For ultra-serious artists (such as myself), stopping your artistry can feel no different from death itself. The desire to create is always there, the need is there, you have people who want to hear/see what you create, and you may even have the time. But sometimes it just…can’t happen.

This year I was eaten alive, non-stop. The tumultuous politics of this season, the inability to land a job or a living wage, troubling family dynamics, and depression all contributed to a year when plain survival was harder than ever. While in this struggle, I have made strides. I am a much better business-person, I practiced the keyboard every day, I bought a piano (!!!), and can now play Bach with the nuance and style his music demands. These are all to be celebrated when the prevailing feeling every day was, “is death better than this?”. Instead, I felt like a failure.

I was a failure because I hadn’t written a single piece of music so far in 2018. Because I was fed stories of famous composers, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, etc., who had created music in the midst of war, and I can’t even write music when I’m OK.

And I am not the only one feeling this. A shocking number of friends and colleagues have taken significant breaks from their artistry. Some friends haven’t touched their pianos in months, and others have stopped music-ing indefinitely. Too many are faced with the painful experience of surviving at this moment that makes it impossible to create beauty. Perhaps, there’s a realization, that this world doesn’t deserve beauty.

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P.S. While I am learning to be more ok with my own artistic break, I still intend on finishing my commissions, which both have plenty of time left 🙂

Legend of Zelda’s Breath of the Wild is a leap in Nintendo’s gaming that takes the franchise to a new and unexplored territory. The soundtrack is no different. With such a drastic departure from the main story’s epic sounds of adventure, the pick left differences of opinion on the soundtrack, ranging from people who are in love, to those who expressed outrage over the lack of core, memorable themes, and of course arguments among all sides about whether the soundtrack was good or not.

As I was playing the game I found the music to fit with the game, while still missing the franchise’s simple melodicism I loved growing up. One can say I have an understanding of both sides here.

Fans looking for the Breath of the Wild’s music to contain deep and simplistic melodicism were hard-pressed to find something. Heavy content to sway them through different senses of adventure were replaced with tranquil scenery. Fans expecting something different were disappointed about this soundtrack, claiming something was missing. The truth is, something, or rather someone, was missing, Koji Kondo.

I did some research behind the composers of this soundtrack and discovered that Koji Kondo, composer of pretty much all the most famous themes in the Legend of Zelda Franchise, was not involved in this installment of Legend of Zelda. Instead, the music was the work of Manaka Kataoka and Yasuaki Iwata. Both of them are incredibly talented composers who did wonders with the game’s music.

Now that we know they are different composers, we should know then that this is a different voice showing through, and we should give them the chance to deliver us something different. I personally love the work these two did for the game. I have never played a game that portrayed feelings of nostalgia, tranquility, and history in a way as complex as this game has.

I will not delve too deeply into the theory behind this soundtrack, others can analyze the specific tunes better than I can. Instead, I want to talk about the space between. Think of a Japanese sculpture garden, where a few rocks are spaced apart on an open field, and how that space of emptiness has meaning because of those rocks. Similar is the space between two notes on the Koto or the space between the words you speak. When aware of this space, it becomes tranquil while a heightened state of spirituality occurs. In this space one is aware of every detail and in collecting the vastness of this empty space, realizing that this nothing is everything.

Playing through this game I couldn’t help but imagine if that’s what these composers had in mind. The tranquility of the forests and the beauty behind the landscapes explored alone. The lack of quests and a map which tells the landscape and nothing more. Areas of ruin you find in the vastness of the desert, certain to find something yet there’s nothing there. In most games, I’d be frustrated to find nothing, but in this game, I was so engulfed in the empty space of this world that I found the most value in these spaces of in-between.

Then, of course, one is delighted to come across whatever they find, whether it be Kass on his accordion or a stable, or even a village. The music fades in and out of its environment, like a rock in a sculpture garden. It serves no special purpose except to be.

Every location is based on earlier themes, including the little hits of the piano that may appear in the trance-like wind of the forest. The music itself was masterfully done, and it takes one through emotional rides which create the perfect picture for a story. The game’s an all-encompassing work of art.

As for why Koji Kondo wasn’t in the project, it helps to look at what else Nintendo was doing. The most obvious reason is that he was needed for Super Mario Odyssey, whose soundtrack is also incredible and does feature the melodicism that Kondo is so famous for. But Nintendo wanted to take Legend of Zelda on a new direction as well, and to change the composers, and let them take the themes of the franchise and put them into their own voices is perfect for creating that sense of newness to series.

Personally, I hope Koji Kondo comes back, but I’m also excited to see what more Kataoka and Iwata come up with, perhaps the three will be working together on the next game. While I don’t think the soundtrack could have been more perfect, I think it’s also good to make use of Koji Kondo, one of my favorite composers alive, while we can.

Proper technique is critical for any composer, but how do you use that technique to express something you’re passionate about? Evoking a specific emotion or an event through music is a skill every composer should have, regardless of what style you write in. Here’s my advice on how to write about something you love. 

Think About What Ideas You Want to Express

This is the most important step. Music is great at taking big ideas and expressing them while being wholly coherent. This is much more difficult in writing and poetry. So don’t be afraid to start with big ideas, worry about specifics later.

Before you do anything, think of that thing you love, what specific idea do you want to write about? Write them down and narrow it down, pick one that will be the center of your piece. Every step in the process should have this idea (and sub-ideas) in mind. 

Remember, it’s about what the audience will feel, they are a crucial part of the pre-writing process.

Improvise on those Ideas

Now that you have an idea of what you want to express, think of the audience. What emotions do you want the audience to feel? Start by making a list and narrow it down to 2-3. Then get on any instrument, it can be piano, voice, electronics, MIDI, any medium that lets you improvise.

Remember, you’re not writing the piece yet, you’re just digging for ideas. Don’t worry about any playing technique, you just want to get an idea of what sounds should embody the music.

Sketch, Sketch, Sketch!

