Vocalist and Composer Dennis Tobenski

I look forward to working with fellow Vocalist and Composer Dennis Tobenski for the first time on the Imaginary Timescapes performance.  He comes highly recommended for his skills as a tenor—including by the NY Times’ Anthony Tommasini, who called him a “dynamic vocalist.”—which will be his contribution to the concert, as he will sing in the vocal quartet.

As one would expect of a composer-performer, Dennis focuses primarily on performing works of the 21st and late 20th centuries.  Asked about how his experience as a composer influences or helps him as a singer, he insisted it was mostly the other way around: “Certainly, being a composer allows me to approach the music that I sing with an intimacy that I don’t know that I would have otherwise. Also, I tend to be a bit more….dare I admit….critical as a singer than I might otherwise be about scansion, text setting, and (un)prepared entrances. But I think that my training as a singer has influenced the way that I write much more significantly.”

Dennis is a prolific composer of acoustic new music that bears the influence of pop and Broadway, yet is rooted firmly in the tradition of concert music. Unlike most composers of concert music, however, Dennis has embraced the business side of music as well.  As Dennis explains, “Over the past few years, I’ve become fascinated with the business aspects of having a composing career. It started innocently enough: being hired as the assistant to a now-former teacher, overhearing his business-related phone conversations, filing his correspondence and commissioning agreements. What started as a way to make a few bucks planted the seeds that would become a full-blown obsession with contracts, copyright, and creative forms of fundraising and commission-seeking. As I’ve learned more and more, friends and colleagues have started asking my advice on business matters (none was as shocked as I!), and several insisted that I start writing everything down.”

Dennis continues, “Since I also love blogging and social media, I decided to write a book—humbly titled The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business—modeled on Kristine Katherine Rusch’s The Freelancer’s Guide, which was published chapter-by-chapter in blog form, then compiled into a book. As with Ms. Rusch’s book, there’s a real need for such information to be collected in one place where composers can come to learn and to realize that they can have a real career writing music—that there are tangible steps that they can take to turn their passion on which they’ve spent so much time honing their craft into a way to start supporting themselves. I think there’s a lot of frustration—particularly among younger composers—over the waning number of opportunities and sources of funding, and I’m trying to show that there are creative, interesting ways to create your own opportunities (much as you’re doing with this concert!).”

Look out for an EP recording of Dennis’ a cappella choral works with the ISU Madrigal Singers, which will be released in 2013 by his own label Tobenski Music Press.  You can also check out his music at http://dennistobenski.com.

(Originally published 12/14/12)


Shout-out to My Number One Fan

Today marks four years since I stood under the chuppah with my best friend and number one fan, Charles Natt.  So I diverge from my focus on the music and people that will be featured on this performance, in order to recognize this non-musician who plays such an important role in my life.  His support and encouragement is incredibly valuable to me.  And even though he can’t tell a tonic chord from a dominant, he has helped with ideas for my music—it was his suggestion to set the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy from Macbeth when I told him about my idea for a choral piece that ebbs in and out of existence.  (The resulting work, Signifying Nothing, will be performed by the vocal quartet on this concert.)  He has been the inspiration for my music (the choral piece Perfect Gift dedicated to him, for example) as well as a listening ear for my challenges, musical and otherwise.  Happy anniversary, sweetheart.

(Originally published 12/13/12)

Mezzo-Soprano Suzanne Schwing

If there’s a professional choral performance the New York area, chances are mezzo-soprano Suzanne Schwing is in it.  I’ve enjoyed working with her in C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, in which I appreciate her impeccable precision and artistry.  C4 is only one of many ensembles with which Suzanne performs; in December alone, she appeared with the New York Virtuoso Singers Sextet, the Collegiate Chorale, the Pro Arte Singers, and as soloist with the Choral Society of the Hamptons.  Suzanne will sing with the vocal quartet in the ImaginaryTimescapes performance.

