Sunday, July 17, 2011

Monterey Mirror

Here's one of my latest collaborations with the College of Charleston Computer Science Department, developing an interactive music generating system. The video part of the interview follows:

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Theodore, the Great

I came across this video on Youtube the other day:

John Thow used to call Theodore Antoniou "a force of nature". If a picture's worth a thousand words, how about a video?
This one is from 1975, and it's a great document to Theodore's amazing energy and charisma on the podium. But there's so much more to him. Theodore is an extremely prolific composer, a dedicated teacher, a visionary administrator, a pioneer, a patriarch, and a tireless advocate of new music. He has literally created and maintained the new music scene in Greece single-handedly, not only by defining compositionally a sound that is uniquely his, one that has captivated such musical giants as Bernstein, Ligeti and Messiaen (not to mention, imitated by virtually every young Greek composer since the 60's) but also by forming ensembles, finding funds, conducting something like a hundred concerts a year, serving in almost every committee, awarding prizes, commissioning works. He did the same in Boston, where he founded and still leads Alea III, and for close to 30 years, he would be on a plane between Athens and Boston every week, leading a "double life", maintaining projects, students, scores and apartments in both cities, never missing a beat.

I met Theodore in 2000, and since then he's been a constant part of my life. He has commissioned and premiered more than half of my works composed since then, and has offered his friendship, guidance, advice and unconditional warmth. I have to admit that Theodore makes me feel old. His energy, work ethic, enthusiasm and the way with which he dives head-first into life would put anyone to shame, and whenever I spend time with him, I leave with renewed enthusiasm and energy, because his zest is contagious.

In the past couple of years, since Theodore retired from his Boston University post, he has been spending most of his time in Athens, without showing any signs of slowing down or taking it easy in any way, where he has recently been joined by his son, William, another apple-falls-under-the-tree case of a talented young composer. I got to see him on a regular basis while living in Paris, since flying to Athens was easy and I never missed a chance to spend time with the maestro.
The typical evening will start with a drink at his rooftop atelier, decorated with a grand piano as the centerpiece, during the course of which, the doorbell will ring several times, revealing a cast of "usual suspects" from the who-is-who of musicians, artists, theatre people or writers, and gradually make its way to Theodore's favorite dining spot, just steps away from the apartment, to a modest but very distinguished taverna he has been frequenting since the 60's. He'll order food for the whole table, and he'll usually "pinch" a french-fry from your plate, since he's not allowed to eat fried food himself, and "eating it off of someone else's plate doesn't count..." . Trying to pick up the check with him is not a task for the faint-at-heart. All it takes is a nod from across the room, and you're toast trying to sneak a better tip into the waiter's pocket. Then, he'll usually retire first, before even the dinner is over, always leaving on a high note, always having something to get up very early for.

Theodore has a unique talent of making friends, and he's always surrounded by them, new and old. He's friends with everyone, from cleaners to prime ministers, and strolling down the street with him always takes much longer than you thought it would, because of all the people he stops and talks to, whether it's Athens, or downtown Boston.

Since being back in the States, I haven't been able to see him in person, but Theodore is always present, and I'll get an email from him at the most incredible times, never missing a beat.

I'm sending him this video, and wish him many many more.

Friday, April 11, 2008

mentors passing...

The unfortunate and untimely passing of Jorge Liderman a few months ago was the latest addition to the list of music mentors of mine that are no longer with us. I guess it's the natural order of things for a teacher to make way for the younger generation, but it seems to me that all of these exceptional people left too soon, and either way, one never quite gets used to it. I want to take a moment and reflect upon each one of these people dear to me, and share a story or two that may give a sense of who they were to those who never met them, and help those close to them remember them with a smile.

I'll start with my first music teacher, Antonis Danas (1930-1987). He was a close friend of my father's and a choral conductor, trained in the military band education program of post WWII Greece. He also played Contrabass, and I remember his bass, which was the largest instrument I ever saw as a kid and wondered how big do one's hands have to be to play that thing! He directed the local amateur adult choir in Crete where I grew up, in which both my parents sang. He was always coming around our house, and when I expressed interest in learning the guitar around age 5, he took it upon himself to teach me music notation, theory and solfege for free, since he was a friend. This was a double-edge sword, because on one hand it saved my father tuition money, but at the same time, it meant that I had to work extra hard, never miss lessons or go under-prepared, and never quit!
And he was a mean one...
In the European music training tradition, teachers used to employ methods that today would border abuse. And his own military musical background only made it worse. He would literary scream at me when I got pitches wrong in solfege, or screw up my homework on intervals or key signatures. At the same time, he deeply cared and gave me the most thorough background I could ever hope for. He would go as far as writing in longhand in my notebook what today would need to be in a book. I still have these notebooks with his exquisite penmanship, describing in detail how to go about finding a relative minor key, with diagrams on how to conduct 7/8 (yes, while singing solfege in fixed Do, I had to conduct the music as well). When I later decided to move away in order to pursue music seriously, he made sure I went to the right conservatory in Athens, and kept up with my progress, always steering my way toward what he thought was best for me. He passed away of a heart attack while hiking in the Cretan countryside, too far from medical help.