Once you have a basic sound profile, now is the time to start writing ideas down! You are not at the stage where you should worry of compositional technique. You should instead be solely focused on those ideas and emotions you want to share. Remember, it’s about what the audience will feel, they are a crucial part of the pre-writing process. With all that in mind, write some melodic, harmonics, motifs, and connect them to the ideas you want to express. For example, when you want to show something falling, Chromatic descents are the most familiar signifier.

Once you are done, you should have a musical thesaurus where words, ideas, and emotions are paired with musical ideas.

Write the Piece!

It is from here you can start your first draft. Now you are in a position to use your musical thesaurus with your technique to create a powerful expressive piece just be sure to always have those ideas in mind

One issue I am exploring as part of my mission to decolonize my own music from western imperialist practice and in turn find a way forward as a classically trained composer of color is the perpetuation of class dynamics in classical music. While musicians, composers, and audiences listen to classical music to witness something profound, it simultaneously reinforces a dynamic between the elite and the common people. That distinction is still strong, and will not break down unless we reevaluate our recital spaces and repertoire.

What I mean by this class distinction is that the upper class, formerly the nobility starting in the Baroque period through the Classical via patronage, desired to listen to music as distinct from their subjects as possible. For example, waltzes in Vienna were not allowed to be too fast because they would mimic peasant dances. Despite the move away from patronage to public recitals in the 19th century, Classical music never ceased to be emblematic of the elite. It’s my suspicion that is why atonal music became popular with academics as a way to contrast from Jazz which was becoming much more popular.

We see this attitude today in recital halls; the strong separation between performer and audience, how performers often don’t even speak, or won’t chat with the audience afterward.

The unfortunate truth is that the classical music industry is one of the most conservative fields in the country. It has fewer women graduate than in almost every field, save for philosophy and an abysmal retention rate for people of color.

While composers are now starting conversations about why that is, I don’t see much reflection on the music we perform or study. Racist repertoires are abundant in the classical canon. I detest Salome for its racist portrayal of my ethnicity. Women don’t have the hope of even surviving in an opera, and solo and chamber recitals are littered with pieces that show insulting displays of exoticism. Folks want to talk about attracting minorities to the field, but why would a Black composer want to hear their music shared in a recital with Debussy’s G*lliwog Cakewalk.

Again, this disparity between the need to diversify the field and a racist repertoire goes back to the idea that classical music’s role is to create a distinction of the upper class as better, smarter, and more sophisticated than the lower classes — It is part of the skeleton that makes the classical music tradition. Asking how classical music can be more diverse is like asking a monarchy how they can be more democratic.

When one goes to a classical music concert, that itself carries a stigma of conservative elitism. One must be well-dressed, must know when to clap and not to clap, must not sleep or make any sound during a performance… and God forbid they sneeze.

A solution is to deteriorate the concept of genre entirely. Genres inherently have their own target audience: when we deteriorate or decolonize the concept of genre, we are then free to decide who our target audience is and tailor a concert familiar to them. Musicians who study classical music today already know how to play for upper-class white people, so why don’t they broaden their horizons and ask themselves what would be familiar to other, often ignored groups? I myself live among the working class, mainly immigrants, who work 12-16 hour days of hard labor. They come home to a large extended family all under one roof to play cards and take care of their kids before sleeping for a few hours. They don’t listen to Bach, but they listen to their own traditional music like “Qadukka al-Mayyas,” a traditional upbeat song for when they want to forget about work and enjoy themselves for once.

One thing I ask myself as I’m composing is, “how do I write music that relates to these people I am close to?” I know these are the people I belong to, and that my responsibility as someone with the privilege of getting a strong education is to help us survive.

I took Qadukka al-Mayyas and put it in a set of canons as J.S. Bach would. In it, I expressed something new and profound, the combination of two cultures, the bridge between my tradition, and this new world I was forced into. Brahms doesn’t speak to working-class immigrants because he’s a white man from a long time ago, but I was delighted when relatives said they connected strongly with my piece, and were relieved to find an artistic expression of the cultural dissonance specific to them that is not acknowledged in the arts.

As for what other musicians can do to decolonize the classical tradition — let them explore as many communities as they can. Go out and study your target audience, and make it specific. You can’t write music for everyone of every race, but you can appeal specifically to people who are often left out. And that doesn’t mean a white guy should go to Harlem and study Jazz to get hip with the Black folk, but that they should learn to feature Black composers instead of average white dudes, and to make sure their repertoire is not rooted in any anti-Blackness.

But also, don’t do it for diversity’s sake. Having a program selling one broad concept of diversity doesn’t do much, and it’s horrible advertising. Get out of your genre, collaborate with rock bands, hip-hop, producers, gamelan, whatever, and now have a repertoire of different genres, you can build a wide set of tools to appeal to any audience you like. For example, instead of a concert of Debussy, how about a concert dedicated to working-class lesbians? Instead of producing a classical concert, how about trying what my collaborator, Ethan Valentin, did in his last concert where he premiered my piece, and invite different groups with a wide range of genres to come together for one night of diverse music dedicated to one idea? Can you imagine, for example, a benefit concert for trans equality that starts with an opera scene, then transitions to Punk Rock, followed by a string quartet playing to an electronica/hip-hop fusion, then moving to a sonic meditation before finishing off with a new Symphony written by a trans lesbian? Doesn’t that sound awesome?

What I have written is one solution, and even though this article is not brief at all, this topic can get so much deeper. The lack of diversity in classical music is not an easy fix, it requires us to decolonize the concept of classical music altogether, and to open ourselves to experience what our target audience does.

If I can sum up my advice for any musician, it’s this: Find your target audience, make sure they’re underrepresented, and get to know them deeply and intimately. Work with them, not on behalf or instead of them, and use your privilege as an artist and a music maker to lift up their voices. Do it with humility, and always do it for them, not for you. It does decrease racism, but it also creates a valuable human connection you can’t get anywhere else. That connection is why I became an artist, and I’m grateful every day I make music for that gift of intimacy between myself and the voices that need to be heard.

