Goldberg Cover

Some years ago I surprised my wife Ulla on her birthday by writing a chamber ensemble arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The principal players of the Toronto Symphony gathered at our house to rehearse it in preparation for an evening performance. (Violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, horn, harp and percussionist playing vibraphone and marimba.) Once the musicians and party guests had filled our living room to capacity, Ulla showed up with a friend. She arrived blindfolded and was put in a front­ row seat with a copy of the score in her lap.

As I began conducting, a friend removed Ulla’s blindfold and she laughed in delight. She overlooked the awkwardness of our performance as we struggled through my quite challenging arrangement, designed to show off the virtuoso chamber music skills of these principal players. As it turned out, two hours rehearsal was not enough, especially with the time needed to correct the inevitable mistakes in the parts at a premiere performance. But everybody still seemed to enjoy themselves as we banged our way through the 18 selected variations. Afterwards we all walked to a nearby Italian restaurant for a birthday feast.

I’ll admit that my arrangement didn’t find many takers for the next 10 years. In a couple of performances musicians struggled to get it right, and I began to think my arrangement was a dud.

Then last year the University of Central Oklahoma invited me as resident composer. In preparation for my residency, my host and wind ensemble director Brian Lamb suggested a list of my works he wanted to perform — one was the Goldberg arrangement. I warned Brian against it, envisioning myself having to take a bow at an embarrassing performance. But he was adamant.

I was amazed and pleasantly surprised at the rehearsal with the Faculty Chamber Collegium. They even played two variations I had especially warned Brian against because of their tricky hocket rhythms. And the performance a few days later was astonishing. They made a recording — Colgrass Horizons, Equilibrium Records (EQ 118) —­­ and the piece now stands as one of the highlights of my composing career. I finally felt vindicated as an orchestrator of this classic piece.

I can’t say enough about how much a good performance means to a composer. I was proud of my Goldberg orchestration at first, but sank into disappointment and self­-criticism when hearing the first few attempts at playing it. The Oklahoma musicians reminded me how good performers complete the creation of a work. Without them, a piece is still unborn. In Oklahoma they devoted some 26 hours of rehearsal time to it, which brought out the finesse and verve that I had originally intended — and the accuracy.

Now if only another chamber orchestra could find that kind of rehearsal time to program the piece, it could get another superb performance. Here’s a link to the first review of the recording.

“You Do It!”

September 30, 2013 — 8 Comments


Years ago I got stuck when writing my wind ensemble work Winds of Nagual. I hammered at it for three days and finally jumped up from the drawing board, threw down my pencil and growled, “You do it!” and I stormed out of my studio.

The next day I returned and looked at it. The page in front of me showed movements 8 and 9. That puzzled me, so on a new page I wrote only the eighth movement, which came easily. I had been trying to combine two movements into one, cluttering it up and creating a structural roadblock.

I later recalled my outcry and wondered who I was talking to. After all, my creative problem seemed to have solved itself. What I gradually realized was that in my exasperation I was calling on my unconscious mind to solve the problem—the part I call the Demon. Since then I have included the Demon as a systematic part of not only my composing, but my whole decision-making process.

I just concentrate on an important question and walk away, leaving room for my unconscious to step in. Focusing on any subject — be it a piece of music, an important letter, or a particular thought or feeling — seems to activate the unconscious. But stress and gridlock in the brain can shut down the unconscious, and it only kicks back into gear when you relax or “give in.” The unconscious seems to get distressed that you are losing something valuable and feels compelled to take over.

I remember the old pro-con technique of problem-solving: make two lists that run down the advantages and disadvantages of a particular decision. But that never worked well for me. Good results usually need to bypass logic and delve into emotional elements that may be seeded deeper than we realize, especially in creative work.

My life is easier now that I don’t worry about writer’s block. But if a block occurs, I check whether I have poured enough information and ideas into the project for the Demon to work on. That usually works, because we have more and smarter resources than we know.

Letters From Children

September 18, 2013 — 4 Comments

Colgrass Student

Over the years I have received many letters from children and I find their directness very stimulating. Their letters are on my website ( along with my answers. A while back I got a particularly interesting letter from a 14-year-old girl that ties in with my last blog about music education in our schools.

Dear Mr. Colgrass,

What people don’t realize is that we, the young adults of America, are the future of everything, including music. They think music is for really nerdy, rich, smart people, not for the average person. Music is a very personal emotion that takes a lot to get out of you, and also to write down on paper. Where will music go without good teachers who take the time to talk to teenagers? We look up to adults for guidance in this big craziness of the music world.

