Image depicts VCFA faculty and students performing at the songwriters' showcase

Music Composition Program Readies February Residency

(Photo credit: Anthony Pagani.)

The Music Composition Program at VCFA is preparing its February residency. Notably, this involves a series of concerts that are open to the public. Visiting artists include:

Anna’s Ghost, an in-house rock/jazz ensemble with a rotating personnel. This semester features River Guerguerian, percussion; Russ Johnson, horns; Jim Whitney, bass; John Benthal, guitars; Anna Webber, flute and saxophone.
Piano Trio with Geoffrey Burleson, piano; Mary Rowell, violin; David Russell, cello.
Saxophone Quartet, featuring Ken Thomson, Ed RosenBerg, Peter Hess, Jay Rattman
Counterpoint Vocal Quartet, featuring Allison Devery, Erin Grainger, Cameron Steinmetz, and Kevin Quigley, with Music Director Nathaniel Lew.

More information about the individual musicians can be found at the links for each ensemble. But we have some fantastic players. Mary Rowell is a cutting-edge violinist who’s worked with everyone from the Tango Project to Joe Jackson. John Benthal has played guitar alongside everyone from Idina Menzel to Harry Connick Jr., and performed in Broadway shows like The Lion King. The musicians at VCFA are top-notch. They include cutting-edge classical performers, avant-garde jazz artists, high-demand session musicians, and film/TV composers. They all assemble to perform student works, as well as offer critique.

All of this is invaluable to young composers. It’s no secret that there’s no shortage of new composers out there. Learning what makes your music accessible to musicians, or fun to play, or easier to read and interpret, is an incredibly valuable skill, and it can mean the edge in getting picked for performances. All of that falls in line with VCFA’s commitment to an education that is as functionally practical as it is theoretically sound.

The ensemble concerts are as follows:

Tuesday, Feb. 6, 8 p.m.: Anna’s Ghost
Wednesday, Feb. 7, 8 p.m.: Anna’s Ghost and the Piano Trio
Thursday, Feb. 8, 8 p.m.: the Piano Trio and the Saxophone Quartet
Friday, Feb. 9, 3 p.m.: the Saxophone Quartet and Counterpoint Quartet
Saturday, Feb. 10, 3 p.m.: Counterpoint Quartet

Other events include:

Film Music Festival
Sunday, Feb. 4, 8 p.m., Noble Lounge
Several VCFA faculty work as scoring composers. Their combined experience in television, film, advertisement, and video games makes them a force to be reckoned with, and this evening is where their students—and others studying scoring—have a chance to shine.

Electronic Music Showcase
Monday, Feb. 5, 8 p.m., College Hall Gallery
This concert features all types of electronic music. It includes pieces built around electronically manipulated samples and soundscapes. It includes players performing alongside electronic sound and video. But it also includes electronic dance music. The incredibly breadth of musical styles embraced by the program really comes to the fore for this showcase—yet it all fits under the banner of “electronic music.”

Songwriting Showcase
Friday, Feb. 9, 8 p.m., College Hall Gallery
Café Anna offers a cash bar while VCFA students offer their heart and soul in the form of song. Like all VCFA events, the breadth here is staggering. Jazz shuffles and funk charts sit comfortably next to slide-guitar solos and even the occasional chant. This is one of the more relaxed events that the school offers, and yet it’s still a chance to see noteworthy composers and performers from across the country perform in a comfortable, intimate environment.

Renee Baker Took Flight in New Directions at VCFA

Renee Baker was already forging new paths in music by the time she came to VCFA. She had established herself as a strong musical force, with her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project. She went to the school seeking credentials to aid her in the cut-throat world of art music. And she found that. But she also found an environment that let her explore all of her wildest creative impulses—and an unexpected partnership that sent her off in a whole new direction.

“The teaching part of my life was long over,” Renee says. “I was 55 when I applied to this school. I don’t think they knew why I wanted to come here.” But Renee knew exactly why. “What you are purchasing is the affiliation, the ability to attach the identity of the business to your name. This is the be-all and end-all of what colleges are. When you go into it with that in mind, you go in trying to grab everything you can. It’s like the blue light special at Kmart. I’m taking my buggy and I’m grabbing as much as I can as fast as I can. That’s how I approached it.”

