Composers' Forum

Music Composers Unite!

Hello everyone-

I could tell you about my various careers as clarinetist, pianist, and composer, when I performed up and down the Eastern seaboard of the United States and had my music premiered around the world.  But I'd rather tell you about two things that changed my life and have continued to define my musical world.

About twenty-five years ago I was standing in line at Lowes, when a 90 year old composer came on the wide screen t.v. above the check out counter.  He was practically in tears, as he heard his music played for the first time.  He had been composing all his life, but had never had a piece performed.  For his 90th birthday his family hired an orchestra to play some of his pieces.  There I was at Lowes, the tears streaming down my face, folks in line urging me to move on, when I made a promise to myself - Every deserving composer in my world would have his/her music performed.  I would devote myself to the composers and performers and to bringing their music to life and to a wider audience.

A few years later I bought Olivier Messiaen's book "The Technique of My Musical Language" which became my prized possession.  I spent all my waking hours poring over this book, written by one of the most generous and original composers of the 20th century.  Word got out about this rather strange woman who was always studying Messiaen on the village green, and talking about Messiaen to anyone who would listen, and giving Messiaen CDs to everyone she knew.  The next thing I knew the most incredibly talented and eager students were knocking on my door. 

Now, twenty years later, my composition studio is the most joyous and creative place imaginable.  Here's an example.  We were working on ear training and music dictation.  The point was to think of a piece that "everybody knows" and write it down.  The three students were brothers, aged 6, 8 and 10.  They are violinists and violists as well as composers.  I suggested "Mary Had a Little Lamb".  They had never heard of it.  "How about 'Are You Sleeping, Brother John'?"  Blank looks.  I tried every nursery rhyme, jazz standard, hymn, campfire song I could think of.  They didn't know any of them.  "Well, what is a song that everyone knows?"  I asked.  "The Bach Double," said the 10 year old.  "Everybody knows that."  And the three brothers started singing it, in parts, then grabbed pencils and staff paper and started transcribing it.

Welcome to my world, where music and magic and magnificence are always weaving new tapestries!

Here's an article about writing a piece for a Composers Forum competition several years ago:

And here's more about my studio:

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There used to be an incredibly wonderful website where all his techniques were explained and illustrated, with many musical examples.  It seems to be gone now.  What a loss.

Hi Julie--I think the link below might hopefully be what you were referring to.

Thanks Bob

Hi Julie -

Well I certainly don't know more than you do!  And I didn't know Per Norgard but I did enjoy listening to his 3rd Symphony, a very interesting work. It's hard to picture beautiful music being generated from mathematical forms, I always suspect the composer intervenes to guide the process, but Norgard's ideas come from a place not accessible to me so I can't say.

Denmark sounds like an impossible fantasy; my neighbors will definitely not be looking anywhere for anything more serious than the CMA awards anytime soon, but that's probably typical for most places I think.

Is the Sound Canvas recording you mentioned done by Norgard himself?  We tend to think of actual recordings of live musicians as inherently superior to digital technology, but it's only a matter of time until that's no longer true.

Thanks again for the listening suggestion.

Julie Harris said:

Hello Ingo-

Thanks for your kind words!

My list of "Essential Listening" would take an entire lifetime to hear it all, as it has indeed taken most of my past 50 years!  I tend to fall in love with a piece or a composer and then spend months or years delving deeper into it.  You probably know most of the composers and pieces I love most.  In fact you probably know more than I do, since I tend to go deep rather than wide.

I wonder if you know Per Nørgård?  A dozen or so years ago he was my passion.  I studied everything of his I could find, especially the first movement of his Third Symphony.  One of the highlights of my life so far was the day the score for the Nørgård Third arrived in the mail.  Oversize and definitely over my budget, nevertheless I had to have it, so right now it has its own special table since no shelf or music stand can hold it.  It's all hand drawn and gorgeous.  Sometimes I even let someone touch it.  ;-)

Here's a pretty good recording. Be sure and listen with headphones and/or a good sound system.  Much is lost on a tablet or, heaven help us, a phone.  I have it on CD, played through an extensive Sound Canvas and the sound is much different.  He has built his harmonies on a partial series of natural harmonics, his rhythms on the Golden Mean or Golden Section and his melodies on his "infinity series".  I find the result rich, accessible, powerful and elemental, almost as if the earth herself is singing.

The story of the creation of Nørgård's Third almost had me moving to Denmark!  While he was writing it, he had constant access to the Danish orchestra and chorus, to try out new ideas and sections.  These experiments were also televised!  So the entire country watched him write the symphony and even gave feedback.  Evidently most of Denmark was following every note with bated breath.  There were even cartoons with characters asking each other "What note in the infinity series is he up to this week?" or "How about those trombones!"  I cannot imagine my North Carolina neighbors sitting breathless in front of a tv watching a symphony being written.  But maybe they just haven't had the opportunity!!  ;-)

Anyone from Denmark, please correct me if I have the story wrong!  But that's what I heard ....

His "Voyage into the Golden Screen", after a brief introduction, is the purest example of his infinity series.  I've enjoyed experimenting with his different techniques and some of my mathematically-oriented students adore them!  In the Golden Screen, he has each instrument playing the infinity series at different tempos, so we get a kaleidoscope of related sound, culminating each section with a clear delineating chime.  Enjoy!

There used to be an incredibly wonderful website where all his techniques were explained and illustrated, with many musical examples.  It seems to be gone now.  What a loss.  I wish I had written some articles about his techniques while I still fully understood them!  Now I'm not as adept as I was when I was studying him night and day.  Oh well, we still have all his music.

Ingo Lee said:

Hi Jule -

Thank you for helping to revive this forum. Your expertise and work in support of serious music is admirable and also appreciated.

I also am happy to see that you are a Messiaen fan. We all love the great old masters; can you list some other composers of "new" or "dissonant" music that you would recommend for us?

Yes, I posted elsewhere today about Nørgård, and Voyage to the Golden Screen is the earliest, purest form of the infinity series. I studied with Per, and know his music very well. In fact, I helped translate a book about his music into English. However, they were going to add his newer works, and I don't think the revision was ever published.

This is my favorite work of his. It's a transcription for cello of his viola concerto Remembering Child. This is a reduced string section, and I've since reduced it to sinfonietta size. I think it is being toured with over the next few months, but I've never received confirmation.

Hey Julie,

Wow, you are certainly an inspiration in all that you do, composing, teaching, and helping your students do so well.

Best wishes to you and all your students, and keep up the great work.

Bye for now.

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