Then she goes on to ask why some like classical music and others don’t, why we learn more about emotions as we listen to and study music, why some people seem unable to feel music, why music is such a deep subject and how we can bring out the musical creativity in ourselves and others.

My answer:

I think music is like food — you tend to eat what the people around you eat. Meet new people and you start eating new foods. The question is not only the taste of this food, but its relationship to your lifestyle — yogurt isn’t associated with any social life that is known to be cool, whereas the hamburger is an American institution. Classical music is like yogurt to many people. They may try it once or twice, but that’s usually not enough. There has to be some form of continual contact and the music, like a nutritious food needs to be integrated into their lifestyle.

Concerning emotions in music, music is the language of emotion. The history of music is the recorded history of human emotion, different ways people expressed their feelings over the centuries in response to their surroundings. Music has many values — it helps develop our minds, it relaxes us, is gives us solace when we are blue. But most of all it helps us develop empathy for others, to respect human feeling. I really don’t care how “bright” someone is, but I am impressed when someone shows understanding for the feelings of others. This is what music and other arts add to our life, and that makes music an important activity for children to learn and enjoy.

Some people seem to feel music more easily than others, but then some people have trouble feeling any emotion — or expressing it openly. Emotions need to be developed like language or imagery. Our senses are like muscles: the ones you exercise are the ones that will grow strong. You can actually practice feeling, the same way you can practice expressing yourself in words and making pictures in your mind. Music gives us a way to practice developing emotionally. Maybe that’s why some people don’t like music — they’re afraid to express their emotions, afraid they’ll lose control of themselves, break down and cry, or get too charged up and not know what to do with the energy.

Yes, music is a deep subject because emotions are unfathomable. With music, you can even express contradictory feelings — like sorrow and joy — simultaneously, which is sometimes how we feel them. That’s what makes emotions so interesting. That’s what drives composers to try to recreate emotions, digging into them for new insights. Emotions are like the gold embedded in mountains. No matter how much you dig out, there’s always more, somewhere in there.

I have said before that creativity starts with copying and imitating. You don’t just pop out of the womb writing music. You need to learn musical language the way you learned your native tongue. You learned to speak and write and read by hearing and imitating others. Then gradually, you started getting your own ideas and writing and speaking your own way — like your letters to me, which are original. So don’t be afraid to imitate at first. But only at first. Gradually your own personality will come out. The more you learn about how others perform a particular skill, the more you will learn how to do things your own original way.

Creative Deficiency Disorder

September 1, 2013 — 9 Comments
Colgrass Drums Sepia

My first drum set, in 7th grade.

Hyperactive kids are often diagnosed with ADHD, but I have my own diagnosis for the parents and school officials who allow disruptive children to be medicated: CDD, or Creative Deficiency Disorder.

As a child, I was constantly distracted and disruptive in elementary school, dying to create something without realizing it (see more in my autobiography). Hence the artful spitball designs I made on the ceiling over my seat in Miss Nieman’s 4th grade music class. And my sneakiness in stealing and snapping pencils in half from Geraldine, who sat beside me. Today, I’d be sent to the nurse’s office for a fix of Ritalin or Adderal. I can only wonder what that would have done to my creativity. Sadly, many teachers don’t understand that the best remedy for most children is creating. I got high on it every day with no negative side effects — except the mischief I created because I had no constructive ways to direct my energy.

Only after I saw a movie with a jazz drummer did I play drums, start my own band, write my own arrangements and find my drug: jazz. But would I have developed faster musically if my teachers hadn’t had CDD? They could have shown me a method for writing and performing my own music in elementary school. Oh, how I would have loved to direct my energy on that! My 6th grade music teacher wrote in my report card: “If Michael would stop fooling around and pay attention in music class he might learn something about music.”

My bumpy road through school got me interested in doing creative projects with middle school kids, helping them create their own musical notation and write their own compositions. I have done it in many schools and find that kids throw themselves into this free-wheeling creative process. They work through it with intense concentration and have fun performing the music at the end. Sometimes it gets played by school bands and occasionally by professional musicians.

A French teacher invited me to coax her teenage students to write a piece for symphony orchestra. They did it in three days, and the following week the very excited class came to a concert by the Esprit Orchestra in Toronto to hear their work. Here is a terrific sample.

