Author Archives: frank.nawrot

UMKC Composition Workshop: Day 4

Day 4 of the UMKC Composition Workshop began with a listening session with Dr. Jim Mobberley. Afterwards, he shared some of his own music with us.

During the listening session we listened to three pieces. The first piece a was a song (I cannot recall the title) by Willie Nelson, the second piece was the prelude to Tristan and Isolde, and finally he played a song (again, no recollection of the title) by the band Yes. He cites the three works as making a significant impact on his decision to become a composer, which he didn’t actually make until the age of 21.

With the Willie Nelson tune, we delved into a discussion about the importance of folk and popular music to classical composers and instrumentalists. A good classical instrumentalist should be able to create gestures that sound just as sincere and natural as Willie Nelson when he sings or plays his guitar. His “technique” may be imperfect, but his expression can be flawless.

With Tristan, Dr. Mobberley discussed the fascination he felt when listening to this work. Over the span of eleven minutes, Wagner builds upon the same essential musical material like a true craftsman. Dr. Mobberley strove for a very long time to become a craftsman of similar caliber, and, by his own admission, this took til his late 30’s to accomplish.

Finally, we talked about the progressive rock band Yes. Dr. Mobberley reflected on some of his early days playing guitar in a rock band and how trying to figure out the intricate guitar parts of Steve Howe was part of a natural progression in the evolution of a composer. It’s again going back to that idea of hearing something mind blowing and having the inexplicable necessity to recreate that sound. It seems to be in the DNA of us composers.

After the listening session, Dr. Mobberley played some of his music for us. The works that stuck with me were his pieces Words of Love for soprano and wind ensemble and Edges for wind ensemble. He is not primarily a wind ensemble composer, however, these may be among the best compositions for the medium I have ever heard. For whatever reason I rarely find myself liking pieces for concert band or symphonic wind ensembles; they often seem to be too heavy and invariably hokey (for lack of a more technical term.) But these two pieces by Dr. Mobberley were orchestrated in such a unique way- I had none of those negative experiences I usually have with similar works. If you ever get the chance to hear these pieces or any other works of his, I recommend taking a listen.

After a lunch break, we received an informative and fascinating lecture on composing for viola by our resident violist for the workshop Michael Hall.

Details on Day 5 coming soon!


UMKC Composition Workshop: Day 3

Day 3 of the UMKC Composition Workshop was focused mostly on the one and only Dr. Paul Rudy.

First off, he led us in a listening exercise in which he tried to free our minds from the assumptions and expectations people are constantly and unconsciously making. Before saying too much to us, he played what we thought was going to be a recording of Beethoven’s 6th. Right when we were all convinced we’d be listening to this piece a, THUNDEROUS and ROARING crash came through the speakers, and for the next few minutes we were bombarded by intense and surprising recorded sounds of storms and collapsing buildings. Dr. Rudy did this to prove that we are most often listening for something when hearing music, rather than listening to something. Right away, many of us knew what style of music we were listening to, what instrumentation, and some of us even knew the exact piece. All the assumptions and expectations can often lead the listener astray from the intent of the composer. As composers, we can utilize audience expectation as a tool, but we also need to be aware of our own expectations when listening to new music so that we are not depriving ourselves of new experiences and potentially great learning moments. Some of the most important moments I’ve had as a composer are those when I hear something incredibly beautiful and think “How did they do that?!”

Immediately following the listening exercise, Dr. Rudy presented some of his music to us. Saying his body of work is diverse is an insulting underestimation. He’s put out several albums of electro-acoustic music built around field recordings of everything from hail to farts, he’s written a 30-minute long improvisatory piece based on the theory of chakras, he’s written a super groovy concerto for alto sax and wind ensemble, etc. etc…Please check out this man’s music, it is interesting, beautiful, and inspiring.

To close out the Rudy centered activities, he and Michael Hall performed the previously mentioned 30-minute long improvisatory piece. It led to a thought-provoking discussion regarding the efficacy of improv focused performances, i.e. choosing the right venue, successfully including/engaging the audience, and we discussed the line between pure self-indulgence and actually performing with the intent to entertain others. It was a fascinating and enlightening discussion. We’ve been very lucky to hear Michael’s thoughts on composing and improvising from a performers point of view. He is of the highest caliber of players and incredibly wise and open-minded.

Later in the day were the “track” specific activities. There are three tracks: the standard track with Dr. Gibson, the improv track with Dr. Rudy, and the pedagogy track with Dr. Mobberly. I am on the pedagogy track. I love teaching, so I knew this would be the track for me.

On the first meeting with Dr. Mobberly he discussed the fact that there is almost no literature on composition pedagogy. For someone steeped in the world of academia, such as myself, it may be a good idea to develop my higher-ed teaching skills. I absolutely love watching people learn, it is one of life’s greatest pleasures for me. I look forward to discussing various methods and observing some of the greats here at UMKC work their pedagogical magic!

UMKC Composition Workshop: Day 2

Day 2 of the UMKC Composition Workshop started out with Dr. Mara Gibson sharing some of her past and recent projects with us. Her musical focus is on collaboration.  She says that 90% of the music she writes now is for people she is acquainted with so that the process feels more like a joint effort rather than a “capital-C-Composer” dictating music to others. She has also done some fascinating and beautiful work with videographers. I think that the lesson of collaboration is such an important one. Even to this day we composers feel the burden of tradition. We feel Beethoven, Brahms, and Boulez starring at us from some stormy cloud in the sky. Something that Dr. Gibson said during our first meeting on Saturday puts my preceding ramblings into concise perspective:

“Write music for people, not posterity.”

Later, we took a tour of the Nelson-Atkins Museum. It is good to know that the fine people at UMKC running this workshop understand the importance of art appreciation and would treat us to such a wonderful experience. I am not alone as a composer in being intensely interested in things outside of music, and this seems to be true of a lot of great composers. We sometimes need something extramusical to inform our work, whether it be  politics, science, or sculptures.


Nelson-Atkins Museum

UMKC Composition Workshop

The past two nights have been close to sleepless in preparation for the UMKC Composition Workshop. Today is day one of the workshop, and so far it has been an outstanding experience, despite the sleep deprivation.

Today we were introduced to some of the composition faculty here at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Namely, Paul Rudy, Mara Gibson, and James Mobberley. They are incredibly interesting and open-minded. I can’t wait to get to know them throughout this week!

Shortly after the panel discussion with them, we watched a wonderful presentation from the trio Ensemble of Irreproducibale Outcomes. They are a group of composers that create innovative scores for themselves that allow the players in the group to improvise and generate different outcomes for each performance. If you’re ever able to see these guys live, don’t miss it!

To end the first day we heard an excellent performance of some 20th century music. My favorites from the night were Robert Pherigo’s performance of The Alcotts from Ives’ Concord Sonata and Michale Hall (viola) and Pherigo’s performance of Berio’s Naturale. 

More updates to come!


“Phantasy for Piano” and “Unhinged”

Summer break is finally upon us college folks! I have several exciting projects in the works right now.

My last project before the summer was to finish editing some recordings to share with you-

If you know some pianists or are one yourself, the score is available for purchase!

Here are a few excerpts from my piece Unhinged-

I am very proud of these pieces and thrilled to have worked with such great performers on them!

Residency at Eastern Michigan University and “Songs of Informality #4”

This past Monday I was a guest at Eastern Michigan University.  In December, EMU saxophone student AJ Pratt commissioned me to compose a piece for alto sax and fixed media. On Monday he gave a stellar premier of Lament for alto sax and fixed media. His quartet also gave a wonderful performance my piece A Dance Not To Be Danced To. The saxophone studio at EMU are definitely friends of new music. Thanks to AJ and Woody Chenoweth for having me!

Speaking of friends of new music, I found another ally yesterday. Dr. Casey Robards, the professor of collaborative piano at Central Michigan University, has commissioned me to write her a piece for piano duet. We had a long chat yesterday, throwing around ideas and discussing the state of contemporary classical music. I am very honored to have someone of her caliber interested in my music. Stay tuned for updates on this project!

Last order of business- here is a recording of my piece Songs of Informality #4 performed by Trio Insurgent.



Trio Insurgent’s First Concert and “Shake ’em”

My good friends, Kelly Vander Molen, Bryce Craig, and I formed a trio dedicated to commissioning , writing, and performing new music called Trio Insurgent. We had our very first concert this past Friday. It could not have went better. People ate cookies and interacted with us throughout the show. As as a music student immersed in a world of classical music concerts in which audiences are so often physically and mentally distant from performers, it was great to be able to make such a connection with people.

If you want to see the concert and get a sense of how it went and what kind of music we played, check out this playlist-

Here is a higher quality recording of a brief improv session we had as part of the concert-

This past Saturday I was lucky enough to get a performance of two new pieces of mine- Shake ’em (performed by Vanessa Heuck on bass clarinet and Breana Meyers on maracas) and Phantasy for Piano (performed by Yaqin Wang.) A recording of Phantasy will be available soon. Here is the recording of Shake ’em


April 2014 News

2014 has been a busy and productive year.

FIRST very important order of business- my web designer has added a plugin to my site that enables me to finally sell my music online! I am very excited to be able to remotely sell scores and parts in pdf form. It is not set up yet, but will be up and running soon, at which time I will let everyone know how to easily purchase pieces online.

Here is a (hopefully) concise look at what has been going on for me this year-

-In the beginning of January of this year, two very talented saxophonists (Evan Harris and Emily Loboda) premiered my work for soprano and tenor sax entitled Odyssean Steps.

-My new band dedicated to performing music by living composers was formed. The group is Bryce Craig on percussion, Kelly Vander Molen on amplified and acoustic violin, and myself on electric and acoustic guitar. We are Trio Insurgent. We are currently accepting commissions from composers of any age, nationality, and style. Send us a message on Facebook if you are interested in collaborating.

This Friday we will be performing our first concert. Bryce will be performing his own arrangement of the 2nd movement of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint for malletKAT, we will be performing a new lead-sheet composed for us by our good friend Mike Romaniak, there is a brand new piece composed for us by another good friend, Daniel Rhode, and of course Bryce and I composed a few fun pieces that will be performed. The setting is informal and laid back! We are looking to change performance practice. Classical music concerts are becoming all too pretentious…we want our audience to dance and shout when moved to do so, we want them to be so close when we perform that they can see the notes on our parts reflected in our eyes, and we want to give attention and priority to LIVING composers.

-At the end of 2013 I was commissioned to write a piece for solo piano by an excellent pianist and fellow CMU graduate assistant, Yaqin Wang. I completed the piece, entitled Phantasy for Piano, in February of this year and it is to be premiered this Saturday along side my piece Shake ’em (performed by Breana Meyers on maracas and Vanessa Heuck on bass clarinet- it is a fun little piece!) Ms. Wang has done a couple preview performances of Phantasy to some small crowds including this past Wednesday at Art Reach of Mid Michigan.

-In early 2014 I was commissioned by saxophonist Aj Pratt to compose a piece for alto sax and fixed media. I am very excited about this new piece, Lament for Alto Sax and Fixed Media, which is to be officially premiered at Eastern Michigan University on April 21st. A couple of weeks ago Aj performed a surprise pre-premiere  at The Avenue in Lansing, Michigan.

-On March 29th the CMU New Music Ensemble performed my new piece Look at me! Hear me! See me! for drum set, electric bass, electric guitar, amplified violin, tenor sax, alto sax, bass clarinet, and trombone. This group has done some really great stuff over the past couple years and I am really proud to be a part of it. Keep on eye out for what we have in store next. My awesome trombonist-composer friend Nathan Brown is taking over the group for the next year!


I have written so much music this year that I really want people to hear, so I cannot wait to get some of those pieces up for sale for everyone to preview! Until next time…

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(Trio Insurgent, your friends in New Music)





Does art for art’s sake further society, or is it merely emotional porn? And, why Tupac and M.I.A. are more important musicians than Mahler.

I did not blog last week due to a composition masterclass and concert featuring Brent Miller. This guy is doing amazing things for the new music community. Check out his organization, Center for New Music.


Art for art’s sake. What is it? Depending on who you ask, you may get conflicting definitions. I will give my definition.

Art or art’s sake- the origination of materials in a given artists medium created based solely on the artists fascination with those materials.

For myself, this could mean coming up with what I believe to be an interesting rhythm and creating an entire work that liquidates every possible variation and permutation of this rhythm in a way that is aurally pleasing- first to myself and then hopefully to others. As a person who is passionate about certain humanitarian issues, how can I justify the emotional vomit that is absolute art? M.I.A., one of the most socially conscious rappers of our time, speaks about how artists often take for granted their ability to spread a meaningful message-

when asked about her experience at an art college:

“…By the time I left St. Martin’s, I could not justify myself being an artist at all, because I did not meet anyone there who was doing interesting art that was also getting through to everyday people. [Students there were] exploring apathy, dressing up in some pigeon outfit, or running around conceptualizing. My life did not allow it: My mom was getting evicted, my brother was going to jail, I’d get my first phone call from my dad in twelve years confirming he’s still alive. So making ripples in the water, to aesthetically represent beauty, just didn’t make sense [to me].”