As a frequent performer of contemporary music, Suzanne explains the unique challenges and pleasures she associates with singing this repertoire: “There’s a particular skill set that is required when performing contemporary music.  This isn’t to say that it’s a different skill set than is required when performing older, more mainstream works; rather, it’s that same skill set being taken into uncharted territory.  With contemporary music, there is little or no previous performance history from which to draw an example, and this requires perhaps a greater degree of focus during the preparation and performance of the piece.  The flip side of this is that there are also few, if any, expectations attached to the piece on the part of the listeners—there’s no-one in the audience saying, “But this isn’t the tempo that Muti took on his 2007 recording,” for example—and this offers the performers greater latitude to create the new reality of the piece.  The challenge of these pieces lies in their newness, which offers a heightened sense of freedom in return.”

You can hear Suzanne on 2 recordings released in 2012 in which she is a soloist—…With Peace in Mind (Choral Music of Nancy Wertsch) with the New York Virtuoso Singers and as Alto soloist for Messiah with the Choral Society of the Hamptons.  Also look out for a CD of 25 world-premiere compositions with the New York Virtuoso Singers in conjunction with their 25th-anniversary celebration concerts in Merkin Hall, which she will record in early 2013.


Bass Phillip Cheah

When Tania León encouraged me to produce this performance, and I started putting it all together, Phillip Cheah was the first person I called. One of his many talents is an ability to sing in both the bass and the soprano register, and his involvement enables us to perform one of my choral works, Signifying Nothing, with only four people even though it calls for a three-part soprano divisi at one point. But that unique ability aside, Phillip’s musicianship is an invaluable asset to the vocal quartet for the Imaginary Timescapes performance. I worked with Phillip in C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective from its founding in 2005 through 2010, when he left to take a position as Music Director of the Central City Chorus. (Coincidentally, Phillip conducted C4’s premiere of Confessions from the Blogosphere, one of the works he will sing with the vocal quartet.) Whether singing under his baton or alongside him, and especially when he is conducting one my compositions, I always appreciate his heartfelt expression and exacting ear.
Phillip’s voice, praised for its “particularly potent contribution” (New York Times) and a “warm tone and stately presence” (paterre box) with a three-and-a-half octave vocal range that “defies the laws of nature” (Time Out New York), has made him in high demand as a singer and inspired song cycles written for him by Patrick Castillo, Jonathan David, and Frank J. Oteri. Phillip has sung with too many professional choruses and orchestras for me to list them all here, and he is currently a member of the professional choir at the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields. I’ve enjoyed hearing some of his recitals—Phillip collaborates regularly with pianist Trudy Chan in performances at the Tenri Cultural Institute (the Imaginary Timescapes venue), the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields, and the Cornelia Street Café (as part of the 21st Century Schizoid Music Series).
In addition to Phillip’s accomplishments as a singer, his conducting has been hailed by the New York Times for the “warm tone and carefully calibrated blend” elicited from his choirs. Phillip has conducted New Music New York, Cerddorion, Amuse, the Amato Opera, and well as being a founding member of C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective with me, as I mentioned. He is presently the Music Director of the Central City Chorus and the staff accompanist at The Brearley School.
Can’t wait until Feb. 16th to hear this vocal phenom?   Check out the “Quire of Cheahs,” a series of all-Cheah choral recordings, or recordings from Phillip’s recitals athttp://www.phillipcheah.com/phillip/Media.html.

Obsessions from the Twittersphere & Confessions from the Blogosphere

There is one last work on the Imaginary Timescapes performance that I have yet to write about—the companion pieces Obesessions from the Twittersphere and Confessions from the Blogosphere, “serious” music that makes the audience laugh. The seed for Confessions from the Blogosphere was planted in my brain when I received a valentine in 2006 from my friend Ethan Chessin, a trombonist and music teacher who has periodically brightened my days by mailing absurd cards involving construction paper and few words. This particular one featured the letter “B,” a snake, and a single word: “blogosphere.” (Perhaps there was also a small heart somewhere on it identifying the creation as a valentine; anyway, it arrived in February.) Back then the word was fairly new, and it did have a ring to it.At some point I started poking around on blogs, looking for material. I found a “confession” that was only mildly embarrassing and pretty funny, and then I started looking for more, discovering that people write some pretty absurd, and sometimes hysterical, things on the internet.