And she did grab everything. Renee was hoping to learn more about nontraditional notation, and more avant-garde methods of composition. “Everything I submitted was , but I knew when I came that I wanted to spend some time studying nontraditional notation. And that’s where I dove in feet-first, head-first, butt-first. Because I felt that was a safe environment to explore it in.”

She made friendships with her mentors that have lasted to this day. She credits her first mentor, Jonathan Bailey Holland, with setting the tone of the program for her. That first semester, she was working with a unique system of graphic scores—gorgeous, vividly painted works that guide performers through a piece under her guidance. These paintings don’t look anything like traditional music scores. She came in that first semester with 16 paintings, 19×30 each, as her piece to be performed. Jonathan found the unique approach interesting, and was eager to hear the results. Renee knew it was unorthodox.

“I said ‘I promise I won’t leave you with egg on your face. I know what I’m doing.’ And it was a huge hit and it kinda set the pace. After that, I felt free.” She cites Jonathan’s openness to exploration as a huge part of the program for her—perhaps even the most important part of the student/mentor relationship. Renee’s directness and clarity of vision are legendary, and Jonathan trusted that and let it flourish. She says, “VCFA meets the student wherever they are in their compositional life, and gives each student wings.”

Renee was tearing through new ideas at a speed all her own, staying up late and poring over rare scores and books in the library. But then a faculty member sought her out with a proposal she wasn’t expecting. Don DiNicola wanted her to score Body and Soul, a 1925 “race film” by Oscar Micheaux. She’d actually had producers pitch her the film before, and nothing had come of it. Don’s sincerity won her over, but she had a condition. She wasn’t going to try her hand at snippets or scenes. She was going to score the entire feature-length film. It was unheard of in the program and wildly ambitious for a six-month workload. But Don dove right in with her.

Renee’s scoring is bold work. Rather than rely on themes for individual characters, like you might see in a John Williams score, her music cuts straight to the heart of a scene’s emotional struggle. She goes past the surface-level interactions and into each character’s inner turmoil. “Don was really responsible for helping my ideas to crystallize. He’d send me pieces (of the film) in small batches and I’d send something back. It was that partnership that really helped formulate the truly abstract nature of how I think, and distill it into film scoring. That really is my nature. Don’t let the housewife disguise fool you.”

“This man taught me so much about how to look at film, how to look at what’s going on in the background, things that normal viewers don’t even see. He had me studying what was on the walls, the shoes they had on. The tables, and chairs, and then at the end of that process he said, ‘So you know you’re a film composer, right?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ He said, ‘You’re also a filmmaker. I listened to your comments, and everything you said, and you’re a filmmaker.’ I said, ‘Nah I don’t wanna make film.’ But now, of course I’ve got probably 20 experimental films in rotation. Because Don took the lid off and gave me permission. You can open something here. I came in really wanting to look at extremely contemporary classical music, and develop my vocabulary for graphic scores, and then meandered over the line, crossed the lane into the film scoring.”

At the time, Baker was working on an opera, Sunyata—another point of synchronicity with Don DiNicola. “I told him, ‘it’s about the time period after you’re pronounced dead, to the time that you’re actually gone.’ He said, ‘oh, you’re talking about the Bardos!’ Next thing I knew, Don gave me this fabulous translation of the Tibetan book of the dead, the source material my opera was based on.”

She was already talking to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago about producing the opera. But when they learned about her Body and Soul re-score, they jumped at the chance to premiere that, as well. It was a hit. And it sparked a massive jumping off point for Renee, who never does anything in half-measures.

“When I’m interested in something, I exhaust it before I move on. At this point now, I’ve probably scored over 150 silent films. I’ve actually developed 14 film festivals. I developed themes crossing all sorts of boundaries. Ethnic boundaries, geographical boundaries, and matched films that you normally would not see together. I took the first one to Indiana University last year. They did a four-film festival of my work. And that precipitated another invitation. I just got back from an almost two-week residency at Indiana. They wanted a score to The Scar of Shame, a 1927 silent, using the orchestra from the Jacob School of Music, interaction with people in the jazz department, lecturing on film and sound design to film classes and taking in my own experimental series into their Black Experimentalist classrooms. It was amazing. They said, ‘We need you to touch all the areas.’ I talked to composition students, film students, jazz students, orchestra students.”