Over the past couple months, I read Jean Said Makdisi’s Teta, Mother, and Me, a memoir which explores her family’s ancestry across Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Its history is rich with the untold stories of Arab women through periods of constant change through ever-growing globalsim, and with it, colonialism. The book itself is filled with nostaliga, a sense of longing for a place now gone, one taken away from us.

A general misconception about immigrants in the U.S. is that we prefer to live here, but our situation is much more complicated. We would live in our home countries if we could, but because of economics restraints in our home, constant threats of war, and an uncertainty on the treatment of minorities in the Middle East, all issues which trace back to colonialism and Arab nation’s relationship with the west, we are forced away from our homeland, to contribute to the economy of our oppressors.

Decolonized Arabesques reflects the constant attempts of immigrants to reach back to a homeland ripped away from us. The piece is personal in that it uses Arab history as its tool for expression, but the main idea is something I believe any immigrant, including 2nd generation such as Ethan and myself, may understand.

The piece takes exoticism and inverts it on its head. The Eastern is the standard and the Western is the ethnic. The first movement is a Sama’i which is an Arabic ABCBDB form. Traditionally, the piece is in 10/8 time, but the second to last section changes to 3/4, this is where the supposed peak of the piece is, but I put a little twist to that peak. The movement is in a few differnet maqamat (Arabic scales), mainly centered around Bayati.

The second movement takes the popular tune, Qaduka al-Mayyas and puts it through a series of canons, ending in a fugue before it reaches a coda where the theme is segmented and played at different tempi, different maqams, and inversion before coming to halt.

The interesting thing about this piece is that the scales, or maqamat, depend on quarter tones present in Middle Eastern theory, which of course the piano cannot play. I started by embracing this difference, like a situation Ethan and I are in. We are both second generation immigrants who grew up in the United States. While this includes privileges that our parents don’t have, it also means we have much less access to our culture, and that we don’t speak our native languages. This is not a result of laziness on anyone, my parents were working all day and night and would come home much too tired to teach us a language. Meanwhile, the place I heard Arabic was in the home, and sometimes on weekends. How was I supposed to be fluent in a language that way? On top of that, resources to teach me Lebanese Arabic are sparse and formal Arabic is not enough for someone who wants to connect with Arab people and to learn the language with dialects that range from Morroco to Iraq. 

By writing this piece, I am taking back what has been used for years as a display of exoticism and taking it back to its formal, classical roots. Oriental Music is Middle Eastern classical music, and is as valuable as European Classical music.

When western composers travel the world, taking little bits of our culture to include as an exotic flair to their standards, they are saying “our music is real music, everyone else’s is just for show” our orientalism is presented as primitive, either having some super magical powers to be feared, or has some weird connection with nature, or as straight up barbaric.

This piece is my attempt to take back what is ours.

I’m an empath. I look at the destruction that happened in 2017 and cannot remove that from myself. Nothing against people who can, I’m just saying I can’t make any post saying that 2017 was good despite everything that happened. I did have some highlights especially at the beginning of the year, with the premieres of On the Mountains of Orphalese…, LOVE, a Psalm of David, the completion of the 2nd movement of my piano sonata, an Art Song, and now I’m working on a new piece with Ethan Valentin. I finished my website, and did some dedicated research on Middle Eastern Music Theory. I am, of course, grateful for the opportunity to witness so much music with so many wonderful people. But at the same time, there are genocides happening all over the world funded with our money. Native Americans, Palestinians, Rohingya, Puerto Ricans, LGBT+ people all over the world, everyone is bearing the full brunt of white supremacy while America as a whole sits back and lets it happen. You can point to the five marches you’ve been to, but that’s not enough. If you think simply electing Democrats is good enough we’ll never see change. What this also does to folks who do even some of the work (I didn’t do much of anything since I got in Va so don’t consider me an “activist”) is it creates a culture of doom with news of the apocalypse being shared everyday, where I get a little bit more fearful every day I open facebook. While some may be able to ignore the destruction their state is committing, there are many who cannot, and as we recently have seen, are dying from the massive neglect of the populous on humanity. 

In 2017, ethics died. I know, it doesn’t make much sense to say an abstract concept has “died” and I often make fun of other folks, mainly musicians who say that stuff for dramatic effect (i.e. contemporary music is dying). But what I mean here is that any value of ethics, an idea of what the right thing to do is, has culturally dropped to the point where it is now rare. In my own family, where I learned about the religious duty to be the best human possible, the idea of devoting yourself to the greater good dwindled into a joke. I would be having a major emotional response to one of the infinite tragedies of this year, only to be ridiculed for having those emotions in the first place. It’s heartbreaking to see people I love who grew up after my family went from lower class to being solidly middle, to grow up believing it’s best to ignore politics. Who look at the work I do, and question it, showing hostility to what they perceive as reverse racism and contribute to this culture of ridiculing the one who cares. I look at them, and I fear that they will hit the point where they are forced to choose between white complacency and resistance, and they will choose complacency. They already choose complacency everyday, but eventually that complacency will demand that all ties will be cut off from the ones who are controversial, the ones fighting, the crazy SJWs who are stupid enough to believe in human rights. For fuck’s sake I have to use my entire arsenal of evidence, reason, and persuasion in order to convince them that racism against our own is even real. 

But this isn’t just about me, this is happening all over the planet. Those who care are being punished by a system of power. I used to believe family bonds are strong that they can cut through almost anything. I discovered this year that they are actually kind of weak. Strength in relationships comes from active hard work. If I am doing something that is hurting, or even killing someone I care about, it is my responsibility to stop. So how can you be my friend, my sibling, my lover, if you’re complacent in the power structures that bring us all down? How is it that after Trump was put in the white house, fascism became the newest fashion trend, and Republicans tried to kill thousands of people over and over and over again (and finally succeeded, with delayed effects) it is still acceptable to say “I don’t follow politics” or even “some Republicans are good” (look at way they did…what they’re doing now…it’s not an identity, it’s an active choice). 

