It has been quite some time since I have posted anything on this blog, which is an unfortunate trend that I plan to rectify beginning with this post. I just returned from Paris, France after having spent the month of July living there and taking part in the EAMA (European-American Musical Alliance) Summer Composition Program. EAMA (pronounced ˈim.ə) functions as a continuation of Nadia Boulanger’s pedagogical legacy; as such, coursework is based on her methods. EAMA also offers conducting and chamber music programs, but the majority of students were composers (approx. 6 conducting students, 2 chamber musicians, and 50 composers). The gender breakdown was fairly stereotypical, with about 10 women in the program. Students ranged in age from incoming undergraduate first-years to doctoral students (in years: 17 to early 40s; not everyone on the older end was still pursuing degrees). All students took the same core classes, then lessons or coaching in their program area of choice. After initial placement exams in counterpoint and musicianship taken while not yet recovered from the overseas flight, I was placed in the following classes:

Species Counterpoint 2 – Introduces counterpoint in first, second, third, and fourth species, working through examples with up to four voices. Moves at a faster pace than Species Counterpoint 1. Of particular interest was extended focus on single-line counterpoint (multiple contrapuntal voices being derived from a single melodic line and the treatment of resultant “hanging pitches”).

Keyboard Harmony 3b – The Keyboard Harmony classes are based on Boulanger’s concept of harmonic sequences derived from harmonic cells and their application to Paul Vidal’s figured bass exercises from his book Basses et Chantes Données. The keyboard harmony classes were stratified in 6 levels (Intro, 1-5), each of which worked on the same things but moved at different paces.

Intro to Score Reading 2 – Taken in place of Musicianship classes, the various levels of Score Reading classes focus on clef transposition techniques and their application to real-world scores. The intro classes spent time introducing clef transpositions (e.g. alto clef ≈ D transposition, tenor clef ≈ B-flat transposition, soprano clef ≈ A transposition, mezzo-soprano clef ≈ F transposition, baritone clef ≈ G transposition), and score examples focused on pieces with 4 or fewer voices, such as string quartets, Bach chorales (in open score), Renaissance motets, and the like, eventually moving up to full orchestral scores. Upper-level Score Reading classes started with orchestral scores and likely did not spend as much time introducing clef transpositions.

Basic Analysis – All EAMA first-time students were put into this section. Returning members took Advanced Analysis. In the second half of the program, the analysis sections were combined into a single lecture. Analysis was done mostly to keyboard works by Bach, Chopin, Brahms, and others through the lens of Dr. Philip Lasser’s theories of contrapuntal voices and hanging pitches.

Chorale – All students sang in the EAMA Chorale, which was conducted by Mark Shapiro. Due to the gender imbalance (see above), we sang ATBB, ATTB, and TTBB repertoire. All of the women and some men sang the alto or highest tenor part, with the rest of us somewhat-haphazardly divided between the tenor, baritone, and bass sections. There was never a formal range test or voicing of the ensemble, and since many of the composers were not vocalists and/or had never before sung chorally, there were many innate problems that could not be fixed in the 4 weeks of rehearsal that we had. One particularly peeving problem was the tendency for many non-vocalists who were uncomfortable with production of notes in their upper tessituras to think they were basses and thus sing in the bass section. Although half of us knew what we were doing, the bass section received the brunt of the criticism and attempted corrections. Coming from schools with strong choral programs (Mason City High School and St. Olaf College), I was frequently frustrated during rehearsal. It should be noted, however, that the primary purpose of singing in an ensemble was in keeping with Nadia Boulanger’s pedagogy, not to produce a top-level choral sound. The repertoire selection was excellent, and Mark Shapiro got the most out of a choir of composers that he possibly could. The program of the final concert is reproduced below:

  • Bona sera, come stai cor mio – Antonio Scandello (1517-1580)
  • Adorna talamum – Matteo Asola (1560-1609)
  • Quatres Prières de St. François d’Assise: II. Tout puissant, très saint; III. Seigneur, je vous en prie; IV. O mes très chers frères – Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
  • Beati mortui – Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
  • Ave Maria – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)
  • The Lake Isle of Innisfree (2013) – Teddy Niedermaier, EAMA professor
  • The Baby’s Dance (2013) – Vincent Carr, EAMA student
  • Verses After a War: II. Armistice (2013) – Lane Harder, EAMA professor
  • Inveni David – Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)
  • Absolve Domini – Peter Cornelius (1824-1874)
  • Veni, Sancte Spiritus (2013) – Eric M. Pazdziora, EAMA student
  • Trösterin Musik – Anton Bruckner (1824-1896)