She also puts on screenings locally with the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project

“It’s from an ugly period in our history, but didn’t Charlottesville just happen? It was such a challenge for me, and I put it in the can. Then Charlottesville happened, and when the ACLU called me, I said ‘I have just the vehicle.’ This is information. We need to see it. Especially in light of the fact that it was the first feature-length film shown in the White House. And Woodrow Wilson thought it was a masterpiece, with the KKK saving the white people from us. The score brings it to today.”

The film scoring has blown up in a big way for Renee. From her screenings in Chicago, to residencies at universities, to screening at film festivals across the world, it’s taken her already-booming career to new heights. She credits the combination of her self-starter attitude and VCFA’s openness.

“What impressed me was a comment Jonathan Bailey Holland made. He said, ‘This is your program.’ I am 2,000 percent a self-starter. I left there with nothing I wanted to explore left unexplored. Go knowing what you want to get out of a master’s-level program. For me, I wanted validation of concepts, of research, of exploring. I wanted it validated for a program of this time. This program left me open. There were no closed doors.”


You can stream and download tracks from the Chicago Modern Orchestra Project at their Bandcamp page here.
Renee’s website is here, and includes a store where you can check out her recent film work.

How Scott Barkan Rediscovered Himself at VCFA

Scott Barkan came to VCFA for the stability a master’s degree could offer, but he found a musical journey that helped him rediscover his passion for composition. His degree helped him land a university position that allows him time to compose, and gave him a rekindled flame for the music that he loves most.

Scott Barkan had always made a living playing guitar. He taught the occasional private lesson, but the bulk of his work came from touring and recording. He was a sought-after session player, and toured with the likes of Marian Call and Howard Fishman. For 20 years, it was enough. But a few years ago he’d started wondering what was next. “Assuming I don’t ever have a big break, and reach a point where I can expect to indefinitely sustain myself just playing guitar and writing songs, what else could I do? The only thing that really added up to me was teaching on a college level.”

But that meant pursuing a master’s degree. And Scott’s schedule kept him touring constantly. “I was also hoping to find a program in songwriting. And at the time there was only one, maybe two in the world, and they were both overseas. I did entertain it, and I did reach out to those schools, but ultimately I couldn’t do that.”

When he found VCFA, he was excited, but hesitant. “It seemed at the very least like the essence of what I was trying to find. I was very concerned about the legitimacy of the program, to be perfectly honest. But I gradually transitioned from highly skeptical to super excited about it during the first week, and it wound up being a great experience. It wound up being what I was hoping for it to be. I was able to get the degree without abandoning my current career, and I had an excuse, I had permission to dive deep into things I’d wanted to dive into. I couldn’t budget time for it earlier, but getting the degree meant ‘Well, I have to do this now.’ And that was great for me.”

His initial plan was simply to get credentialed to teach and get out, but he wound up finding more than just credentials. “I was prepared to go through the motions, in a way. But I wound up being very inspired by the process. I became excited about the creative potential as it went on.”

Over time, Scott had drifted from avant-garde, jazz-inspired work to more mainline pop songwriting. He’d long wanted to marry the two styles, but he hadn’t figured out how to do so. And he hadn’t really had time to devote to figuring it out. VCFA gave him that time. He started expanding once again from his pop style into something fuller. He moved from writing on his guitar to writing sheet music again, and found joy in the expansion of possibility that happens when you’re not just thinking about what’s easy to play on the instrument you’re writing for. He also learned a lot from his mentors. John Early and Don DiNicola helped him on the songwriting front, but he was most surprised by John Mallia, who challenged him often.

“I also feel that my work with John Mallia was pretty formative and instrumental for me. His area of expertise is incredibly broad. But the stuff he’s deeply into, that I knew nothing about as far as modern compositional ideas, really put my head in a different place than it ever has been. And his feedback was so far from my own thoughts about things. Just the way he phrases things, and looks at things, is so different from the way that pop music is structured that it helped me get my head out of that space.”

All of that culminated in a bold, multi-movement thesis piece with some pretty unorthodox instrumentation. “I think it’s my favorite thing I’ve ever written. But it’s extremely niche. That’s a piece that’s so tailored to my individual taste that I’m constantly surprised that anyone wants to listen to it. But for what I want to be doing, I love it.”

Scott’s latest record, Good at Goodbye, scratches the surface of that avant-garde streak as well, albeit in very subtle ways. “I think it’s present in a good portion of the new record…I think it still errs on the side of songs, but there’s certainly evidence of it in there. People have responded to it in that way, though, maybe more than I was thinking. I think I’m immune to what’s on there now since I’ve spent so much time with it. But most of the feedback I’ve gotten has been that it’s a more adventurous electric guitar record. Which is what I wanted. But I still think that there’s a long way to go between that and the thesis.

