Sheng

March 28th, 2009
Michael playing sheng.

Michael playing sheng.

        I’m currently working on a new orchestra composition that adds two Chinese instruments to the orchestra, the shēng and gǔzhēngThe sheng is a 3000 year old Chinese free-reed bamboo mouth organ. It reached Europe around 1777 with Pere Amiot, and its influence was so strong that it resulted in the invention of the reed organ, concertina, harmonica and accordion. I have been learning how to play the sheng since the summer of 2008, when I finally bought one in Taipei, Taiwan.  I have been interested in the instrument for 20 years, though I first learned about the Japanese version called a shō. I bought a modern 38 key chromatic jiàn sheng, which is a very versatile instrument. Being chromatic means it can play in any key and works well in western music as well as traditional Chinese. One of the things that I like about this instruments is it play chords like a piano. As a life long woodwind player I rarely get to play chords on my instruments so it is great to be able to. Another thing that is cool about this instrument is it makes sound when you breath out or in. So you can keep it making sound for a long time.  

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String Theory

March 3rd, 2009

        String Theory, was premièred February 28th, 2009 by the SFCCO. String Theory is a guided improvisation composition that uses a graphical score which is inspired by the theoretical physics theory of the same name. String Theory is the revolutionary and shocking branch of theoretical physics that combines quantum mechanics and general relativity into a quantum theory of gravity. According to string theory, absolutely everything in the universe—all of the particles that make up matter and forces—is comprised of tiny vibrating fundamental strings. The Strings of string theory are one-dimensional oscillating lines, but they are no longer considered fundamental to the theory, which can be formulated in terms of points or surfaces too. In this composition, I have used graphical notation representing strings, points and surfaces to guide the orchestra in improvisation. Since String Theory may prove Einstein’s unified field theory at the very end of the composition the orchestra unites. If String Theory proves to be true it creates an elegant universe composed entirely of the music of strings.
         One of the exciting things about using guide improvisation as a compositional technic is the fact that music is different during each performance but over all recognizable as the same composition. To help demonstrate this I have a recording of the dress rehearsal of String Theory for a comparison to the concert performance.

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String Theory – First Rehearsal

February 22nd, 2009
String Theory p.13

String Theory p.13

Rehearsing my guided improvisation compositions is always a bit of a challenge at the first rehearsal. Most of the confusion stems from the unfamiliarity of the orchestral musician to improvisation, so the first question is always what am I supposed to do? Now the other bit of confusion come from the notation style which is also rather unique. I always write a ledger to explain the notation but many time the musician fail to read it before the first rehearsal and I waste time reading to them. I also noticed that old musicians seem more confused by none standard notation, they don’t seem to be a flexible in excepting new concepts. It is to be expected that the first rehearsal of a guide improvisation piece does not go to well as the musician need some time to figure out and to explore ideas that what will work. It one of the reasons why it is important to rehearse a piece like this, though it is equally important to make sure you don’t over rehearse so it does not be come stale. If the musicians are getting the concepts quickly I tend to cut short rehearsals, so ideas stay fresh. On the first rehearsal of String Theory, musicians where really just getting there feet wet trying to figure out what they can do, that included the conductor. I’m going to  have the conductor, Dr. Mark Alburger (who is a veteran conductor of my music) to conduct more, more clues and encouragement to the musicians then just the marking the sections like I asked him to do the first time. Hopefully at tonight’s rehearsal people will be more comfortable playing this work and better performance results. I think I’m not going to play this time and just listen to better evaluate what is going on.

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String Theory just completed

January 17th, 2009

String Theory        I have just completed a new composition, String Theory, which will be performed by the SFCCO on February 28th, 2009.  String Theory is inspired by the theoretical physics theory of the same name. String Theory is the revolutionary and shocking branch of theoretical physics that combines quantum mechanics and general relativity into a quantum theory of gravity. According to string theory, absolutely everything in the universe—all of the particles that make up matter and forces—is comprised of tiny vibrating fundamental strings. The Strings of string theory are one-dimensional oscillating lines, but they are no longer considered fundamental to the theory, which can be formulated in terms of points or surfaces too. In this composition, I have used graphical notation representing strings, points and surfaces to guide the orchestra in improvisation. Since String Theory may prove Einstein’s unified field theory at the very end of the composition the orchestra unites. If String Theory proves to be true it creates an elegant universe composed entirely of the music of strings.

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Stripes & Stars

June 7th, 2008

        In Apirl 2008 I won a “Meet The Composer’s MetLife Creative Connections” grant to participate in the SFCCO project, The Star and Stripes Forever variations ( LowHigh). Where 6 composers each write a variations on The Star and Stripes Foreverand it put together into make this new piece. I have many warm memories about hearing The Stars and Stripes Forever during 4th of July outings as a child. It is by far one of the most well known marches in the repertoire. While I have enjoyed listen to it over the years, as a performer, my part was always very boring. Bassoons and saxophone only got the pa-pa part of the um-pa-um-pa accompaniment. So for my variation, Stripes & Stars, I first decided I would give the bassoons a more fun part. Then while working with melodies I inverted them and really liked it. The inversion of a given melody is the melody turned upside-down. For instance, if the original melody has a rising major third, the inverted melody has a falling major third. I then recombined various melodies a little to round out my variation. This piece was performed on June 7th, 2008 by the SFCCO.

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Sun & Moon

March 8th, 2008
Score of the Sun movement

Score of the Sun movement

        March 8th 2008 the SFCCO performed one of my circle music compositions; Sun & Moon ( Low / High). The Sun & Moon have been center of mythology since the dawn of time. They represent the balance of man and woman, light and dark, the cycle of life. This musical representation of Sun & Moon consists of two sections, Sun starts from left and moves to the right then moon start from the right and move to the left. These sections are in a form known as circle music. Essentially, circle music uses phrases that can be played at any time and in any order. I first learn about circle music form from Dr. Cindy McTee who wrote a circle music piece for my bassoon teacher.

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Symphony No. 3 “The Shadows of Japanese Children” take 2

December 7th, 2007

        After premiering the outer two movements in 2005, the SFCCO premiered the inner two movements of my third symphony: Symphony No. 3 “The Shadows of Japanese Children” on December 7th, 2007. More information is avaible from the original notes of the first performance.

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Ha-Me’aggel for Orchestra

June 9th, 2007

        I recently completed a new composition, Ha-Me’aggel (one who draws circles) for Orchestra (Video Low / High) was premièred June 9th, 2007 by the SFCCO. This the biggest of my jazz and classical music to date. Originally this piece written for my quintet (woodwinds, trombone, cello, koto and percussion), the Cooke Quintet. The group recorded Ha-Me’aggel on An Indefinite Suspension of The Possible just 2 days after the première of “Music for Humans“. The CD was released on my label Black Hat Records. It has four sections, which in the original version could be played in any order, a form known as circle music. I felt that this piece would adapt well as a Concerto for Saxophone or Orchestra, though I had to make the form less flexible for an orchestra. There is some freedom to allow different instruments be featured but in the first performance alto sax (Michael Cooke), clarinet (Jonathan Russell), piano (Alexis Alrich) and timpani (Victor Flaviani) are featured instruments. These featured instruments have improvisational solo sections. The melodies in the piece were written using a Klezmer scale, which made me think of the story of Onias (Honi) Ha-Me’aggel, a first century Jewish scholar who drew a circle and placed himself in the center of it, praying for rain and whose prayers were mysteriously and immediately answered. My prayers where also answered, as this piece was made possible by a Creative Connections Award from Meet The Composer.

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Music for Humans

June 9th, 2006
Michael introducing his composition.

Michael introducing his composition.

        “Music for Humans“, was premièred June 9th, 2006 by the SFCCO and Schola Cantorum. (Video Low / High) “Music for Humans”, makes use of extended vocal sounds instead of the traditional chorus sing text. Based on ideas I have for a choral symphony, the chorus is asked to make sounds humans can make but choir are rarely asked to. Clapping, snapping and clicking of the tongues are some of the extra sounds the choirs is asked to make. And since there is no text instead of the traditional Ooohs and Aaahs, I use the rich sounds of the Chinese Phonetic alphabet, Zhuyin Fuhao or known as BaPaMaFa. Not only are the sounds the choirs makes in “Music for Humans” unusual, but so it the way the choir is used. Instead of being a soloist, they are used as just another set of instruments like they way I used 4 vocalist in my first symphony. As for the sound of work, one can hear hints of Witold Lutoslawski, Paul Hindemith, and Meredith Monk. I make use of techniques made famous by Giacinto Scelsi, where I improvise sections then transcribes them into notation, for the orchestra to replay. Over all the work maybe a meditation of the human mind, with points of calm clarity, beauty and intense confusion, which is how we humans live our lives everyday.

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Open Ended

December 2nd, 2005

I had one of my guide improvisation compositions performed by the SFCCOOpen Ended is a very versatile work that is composed before your eyes. This work has no set instrumentation and can be played by any number of performers. It also has no set length; the piece could last 5 minutes or 24 hours. Based on Rova‘s Radar techniques, Open Ended is less of a composition and more of a color or tool palette. It is an ever-growing collection of rules and games for the performers that are triggered by hand signals by the conductor/composer. The conductor/composer then composes the piece live using these hand signals to guide the performers. Open Ended has been performed several times but every time it is a world première and unique performance that can never be repeated.

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