Fun fact: the 2007 premiere of Confessions from the Blogosphere by C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective was conducted by none other than Phillip Cheah, who is singing bass in the vocal quartet that will perform these pieces on the Imaginary Timescapes concert! The program note for the first performance of these two pieces as a pair (I wrote Obsessions from the Twittersphere in 2009) is as follows:

In the few years since the premiere of Confessions from the Blogosphere, on-line communication has blossomed and diversified. The arrival of Twitter was both powerful and ridiculous. The same tool is used to spread political movements and to inform the world what one had for breakfast, in brief spurts of 140 characters or less. Focusing on the ridiculous, Obsessions from the Twittersphere mocks the mass-distribution of the meaningless. Tweets about obsessions from strange to harmless are patched together in an unfolding dialogue between strangers.

Confessions from the Blogosphere is inspired by the comparatively old-fashioned realm of the on-line blog. Like a tweet, a blog post is inherently public. Unlike the twittersphere, however, the blogosphere often has an association with intimacy. Created in an intimate, comfortable space (at home, alone with one’s computer), it frequently contains highly personal thoughts once relegated to the old-fashioned diary. As I started reading blog entries that ranged from the banal to the bizarre, I was captivated by a unique kind of confession motivated more by humor than by guilt. The text to Confessions from the Blogosphere is composed entirely of quotes from these blogs. The quotes overlap and compete for attention, reflecting the context of fast-paced internet surfing in which they are read.

Obsessions from the Twittersphere

I have a slight obsession with my iphone.
I have a very weird obsession with fat pigeons, they’re so… interesting.
My obsession has probably turned unhealthy.
Yes, I do think your obsession with Samantha is a bit unhealthy.

Holy crap, dude.
My child has developed an obsession with buckles.
Like, on her booster seat,
All she wants to do is snap and unsnap them.
I have an obsession with strollers.
We’ve got like eight!
Thank God I can’t afford my obsession with cars.

A new obsession is building.
I want a new obsession.
Developing a small obsession for sesame snacks.

Europe’s obsession with corporate remuneration has little to do with preventing excessive risk taking.

I know,
We need to find a place that makes good leechee martinis,
They are my new obsession!
Lately I developed an obsession with Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture of Bucharest.

Twitter is an obsession.
My obsession has probably turned unhealthy.

— compiled by Karen Siegel from tweets by: @Squeakees, @jkamazingkris, @tripleXmas, @j9gem, @samarapostuma, @thody, @Angians, @trishaO_o, @YasTwit, @mister_Sam, @KraseyBeauty, @viapontica and @MissBeeyawnkuh.

Confessions from the Blogosphere

I like Paris Hilton for real.
Should I be ashamed?

I’ve never been a fan of Tom Cruise.
There! That’s off my chest.

I occasionally watch a couple soap operas.
My cousin got me hooked on “The Young and the Restless” when I was fourteen.

In junior high I joined the chess club because I liked the nerdy boys.

Yes, in the most worrying O.C.D. episode of late
I pulled out all of my shoes.
I wiped them down, treated the leather.
I took my post-it notes and wrote in black sharpie a short description of the shoe
Which would then be visible when stuck on the inside of the clear stackable boxes in which my shoes reside.

So there you have it people.
I have issues.
I have admitted, shared, and am feeling positively at ease with my madness.

My weakness isn’t pairs of shoes, gadgets, or collecting D.V.D.’s.
I’m continually tempted to buy new notebooks
The paper variety.
You can never have too many notebooks
And I love looking through old journals full of old sketches from over the years.
While digital is such a powerful medium and my wacom pen is lovely
Nothing beats the satisfaction of doodling on a piece of paper.

There, that’s off my chest!

— compiled by Karen Siegel from blogs by: “Misty,” “Mulligan,” “Kim’s Suitcase,” “Style Editor,” Rachel Cunliffe, and “a gay, partnered guy from South Louisiana.”

Come hear the internet come to life on February 16th!  (Tickets, $20, are available here; proceeds befenit the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund.)