Here’s the thing about 2018. I don’t want another fucking commission, I want my country back. Any brief success I have as an artist means nothing if my own people are dying and I’m left to mourn alone and in private, while also fearing for my own future. I don’t know if I can ever afford to leave D.C., I have too much mental health damage to really work a full time job while freelancing as a composer. I also don’t know how to expand and network when it’s becoming increasingly obvious that a composer will have to work with folks who somehow still say “not all men”, where racism is about as violent as a far right European political party, and where an opportunity to network will rarely cost less than 50 dollars. And before you tell me writing is resisting, I will say no it’s not. At least not by itself. 

I was once asked if I will write an “anti-Trump” piece, to which I responded that my whole existence is anti-Trump. That the simple act of writing music myself is a radical act against Trump. In some ways it is, but it is only effective when followed through with action. Too many composers have taken the current political climate, and capitalized on it. Many are just as complacent as anyone I know, many are flat out racist, many are friends with assaulters, and many have never done anything political in their lives, yet suddenly they write a piece with some cheap dig at the man and think they’re doing something? And worse, that it is put on equal footing as actual activist work?! You can compare any music you want, but resisting power structures can’t happen through writing music alone. 

So here we are in the border between two years that will test the patience of humanity. Our survival as a species hinges on whether or not we can get our act together. I know my goals, they’re the same every year, to not accept unacceptable behavior, no matter who it’s from. To do everything I can to help those hurting in my life, and to never let go of my connection with the Earth, knowing it will eventually label me a criminal. And now with a new goal, work with children and help them learn the tools they need to create a better generation of humans. Maybe 2018 will be better, but probably not. And saying it will be won’t help, it almost feels like gaslighting. I know you’re lying, and I would much rather know the harsh truth and prepare for it than to live in ignorance and do nothing. This year will be about healing myself and my community. I want to connect with those who are brave enough to act and spend our time keeping eachother alive as the regime of violence continues to destroy itself, dragging us down however it can. 

The wait is finally over! What started off as a small, 2 week chore quickly grew into a 2 month passion project. As you can see, this site is much improved from the previous one. Now, you can get a lot more information about me, the performers, and all the pieces. There’s a contact page that actually works, AND you can sign up for my mailing list (which I’m still constructing so keep an eye on your inbox). 

You can also immediately reach me on all social media! With links to my facebook, instagram, soundcloud, and bandcamp right up at the top, as well as down the main page. We all know that social media algorithms can keep you from seeing content from businesses though, so be sure to also sign up for email updates! 

And finally, there’s now a shop connected to site! You can now buy scores to some of my best pieces for immediate download! 

I hope you take the time to look around, explore some music, buy some recordings on bandcamp and some scores on my site (recordings will become available for purchase, just need some more time on that). As I said before, this was a passion project months in the making, and it still has some tweaks to work out. 

As always I want to thank you all for your constant support. Things got pretty busy for me since I picked up another job on top of tutoring and composition, but I’m still trying my best to get you a blog update every week. Next time I will write a little bit about the symbolism of the piano in my next work, so be sure to stay on the loop! 

Welcome back to Piano Sonata Movement 2 and How it’s Made! So far you heard me talk about the writing and editing process for this piece. Today you will hear the other side of the story. Ethan Valentin, one of my closest friends and longtime collaborator, graciously agreed to write about his side of the process, and how he looks at New Music. He already played the first movement, The Arrogance of Time, which you can buy at 

