Album cover showing Diane Moser, Max Johnson, and Perry Robinson performing.

Max Johnson, Diane Moser join charity album with Perry Robinson

VCFA Music Composition graduate Max Johnson (Aug. ’16) and professor Diane Moser have recorded an album with clarinetist Perry Robinson, with all proceeds going to Planned Parenthood.

The album is called Top of the Head, and as the name suggests, it’s improvisatory—or, as the album’s Bandcamp page puts it, “spontaneously composed.” That’s actually a fantastic way to describe what’s happening on the album. All three musicians are jazz and improvisatory players, with deep wells of experience. Listening to the interplay between them is a joy. Moods shift and turn on a dime, and all three players are keyed in to the same emotional wavelength. The emotional intelligence and deep listening that improvisation requires is a skill, and Robinson, Johnson, and Moser have deep reserves of that skill. Hearing them respond to one another’s subtle changes in direction is a treat.

And it’s a treat for a good cause! Top of the Head has been released via Minus Zero, a musicians’ collective devoted to human rights and social justice. Planned Parenthood will receive 100 percent of the money that Minus Zero makes. The album was recorded in January 2014, but has just recently seen release. It came out on January 19, just in time for the anniversary of the Women’s March (and the second wave of marches).

Max Johnson is an adventurous composer and performer from New York City. In addition to composing and recording pieces with astonishing prolificacy (this is his third album release since July 2017), he’s also a sought-after session and touring bassist. You can catch him performing with the Jeff Austin Band across the country, as well as with his own duo, Jolliff & Johnson. He also performs with various ensembles and bluegrass jams across New York. He’s played with everyone from John Zorn to Andrew W.K.

Diane Moser is a bold jazz/improvisatory pianist and composer out of the New York area. Her Composers Big Band is a 17-piece ensemble that has been presenting monthly concerts since 1997. The ensemble is dedicated to developing and presenting new work. She also has a quintet and a trio. She’s performed with everyone from The Drifters to the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra, Marty Ehrlich, Bill Zabatsky, and more.

Perry Robinson is a noted clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer. He grew up around music and musicians because of his father, composer Earl Robinson. Perry has been playing for a while—he attended the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts in 1959. He has recorded with legends like Dave Brubeck and Archie Shepp, and he’s been releasing records regularly since his album Funk Dumpling in 1962.


Picture of composer Rick Baitz

Rick Baitz Scores Museum Exhibit, Writes for New Music Box

Faculty member Rick Baitz is currently celebrating the opening of three museum exhibits that feature his work, all of which can be found at the newly opened Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.

Rick Baitz wears many hats. As an educator, he’s a professor at VCFA. He’s also served a couple of terms as faculty chair. Outside of VCFA, he runs a film scoring workshop for BMI. He’s also a prolific composer of concert works and scores, known for several documentaries for PBS and HBO. Lately he’s turned towards museum installations.

Baitz began his relationship with Monadnock Media by scoring 24 Hours That Changed History for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. Monadnock puts together large-scale media rooms and unique films for multi-faceted screens for museums across the country. As the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum neared, they approached him to score three more of their exhibits, Emmett Till, Freedom Summer, and Why We March. The museum recently opened in December.  It’s already making headlines for its refusal to back down from the ugly truths about our nation’s history — and its present.

Emmet Till recounts the story of the kidnapping and murder of a 14-year-old boy who was visiting rural Mississippi. The national outrage surrounding the incident was part of what sparked the momentum of the civil rights movement as we understand it today. Freedom Summer tells the story of the summer of 1964, as members of the SNCC recount the trials and triumphs during one of the most tumultuous periods of recent history. Both documentaries are narrated by Oprah Winfrey.

In addition to his work on the exhibit itself, he was asked to write for New Music USA’s NewMusicBox about his process. (Frank J. Oteri, co-editor of NewMusicBox, is a recurring visitor at VCFA’s music composition residencies.) To that end, Baitz has written three articles thus far. “Requited Music: Anatomy of a Scoring Gig” tells the story behind the Civil Rights Museum work, as well as his compositional approach to the pieces. “Tearing Down the Wall” is an autobiographical piece about his journey to music composition. And “Becoming Real” tells the story of crisis moments in his career, using his work for HBO’s Vagina Monologues documentary as a launching point.

