing the piece, which goes beyond memorization. It’s not just about overview, though. As you continue your practicing beyond the initial reading of a new piece, continue avoiding looking at the music whenever possible, while playing. In fact, I like to study the music before touching the cello – hear it in my head, mark things down, make a plan – and then practice. Even if the plan gets tossed out the window, the practicing is almost always more effective.

You can come up with your own analogy of what the notes, dynamics, and other markings on the page are, but in the end they are just the beginning, the road map. One must follow them to the letter, but the map is there to send you on a journey, to take you off of the page into a 3D world full of valleys and mountain ranges, oceans and rivers. It’s a shame when I hear a performance stuck on the page because someone is afraid to let go. For me, switching the mentality from memorization to internalization is very helpful.

Another exercise: As you have a passage you need to practice, run it in your head while looking at the music. Be careful to note all of the expressive markings and dynamics, and to have a strong sense of the phrasing and character. Then, close your eyes and play. Go as deep into the character as possible, and don’t worry if you miss a few notes. Rinse and repeat. If you are truly immersing yourself in the musical aspects and not just the technical (caveat: you must have a good technical foundation, and be going slow enough that the technique of the passage is not an issue), you’ll find it etched deep into your performative brain and easy to recall later.

People ask me a lot if I have a photographic memory. I don’t- I just like to use as many kinds of memory as possible. At any given moment, it’s nice to have backups. But really, a well rounded memory bank of a piece is the natural result of a curious exploration of the work from all angles. As you study the score, you develop the visual memory. As you are aware of your body while you play, the motor memory kicks in. With the characters and emotional content come the structure of the piece, and as you listen in your head or sing out loud, the purely aural memory strengthens as well. Sometimes, stories, colors, shapes or other imaginative ideas become a part of the mashup. With all of these at play, it’s hard to forget something you learned well even years ago.

Our descent is about to start, and I’m going to review the Pärt as we go down. I stepped in on last minute notice for this recital, and while we’ve made plenty of time to rehearse, I haven’t had as much time on my own to practice. I’ve been feeling under the weather lately and the doctor gave me some wild medication which made me pretty useless yesterday, but today is better. I’m happy I even made it to the end of this post, and have gone through it several times to make sure sentence order is not reversed. Conversations have been full of backwards syllables, so I’m not sure Fratres is the best piece to internalize in this state…

(Joshua and Andrius Zlabys performing at Town Hall in April, 2014)

71iGqKjzYALIf you want to know more about memory outside of music, my pianist Andrius Zlabys recommends reading Moonwalking with Albert Einstein. I’ve been seeing the effects of the process as his lovely daughter puts it into practice and it’s quite impressive.

Last note: performance practice has changed in the last century, and it is more common now for music to be used. I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing, although I prefer not to use it myself. I find that if I’m able to internalize the music and remove the physical stand and sheet music from the stage, it’s one less barrier between the emotions in the music and the audience.

 
PLAYLIST:
Concerto Grosso No. 1 – Schnittke (Gidon Kremer et al.)
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – David Bowie
David Bowie Narrates Peter and the Wolf – Prokofiev

Goals for 2016

(“In which a Roman quotes a Greek”)

by Joshua Roman

So, after all of the drama of 2015, what’s in store this year?

The number one thing that’s now set and will help in my quest for a focused year is: a place to call home. After almost eight years in NYC (and a few months in Jersey), I’m now living in a small one bedroom in Chelsea. It’s ideal for getting around town, close to all kinds of subway stops, and walking distance from many of my usual hangs. It’s only 20 minutes to visit my sister and her family, and there are great grocery stores about a block away in every direction. Last night I was able to get to Carnegie Hall to see the Philadelphia Orchestra in about 15 minutes.

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View out my window… The Metlife clock tower

This is the reason to be in NYC! Especially for someone who’s gone a lot, it’s hard to justify the rent if you’re not taking advantage of the many wonderful goings on. There are so many wonderful people doing exciting things, and this year one of my top priorities will be feeling grounded in the cultural life of this city. Reconnecting with friends I haven’t seen while on the road can be difficult, but I have renewed hope and energy now that I’m in a central location.