nebalmaysaud.bandcamp.com

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This is the first time I’ve been asked to contribute to something like this, and I’m so flattered that Nebal asked me to write for his blog. I’ve struggled deciding how to approach this and what I hope a reader will take away from this, and to be honest I’m not really sure I’ve figured anything out. If nothing else, if you haven’t listened to Nebal’s music or if you don’t consider yourself particularly interested in new music, I hope that after reading you’ll listen to his album and check out other composers like him.
We’ve known each other for about three years now, and we’ve been working together for about two. I’m majoring in Piano Performance with an emphasis in Collaborative Piano at Lawrence University, and in the last few years here I’ve had tons of amazing opportunities to work with extraordinarily talented instrumentalists, vocalists, and composers. Of all the projects that I’ve been a part of, working with Nebal has been the longest lasting and most frequent. I remember that he asked me early in my sophomore year if I’d be interested in looking at his Piano Sonata, originally written for our good friend Joey Arkfeld. It was more than a year before I would play it in his senior recital, and in that time I would get to work with him as an assistant on a piece for two organs, and perform on the premiere of his opera scene.
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It was when Nebal first gave me the score for the first movement of the Piano Sonata that I realized how ambitious he is. I didn’t know better than to ask “are you serious?” when I flipped through and looked over the first four pages, mostly just repeated octaves on C and to the last page, which those of you who saw the concert or listened to the recording remember, is a minute and a half crescendo of forearm clusters. What?
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I remember I approached it and encountered several passages in the piece which baffled me. I didn’t see a way around these jumbled, confusing textures and my go-to response was to ask Nebal to change it. He’s a busy guy, and he didn’t always have time to look at it right away – that didn’t mean I necessarily had time to stop practicing it. After weeks of looking at the same passage and playing around with it, some things started changing. My fingers were tripping over themselves less, I was hearing connections I hadn’t been before, and I was making it to the end of the passage before stopping to skip over it.
I recall an admittedly childlike moment of “fine….you were right.” That’s one of the things that I’ve grown to love about playing Nebal’s music, he gets so. damn. close. to the line in the sand where I can ask him to change something. He gets so close to unplayable, but it’s juuuuust enough on this side that I’d feel like I was doing a disservice to the creativity and originality to ask that he change something that he likes and is physically possible. I feel like that aspect of his music has taught me a lot, I can’t just not play it or demand that he change it because it’s “too hard.” I’ve learned new ways to approach difficult passages to make things comfortable and relaxed when at first I didn’t even think it was possible.
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I can honestly say that I’ve typed more than I’ve sent messages that say “Damn it Nebal how many fingers do you think I have” or “I think you forgot to notate ‘middle arm’ here because I’ll definitely need one.” I take pride in the approach I’ve learned to find ways I can make things work when I didn’t initially see a way. Two bars from A Psalm of David, where wrote a very difficult run for the left hand are a perfect example of that. The quarter note pulse he suggested here was 120 bpm, and my questions ranged from “Why the octaves” to “Why is the left hand….like that?” It took me a long time, but it ended up being really fun to play and very effective musically.
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Dealing with these technical issues in Nebal’s music taught me a lot about how I play, and how easy it can be to practice healthy habits when the music is ergonomically friendly. Nebal mentioned in one of his blog posts that he didn’t normally send performers rough drafts, but I think I’ve learned enough through looking at his other music to help him reevaluate his approach to make passages not only possible but easy for me to play well. When we Skyped and I walked him through my impressions of a rough draft of movement two of his Sonata The Arrogance of Time, I tried to structure my feedback in a way that I could say: I have an issue with this passage – it is possible/not possible because ___, – since ___ is the specific issue, you could probably make it work if you ___. In one particular measure of the new movement, I discovered a few hurdles that Nebal will probably want to address. It’s a really climactic moment, that’s pretty clear to me by the wide range, loud dynamic, and filled in harmony. When I played it though, I found that the texture was muddy and indistinct, and it wasn’t possible to play everything that’s notated in the left hand. I suggested that if he were to remove some of the thirds in the lower octaves, the sound might be more clear – we would be rid of that muddiness. Similarly, a consistent rising accompanying pattern as opposed to the repeating rising pattern would allow the bass octave on the last beat to stand alone and display its power and momentum, with no question of that role.
The last thing I want to do with feedback is respond to my emotional connection with the music, or respond to anything general. He’s not done with his creative process in the same way that in the half hour I looked at the music I didn’t finish my interpretive process. I hope that my involvement in the new piece can help Nebal convey the sounds he’s looking for to the performer with less room for the performer to misinterpret the music; to help minimize the time that future performers spend “woodshedding” an inefficient passage while maximizing the time that we can spend approaching the big ideas that Nebal’s sharing with us through his music.
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Thank you so much for reading! Keep supporting your local musicians and composers and don’t forget to download Nebal’s album.
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Welcome back folks! Last time we were popping champagne bottles celebrating the end of our first working draft and getting ready for the collaborative process. I’ve been thinking about what this blog means and how to make it most useful, as well as how to best document my collaboration process with Ethan, which is frankly not very well established. We mostly just send each other a heads up on FB messenger. So, in this shorter installment, I will reflect on the process so far and what I would like to do differently next time.
 
Anyone here knows I’m not very much “established” (whatever that even means) but am still very much in the beginning of a much longer journey. I did, after all, only graduate from undergrad three months ago. It’s quite apparent that I am quite under qualified to talk about any process that “works” or that would be “most effective” for any composer. Instead, I think this is valuable to show my own learning process. I want to share with you my (often many) mistakes to not only document my progression towards becoming a full time professional composer (again, what does that even mean?), but to allow anyone interested in trying their hand at composition insight into the learning and self-evaluation process that must be constant throughout the compositional process.
 
The first thing I learned is that it’s not necessarily helpful to just give someone a copy of a first draft without acknowledging specific problem spots and what you plan to do in revision. And even though I told him this draft’s a mess playability wise, I didn’t tell him how or acknowledged specific parts where I knew it would be impossible. I just let him figure that out in sight reading it, and that’s very frustrating for the performer.
 
What’s the solution then? In writing, many editors ask the writer for a few guiding questions so they can best edit the draft. For example, they might ask “What are you really having trouble with? Which parts do you want me to pay most attention to? What kind of problems are looking to fix and how can I help?” Performers, if you want to make a collaboration process smoother with a composer, ask them these questions if they don’t say anything when they give you the draft, I promise it will make things much smoother for both parties.
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How would you suggest re-writing this to create that same effect while being playable for one player?

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With regards to this sonata, my issues are mainly with playability. There are some parts, particularly in the rising quintuplets that are much more suited for 4-hand piano instead of 2-hand. I got a very predictable response from Ethan which was just “how many hands do you think I have?!” I could have avoided getting him frustrated about my obvious disregard for human’s lack of ability to grow hands if I had asked him: “Many sections of this piece were composed to be more playable in 4-hand piano than 2-hand. I was going for a very full sound and trying to capture the entire range of the keyboard. I know the way it’s written now is not feasible, but how would you suggest re-writing this to create that same effect while being playable for one player? Is there something we can do with the pedals that would help create this effect?” That way, I acknowledge to him that this spot specifically is a problem, why I originally wrote it that way, and asking for his input as a pianist on how to create the desired effect.
 

For a lot of these sections, I was imagining a play with sostenuto pedals, but I don’t know how to best write them in.

I knew that pedals were going to be used extensively in this movement. Yet I didn’t write in any pedal markings, making this movement look ridiculous. That’s because I wanted to work about playability issues first, and add in pedals as we make it more playable. I should have asked Ethan, “for the secondary theme, with the quintuplets, would it sound that full if I got rid of the thirds in the quintuplets and put down the pedal half-way while the sostenuto pedal is put down for every downbeat. Is that feasible?” For all I know, that could be ridiculous, I honestly have no clue, and it’s fine for a composer to be clueless in the editing stage, that’s what collaborators are for! Our responsibility as composers is to not know everything about the instrument we’re writing for right off the bat, but to learn as much about the instrument as we write for it.
 
There are a few other issues, there’s a major chord slam at the end that’s way too quick. I should have told Ethan I just don’t know how long to wait before slamming it, but there will be a pause before it. This way, with these few guiding questions (and notice it’s not a lot), hopefully our collaboration will be a little more fruitful and a little less stressful.
 
