April 23, 2022

The announcement of Pink Floyd: BBC Radio 1967-1971 has been a welcome occasion to update this website for the first time in quite a while. As with most musicians, I entered a period of dormancy during the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, as concerts were canceled and projects shelved.

In my own case, the pandemic came at the end of a year of tremendous professional activity, beginning with the release of Imaginary Birds in February 2019. I was gratified by the warm reception given to my CD by reviewers at the Winnipeg Free Press, Textura, and The Whole Note, among others. I was especially touched to get an Honorable Mention as part of Ted Gioia's list of the 100 best recordings of 2019. If an album of my music can keep company with the likes of Bill Frisell, Vijay Iyer, Reba McEntire, and Wadada Leo Smith, I can only be thrilled and astonished.

Following the release of Imaginary Birds, I had a fruitful 2-week residency at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts in April 2019, during which I worked on several pieces including Baneberry, gave an artist talk, and met some wonderfully accomplished colleagues who became new friends. That July, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting Europe for the first time. We saw family in France, spent memorable evenings in Germany and Luxembourg, and had a terrific 10-day stay in Belgium for the College Music Society's 2019 International Conference. I presented my recent work on metrical dissonance in progressive rock music, while my colleague Dr. Robert Docker performed my piece On the Beach for fixed media with cello.

Other highlights in 2019 included the first performance of my piece The Shipwreck for youth guitar orchestra, which was commissioned for the Hartt Suzuki Guitar Orchestra with support by The Albert & Elizabeth Bourget Fund, and premiered under the able direction of the marvelous David Madsen. And speaking of guitar, my arrangement of Teng Yu-hsien's Expecting the Spring Breeze, the closing track of the Imaginary Birds CD, was performed by the Hornyanszky/Roemer Duo at a series of five concerts in China.

In the opening months of 2020, the Crane School of Music hosted the premiere of my fixed media piece Woof, written in memory of our beloved dog Tessie. Then in March 2020, only days before the pandemic struck the United States with full force, Gene V. Baker gave a beautiful performance of Don't Let Your Chops Freeze at the College Music Society's Regional Conference in Philadelphia.

(As I write this, it's sobering to realize that Gene's performance is the last concert I attended in person.)

With the advent of COVID-19, all these things came to a rapid close. Unlike so many people, I was lucky enough to have continued employment with a supportive institution that took appropriate steps to protect its students, faculty, and staff. While I approached the prospect of remote instruction with some trepidation, I was pleased to discover that the convivial atmosphere of my classroom somehow survived into the online environment. Those weeks were challenging for us all, but my students and I worked together to preserve some thread of normalcy for one another.

Still, the news was horrifying across the board. It was very dismaying to see the growing list of jazz musicians felled by COVID-19: Onaje Allen Gumbs, Lee Konitz, Giuseppi Logan, Ellis Marsalis, Bucky Pizzarelli, and Wallace Roney, to name but a few. Particularly hard was learning of the death of Henry Grimes, whom I'd met at one of his first concerts after his long absence from music, and whom I remember as kind and gracious (and, of course, an incredibly sensitive and committed musician). I was also deeply saddened by the deaths of August de los Reyes and Ujwal Thapa, both former classmates of mine at Bennington College.

In the midst of all this, Ian Priston and I formally began our collaboration on Pink Floyd: BBC Radio 1967-1971. I had wanted to write about Pink Floyd in a longer format for years, and this was a bright spot indeed in the midst of these difficult times. Though a few lines of inquiry had to wait until COVID-19 waned and archives reopened, overall our progress was smooth and our enthusiasm strong. For a composer during the pandemic, with few prospects of public performance in my immediate future, a project of this kind was a welcome change of pace.

As institutions and ensembles found new ways of making and sharing music during the pandemic, I was privileged to have a number of performances of my work. I had my first online-only performance in May, as two graduate students at the Royal Conservatoire of the Hague performed one of my Three Street Pieces for clarinet and double bass. This "socially distanced performance", which took place in two different countries, was a welcome oasis in the midst of a demoralizing time.

In 2021, the indefatigably excellent Oboe Duo Agosto presented Mandarin Ducks at a virtual concert in January, and then partnered with cellist (and dear friend) Katie Kennedy and pianist Soohyung Yoo to perform The Wood Between the Worlds at the International Double Reed Society's Second Annual Virtual Symposium in July. This performance was generously supported by the University of Hartford and Dr. Larry Alan Smith, for which I am deeply grateful.

Mandarin Ducks was also heard in April, in a marvelous livestreamed performance from California by double reedists Emily Kupitz and Alli Gessner. In May, the Society of Composers Online National Conference featured Woof as part of their concert program, while I had the pleasure of working with students at Carnegie Mellon University who performed Three Street Pieces admirably. And, at the other end of the year (and the United States), Kyle Pearl featured On the Beach at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music in December, as part of his 2nd Annual Call for Scores, for which I was honored to be chosen.

Meanwhile, as in-person performances resumed, I was pleased to have multiple performances of Three Street Pieces. This seems to be my most enduringly popular piece, and in practically ever year since I wrote it, it's been heard in a new state or country. In 2021, I'm happy to say that Nevada and Iowa joined that list.