Everything else this year flows from that, the physical settling that I can now begin. I still travel a lot, but another goal is to develop a sense of routine. Of course, my idea of routine might be very different from someone else’s – mine revolves around performance dates, writing deadlines, and flight departures. But it’s still an important concept, especially at a time when there are many balls in the air that need to be managed with careful attention.

Some of the results I hope to achieve:

  • Feeling ahead of the practicing game, enough so that I can do extra projects like Everyday Bach with regularity.

  • Polishing my existing compositions to satisfaction.
  • Getting ahead with the projects I’m working on. Examples: this blog, concerts at Town Hall Seattle, other programming.
  • Engaging more with my communities, especially my music friends and TED friends, so that the relationships I care about most are well tended.
  • Finding ways to integrate the issues I’m most passionate about into what I do when appropriate. Some of this needs to happen regularly, like continuing to expand diversity in my music making, both in terms of performing partners and in the music itself. Some of it is a little trickier to pin down: how does one do anything to promote campaign finance reform? Some of it is related to relationships with organizations like Street Symphony in Los Angeles, and will happen project by project over time.
  • More performance opportunities.

The balance of fresh and routine is always important. Last year was fresh-heavy, but this year it’ll be fun to find ways to develop routines without closing the door to great opportunities. You never know what’s coming your way, on the street, or when you glance at your inbox, or even sometimes on stage! I welcome any tips on time management, especially from those who are juggling similarly diverse projects. By March, I hope to be far enough ahead to watch one movie without feeling guilty.

To close today’s thoughts, I want to talk about the zone. We’ve all felt it, I hope. I get the feeling a lot on stage, but it can happen other places as well. There’s a zone when exercising, there’s one for reading (easy to get into), there’s one for writing, and for cooking, etc. There are also zones that are shared, when there’s a mutual connection in chamber music, for example. Or, if you’re lucky, sex.

I’m a zone junkie, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that SOME kind of routine or trigger, whether conscious or not, is very important in getting into that creative or performative zone. We create the habits we live by – I think it was Aristotle that said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” If you’re interested in digging into the zone, I recommend this book which I read more than a decade ago. It resonated with a lot of what I felt to be true but was unable to articulate at the time: The Inner Game of Tennis.

So, 2016’s broad goals: Openness by way of focus and maintenance.

Methods of achieving this: Routine, buffer time, and management of distractions.

We’ll get into some details of the various manifestations of these practices later. For now, I leave you with a playlist and some encouragement to stake your claim on your time, and go for whatever it is you’ve been holding back on.

The Westerlies: Wish The Children Would Come On Home (SI’s Album Review)
Third Coast Percussion: The Works For Percussion 2
Jeff Buckley: Grace

2015: Expansion and Anxiety

by Joshua Roman

What a year! As I write this (a little late) looking back on 2015, I can’t help but be glad it’s over. It was, to be sure, a big year. Artistically, professionally, and personally. The ups and downs of previous years seemed somehow magnified as I stretched myself to create and participate in endeavors beyond my previous experience. Along with the pressure that I felt to be excellent (both from outside forces and, naturally, myself) in all of these undertakings, I also felt a pervading sense of anxiety around me as our world seemed to unravel in the headlines and at home.

On the artistic side, I wrote a !@#$ing cello concerto.

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Flying high on the way to premiere my first cello concerto!

That’s big for me! Never having taken on something of that magnitude, there were many pitfalls and logistical nuisances I hadn’t expected. Coupled with my ignorance of the process, this made every little decision seem that much more dire and potentially confusing. The lessons I’d learned from writing three other, smaller pieces were little help when it came to writing a large form piece, and then I had to orchestrate it. It wasn’t a bad process, just an intimidating project that I am super happy to have in the past. Now, I can take on the next project with more understanding of what it will be like. And, boy oh boy, the good feeling associated with this creativity is definitely worth it!