I had composition lessons with David Conte of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and also took his Art Song and Opera composition techniques seminar. Dr. Conte was incredibly insightful and has provided me with the impetus to get back to memorizing classical piano repertoire: he firmly believes that one’s mastery of compositional rhetoric is dependent on the amount of music one has “learned by heart,” which I agree with. Each of the faculty members brought something different to the table. I had Keyboard Harmony and Intro to Score Reading with Dr. Lane Harder, a fellow composer/percussionist, whose riveting marimba piece Prelude and Fugue in E-flat minor was premiered by Makoto Nakura at one of the guest recitals. Something about Dr. Harder’s appearance, mannerisms, and sense of humor was evocative of Jack Black, which kept things interesting. Dr. Benjamin C.S. Boyle taught some of the Species Counterpoint 2 lectures, and his fast-paced lecture style and tendency to go on tangents was something we looked forward to. He also had a neat set of pieces for marimba and piano (Les bois du paradis) and a couple of lengthy art songs (Ophelia and Guinevere) performed and/or premiered at guest recitals. Both Drs. Harder and Boyle were students of Dr. Lasser, although each (in addition to Dr. Teddy Niedermaier) had slightly different rules when it came to counterpoint. Dr. Lasser’s theories are fascinating, and his treatise The Spiraling Tapestry is definitely worth reading. Of his compositions, I was particularly impressed by License of Love, four songs for mezzo-soprano and piano. Also of note was faculty member Michael Ippolito’s 4 pieces, for two pianos. I did not have any classes with French professors Michel Merlet and Narcis Bonet, and would have liked to have gotten to know them better, though I did sit in on a lecture with Bonet, successor of Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau, France. Both Merlet and Bonet had strong compositions performed: Bonet’s art songs were wonderful, and I found Merlet’s piano etudes to be especially poignant.

In mid-June, I began composing a movement for string quartet, as EAMA had sent out a list of guidelines for pieces that could be submitted to be read. In typical form, I finished the piece 5 hours before it was due, staying up all night to accomplish this (I finished at approximately 6:00AM July 13; the piece was due at 11:00AM). Thankfully, my insomniac efforts did not go unrewarded, and my piece was among 10 string quartets selected to be read. The readings were done by a professional French string quartet, and the music was given to them several days in advance. Unfortunately, the string quartet got off internally by about a beat during one of the sections that shouldn’t have been too difficult, so my recording really could not be used to show what the piece was supposed to sound like. Little did I know, I was in for a pleasant surprise. Approximately 15 minutes before the final concert, which would feature the EAMA Chorale and the 2 students who were studying chamber music (violinist and pianist), I was asked by one of my classmates if I knew that my piece was on the program. I had no idea what they were talking about. They showed me the program, and, sure enough, mine was one of 2 student string quartets that would be featured that night. The string quartet that did the readings had selected their favorites to perform. The performance went much better than the reading, and I had a successful European premiere. I received many compliments about the movement, and plan to add several more to make it a complete work for string quartet. In the fall of 2013 at St. Olaf college, this movement received its US premiere. Here is a recording of that performance:

I had several other non-EAMA-related composition projects in Paris. I got more mileage out of Two Movements for Wind Quintet: Mvt. I/Nocturnal Music for String Orchestra: Mvt. I by arranging it for organ. I also commenced an orchestration of Chopin’s Prelude Op. 28, No. 20. Finally, I started an electronic track (IDM and dark ambient hybrid) featuring field recordings of the RER B train.

[EDIT, 9 Feb. 2014: – Said track was completed 31 Aug. 2013 and is embedded below.]

The daily schedule was quite exhausting; in addition to regular classes, there were workshops, masterclasses, and guest recitals. Some of the longest days stretched from 9:00AM to 10:00PM. The 3 hours of practice room time each student was allotted per day was never enough to both finish coursework and compose or practice. Despite this, some days had more time, and weekends were fairly open, so we were able to get out and see things in Paris.

For a more review-style recounting of the EAMA experience, check out fellow Ole composer Abbie Betinis’ post on her website, which she wrote after having attended EAMA for 2 summers.

Living in Paris

Living in Paris was a first for me on two fronts: living in Europe for an extended period of time and living in a big city for an extended period of time. Prior to this trip, I had been to Europe only once, on a tour to Spain for the 56th Certamen Internacional de Habaneras y Polifonía de Torrevieja with the Mason City High School Concert Choir. This trip, I was housed in El Colegio de España at the Cité Universitaire. The Cité is essentially a housing complex with dorms for many different nationalities. Anyone doing academic work in Paris, whether going to school or doing research, can stay at the Cité. Breakfast was included in the cost, as was room cleaning, both of which were very nice features. It helped that I didn’t have to resort to broken French with the staff, as they all spoke Spanish, which I also speak. Add the fact that the Cité is close to major attractions and near a subway station, and the living situation really could not have been better.

As in Spain, the French evening meal is not typically eaten until between 8:00 and 10:00PM (20.00 and 22.00, to be authentic). Most bistrots and the like are open until after midnight. This is due to the fact that it is lighter longer during the summer (the sun did not typically set until after 21.30). I like this aspect of Parisian culture, as restaurant hours coincide with the hours I feel most awake and hungry.

Particularly impressive was the general mastery of multiple languages by those working at restaurants (especially in the more touristy areas). In the Asian restaurants, it was not uncommon for staff to speak their native Asian language in addition to French and English, all very well. I only ran into a few “snobby” Parisian waiters at traditional bistrots. For the most part, if you attempt to speak French, they will respect you. Sometimes they will use English with you if they can’t stand to hear their language butchered, but sometimes they also just want to practice their English as much as you want to practice your French. I got along quite well not knowing much more than je voudrais and how to pronounce things on menus. As long as you don’t behave like an obvious tourist (i.e. wear plaid shorts, white athletic shoes, a graphic T-shirt, and a fanny-pack; speak English loudly; and generally look clueless), you will be fine. I blended in with my typical garb (nice jeans, solid-colored T-shirts, Skechers, and messenger-style laptop bag). It should be noted that Parisians wear jeans until it actually gets hot, meaning around 90°F (32.2°C) and above. So, even though it was typically hot and humid with no air conditioning anywhere to be found, I stuck with my jeans unless it was unbearable.

This was also my first experience with using public transportation on a regular basis. I actually enjoyed using the RER and Métro subway systems, notwithstanding the acute risk of being pickpocketed/mugged and the looming threat of train derailment (there were two within a few weeks of each other in July: one in France and one in Spain). It helped that there was an RER B station right outside of the Cité, meaning that everything was easily-reachable without going to great lengths. There were enough RER or Métro stations scattered throughout the heart of Paris that it was difficult to get too lost after walking around all evening without eventually bumping into one. Despite the wholly unpleasant experience of transferring at the sewer-like Châtelet–Les Halles (largest underground train station in the world; too bad the air is humid and reeks of excrement!), the subway systems were largely positive (and necessary) factors in my daily routine.

I did find living in Paris to be extremely exhausting, mostly from the constant big-city commotion. Also, pretty much everyone smoked, and although tobacco products bore the dire warning fumer tue, no one actually cared. In recent years, indoor smoking bans have been put in place in restaurants, but that didn’t stop dedicated smokers from stepping outside periodically to feed the addiction (and of course, all of the smoke blew back in through the open door). My mildly asthmatic lungs did eventually get used to this, but, upon returning to the US, my first breath of Iowa air was even sweeter than the decadent Pierre Hermé macarons. I also saw a fair amount of electronic cigarettes, which were interesting.

Places I Visited

This list is non-exhaustive, but covers most of the main attractions.

  • La Flûte de Pan – Excellent set of music stores on the Rue de Rome, which was basically a street containing only music stores.
  • La Grande Arche de la Défense – I was fortunate enough to see a Chick Corea concert here.  The opening act, the Shai Maestro Trio, was also fantastic.
  • Musée National d’Art Moderne, located at the Centre Georges Pompidou – Great collection of 20th- and 21st-century artwork.  The famous electronic music center IRCAM is also located here, but it was closed on the day I went.  I will have to go back sometime.
  • Avenue des Champs-Élysées – Perhaps the most famous street in Paris.  Features the Arc de Triomphe.  I came here to try to see the final stage of the 100th Tour de France, but was a little late.  I did get to see some stragglers ride through, though.
  • Musée du Louvre – This is huge.  I spent 3 or so hours here and was unable to see even half of it.  I also got to see a horde of tourists standing in front of the Mona Lisa.
  • Musée d’Orsay – Repository of Impressionist art.
  • Musée Cluny – The Musée national du Moyen Âge, formerly Musée de Cluny, officially known as the Musée national du Moyen Âge – Thermes et hôtel de Cluny (–Wikipedia).  Filled with medieval artifacts.  The building itself is an old monastic abbey.  The famed Lady and the Unicorn tapestries were unfortunately being restored when I visited.
  • Château de Versailles – Historical dwelling place of royalty.  Contains more opulence than one previously considered possible to exist in one location.  The accompanying jardins are also sprawling and impressive.
  • Notre-Dame de Paris – The famous cathedral.  Unfortunately, the touristy ambiance strips much of the mystery and grandeur from the experience.
  • Sainte-Chapelle – A royal medieval Gothic chapel, famed for its beautiful stained glass, half of which was under restoration when I visited.
  • Cimetière du Père-Lachaise – Massive cemetery that contains the remains of many famous people.  Even though a map with notable graves indicated was provided, I spent the better part of 4 hours searching for remains, and didn’t even make it through the whole thing.  I never had a chance to visit some of the other Parisian cemeteries.
  • Opéra Garnier – Parisian national opera house, contains museum portion.
  • Jardin de Luxembourg – Second largest public park in Paris, located near La Schola Cantorum; great place to take a baguette and eat lunch.
  • Jardins des Tuileries – Lovely public gardens.  I only knew of the word Tuileries previously from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
  • Tour Eiffel – Located on the Champ de Mars public greenspace.  So extremely beyond touristy that I sort of just walked by and took pictures.  Perhaps I will return sometime and actually go up to the top level.