Next week will be a very exciting update on this series. Instead of me writing about the collaboration process again, Ethan Valentine will be writing about his experience looking at the music, and hopefully answering some of these guiding questions for everyone. I’m exciting to see what he has to say about the movement and his advice on making it a much more doable composition, and I hope you’re exciting to see his side of things as well.
It’s time for a little honesty, I procrastinated in getting this update to you all. All my life as a musician I have been told to never procrastinate, yet out of all the conflicts in learning composition, the desire to let a project linger continues to go strong. Good news is that I still am able to make deadlines, the schedule is just not consistent, and that is something I will continue to work on.
But there is a specific reason why it is at this point in the piece I procrastinate. On my last post, I was talking about timing and how the form is the most important aspect of a piece, and must be handled first in editing. Well the rest is kind of boring. I listen to the MIDI repeatedly until I spot something that sounds wrong and then I fix it. This process is much more complicated than it sounds, and there’s not really a way to describe it properly in a blog post. Basically, listening with the intent of finding ways to make it sound better, is its own skill. Like any technique on an instrument, years of practice is the only real way you can master this. I go through the music and make notes of any spots that are uninteresting, boring, or just not to their fullest potential, and I alter it in a way that it won’t affect the form and maximizes its own potential.
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For example, this section towards the end sounded boring, and the form demanded that there be a swirl of energy there, so I sat for a bit and wondered, what compositional technique which I have learned over the years would be best to maximize the potential of these few bars.
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bars 93-100 of Piano Sonata Mvt II, before octave displacement
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The issue is that while the left hand is super active to the point where any composer should be questioning if it’s even playable, (don’t worry I’m taking care of that), the right hand is pretty stagnant on a melody we’ve already heard, not to mention that we’ve also heard running quintuplets for a while now so even the left hand is not as exciting as it looks. So what’s the best way to improve a melody that’s stagnant? Two words, and possibly the most influential two words I’ve ever heard in my life:
Octave displacement
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Simply take certain points in the melody, and displace them by an octave, and not only that but I like to use the entire range available to me, because why not? It’s super dramatic and frankly really fun to watch and listen. So I moved some things up an octave, and moved things down low, I listened then shifted things, listened and shifted again until I got a melody that created a huge burst of excitement. And here is the finished product!
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mm. 93-100 Piano Sonata Mvt. 2, after octave displacement
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While I was looking for ways to make the music more interesting, I would occasionally run out of ideas. That is when I go back and add articulations, then dynamics. The reason why I don’t do it beforehand is because I need to listen to the music a couple times and get an understanding of how the energy of the piece should flow so that I can place articulations and dynamics accordingly. At this stage in any composition is when I procrastinate. Because I have already finished the music as best I could. Timing seems right, I have my dynamics in place and every note has the proper articulation. Given how much time I spent on the piece, it just about seems done. But it’s not.
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My experience with my music is vastly different from any listener’s. I have every little detail perfectly arranged in my head. The issue is, did I communicate all of that in the score? That is a question I can’t answer. It has to be someone who would have no idea what to expect when sight-reading the piece. This is the point where I might share the music with a close friend or another composer, and if I already have a good relationship with them, the performer. In this case the performer’s one of my best friends so I just sent him the music and currently waiting on feedback.
I don’t usually go to the performer first because I had a few instances where one might look at an early draft and not understand exactly who different the first draft is from the final. Of course, many performers, especially those who have worked with many composers before, wouldn’t do that, but I don’t’ want to risk creating any needless stress on my performer when it can be avoided.
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So, this leads to an important question, why is this piece so darn difficult? I will admit I don’t account so much for playability in my first draft, and that would be a valid criticism to make of my process, and I don’t recommend it for everyone. But personally, I find that my technique and range of exploration greatly diminish if there’s not room to push boundaries from the beginning. You can restructure ideas later to fit performance practice, but if you set the performance standard from the beginning then the idea would have to be abandoned outright. Especially with this piece, my goal is to explore just how much I can do on the piano. Exploration is necessary, and I’m very fortunate to have a pianist who can frankly do just about anything I ask him to (a few times he would tell me a passage is unplayable and before I get to fixing it he would come back a few days later and say he got it down). I wouldn’t do this for every piece, if I know there will be 2 rehearsals and concert, I would work hard from the beginning to make it easy for the performers from the start. But one can’t object to a lack of experimentation in a piece they expect to sight read.
You may also have noticed that while I didn’t confront playability until now, I have mentioned it in my previous posts, showing that it was always in my mind even though I wasn’t confronting it. No matter what, playability does need to be in the composer’s mind at all times, and they should be aware that what they’re writing may not be playable. A composer is also allowed to give themselves permission to work it out later with someone who is better able to help.
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Anyway, time to get the champagne because we have completed the first working draft! Party hard and invite all your friends! From here I will get into more detail on collaborating with the performer and how I might incorporate Ethan’s notes. Will I follow his advice? Will I blatantly ignore it? Who knows! Join me next time and find out!
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Having just left the opera house, I decided to take a walk down Karlsplatz and appreciate the Christmas lights displayed all over downtown Vienna. I had just left a performance of the best opera I have seen in my life, Peter Grimes. I saw a café, and went inside for what would be my last Austrian coffee and a bit of warmth. I ordered a hot chocolate and an apple strudel, of which I ate way too much during my time in Vienna. I sat there alone, contemplating all the life changing events that happened this term. I didn’t quite understand how much Vienna would mean to once I left. I was focused on getting my medicine in order, finishing my final paper, and making sure everything’s all set for my trip home. In some ways, things have not changed, I got back to my family, and we were still ourselves, and I was able to ease right in. But there was a deeper and better understanding of myself and the world I’m in that I got through my semester abroad.