But most of those songs were written early in his time at VCFA, and he promises that he’s going to keep pushing boundaries—especially once he gets his feet under him at his new gig. Scott landed a teaching position at Rowan University almost immediately.

“It’s great. I feel like I’m amazingly lucky to have gotten this gig so fast. Certainly if I hadn’t gotten the degree, I wouldn’t have gotten the job. I got the gig within a week after graduating. Within a week, I was hired. Subsequently in my second year, I’ve been hired by two additional schools in the Philadelphia area. So obviously that would have been impossible.”

As it turns out, the program had some unique needs, and thanks to his VCFA experience, Scott was uniquely equipped to fulfill those needs. “A big part of it was that I was able to say that I specifically had a degree in songwriting. The director of the program that hired me basically said, ‘I didn’t know that was even a thing it was possible to have.’ So on the one hand, I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but on the other hand, if I had gotten the degree from another school that didn’t have that focus, it would’ve sent a different message to the department that was looking for a songwriter.”

The university has him teaching classes in songwriting, as well as courses on the business aspects of the music industry. But they also support his work in much the same way you’d expect a university to support a researcher. He’s still getting his feet under him, but he’s excited for the future. “At this point I wouldn’t say it has enabled much beyond stability, as far as musical output. But I think that is inevitably part of the future, and the reason to do this. This job was forgiving enough that I could go on tour for most of October (with Marian Call) and that not be an issue.”

“So once I get the learning curve out of the way, I see it as the perfect gig to support the other work that I want to be doing creatively. Which does take the pressure off of having to take any old gig. I hope to able be to put the energy I spent into just surviving into a meaningful, thoughtful creative process.”

Scott’s music is heart wrenching, emotionally honest, and bold. The emotional gut-punch that he achieved with his thesis piece was staggering. Scott is now armed with his renewed passion for bringing the weird back into everyday life in a palatable way. And he’s working a job that offers him the perfect combination of stability and freedom. Good at Goodbye is just the beginning, and we can’t wait for what’s next.


Kyle Pederson Gets Publication, Performance of New Work

August 2017 graduate Kyle Pederson has found success with his recent piece “Can We Sing the Darkness to Light”. The piece was recently performed by the prestigious St. Olaf Chapel Choir. St. Olaf is a premiere liberal arts college, particularly noted for their music program. The Chapel Choir is part of a long, grand tradition of choral music at St. Olaf’s, and performs for worship services, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival, and more. Their work has been broadcast nationally in cinemas, TV, and radio. You can watch the performance below:

In addition to the performance Walton Music has picked up the piece for publication. Walton Music was founded by Norman Luboff to publish his own works back in 1950. In publishing with them, Kyle joins a pantheon of composers that includes the likes of Ola Gjeilo and Eric Whitacre.

Music represents a second life for Pederson. He began working as a teacher, before founding a company called Learner’s Edge, dedicated to helping teachers improve their craft. With Learner’s Edge a success, he transitioned away from managing the company and into full-time composition. He has already developed a reputation for his gorgeous harmonies and canny marriage of music to text. This publication is sure to be just the first of many. You can hear more of his work here.

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.

How Richard Tuttobene Found His Voice at VCFA

After decades scoring TV and film, Richard Tuttobene wanted more. He wanted to be himself. His craftsmanship and drive had kept him working since 1989. But after years of chasing an artistic satisfaction he just couldn’t find, he turned to VCFA.

Richard has had a strong career. His music has shown up on ESPN documentaries, and in the feature film After Image, with John Mellencamp and Louise Fletcher. He was also the go-to composer for Tollin/Robbins Productions, which means that he scored a ton of classic Nickelodeon shows from the ‘90s. All That, Kenan & Kel, and The Amanda Show all featured music by Tuttobene.

Outside of film, he’s accomplished as a jazz performer, composer, and arranger and New York studio pianist, having played on many commercials and records. Hal Leonard has published several of Richard’s jazz band arrangements, orchestral arrangements, over 20 jazz piano transcription books of the recordings of Bill Evans, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, and Herbie Hancock, to name a few, and his composition “Tuzz’s Shadow” was a mainstay of Steely Dan tours for years.