A huge highlight of my year was a wonderful pair of concerts in May and October, both with the same program, in which my music was heard in Bulgaria for the first time. At both of these, clarinetist Maya Antonova and double bassist Grigor Dzhanev performed Three Street Pieces and pianist Georgi Spiriev performed my Nocturne, a piece that's dear to my heart and which hadn't been heard in public since 2007.

For many years I had heard that Bulgarian musicians were uncommonly committed, sensitive, and virtuosic, and could navigate unusual time signatures as naturally as fish swim in water. I am pleased to report that it's all true!

The first movement of Three Street Pieces is full of difficult meter changes, while the second calls upon both musicians to play with great lyricism, and the third demands tremendous breath control and a great sense of groove. Maya and Grigor perform this music with consummate assurance and understanding. Similarly, Georgi Spiriev's performance of the Nocturne was sensitive, nuanced, and rewarding. In both cases, though I was thousands of miles away, every aspect of my compositional image was fully and beautifully realized.

It is a remarkable privilege to have such musicians in one's corner. My heartfelt thanks to Maya Antonova -- who organized and programmed these concerts, and clearly put her heart and soul into them -- for giving my music such an auspicious debut in Bulgaria!

And that brings us to 2022, which has been a quiet year in terms of performances, though a very busy year in terms of life -- not only because of the publication of Pink Floyd: BBC Radio 1967-1971, but because my wife and I have bought a home and started a family. Though raising our daughter is, naturally, my top priority for the foreseeable future, I do have several pieces in the queue, articles and books I would like to write, and various other projects that are anywhere from the planning stages to nearing completion.

With apologies to Charles Ives, one question remains unanswered. 2019 was perhaps the most active year of my career thus far, with a CD out, multiple international performances of my music, and several other prominent engagements. Yet it was also the year in which I stopped updating this site, until now. Why?

The reason is quite simple, yet something I find difficult to write about: the death of my dear friend and mentor, Stephen Siegel, on February 14, 2019.

For close to 25 years, Stephen was a near-daily presence in my life, first as my teacher at Bennington, then as a friend and composer colleague. I can't begin to describe Stephen, though I think those of us who were lucky enough to know him would say, perhaps unanimously, that we've never known anyone else quite like him.

He was a composer, photographer, theorist, thinker, philosopher, and raconteur extraordinaire. He was passionate about music, philosophy, literature, and life itself, to a degree I've seldom if ever encountered. He was completely uncompromising -- and quick to forgive. He was the composer of extremely challenging music of harrowing difficulty and tremendous rewards. He loved Scottish songs, Elliott Carter, the Pointer Sisters, and Schütz. He believed that music was a way of talking about the world and a form of communication, not a boutique product to be enjoyed by a refined elite.

He was probably the most principled person I've ever met, and in 25 years of knowing him, I can't think of a single thing he ever did that I would describe as "half-assed". Yet he was also incredibly funny, constantly poked fun at himself, and had no qualms about donning a plastic Viking helmet and lustily singing counterpoint exercises or passages from Wagner, if he thought it would help his students learn. And -- speaking of counterpoint -- he taught a course on counterpoint simply because I asked him to: he knew that I and his other students needed it.

Every time I step into a classroom, and every time I sit down to write music, I think of Stephen. As a teacher he was fundamentally non-ideological, and had a remarkable ability to understand what his students needed and what they were trying to do. He would stay up with a group of his students late into the night to proofread their parts, or move mountains to find opportunities for them.

As a composer, he put everything he had into each piece he wrote -- he jokingly described himself as a "maximalist" -- and was a real pioneer in using computer-based compositional environments. Yet he was also a kind of anti-perfectionist, in that he believed it was necessary to improvise, take chances, trust one's unconscious mind, and -- above all -- allow oneself to write lots of "bad music" to get to the "good music". Certainly, when necessary, he would labor over a single measure for days -- but, more often, he would write hundreds of measures or improvise at great length until he found that one idea that formed the core of the piece to come.

Stephen was astonishingly brilliant, truly and profoundly kind, and utterly one-of-a-kind. To be able to say that I was one of his closest friends is a singular honor. None of the above does him justice, but what can? If, in this small corner of the Internet, I can communicate some small fraction of what it was like to know this incomparable soul, then I've done well. If only he had time to write and record more music, beyond the one CD we do have; if only some of his unpublished writings might see the light of day!

Perhaps I've made the reasons for my absence clear, then. Stephen was my biggest supporter, always encouraging, always doing everything he could to see me succeed. Under his mentorship I solved longstanding obstacles that had plagued me for years, and liberated myself from much of the foolish baggage we all carry around about our creative work. For nearly a quarter of a century, the act of composing had been inseparable from our mentorship and friendship. Losing a dear friend just as my first CD was released made it difficult to enjoy what would otherwise have been a moment of triumph. And above all, it was necessary to speak here to his loss -- yet impossible to do so.

Long will he be missed, long may he be remembered, and long may his music be heard.

Phil Salathé







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