Some educators understand that it is unnatural for children to sit still and learn about the theories of life. They want to live it and feel it on their bodies. The Waldorf education system teaches all subjects through activities. The children move about, create and learn without boredom. The school recognizes that not all children learn the same way. This method of teaching may require more ingenuity and skill than most teachers are able to muster, but it surely sounds better than prescribing drugs on a large scale. I sense that education is ready for a big change, partly with the help of technology – and that’s a good thing.

Proclaim Your Rarity

January 21, 2013 — 12 Comments
Stagecoach Music Festival - Day One

Willie Nelson performs at the Stagecoach Music Festival in Indio, California, May 5, 2007.
(Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

I recently asked composition students at a major music school in the US to create a collective graphic notation piece on the blackboard and sing each sound they added. One student grumbled, “First, let me say that I don’t believe in melody.”

It seemed strange that this young composer would start his creative process by thinking about what to avoid instead of what he wanted to invent. The same guy later asked me what I thought of composer Brian Ferneyhough’s music, obviously one of his heroes. I answered honestly, “What difference does it make what I think?”

I was trying to impress upon these fledgling composers that they can be open to all musical and creative approaches. Both their own or other people’s judgments can only limit their creativity.

Sometimes academia can impose limits in styles and scope of writing music, though that is not as common as it was in the past. We all remember how certain major European composers in the ’60s and ’70s made pronouncements about how music should be written, that melody and tonality were dead. I still see traces of this old tight-jacket at universities I visit in the US.

I’m often asked, “Where do you think music is going?” And I answer, “You tell me. The future of music lies in the uniqueness of your vision.” The composition students give me the impression that they’re looking for “the way” to write music so they can jump on that bandwagon.  In the American academic world, that practice started in the ’50s with Hindemithian neo classicism; then it was Schoenbergian tone rows and Webernesque pointillism A more recent extreme is to find a simple phrase and repeat it endlessly in a form of minimalism.

I encourage composition students to shed the shrouds of other people’s thinking and give themselves more freedom for personal expression.  I understand that Willie Nelson looks in the mirror every morning and says, “Proclaim your rarity.”

More independence is seen in a number of new faces on the new music scene. Granted, some of the current music is overly simplistic, like a Hollywoodish kind of program music or a neo Mahlerian Romanticism, but there are also many signs of a great and original energy. Technology is making all styles from around the world available. Composers openly grab inspiration and create from jazz, rock, pop, atonality, polyphony, ethnic styles, baroque and the classical era.

University music schools offer a huge advantage for composers by giving opportunities to have their music played. They are also surrounded by highly qualified musicians, who can perform almost any newly minted work. The sky is the limit in this unique setting. Composition students should make the most of this fleeting opportunity to develop their personal voice, because they will find the world outside much more limited.

Twirling Batons

December 19, 2012 — 4 Comments
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Gustavo Dudamel, music director at the LA Philharmonic.

In my recent The Podium Mystery blog (Sept. 17), I asked how conductors get their results — what it takes to create a great performance. Several replies to my blog pointed out very correctly that the main work of the conductor is not done in the concert, but rather in rehearsals. It puts to rest the notion that a conductor is only beating time.

Here’s another blog, by Shankar Vedantam in Deceptive Cadence, looking into the ephemeral interaction between musicians and conductors.

Vedantam mentions a 2012 European study, “Leadership in Orchestra Emerges from the Causal Relationships of Movement Kinematics.” In this curious exercise, the researchers attempted to verify and analyze how the conductor’s “motor behavior” affects the “aesthetic quality of music.”

The researchers used infrared technology to pinpoint when and where the interaction between conductor and musician took place (in this case the violin section). The result was not surprising: the conductor leads and the musicians follow. I could have told them that.  As you probably know, the term Kinematics describes motion, most often in engineering and robotics.

There was more to this scientific study: two conductors lead the same orchestra. One was a seasoned conductor and the other an amateur. Who produced the most satisfying music? Surprise, surprise — the professional baton twirler. I’m now thinking I too could become a scientist or clairvoyant.

If an orchestra is coached properly I do think the conductor could be eliminated, but it would result in a lot of extra rehearsal time.  So the conductor not only provides the musical leadership, but is probably cost effective — besides people enjoy watching the person on the podium.

I think the bigger question might be, “How can we train conductors to handle all the responsibilities they are expected to do now?” A stimulating view of a conductor’s job is found in Leonard Slatkin’s new autobiography, “Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro,” which should be required reading for all aspiring conductors.  Concert-goers would also enjoy this fascinating and entertaining look behind the scenes.

One thing I’m still curious about is how conductors can work all over the world and cover multiple conducting contracts. They must attend fund-raising dinners and do interviews in between rehearsals. They also deal with the musicians’ union, management and the board, and charm the patrons of the orchestra. Oh, and don’t forget studying scores.