But part of the scoring business means being asked to ape other composers, and he found himself having to do that more and more. He spent a lot of time riffing on classic themes for comedy sketches. He was taking cues from directors who wanted their score to sound like whatever composer was hip that year. Richard was paying the bills with his art, and being heard in millions of homes. But he wasn’t really doing what felt right to him.

Around this time, Richard started noticing a trend in films like There Will Be Blood and Birdman. Auteur directors were seeking composers with unique voices. They were using music to enhance the mood of a film, without hammering on the plot beats the way a traditional score does. Richard felt he had it in him to be a concert composer first, and a media scorer second. “There’s an authenticity there,” he says. “There’s a freedom for these composers.” It was exactly the approach he’d always wanted to take, and he could see that it was about to have its moment in the spotlight. But after years of being asked to mimic others, he wondered what his own, authentic voice sounded like—or whether he even had one.

Richard was looking at getting a composition teacher, when a friend pointed him toward VCFA. To this day, he remembers the conversations that he had with Sarah Madru when he called. “It was intriguing how well she understood what I was saying, and the openness and the care in the conversation about what might be good for me.” After some long conversations, he decided to give the school a shot. “It wasn’t until I got there that I really realized the magnitude of how idyllic it was. I’ve been doing this for many years; I’ve grown very careful about how my time was spent. But this sounded like it would be perfect for me.”

His very first advisor was John Fitz-Rogers, who immediately introduced him to new ways of conceiving a new piece. “He has a very methodical approach, the approach of a serious concert composer.” Fitz-Rogers advised him to plan things out non-musically first—to figure out the story you’re telling in a graph for instance. Then start writing it out, but be free about it. Don’t worry about bar lines, or tempos. If you only have pitches, or only have rhythms, don’t worry about the other piece yet.

It took five weeks for Richard to overcome being “terrified” at trying to do things this way, but when he showed Fitz-Rogers what he had, his advisor was supportive. “I’d gingerly show him something and he gave it permission. He validated that it could be something that could work, could be meaningful.” And when Richard stressed about veering from the plan, Fitz-Rogers told him “Nobody follows the plan. The plan sets the stage for the beginning of the process, but then the music tells you where it wants to go.” It changed the way Richard composes. Even when he’s facing deadlines, he finds that Fitz-Rogers’s methods of planning a piece produces results. It changed the way he saw himself, too. Even though he’s been composing professionally since 1989, he says “Working with John was the beginning of my accepting of myself as a composer,” he says, “and believing that I had what it takes.”

Richard describes the process as a journey of continual discovery—both of himself and his teachers, who always hold more depth than you really have time to uncover during a residency. “You work with them, or you listen to their lectures, and you realize the breadth of knowledge and experience with all the faculty is very wide, and enormous. So one of the things I almost regret is, I wish the program was longer, so you could work with every one of those advisors. Because there’s a real wealth there.”

But did VCFA help Richard meet the goal he set himself? He thinks so. “I came out of it with a lot more courage, and a lot more investment in the music itself, rather than sculpting the music to fit what I think will work in the business. I’ve started trying to approach things from a more organic place, and in consideration of my voice instead of what someone else would do in my situation.”

It’s started getting him noticed. “One of the people on the board of directors for the Roger Wagner chorale has heard the concert music that I did at VCFA. They’ve been around since the early 1900s. They’ve toured all over the world, and now they’re looking at becoming less traditional, and performing more cutting-edge, progressive concert works.” They asked Richard to arrange a Japanese song for their tour of Japan and Korea. “I’ve been trying to maintain the integrity and character of it, but doing it through my own voice. Which is more of a challenge, but from what they’ve heard so far, it’s what they want. They want my voice.”

He’s also noticing strong reactions from his friends in the television world, as he sends them cues that he describes as a departure from what he was doing before VCFA. “I’m getting very good reactions, so relying on my own creativity is definitely starting to attract some attention.”

It may be paying dividends, but Richard isn’t slowing down any time soon. “Once you fall in love with your work, you’re kinda screwed. If you start thinking, ‘Oh, this is a beautiful, wonderful thing,’ you stop questioning. And it can lead to complacency. You say ‘I know how to hit this scene; I’ll just hit it,’ instead of asking how it can work better.” His work ethic brought him to and through VCFA, and it won’t fail him now.

To listen to selections of Richard’s music, visit this page.

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.