Pushing Boundaries (from 1998)

by markcarlson on March 25, 2013

Here’s a piece I wrote for a Pacific Serenades newsletter way back in 1998. I guess the term “pushing boundaries” was popular back then, but in any case, my article speaks to our 20th century obsession with innovation. Fifteen years later, I still agree with what I wrote, and I still rail against those who think that new art must adhere to narrow boundaries critics and academics have demanded that we stay within. And though those boundaries have shifted a bit since then, they still exist. Besides, innovation takes all kinds of forms, some more evident than others.

Pushing Boundaries

If you believe what you read about art, then you know that the only art which has value is that which forever pushes at the stifling boundaries of convention in the incessant quest for innovation.

Such an obviously biased view is easy to dismiss:  Bach, for example, wasn’t an innovator yet created some of the most original and profound music ever written.  But Bach did expand boundaries, just not those of musical language and style; old-fashioned as his music might have been, it was something that had never been created before, and it did expand the emotional and technical boundaries of its time.  In fact, I side with those who say that art of value does expand—and even destroy—boundaries.

But whose boundaries are they?

I am personally grateful to the true pioneers of the avant-garde:  they did broaden the horizons of what is possible in the arts, and their works and philosophies forced us to think and perceive differently.  In many ways, they gave us a fresh start at a time when the world of the arts seemed so saturated with great works that there was no room for more—and no point in creating anything new.

But how is it new or courageous or avant-garde to push at boundaries that are no longer there?  Those boundaries are long gone, and the philosophy that rightly pushed them out of the way has replaced them with its own rigid boundaries, the ones that many artists are rebelling against today.

And why all the fuss about innovation, anyway?  Some great composers are innovative, some are not.  Yet in reading about current trends in music, we get the distinct impression that innovation is the highest priority in the creative act.  Ironically, music academics would have us believe that new music using sounds created four decades ago is still innovative, while they dismiss as derivative some of the truly fascinating innovations of our own time.  Today, for example, composers are creating syntheses of classical music language and world musics, combining various kinds of popular music with classical music techniques, and drawing on techniques of seemingly disparate eras of music.

These are innovations that are allowing us to regain the human impulses that got lost in various revolutions of the 20th century.  Some of those revolutions were healthy, and yet so is the current artistic rejuvenation that Pacific Serenades is involved in.  The world is changing, and it’s time to move on.



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We all inhabit this small planet—don’t we?!?

by markcarlson on October 16, 2011

Common Link, 2002

text by John F. Kennedy
for TTBB or SATB, violin, and piano
published by Yelton Rhodes Music
Common Link
performed by The Maine Gay Men’s Chorus, Miguel Felipe, Conductor, with Charles Dimmick, violin

The Maine Gay Men’s Chorus was making plans to celebrate its 10th anniversary, in 2002, and as part of this celebration, the Chorus and its conductor, Miguel Felipe, commissioned a seven-part work by the six composers who had written music especially for the chorus during those 10 years.

The year before, my piece, The Ballad of Charlie Howard—a Kenduskeag Trilogy, was premiered by the MGMC.  Charlie Howard was killed at age 23 in an anti-gay hate crime in Bangor, Maine, in 1984, and the experience of writing this piece in his memory was so intense—with much soul-searching for both my dear friend and fellow-lyricist, Bruce Olstad, and me—and so life-affirming, that I bonded immediately and forever with the MGMC.  Thus, Miguel asked me to write two of the movements of this commemorative work, both excerpts of speeches by President John F. Kennedy.

Common Link (from JFK’s commencement address at American University in 1963) and its companion piece, The Enemy of Truth, (from his commencement address at Yale University in 1962) are the results of this commission.

At first, it was an enormous challenge to set words that are not intentionally poetic—though undeniably beautiful and profound.  But as the compositional process unfolded, I felt immensely honored to be setting these words. In fact, it was kind of overwhelming to set words of such depth, so relevant even some 40 years after they were spoken, and I remain humbled by the experience.

And what really got me—and still gets me nine years after writing this music—is the line, “and we are all mortal.” In part, it was the realization that Kennedy was saying, “Why are we fighting each other? We’re all going to die, anyway!”

But even more, it was the realization that mortality, much as we want to fight it, is a gift.  No matter how young or how old we die, we all have a finite amount of time on this small planet.  Why not use every moment of that finite time to do whatever we can to make this small planet a more beautiful, a more accepting place?
If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can [help] make the world safe for diversity.  For in the final analysis, our most basic, common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s future, and we are all mortal.


Piano Concertos and the Magic of the Internet

by markcarlson on August 30, 2011

A few weeks ago, I received an email out of the blue from a complete stranger, Jim Semadeni, from Kansas City, asking if he could listen to my piano concertos. Oh, how I love the internet! Someone who loves piano concertos can google “piano concerto” and, somehow or other, find himself at the website of a composer he has probably never heard of, send said composer an email, and—just like that!—a new connection is made.

One of my summer projects has been to post sound files of as much of my music as possible on this website, and little by little, I am getting this accomplished. The joy of this is largely in getting to revisit older pieces which I might not have listened to in years—and in recognizing that they deserve to be heard more. My Concerto for Piano and Wind Ensemble, from 1994, is one of those. In fact, just a couple of months ago, I had asked Umberto Belfiore, our recording tech at UCLA, to transfer a bunch of older pieces from cassette tape to digital format. So when I got Jim Semadeni’s email, I had the piece ready to post, and I posted it later that night. Thanks, Jim, for the nudge!