I suggest that conductors take classes in magic and find wrinkle-free clothing so they can catnap anywhere and still look good on the podium.

Down the Rabbit Hole

December 4, 2012 — 11 Comments
Alice Enters the Rabbit Hole

A window display from Fortnum and Mason in London depicts Alice and the rabbit.

I just had a lively discussion with someone I disagreed with — myself! Deep down, I have always felt that artists come into this world with their work and creative paths already mapped out for them. I have followed my own path without hesitation, and so have many artists I know or admire. Our work becomes our identity.

Perhaps the act of creating something — be it music, poetry or painting — is so seductive that it can take over all other aspects of a person’s identity. It doesn’t mean that the writer or painter cannot also be a great chess player or tango dancer, but their overriding identity comes from the creative work they do.

So why am I arguing with myself? Well, after more thinking about such complete immersion into art, what happens to the basic self you were before you ever did a lick of work?  That unique identity that separates you from everyone and every thing else on the planet?

My better self won the argument: keep “doing” separate from “being,” or you might lose sight of what you are as a human being.  I recall the Hungarian poet George Faludy saying: “If all you know in life is electrical engineering, you are a moron.” Well, that was strongly said, but he never minced his words. If you identify yourself solely by your work, you could run into serious obstacles if for some reason you have to stop being an actor or scientist, if that was your basic identity.

I think artists have always struggled with the question of either handing their entire identity over to their work or dedicating their time to other jobs, wanted or not. The reluctance may come from the huge investment artists make through many years of solitary work and self-testing.

Poet ee cummings put it this way in his second Norton nonlecture at Harvard: “Poetry is being, not doing, If you wish to follow, even at a distance, a poet’s calling…you’ve got to come out of the measurable doing universe into the immeasurable house of being…and remember one thing only: that it’s you — nobody else — who determine your destiny and decide your fate. Toms can be Dicks and Dicks can be Harrys, but none of them can ever be you. There’s the artist’s responsibility and the most awful responsibility on earth. If you can take it, take it — and be. If you can’t, cheer up and go about other people’s business; and do (or undo) till you drop.”

That’s an exhilarating description of diving into the rabbit’s hole to a creative life. For those of us who did dive in, I recommend having more than one avenue to create an identity.


A flashmob in Sabadell, Spain, with the participation of 100 people from the Vallès Symphony Orchestra.

I got sucked into YouTube with several flashmobs happening in malls, train stations and other places in different parts of the world. Some of the scenes are worth sharing.

The great attraction to me is the spirit and goodwill of these events. To hear familiar music performed in new environments for an unsuspecting public gives it new life. Suddenly ordinary “shoppers” sing a scene from Traviata or Carmen in a department store. It completely reframes the music for me, as if a great director has turned a mundane world into a work of art. The people who are lucky enough to be near a flashmob are obviously delighted to see these scenes unfold in a familiar place. Suddenly spirits are lifted and everything seems possible. Here is a wonderful example.

The instant connection that is made between these opera characters and the general public really defies the notion that opera is an art form for the elite. When people hear it, they usually love it — as they do by the millions when the MET in New York transmits operas directly to movie screens around the world. The cost is close to a movie ticket. The “elite” label probably comes from the high price of going to an actual opera house, and the formal dress and behavior. Gone are the days when opera audiences booed and threw tomatoes.

Here is more flash-mobbing, which the performers seem to love as well.

Also dance flashmob events like these scenes in the Antwerp train station and in Moscow plaza are just plain fun and appeal for their energy and spontaneity.

The formality of music and dance concerts has always been awkward to me. The same goes for jazz. I especially feel I’m an outside observer when jazz is played in large halls and I’m sitting in a row of chairs instead of enjoying my beer in a club. The jazz musicians probably feel the same way, because they are generally less spontaneous in formal halls.

How can concert halls and opera houses imitate the feeling and excitement of flashmobs? Perhaps this is a question for architects and acousticians to work out — how to connect the public to the performer and remove what is known in the theater as “the fourth wall” and invite the listener in.

If you look at any of the links to flashmobs you’ll see in people’s faces what I’m talking about — curiosity, smiles, laughter, dancing, children waving their arms and jumping up and down, all the signs of happiness. The crown prince of Bhutan, Sasho Wangchuck, has just declared that his country is focusing on the “Gross National Happiness” rather than the GDP. Perhaps he is a fan of flashmobs.