Full interview here

I think the point M.I.A. was trying to make was that artists have to be careful to not create emotional porn, to not create something that makes you and an observer simply feel feelings on a visceral level. Yes, M.I.A.’s music is great for an ass-shaking good time. But it also draws attention to some of the most important and overlooked (especially in the West) humanitarian issues our world is currently facing. If you have not seen the video for her track Born Free, watch it now.

Did you watch the video? Good. Now I am going to do some lumping. One could argue that art for art’s sake has just as much meaning (or lack thereof) as programmatic music based on the artist’s personal experience. For example, Mahler’s fifth symphony is said to have been inspired by his emotional state at the time it was written. During its composition, Mahler was madly in love with Alma Schindler and was also going through some health issues. Allow me to play devil’s advocate here, but who cares? Yes, Mahler was and remains to be revered as one of the greatest masters of his craft, but what has he done to better the world besides give us all warm fuzzies when we hear the Adagietto? M.I.A. has brought attention to 21st century genocide and ethnocide- what have you done, my dear Gustav? I am picking on Mahler, but the same could be said for many composers, especially those of the romantic era. And there is definitely the equivalent trend in the new music world of, as M.I.A. put it, “…exploring apathy, dressing up in some pigeon outfit, or running around conceptualizing.” To put it in perspective, I saw Brent Miller play a piece for amplified water bottle last Wednesday. And I have to admit, I thought it was pretty cool.

But maybe musicians should consider being a bit more like Tupac Shakur. Like M.I.A., the late rapper definitely knew how to lay down some sick rhymes and groovy beats, but he also had something to say. With his public appearances and lyrics, he brought attention to the plight of inner city blacks in the U.S. To my fellow artists, please be your own devil’s advocate and look at your body of work and seriously question what its purpose is.

A biased look at Grand Valley State University’s New Music Ensemble

A biased look at Grand Valley State University’s New Music Ensemble-

Seriously though, I am very biased. I attended Grand Valley State University (GVSU) from 2011-2013 so take my gushing with a grain of salt. Do your own research into their status.

The GVSU New Music Ensemble (NME) is a beacon for contemporary classical music in the mid-west, and the whole country. Their recording of Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich was performed at the Bang on a Can Marathon in NYC, spent eleven weeks on the Billboard charts, and was featured in numerous media outlets including the New York Times and NPR. Their biggest claim to fame is their double album of remixes of In C by Terry Riley. Check out their website devoted to the juggernaut new music project. Composition professor and GVSU NME director Bill Ryan does an incredible job of showing his students the ropes of the contemporary classical world.

The GVSU NME also works with the composition studio at GVSU for an annual micro-works competition. For the one I took part in, each comp student was asked to compose 1-3 minute-long works inspired by the old-school magic exhibit located in an on-campus art gallery.

A couple weeks ago I made a trip back to GVSU to visit family, friends, and work on a new saxophone duet I recently completed. I also decided to sit in on a NME rehearsal, and I was nothing short of blown away by what they are up to.

When I walked into the rehearsal space, I was reminded of what my band used to do to my parents home during rehearsals- cables, microphones, and speakers scattered all over the place. They were working on an In C remix by Dan Rhode for an upcoming concert, accompanied by the kind of nasty bass and funky beats I have come to expect from my colleague. Even though I have seen a lot of rockin’ new music stuff in my time, I am always giddy when I hear classical instruments paired with electronics. Next they rehearsed a fairly new piece commissioned by GVSU NME called Wide Open Spaces by Armando Bayolo. Finally, they did a run through of Steve Reich’s Double Sextet. As you may be able to tell by their repertoire, past and present, this group has outstanding players. They may all be undergrads, but they are nothing short of professional. 

After each piece was played through, there was always a moment of silence. But after that very brief moment, all of the students began talking amongst themselves- discussing dynamics, texture, tuning, etc. Of course they would always defer to Bill, and he would sometimes give his always wise two cents, but most of the progress I saw in this rehearsal came from within the group.

If you are in the Grand Rapids, MI area on November 8th, I highly recommend you come see the GVSU NME fall concert.  This show is a preview of their spring tour of the American West. The show is FREE.

Also, if you are in the Mid-Michigan are on November 10th, their will be a concert of new music written by students, myself included, of the Central Michigan University composition studio.