I got the idea for writing this piece in 1993, when it suddenly came to me what fun it would be to write a concerto for pianist Antoinette Perry, whose playing I love. At the time, we were colleagues at UCLA, and she had performed several of my pieces, always beautifully. I figured I’d have a better chance of getting performances of the piece if it were for wind ensemble, rather than for orchestra, and besides, as a wind player, I have an affinity for writing for winds. I always enjoy exploring ways to create new colors with such a diverse palette as winds and percussion provide.

It was, indeed, a lot of fun to write this piece, and after years of hearing it only in my head from time to time, I am delighted to hear it aloud again. The passage of 17 years makes it seem almost as if I was not the one who wrote the piece: I have written much music since then and feel myself, in many ways, to be a different composer and a different person now. But it is so nice to hear old music and be able to say, “I like that! I am so glad I wrote it!”

Here is a recording of its first performance, with Antoinette Perry playing with the UCLA Wind Ensemble, conducted by Thomas Lee. There have been two subsequent performances, and I hope that the magic of the internet will lead to many more.

Concerto for piano and wind ensemble, 1994

Mark Carlson: Concerto for Piano and Wind Ensemble I
Mark Carlson: Concerto for Piano and Wind Ensemble II
Mark Carlson: Concerto for Piano and Wind Ensemble III


A Multitude of Clarinets!

by markcarlson on August 10, 2011

Last week for me was all about the International Clarinet Association’s annual ClarinetFest, this time at Cal State, Northridge—a fun, exhilarating, and exhausting experience.

Pacific Serenades was well-represented. Two works we had commissioned and premiered were performed: my own The Hall of Mirrors, for clarinet and piano—beautifully played by Gary Whitman and Andrew Rosenblum—and Robert Aldridge’s Three Folksongs, for clarinet and string quartet—played with great élan by our own Gary Gray, Roger Wilkie, Connie Kupka, Roland Kato, and David Speltz.

We had an exhibit table at the festival, too. Our Administrator, Andrew Fairweather, and I had a lot of fun talking with clarinetists about the many clarinet pieces we have commissioned and premiered—and now publish. Our first two CDsThe Hall of Mirrors and Border Crossings—which together contain four pieces involving clarinet, sold like hotcakes. Of course, it helped that one of those has The Hall of Mirrors on it and the other Three Folksongs. The audience of clarinetists obviously loved those pieces.

At the performance of Three Folksongs, as I listened to our gang play Bob Aldridge’s beautiful piece, and as I heard the crowd burst into enthusiastic applause, I felt so proud: this piece exists because of Pacific Serenades! It has gone out there into the world, has had many performances, and has touched many people. I can tell it will continue to do so.

This is also true of The Hall of Mirrors, which was having its fourth ClarinetFest performance—Chicago in 1994, Stockholm in 2002, Salt Lake City in 2003, and Northridge in 2011—and which has become my most-performed piece. It really has become part of the clarinet repertoire.

These are but two examples of the many pieces we have commissioned and premiered which have had lives beyond their first performances. This is exactly why I started Pacific Serenades—to enrich the repertoire of chamber music, especially by those of us in Southern California who for many years have been writing our own distinct brand of new music. And though Bob Aldridge is one of the few exceptions to our geographic focus, the overt beauty of his music fits right in. (I hope he won’t mind if I consider him an honorary Californian).

So please permit me to exult in a moment of pride, as I appreciate the impact that Pacific Serenades is having on the world of chamber music. It’s really working!


Silken Roses

July 31, 2011

And now, for something completely different… Here’s a song I wrote in 1983, called Silken Roses. The lyrics are by Frances Middlebrook, who briefly studied privately with me. During that time, she asked me if I would set a poem of hers to music, and I gladly did so. The poem is about a painful […]

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The Darkest Day

July 21, 2011

Carl Berdahl, euphonium Mark Carlson, organ This is one of the saddest pieces I have ever written. It began as a request from Carl Berdahl, a euphonium player and a former music theory student of mine at UCLA, that I write something for his senior recital. Carl was a man on a mission—to enlarge the […]

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And so I put away the flute one last time…

June 13, 2011

Yesterday was my last day as a performing flutist. After having played flute for some 51 years, I am willingly and with no regret putting the instrument down, opting instead to spend more time composing. I have so much music I still want to write, and, truth be told, I have accomplished most everything I […]

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My First Published Article

May 8, 2011

My review of Alexandra Pierce’s book, Deepening Musical Performance through Movement, was recently  published on Music Theory Online. Though I have written many articles published in Pacific Serenades brochures and newsletters, I have never before written an article that was published by anyone else. So it was quite a thrill to see this appear onscreen […]

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Writing about Pacific Serenades, part 2

April 15, 2011

I moved to Los Angeles in 1974, having just graduated from Cal State Fresno, where I had had a pretty wonderful and active musical life for the preceding two years.  I was going to bide my time in LA for a year, continue studying with my flute teacher, Roger S. Stevens, and then move on […]

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Writing about Pacific Serenades

April 13, 2011

Pacific Serenades, the chamber ensemble I founded and am the director of, is celebrating its 25th season and just last month premiered its 100th commissioned work—Roger Bourland’s Duarte’s Love Songs, for baritone and piano trio—with lyrics by Mitchell Morris—performed by Vladimir Chernov, Roger Wilkie (violin), David Speltz (cello), and Robert Thies (piano). Being in the […]

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