My next important teacher was Amarandos Amarantides (1947-1995). I was actually "sent" to him to be his student by Danas. Upon my arrival in Athens I went with my father to meet this man who was to be my next teacher at his beautiful house in Plaka (the district right below the Parthenon), where he kept a studio. He met us with a smile, and made me and (most importantly) my father feel at ease with him right away. I was to study harmony, counterpoint and fugue with him, and, "if I was good enough", composition. At the time he had just published his 3 volumes of educational books on the study of harmony and counterpoint, which I still use in my own teaching, and he seemed to me larger than life, sitting in front of his piano with a pipe permanently fixed in his mouth. After settling our lesson plan, he asked my father if I had found an apartment, and when my father said I hadn't yet, he said he had a place downtown that was furnished and vacant, and that he would be willing to let me stay there for about half of what seemed to be the going rate at the time. I was thrilled, because that meant I wouldn't have to stay with relatives, and I would be independent.
Amarantides was a great musician and a legendary teacher in those days. Having studied in Paris, he brought back and shared with his students a rigorous and very disciplined kind of training. We met once a week, on Tuesday mornings, and I would usually stay up all of Monday nights trying to get my harmony and counterpoint exercises to work. He coached me to take what was at the time the accredited exam for the Music Theory Certificate, which I passed with flying colors. He was also the first one to show me how serial composition worked. He was composing piano pieces in a free, tonally gravitated serial style, and he would play those for me, asking if I heard the tonal centers clearly. I studied with him up until I left for the US in 1989. When I went back to Athens for a visit in 1992, I called his house from a phone booth nearby, expecting to hear his voice inviting me to "come on up". Instead, his wife answered the phone and told me that they were divorced and that he was battling a very mean type of cancer. When he answered the number she gave me to dial, he sounded happy to hear my voice, asked me about what kind of samplers I had in the States to compose for film, and politely declined to see me, without mentioning his illness. I was never to speak with him after that.

Don Brandon Ray (1926-2005) was teaching Film Scoring at UCLA extension when we met in 1992. I had already started composing film scores, and his Composing & Conducting to Picture course seemed like a good way for me to gain some experience and fill in whatever blanks my formal education had left me with. We hit it off right away. As soon as he walked in the first class meeting he came straight to me (a total stranger at the time, but not for long) and said: "don't believe anything these guys tell you", pointing at the rest of the class, who I guess, had taken more classes with him before. Don was an experienced practical musician, and we had many great conversations, since he loved literature and art, and he seemed to face life with such grace. He told me early on that he thought I should be a conductor, and he referred me to conduct several film sessions for composers who could not conduct, which gave me a lot of experience on the podium, conducting extremely skilled musicians. I remember how much he loved his wife Laurel, and how at ease he was with everyone, not to mention his stories about the old days at CBS, and meeting Stravinsky. Don was a true friend, and we kept in touch after I moved to Berkeley, but I was in Paris when he passed away and I didn't find out about it until much later.

Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004) needs no introduction. His film scores are legendary, and he redefined himself as a composer with every score he wrote. Although I had attended several of his talks, most of them at UCLA, I didn't get to meet him until the very last few years of his life, when he taught regularly at the Music Department. Our first encounter was at a Masterclass, in which I played for him a few of my scores. He had great things to say, and we ended up talking for almost 30 minutes after the class. But we really got close a semester later, in his Film Composition seminar, which met every Thursday. We talked about music mostly, and he kept asking me about odd meters and how I thought of them from the perspective of Greek folk music, since he had always used them in his scores, so after one of many long discussions on the subject, he proclaimed: "I think I have Greek blood in me too!", and in his next score (the 13th Warrior) he used a bouzouki (folk Greek instrument) though it had nothing to do with the theme of that movie. He challenged me to use as many odd meters as possible for the final project of the course (scoring a long action scene from the Mummy), provided I could conduct it. We recorded the score with the UCLA Philharmonia, and I did just fine, which was sort of like passing the final test with Jerry. We met for lunch several times after the course was over until I moved away from L.A. I will miss Jerry, and I'm not the only one.

John Thow (1949-2007) was truly one of the most intelligent people I ever met. He had the most refined sense of humor I've come across, and he could talk about anything. He was on sabbatical the first year I came to Berkeley, so when he came back I hesitantly introduced myself to him, convinced he would not know who I was. Not only did he know me, but he seemed to remember all the music I had submitted in my graduate school application, with astonishing details. We must have spent close to an hour talking in the hallway. I went on to study with him extensively, and he chaired my qualifying doctoral exam, closely following my work and progress. When Theodore Antoniou came to the Bay area in 2004, as my guest to attend the premiere of a work commissioned by the Worn Chamber Ensemble, he came over to our apartment for dinner, during which he made another close friend out of my wife in a matter of minutes. John could talk about anything to anyone in great detail, and his knowledge of poetry, literature and art was almost encyclopedic.
While in Paris, I kept in close touch with him, and he would often call me and talk for hours, never thinking twice about the price of those phone calls.