In terms of collaborations, I was lucky enough to work with many artists in new settings or formats for me:

Third Coast Percussion
Vosges Haut Chocolate
Saskia Fernando Art Gallery in Sri Lanka
Bill T. Jones and Somi at TED
You – my online friends who voted for the Bach Suites I ended up performing at Town Hall Seattle
Seattle Youth Symphony and Mentors
Enso String Quartet filling in for their wonderful cellist Richard Belcher
Lisa Bielawa and the cast/crew of her Video Opera “Vireo”
Vijay Gupta and the Street Symphony
Daniel Bernard Roumain and Rafael Bejarano at Summit
Abigail Washburn, Andrew Mendelson, Andrew Nemr, Bora Yoon, Somi, and Non-Musicians Composing For The First Time at the TED Fellows Retreat

Then, of course, there were the many wonderful classical musicians, orchestras, and composers that I worked with in more traditional settings. Playing the new Mason Bates Concerto multiple times, and also tackling the inimitable Dvorak Concerto more than usual, were great experiences! I love the mix of familiar and new as I travel around the United States playing awesome cello music with our large classical music family.

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With Mason Bates and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla after the premiere of his exciting new cello concerto in Seattle.

Professionally, I joined this lovely organization, Second Inversion as Artistic Advisor Which means I started blogging again! I also joined the Advisory Board for Street Symphony, and became a TED Senior Fellow. Early in 2016, I’ll be announcing another small but exciting series for the summer in a stunning area of the country. And last and maybe actually also least, I opened an Instagram account.

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Testing the microphones at KING FM/Second Inversion – first day on the job!

Personally, sheesh. I went from literally living on the road with no home address to a temporary rental in Cliffside Park, New Jersey – a great room and roommate but too far from my daily life activities – to renting a small one bedroom with a fireplace (!) in the neighborhood of Chelsea, back in NYC on the small island of Manhattan. I went from fairly sedentary to working out with weights every day, to just running and doing push-ups, to swimming, to yoga… quite a cornucopia. And dating? Rough. I divorced a couple of years ago, and this year was fraught with wild tension from beginning to end. 2015 began with the end of a short but intense relationship, and later became dominated by an undefined and ultimately ill-fated relationship with a formerly close friend.

On top of all of this, I read the news every day. Enough said.

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My father rockin’ a sweet Fender Mustang electric bass on Christmas Eve.

Again, though, I won’t say it was a bad year. I know a lot more about myself now, and the people around me. There have been some beautiful things to come out of the chaos. And music has become even more personal and important to me, especially as I learn how to connect and engage on a creative level. The last performance of 2015 was Christmas Eve with my mom, my dad, and one of my brothers (photos above and below). The first performance of 2016 will be at my grandmother’s funeral, and I’ll be playing string quartets with my two brothers and my sister. I was able to start confronting pent-up feelings through writing music, and both receive and give comfort through sound at various times.

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My brother and mother waiting for the next Christmas tune.

Does this post seem a bit rambly? A bit distracted, disorganized, unfocused? Ambitious in breadth, but scattered at the same time? That’s me, in 2015. Riding the edge, and shooting from the hip. I’ve not yet catalyzed my goals for 2016, but at the center is refocusing. I will continue to do all of the things I began this year, but I will not be seeking out any new kinds of projects. If 2015 was the year of expansion and anxiety, 2016 will be the year of focus and care.

I’ve been asking a lot of friends about their year, and most of my circle is ready for this one to end. I’m always ready to take an excuse, in this case a random day we decided long ago is the First Day of the New Year, and rethink in a more positive way how we can go about things. I think we could all use some of that, and if your 2015 was nothing but up, up, up, please do share and inspire the rest of us!

Today’s playlist will be nothing but the Beatles, in honor of finally being able to stream one of the greatest musical acts of the 20th Century.

Playlist:
The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Night
The Beatles: The Beatles (White Album)
The Beatles: Revolver