Vienna is a city with its own splendors and charms which makes it unique and beautiful, but it is not magical. In Vienna, I found I was not able to distance myself from issues at home, and it would be a lie if I said I fit in right away. I was an oddball. I was living alone, in independent housing, trying to find a way into the most elite musical culture to ever exist. I didn’t have very many goals, I wanted to take advantage of every moment I was there, use the opportunity to listen to as much music as possible and gain a stronger, deeper understanding of what it means to be a musician. I wanted to network with possible musicians, in hope that I can find someone to commission me, and give me a reason to come back. I did not make very many friends, but I made a few that I deeply admire. I didn’t get the chance to meet a lot of musicians, for I had not anticipated a wall into the music scene, and I had not anticipated the anxiety of asking someone to coffee, in a different language.

Another thing that separated myself from many of my peers was economic class. My family could not afford this semester on our own, we looked for every bit of funding we could get. The IES Abroad Scholarship was among the first of many sources of income I had gathered to fund my semester, and when I received it, it was in that moment that I knew, it can be done.

I didn’t meet my goals, but instead, I became such a different person that by the end of the program, I understood that personal growth is much more valuable than professional growth. I had learned what it really means for me to be a composer, and what incredible power that holds. I learned to trust in myself, and forge my own path focused on making myself the best person I can be. So I didn’t do a lot of tourism stuff, I didn’t travel every weekend, I didn’t go clubbing or shopping. Instead I spent my Saturdays volunteering for refugees, speaking to them in Arabic about what it means to be an Arab new to the city. Then I would invite some of them to join me for a concert, they would decline (they usually had other, more important things occupying their time), and I would get standing room for whatever opera was playing. My Sundays, I wake up at the fresh hour of noon, make myself a quick lunch, do some work, then go to another concert. Mondays I would be at the refugee house again, and either go to a concert in the evening, or go on a walk. After every concert, I made a tradition with myself, to go to a café, and simply appreciate being in that space. I would compose a couple notes, just like Beethoven would have done in his time. I went out to the Alps, and composed while enjoying nature, just like Mahler did in his time. And the music I wrote there showed the progress I made in my personal growth throughout the semester.

What does gender diversity look like? Many writers, composers, and musicians have written various articles calling for greater diversity in the field of classical music, yet very few are willing to increase representation for minorities other than white women. Opportunities for Black, brown, trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming composers remain abysmal with no sign of public support in sight. While it is great that there is finally a growing sentiment among liberal composers that our current lack of diversity is unacceptable, the need to only elevate (white) women adds to the problem. Many of those calling for greater gender representation riddle their calls with cissexism, language which excludes or doesn’t consider the existence of trans or non-binary people. It is not enough to support women; New Music composers and musicians have an obligation to create an intersectional environment to dismantle systems of oppression.
Cissexism is everywhere, and it is found in most articles calling for greater gender diversity. Every time someone says, “men and women”, or “he or her” as if man and woman are the only two genders, is an act of cissexism. To cisgender individuals, it may seem like normal language, but there is a huge population of folks who exist outside the gender binary. When musicians say that composition studios should be 50% female, that is engaging in cissexism. We do not know what percentage of the population is female, we only know that 50% in the U.S. are assigned female.
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A system free of patriarchy is not an even split of men and women, it is the entire spectrum.

Gender is not just based on genitalia. We are assigned gender based on whether we have a penis, and are therefore assigned certain roles to perform the gender given to us. But that has nothing to do with one’s gender identity, which is the gender one feels they are, and may or may not align with the gender they were assigned. The individual may decide to not express their assigned gender, but that can be dangerous in a patriarchy defined by violence, so some people do not publicly express their gender identity. This means we do not know how many people identify as women, men, both, neither, or something outside that binary. But we do get an idea of what gender diversity would look like.
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A system free of patriarchy is not an even split of men and women, it is the entire spectrum. Patriarchy forces us to our own binary boxes, but if one wants to get rid of misogyny, then those boxes need to be gone, and people need to have the freedom to express their gender however they like. Unfortunately, it seems difficult to convince the classical world that non-binary genders even exist. Many classical musicians are unable to name a single trans composer, especially one that does fit in the male/female binary. Wendy Carlos is the most prominent trans composer today, with very few coming into greater prominence following her legacy. There has yet to be a non-binary composer given the chance and the safety to become successful as a classical composer while being out and having their gender identity respected.
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Du Yun is the first woman of color to win the Pulitzer Prize for Composition.

.But even within the gender binary, only a specific type of cisgender woman is often represented. When opportunities arise for women composers, very rarely are those spaces racially diverse. And when there are women of color who achieve success, usually their identity as a woman is highlighted, but their racial identity is swept under the rug. After Du Yun won the Pulitzer prize for composition, William Robin published the article “What Du Yun’s Pulitzer Win means for Women in Classical Music” using Du Yun’s success to trumpet the victory women were celebrating in having all three of the finalists for the prize be women. His article, and many similar articles, spent very little time talking about Du Yun, instead clumping her in with all other female composers. We should applaud the success of all female composers but we should do that by focusing in on their achievements and giving them the individual attention they deserve. It’s possible, and necessary to do both.
Du Yun should not just be remembered as one of a couple women who won the Pulitzer prize. Although no one reported it, I looked through the history of the award and discovered that Du Yun is the first woman of color to win the Pulitzer Prize for Composition. As a person of color, Du Yun’s win was the biggest crack in the glass ceiling in my lifetime. Although she is Chinese and I am Lebanese, I feel a great connection to her and all other composers of color, because we are all effected by white supremacy every day. My pride and celebrations for her were also mixed with anger, and I still ask myself, why did no one write about that? I fear there are still some who believe it’s too soon to celebrate the successes of people of color in the industry. Perhaps they fear that acknowledging Du Yun as a person of color would mean that they would have to deal with the incredible lack of racial diversity among composers.
You are the absolute best person in the world 
When I think of diversity, I imagine a space where everyone is free to be who they are. People from around the world, with every possible experience, every culture, millions of genders, and lots of great, unique music. A space where we recognize each other’s humanity and celebrate everyone’s individuality. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done for New Music, and there is no time to waste. White feminism defines itself by creating equality from the top down, with white women first, then people of color, and so on, with trans Black women, femmes, and other non-men at the bottom. The issue is that white women usually have no interest in elevating those below them; people rarely resist the urge to punch down. In practice, this does very little to dismantle misogyny, and only reinforces white supremacy. We need a more intersectional model, where we acknowledge the humanity of all we oppress, and work together to punch up against the systems which created a hierarchy of power in the first place.