It was during my visit to Berkeley in March of 2007, towards the end of my stay in Paris that this strange turn of events took place. The purpose of my trip was to attend he premiere of my dissertation piece for orchestra. I , of course, called John as soon as I landed and we spent the entirety of what was to be his last day together. We had a three hour lunch, followed by an equally long conversation over coffee, and then went to the dress rehearsal of my piece together. He wanted to follow the score, so I gave him my only copy to look at. During the orchestra's break, I left momentarily to go to the recording booth to stop the running tape that was recording the rehearsal, and when I came back to the Hall, John was gone. I figured he was tired and left, but still it seemed strange that he never said good bye. As it turns out, he went home, where he collapsed and rushed to the hospital, where he passed away soon after. We didn't think of anything at the time, because he was supposed to be away for the weekend, so the bad news came on Sunday afternoon. The shock was astonishing, as was what followed, which was a proposal to me by the Music Department to take over Thow's classes mid-semester, which I did. The whole thing still feels very strange because during our last meeting, John kept telling me to move back to the bay area, where there would definitely be work for me, a statement that seemed very strange at the time. He was right though.

Jorge Liderman 's (1957-2008) death (an apparent suicide) was probably the biggest shock we've ever had in the Music Department at Berkeley, less than a year after Thow's untimely passing. Jorge never burdened anyone with his personal issues, yet it appears that he was struggling with severe depression, a fact one would have never deducted by interacting with him. Jorge was a very talented composer, very successful in reaching wide audiences and very celebrated with performances and commissions from all over the world. I studied with him composition privately for a year, and also took fugue with him. I had also worked with him in preparing scores and parts for many of his pieces, including his last piece furthermore. A gentle and quiet man, Jorge also had a very interesting way of provoking thoughts and discussions, even controversy without losing his demeanor. Our last interaction was a few days before his passing, when he eagerly filled in teaching my 20th century harmony class, while i was on a business trip. I hope he has found peace where he is now.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

film scores then and now...

On December 7 and 8, 2007 David Milnes conducted my score to David Green's short film the Flyer at Hertz Hall. The Berkeley University Symphony performed the score live to an overhead projection of the film. I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the film scoring process and on film music in general. 

First of, this is a unique situation. The film maker provided me with a first-rate film to work with, which was not generally the case during my years as a film composer in Hollywood. David Green proved to be a very intelligent, sensitive, resourceful  and responsive collaborator, and despite his very young age, he had the wisdom to not micro-manage the composing process. This gave me tremendous freedom and confidence to do my part as best as possible. I agreed to score the film on one condition: that we would use an orchestral score, regardless of what and how long it took. This meant that I also was free of insane deadlines ( I have composed entire scores in the past in as little as a week), as we had to follow the orchestra's schedule to record, which also meant rehearsals (another non-entity in Hollywood). It took a little over two years to get the orchestra's and the conductor's schedules in sync with my own (in the meantime I finished my PhD and studied in Paris for two years). Finally, it all came together at the beginning of the Fall semester, and we got the green light. 
I actually took the time to completely re-write the score, since what was originally planned as a recording session/reading became essentially a concert suite. So, what was originally a set of short cues, meant to be conducted by using click-tracks, became a 10+ minute piece for orchestra, which David Milnes conducted with no synchronization aids, just by learning the movie and following it. The musicians got to practice and learn the score, and they all got mp4 files of the film, so they knew exactly how their parts fit in with the dramatic unfolding of the film. This is far from a real-world situation!
The score itself, though at times referential to what one would expect a film score to sound like, can actually stand as an autonomous piece of its own, and since it's the only audio element in the movie (no dialogue, no sound FX), it becomes the voice of the characters. So, I chose not to merely comment on the visual action (sometimes referred to as "Mickey-mouse music" in Hollywood), but to actually create a parallel narrative. Since the nature of the movie is quite complex, and the main character constantly torn and uncertain about his life choices, I wrote a score that also works in several layers at once. Instead of using the music to guide the viewer emotionally, I chose to make it even more of a personal experience for the viewer, who has to make sense of it all in his/her own way.

The result is not up to me to judge, but it was received very well, and Hertz Hall was full both nights. If that's the measure of success, I guess the whole thing worked. David Milnes did an amazing job, as always, of materializing my quite complex orchestral ideas, and making it look easy. The University Symphony is better than ever, and the musicians gave their all.  I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

Here's the blog of an audience member: