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Composer / Prankster Richard Ford

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In this article, Houston musician and writer Joel Luks writes about the Houston Heights Orchestra and new music in Houston. For the article, he interviewed me along with Artistic Director and conductor Jaemi Loeb.

Link to the original article:


Moving past the dead guys in wigs: Heights Orchestra turns Houston into a new music hotspot

04.15.12 | 07:04 am

Everyone, music lovers or not, knows how Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 unfolds. Whether the opening is thought of as “short-short-short-long” or fate knocking at the door, which is how the composer branded the C minor four-note motif, no one questions how it goes.

That’s not so apparent when it comes to music that hasn’t been heard often, or at all, for both listeners, performers and composers — and there’s much to be learned from the dialogue that emerges from tackling a shiny new partiture.

Houston Heights Orchestra artistic director Jaemi Blair Loeb knows this too well. The one-year-old neighborhood ensemble hasn’t shied away from programming new music, but she’s not stopping there.

With composer-in-residence Richard Ford, Loeb has established the New Music Project.

The initiative opens opportunities for homegrown, national and international composers to have their works read live. While composers are otherwise subjected to the synthesized sounds of their digital music notation software and accompanying sound samplers, seeing how artists in the flesh react and interpret what’s on the page is invaluable.

“If you want your music to be played, the score has to be legible from the onset, ” Ford explains. “When performers and conductors don’t understand what they are supposed to do, frustration sets in and they move on to something more familiar.

“We all have a responsibility to share what we create, as sharing is an inherent part of creation,” Ford says.

“We have more patience for Brahms because we know Brahms.”

A call for scores was posted on the orchestra’s website and broadcast through social media channels. The grassroots effort pulled in compositions from local artists as well as some from Spain, Canada, Arizona and California. The pieces ranged from massive Wagnerian-type oeuvres to aleatoric compositions to chamber works. Some were in progress, others had been premiered.Richard-ford-composer-Jaemi-loeb-work-score-Bolts

A Rare Chance

Bulgarian-born, Canadian-based composer Alexandra Fol, whose creations have been programmed by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Sofia Symphony Orchestra and the McGill Symphony, learned about the project through LinkedIn, and after a few email exchanges with Loeb sent in her Kaléidoscope d’une bourgade de montagne and SICS [Objective] Intermezzi. The reading was videotaped and mailed back.

Although SICS [Objective] Intermezzi has been performed by the thingNY ensemble, the CYE Ensemble in Sweden and awaits the Austrian premiere by Neues Atelier and soprano Clio Montrey, she wanted to further explore how her music, which includes invented notation, was received by amateur musicians.

Smaller ensembles host readings and performances of contemporary music, she says. To do so with a larger orchestra is a more difficult endeavor.

“Orchestras feature such initiatives more seldomly because of economic constraints and elevated rental, commissioning and/or copyediting costs,” Fol explains. “A semi-professional orchestra organizing such an event constitutes a rare treat for composers who, like me, wish to appeal to professional and amateur musicians alike.”

“Ultimately, we are interested in composers that are interested in us,” Loeb says.

For locals like Bob McCauley, the chance to lead a rehearsal in a relaxed setting offers insight into what works, what doesn’t and what has the intended outcome. His Wind Sketch, an excerpt from his Shards of Colour, tested the sight reading chops of horn player Erin Schilling and clarinetist Jennifer Dennison.

“Ultimately, we are interested in composers that are interested in us,” Loeb says. “We want to encourage conversation around the reading sessions so that the orchestra develops a relationship with the composer and the composer connects with the musicians.”

Loeb finds Houston audiences receptive to new sounds, which hasn’t been her experience in other major cities. Local presenting art groups like the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, Musiqa, Nameless Sound andFoundation for Modern Music have set a strong precedent of moving away from tunes by dead composers wearing white wigs. Beyond that, the DJ scene is increasingly interested in contemporary music influences.

This cross pollination of genres and a lack of listening baggage morphs Houston into a new music hot spot, she says.

Houston Heights Orchestra’s grand finale concert, set for 3 p.m. Sunday at All Saints Catholic Church, includes the world premiere of Ford’s Bolts of Memory, which sets lines from Emily Dickinson’s poetry. During rehearsals, he reshaped the way he communicated his ideas to balance the competing demands of “his perfect abstract vision” with the physical task of the musicians at hand.

“We all have a responsibility to share what we create, as sharing is an inherent part of creation, ” Ford says.

“It was part of my journey as well as tonal basis for my composition.”

Houston Heights Orchestra season finale concert is set for 3 p.m. Sunday at All Saints Catholic Church. Admission is free, donations will be accepted at the door. On the program: Saint-Saëns’s Tarentelle for Flute, Clarinet and Orchestra with flutist Antonia Rogers and clarinetist Jennifer Dennison, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Richard Ford’s Bolts of Memory.



Upcoming Projects and Performances

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Just announced: Bolts of Melody will receive its second performance of 2012 at 3 p.m. on November 18 at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Maestra Jaemi Loeb will again be conducting, this time with the Centre College Orchestra and professional singers from the area. Keep an eye out for the Kickstarter campaign we’ll be doing to support the singers (we’ll post a link as soon as it’s available). Richard will be speaking to film students and composition students at the college.

The lyrics for Bolts of Melody are now available in a PDF here: Bolts of Melody lyrics.



What do we really hear?

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Of late, I’ve started grappling with and rethinking composing. Looking at it from two angles has freed up my process and helped me write a lot more music in a shorter period of time. First is the idea that a piece be fun for me (radical idea!) and second that what people hear listening to music is actually very straightforward. We’ll look at each in more detail soon.

Alan Belkin is one of the more effective writers I’ve found on teaching composition. His ideas on “what we hear” inspired this post and can be found at this link.

When you listen to a piece of music, what do you hear? How do you follow what’s happening? What impacts your enjoyment of it? As a teaching tool, we can look at popular music. A popular song could be defined as one that effectively entertains a large, non-homogenous set of people. This week, the #3 song overall is “Set Fire to the Rain” by Adele.

When listening to Adele’s song, several things become clear right away.

#1 Distinctive repeated piano part

We hear the piano alone at the top of the song. It’s a nice figure with some syncopation and a solid progression, but it isn’t at all amazing. The piano line is a nice piece of commercial composing.

Adele starts the lyric with a bit of sound design to set up our ear and the drums join in with her entrance. The verses of the lyric are good and entertaining. We can tell here her intent is to deliver the lyric, the melody is an appetizer.

The arrangement does a pro job of adding elements and the piano continues for the first minute. When the piano stops for the first time it only drops out to prepare us for the hook.

#2 Memorable title line

Right at 1:00 we get the main course of the song. Adele delivers the title line and chorus. It’s the first big moment of the song. It’s distinctive, you won’t confuse it with any other song. (You can hear a lot of musical influences in it!) She uses the heart of her vocal range and several memorable melodic techniques that combine effectively with the simple, full accompaniment. The chorus has more than enough interest to encourage repeated listenings while maintaining a straight-forward simplicity that makes it a sing-along moment.

We feel like we’ve arrived which is crucial for any “main theme,” classical or otherwise.

#3 Steady building of the energy level

Adele keeps the song building and layering by alternating between verse sections featuring the piano and the bold chorus. While the volume remains constant (typical for popular song) the texture and energy level keeps building. We can note that it isn’t a straight-line build. The music and arrangement ebb and flow creating interest and tension/release as we go.

To have some fun with these concepts listen to a brilliant #1 song from 2009, Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.”



Great Composers Course

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You’ve discovered you actually like some classical music. Now what? What should you listen to next? How do you tell what’s playing on the radio? How do you know one composer from the next? How can you enjoy the music you hear more?

I have good news! All these questions can be easily answered, and with a little bit of time put in, you can dramatically increase your enjoyment and knowledge of classical music. And in this seven-step course, I’m going to show you how to do that and how to start a journey into great music that can provide a lifetime of fun and discovery.



Houston Heights Orchestra to Present Premiere

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The Houston Heights Orchestra, under the baton of Artistic Director Jaemi Loeb, will present the premiere of Ford’s Bolts of Melody featuring words and music by Richard Ford after poetry by Emily Dickinson.

click here for the HHO site

Sunday, April 15, 3:00 pm
All Saints Catholic Church, 215 E. 10th St.

FREE CONCERT featuring a world premiere work by Composer-in-Residence, Richard Ford


The concert will also feature Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.



Piano Adventures for Beginners Now Available

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Do you teach piano to beginners?

Are you a beginner yourself? Are you looking for new music that is fun to play and sounds contemporary? Are you looking for something that is fun and challenging? Piano Adventures for Beginners is a new eBook of ten short pieces for beginning piano students.

Sandy Holland, Piano Teacher,, writes:
“The Piano Adventures for Beginners are lovely, approachable pieces for beginning pianists.”

Do you always need more pieces for your beginner piano students? Here they are!

Are your students into more than just classical sounding music?

Are you wanting to give them more variety?

click here to hear the pieces and download your free sheet music

The inspiration for these pieces

Richard wrote these pieces to play for his 2 year-old son. He’s a “stay-at-home” Dad combining a busy composing career with bringing up his son Thomas. He’s now making these Piano Adventures available to you and your students.

Richard Ford writes:
“I’ve really discovered the joy of simple, fun music for
beginners after years of writing challenging ‘adult’ music.”

Thomas explores the piano

Thomas explores the piano

Why spend an hour hunting in a music store for something new when you can download new music instantly?

And it’s guaranteed to print perfectly on your printer!

Piano Adventures for Beginners by Richard Ford contains 10
piano pieces composed especially for beginners, designed to
keep beginner and intermediate students engaged and teach
fundamental keyboard concepts.

Robin Madden, Mom from Stillwater, OK writes:
“…your music is PERFECT for my eldest son! He was turning 14 last May and asked for a keyboard for his birthday and has been teaching himself how to play by ear. He really has done amazingly well. My concern
for him is while the ear is wonderful, it only gets you so far and you need to understand how to read music.
All of the beginner music (Mary had a little lamb stuff) didn’t interest him and I couldn’t get him to sit
down and even look at it. Your music is contemporary and challenging and fun! He really likes the way it flows and I think the thing he loves the most is that it doesn’t SOUND like beginner stuff. I’ve already told several of my piano playing friends to check you out!!!! 😀 Have a GREAT day!!”

Your students will appreciate the fresh sounds and unique characteristics of each piece!



Time Keeps on Ticking, Ticking, Ticking

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I’ve been stuck. Since getting back from the highSCORE Festival in Italy, my composing output has not been quite what I wanted. There’s been a big gap between the amount of time I want to spend composing and the amount of time I have spent composing. Now gaps can be useful: that’s how I know how it’s going. In the past, I would have beat myself up for the gap and for always falling short of my goals. Now, I see the gap as an opportunity to have it all.

I know I’m responsible for how I spend my time. When I was younger, I felt at the mercy of whatever job was telling me how to spend my time. Now I have a trickier dilemma, I love my biggest time investments: my son Thomas and my wife Donna. I love spending time with them. And I’m committed to the goals I’ve set as a composer. What there is is for me to take responsibility that I have these time demands, all of which bring me joy and fulfillment.

Seeing that I’m responsible for my schedule, I’ve now had conversations with Donna about how to carve out more time for composing. Now we’ve got a plan and a budget for it. I had a conversation with Thomas too, and he promises to give a nap a try every afternoon. No guarantees how long he’ll be napping, of course.



Composition Can Be Taught

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Can you teach composition? There are some definitive opinions from historically important composers, and I don’t necessarily agree. You can teach someone to compose and even compose well. You can’t teach someone to be Stravinsky. You also can’t set out to be Stravinsky or Mozart or Beethoven. It just doesn’t work. Wynton Marsalis has a great article on this that I’ll quote from too.

You can teach a Stravinsky to be him or herself. Soon, I will share some more details and some ideas on how to start composing or improve your composing. There are a lot of terrific composers right now. As I pursue building my craft, I’m going to share thoughts and techniques on this blog. Comment and let me know what you are interested in.

Two teachers I learned a lot from this summer, Chris Theofanidis and Amy Kirsten. Pictured here at the highSCORE Music Festival in Italy. Festivals are a great way to develop yourself by the way. They can also be a lot of fun!



Pencils and Paper

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Last night I found myself in a hotel room with music to write. Over the years this has happened a lot. In this day and age what to do as a composer on the road. I have my laptop, of course, and it is stuffed with music programs. I also have paper and a pencil.

For years, I used a great soft lead pencil, the Blackwing 602. You can search and find a lot of nostalgia for the Blackwing and a lot of frustration at trying to replace it. Now, I use a mechanical pencil from Koh-i-noor. It’s designed for drawing and is pretty good although not as well-suited for composing as the Blackwing. I’ve got a box of Blackwings left but I don’t use them that much even at home.

On the paper front, it’s really depressing. I carry a moleskin music pad. It’s actually awful. I also carry a Pasantino concert manuscript and some photocopied 11×17 pages folded in half. The 11×17 is from a long out of business publisher. I have 2 or 3 original sheets given to me by a composition teacher in 1987. The problem with photocopies or with any printed from my computer paper is that the paper really isn’t substantial and doesn’t help the pencil shortcomings. Heavier papers contribute to a boldness that is satisfying.

Do you use pencil and paper anymore? Non-composers, do you write things out before the computer gets involved? Do you mind-map? Who has a favorite pencil?