Many of you have already heard the first movement to The Arrogance of Time, performed wonderfully by Ethan Valentin. But did you know it was originally conceived as a three movement sonata? I had a 2nd and 3rd movement outlined, but the first movement ended up being so big, it worked best as a stand alone piece.

But then I looked back at my sketches, and decided to make a second version, with all three movements. I will have to shorten the first movement, and rewrite the ending, but don’t worry, the one movement version will still be here. (Don’t ask how I plan to differentiate the two via titles, I haven’t worked that out yet).

I decided then, that this would be a good opportunity to show you how I do my work, and bring you along my as I write, edit, and finalize the second movement. Currently I have a mostly-completed first draft, written out by hand. I always do sketches and first drafts this way, since it helps to be on a piano when writing for piano, it’s a lot easier to focus, you’re writing slower so you’re more attentive to what you write, and it just feels more natural to me.

So let me talk to you about the beginning.

One thing that is very common in my music is the use of Baroque themes and finding unique ways to play with them in my music. This is the opening theme of the 2nd movement of my piano sonata, but it’s hardly original. For baroque listeners, one would probably expect a set of variations to follow, perhaps even improvised, as that was a common practice for musicians back in the early 1700’s. It looks bland now, but there’s some exciting variations up ahead.

Arrogance of Time: Movement 2-theme
     The theme for the 2nd movement of Arrogance of Time, a classic Baroque style introduction.

This is still the first draft, so there’s still a lot missing. For first drafts I usually try to just get as much on paper as I possibly can. This is usually the hardest part for me, since I’m very easily distracted and get pretty excited when first thinking about music. Not only that, but I have to write my ideas down without and judgement, because as soon as I question whether or not what I’m writing down is actually good, I become paralyzed by that thought, and end up barely writing anything at all. Everytime I write a first draft, I think of Hemingway’s famous quote (which has frankly been more meaningful to me than his books) “The first draft of anything is sh*t.”

So I will show you the sh*t I wrote as I copy this first draft into Sibelius, but eventually I will also walk you through my editing process, before I finish the final draft.

Join me next time where I take this theme from the style of Bach, to something closer to Ligeti.

Dear Pres. Burstein,

I am writing this open letter to express my disappointment and frustration in the lack of any public reaction from the administration regarding the murder of Jimmy Sanders by the Appleton Police Department. You are well aware of the consistent and insistent threats to students of color which occurred this past week. Adding on the murder has created an environment of major trauma on students of color all over campus.

I insist you set up something, at the very least a public letter, to protect the safety and well-being of students of color and LGBTQ+ students on this campus.

All the best,

Nebal Maysaud

Tonight at 8PM CST the Lawrence University Wind Ensemble, under the baton of Dr. Andrew Mast, will premiere my work, On the Mountains of Orphalese… I would like to invite everyone that is able to, to come to the concert at the Lawrence University Chapel, or to view the livestream.

Please press the link below to view a live webcast of the concert: 

https://livestream.com/LawrenceUniversity/events/7259592

Understanding this piece can be a challenge, as it has many layers of meaning stacked on top of each other. I have attempted here to best describe how I went about writing the piece and its relationship to what I was witnessing, but I hope the listener will also hear the work in a more personal, meaningful way than through what I laid out. One way to hear this work is to understanding it in the context of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, arguably the most influential work in history by a Lebanese author, which I go more in depth about in my notes. But that is certainly not the only way, one could relate it to current events, or tie it into the Mountains of Lebanon. All potential points of reference are fair game here, the point is that I want your imagination to take control.

So with that all being said, here they are, my official program notes:

This piece was written during a difficult time in my life where I felt extremely isolated and had an intense longing to leave where I was and start over. At those times, I turn to literature and poetry to find meaning somewhere away from reality. I thought about a work by the Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, that neatly ties his entire worldview, and lays it bare for the world to witness; his book of poems, The Prophet. Orphalese is the setting of this tremendous work, where a prophet is stranded from their home in a distant place, waiting for a ship to take them back. Interestingly enough, Orphalese is not a place that exists, but it is a place where a prophet teaches, a place of holy insight far away from us.

Orphalese is only briefly mentioned in the beginning, but I was left imagining what this place would look like. Where, in this world, could exist such a place where the people can truly recognize the prophet among them and listen to what they have to say? When all around me I hear words of hatred, violence, and a refusal to hear what anyone has to offer. Where could exist such a place, where an immigrant could arrive at some unknown location and be welcome to a loving community and given the resources to learn and teach the people of that place what they know? Certainly not here, where the message is consistently becoming clearer, outsiders are not welcome.

This is also to juxtapose the actual land of the prophet, the Middle Eastern mountains between Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. A hotbed of unrest in our world’s climate as people sit down reading this, contemplating whether or not the descendants of their own lord and savior can be trusted to enter the country. As anger is unleashed and the world is demanding that art, culture, education, and social progress all be halted while we wish that the magic can return to the mountains. Currently the mountains where water was turned into wine are under fire; so I must take refuge in the mountains of Orphalese, perhaps I can still find meaning there.

I can’t wait to share this work with you all. This was easily the most enjoyable work to create, edit, re-edit, and rehearse during my time at Lawrence. Special thank you to Dr. Mast for all his work into making this happen, everyone in the wind ensemble, who I asked a lot of, and of course to my teacher at the time Andrew Cole.