Amanda Laven Scores Podcast, Lands Scholarship

Amanda Laven (August ’16) is having a fantastically busy year. First off, she’s been doing some scoring work for Battleground Productions. Their multi-platform steampunk adventure serial BRASS is entering its second season. Laven has come aboard to do scoring work for both the podcast and the accompanying short film.

The series follows the adventures of the Brass family, a quartet of Victorian scientific geniuses, as they uncover a conspiracy against them. You can find the show here, and the comic short film “BRASS: The Kinesigraph” here. The archive shows episodes in reverse order, and Amanda’s work begins with Episode 11.

In addition to her scoring work, Laven recently secured a conference scholarship. She’ll be attending the Game Developers’ Conference under the auspices of the Audio Mentoring Project. She’s also participated in her first commercial album release through Materia Collective. Materia Collective is a video game music record label that several other VCFA alum participate in. Her track “The Secret Trance” appears on Future Dance Land: An Electronic Tribute to Diddy Kong Racing. You can find that album here.

For more of Amanda’s work, find her on Soundcloud. Or, it would seem, just about everywhere you look.

Beth Bradfish Readies January 14th Performance

Sunday, January 14th, the Chicago Composers Orchestra is performing Beth Bradfish’s piece Fanfare with Singing Insects of South Pond, Lincoln Park. Bradfish is a groundbreaking electronic composer whose works are as heartfelt as they are daring. Incorporating field recordings of people and places that she loves, Bradfish’s work has an emotional immediacy that lends it an incredible power.

Also on the program are works by Tomeka Reid, Larry Axelrod, and George Walker.

Tickets are available here, and the piece invites audience participation. Willing participants are encouraged to download one of the following audio files and be ready to play it back on their phone when they are directed to do so. You can download your choice of file here, here, here, or here.

The performance will be held January 14th, 8:30pm at Constellation (3111 N Western Ave, Chicago 60618).

DVB [unity]

Devin Barone Releases New Album, [unity]

Music Composition MFA student Devin Barone has recently released his album [unity]. A concept album about an artificial intelligence having a mental breakdown, [unity] includes tracks that have been featured at the electronic showcase, and was created while Devin was studying under Don DiNicola.

Devin Barone

The album incorporates a wildly varying, yet cohesive array of styles. It incorporates glitchy chiptune, prog rock, and acid jazz as it wanders through the breakdown of an AI named Xorn.

Barone wanted to explore video game music styles, with glitches incorporated into the music itself. After attempts at live performances proved tricky, Devin decided to take it to the studio. “It lead to some performance issues, which made me decide on making this electronic to see how far I could push the idea.”

The character arc itself is something that’s very personal to Devin. “The trajectory of the album was always a descent into madness and the AI part of it came from wanting to focus on the character/attitude that I felt I captured in the track ‘Xorn’ itself. Xorn is a very distorted self projection, and represents both my issues as a musician and as a person in general, with the glitches being a personification of those issues…Some of the pieces are almost direct reactions to things I was dealing with at the time.”

While he’s certainly poured himself into the album this semester, he’s been working on it for even longer. Devin’s been crafting the work for the last 9 months. The album is driven by motivic development and a style that captures just the right emotional space. “To make the glitches speak and feel musical I really had to make sure that they followed the right gesture; it lead to feeling like I was almost making it talk”.

You can listen to the album through Devin’s DVB SoundCloud page here, or purchase it on Bandcamp here.

Two VCFA Music Comp Grads take Semifinalist in American Prize

Two VCFA students were recently listed as semi-finalists in The American Prize. Marjorie Halloran and Timothy Lee Miller were both on the list for the professional division of the choral category. Finalists, runners-up, and winners will be selected from this list as the competition progresses. The semi-finalists include 39 composers from across the country, so we’re excited and honored to know that two of our own have made it this far.

The American Prize is a competition dedicated to “recognizing and rewarding the very best in the performing arts in the United States.” It was founded in 2009, and has been a strong voice in the elevation of new American music and art.

Timothy Miller submitted Tears, a choral setting of Walt Whitman’s classic poem. He is also a semi-finalist in the Vocal Chamber Music category (professional division). His song cycle, Three Poems of Henry W. Longfellow, is one of 28 semi-finalists in that category.

