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.

 

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.

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.