Notable Food Items and Restaurants

This list is also non-exhaustive, and covers most of the main attractions.

    • Boulangeries/Patisseries – Homes of the iconic French staple, the baguette. Multiple bakeries can be found on nearly every street. Baguettes, especially the artisan ones, are fantastic and inexpensive (usually around 1€). The sandwich variants are typically a little more (3€ or 4€), but still affordable. Also not to be missed: pain au chocolat.
    • CrêperiesCrêpes can be savory or sweet, and always sell for below 5€, usually between 2€ and 4€. Whether jambon/fromage/champignon or banane/Nutella/coco, these are another excellent way to eat inexpensively.
    • Escargot – Finally tried this for the first time on one of my last nights in Paris. Absolutely delicious. Of course, anything drowned in butter, cheese, and parsley tends to be, but if you enjoy clams or other shellfish, land snails are similar texturally.
    • Steak Tartare – Raw minced boeuf or cheval, usually served with onions, capers, and raw egg yolk. I was never courageous enough to try this, but it was served at practically every restaurant I went to. Perhaps one day…
    • Döner Kebap – Usually referred to as simply kebab in Paris, this is a Turkish dish made of meat shaved off of a vertical spit. There is a significant Middle-Eastern population in Paris, so little kebab places abounded. This was my go-to “fast but filling” food item.
    • L’As du Fallafel – Lauded as the best falafel place in Paris, perhaps even in Europe, you know this Kosher restaurant in the Marais district is famous internationally when it features a one-page menu in 7 different languages, including Hebrew.
    • Académie de la Bière – Featuring an extensive menu of Belgian craft beers and close to Port-Royal, this was, for obvious reasons, a favorite place among many of the EAMA students to share camaraderie and “do counterpoint homework.”
    • Heureux Comme Alexandre – Great fondue bourguignonne.
    • Berthillon – Phenomenal sorbet and ice cream.
    • Pierre Hermé – Finest macarons in Paris. I had the Jardin Andalou flavor, which was olive oil with mandarin orange and red berries.
    • Petit Saigon – Stumbled across this Vietnamese restaurant while wandering around looking for food. I had absolutely fantastic green papaya salad and pho. Located on Rue des Carmes.
    • Sabraj – The best-decorated Indian restaurant I have ever seen. The walls were covered with ornate metallic mosaics, and the light was spice-colored. The wooden tables had pockets of Indian spices under the glass. Worth going to for the ambiance, but not if you want spicy Indian food. The French must not have high spice tolerance, because the food was lacking in the capsaicin department.
    • Le Petit Prince de Paris – Traditional Parisian restaurant with a cozy feel, casual atmosphere, and great food. The music selection was interesting, featuring mostly old American pop tunes–when the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” came on, my night was made. I had a plate of duck-based dishes consisting of roasted foie gras with mango, a foie gras terrine, carpaccio, smoked magret, gizzards on salad, and confit. The potato gratin is also to die for. I had both foie gras and escargot here for the first time, and am more of a fan of the latter than the former. The person I ate with said that the foie gras is superior to that found in some of the haute cuisine restaurants in Paris.

A word on Parisian Sriracha sauce: it is disappointingly mild compared to the standard Huy Fong variety we have in the US, and is also much sweeter. More evidence for limited capsaicin tolerance in France.

Photo Gallery

This is a collection of photos taken in July 2013 while living in Paris and studying composition with the EAMA program. I have arranged these in semi-narrative order, so that the viewer starts at my dorm, travels through the subway, goes to La Schola Cantorum, then sees various other sights across Paris. These photographs only record a fraction of the things I did and places I saw; I tried to capture more of the mundane moments than tourist attractions for which high-quality pictures exist elsewhere.

Camera used: Samsung Galaxy S4 camera.

In Conclusion…

Barring untimely mental degeneration, I will never forget my month with EAMA in Paris, but for now, I am glad to be back home. This August will be filled with learning audition material for the upcoming school year, continuing my compositional efforts on my string quartet and piano sonata, and several other projects, including modding a Game Boy DMG-01 for use in chiptune music–more info on this later: the Game Boy arrived in the mail yesterday, and I hope to have all of the materials gathered and modding started by mid-August. Expect a blog post!