Miller, currently in Mahwah, New Jersey, says:

The art song cycle “Three Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow” was written for Lauren Alfano-Ishida who premiered it, and has performed it on three occasions. “Tears” was recorded by the Composers Choir in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in New York in 2011.

You can find a performance of two of the Longfellow songs here, filmed at the Roerich Museum in New York City. It’s a lovely, sensitive setting of the text.

Marjorie Halloran, currently in Austin, submitted four pieces – Write It On Your Heart, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Stillness, and 8 Ways to Look at a Window. She wrote the first three pieces during her time at VCFA – the first two with Mike Early as a mentor, and Stillness under Jonathan Bailey Holland’s tutelage. She says:

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was commissioned for Resounding Achord of San Jose, CA. It uses the traditional text and melody combined with the harmonies from the second movement of Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto– the two favorite lullabies of the children I cared for.

8 Ways to Look at a Window” is the product of working with Alice Parker as the winner of the 2015-2016 Youth Inspiring Youth composer competition, commissioned by WomenSing in Orinda, CA. The text was by Francesca Myhrvold, a finalist in the “River of Words” youth poetry competition.

Stillness” was written for the choral workshop at VCFA, which I co-founded, and was performed during the inaugural workshop. The piece describes the plight of the artist as she compares the process of creating to the dawn of a new day.

Write it On Your Heart” was premiered by Schola Cantorum of Los Altos, CA, in 2014, and had its midwestern premiere in St Paul, MN, by the Vox Nova Chorale in 2015. The text, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, describes the practice of carpe diem/seize the day.

We’re incredibly proud of our graduates, and we’re rooting for them both as the competition continues.

Graduate Scott Barkan releases new album “Good at Goodbye”

Resident VCFA troubador Scott Barkan has released his long-awaited follow-up to Flightless Bird. The album, Good at Goodbye, is “an intensely personal self examination coinciding with the end of a 10 year relationship and many other seismic life changes.” The album is a 10 track tour de force, and represents the culmination of his work at VCFA in a lot of ways. The synthesis of indie rock, jazz, folk, pop, and avant-garde improvisation is something that he spent a lot of time at VCFA working on leading up to his August 2016 graduation. Many of the songs heard on the record were heard previously in evening concerts at the school.

He released the album on October 25. You can purchase it on a pay-what-you-want basis here, on Bandcamp.

The new record isn’t his only iron in the fire right now. Scott is a sought-after session and touring guitarist. He just wrapped up a national tour with singer-songwriter Marian Call in support of her new album, Standing Stones. (You can hear his guitar work on the album itself.)

Barkan is also an Adjunct Professor of Songwriting and Music Technology at Rowan University. He teaches Songwriting, History of Pop, and Audio Recording in their Music Industry department. Teaching is a newer journey for him, one that opened up as a result of his MFA.

In an unrelated but still exciting note, his script Bleed just finished filming and entered post-production. The film stars Robert Patrick (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Blood), Jodi Lyn O’Keefe (Vampire Diaries, Prison Break), and Robert Knepper (Twin Peaks: The Return, Prison Break). You’ll hear more about that as the film gets closer to release.

Game Jam the Movie tours with Graduate Jesse Mitchell’s Music

You can hear recent VCFA graduate Jesse Mitchell’s music in several places this fall. The MFA in Music Composition grad has signed on as a member of Peoria-based film production company CineForge.

CineForge is currently on a tour of comics and gaming conventions with its documentary film Game Jam the Movie. The film follows 12 teams of game developers as they compete in a 48-hour contest to determine who can make the most promising, playable game in that insane time constraints. The stakes are high–victory means an all-expenses VIP trip to the IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games, to show off their work to companies like Playstation that could make their career.

The film features Mitchell’s music, and is screening at the Montreal International Game Summit the weekend of December 11-13, and at the country’s premiere video game music festival, Super MAGFest, the weekend of January 4-8.

Also on the horizon is a Kickstarter campaign for the film Max Reload and the Nether Blasters, about a small-town video game store clerk who must rally to defeat the forces of evil, after he accidentally unleashes them from an old ColecoVision game. ColecoVision has actually partnered with CineForge to help the film along, and while crowdfunding is always risky, the company has a proven track record and a solid fan base from the prior work. They’ve already begun marketing the film, with a sweepstakesconcept art, and more. Expect more from the filmmakers (and from Jesse) when the campaign launches on November 3.