Pushing Boundaries (from 1998)

This article was originally published 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 didexpand 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.

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

This article was originally published 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 Linkperformed 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

This article was originally published on  AUGUST 10, 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 IMark Carlson: Concerto for Piano and Wind Ensemble IIMark Carlson: Concerto for Piano and Wind Ensemble III

A Multitude of Clarinets!

This article was originally published on

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 Mirrorsand 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!

The Darkest Day

This article was originally published on JULY 21, 2011

photo by Yuming Chiu

photo by Yuming Chiu

Mark Carlson:The Darkest Day
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 repertoire for his instrument—and since I really love the euphonium’s gorgeous, soulful sound, and since he was so enthusiastic about my music, I was eager to do it.

He had various ideas for what the piece might be, including a concerto for euphonium and a medium-sized ensemble of woodwinds—still an idea I like! But for many practical reasons, I settled on writing a piece for euphonium and organ.

Mark, Jesse, and Carl

Mark, Jesse, and Carl

During the spring before I started writing the piece, another of my former students, Jesse Rosenman, had a stroke at the ridiculously young age of 21. It was painful to see such a young, vibrant, on-top-of-the-world person felled like this, and at first, no one knew if he would survive. (Fortunately, he has completely recovered and has flourished).

On the first day that Jesse was able to accept visitors in the hospital—the first day that he started to speak again, haltingly—I went to see him and joined a long line of his many friends, also anxious to wish him well. His parents allowed me a few minutes alone with him, and we shared a brief, touching, and even amusing conversation.

It was such a relief that he was showing signs of recovering, but still, I left the hospital overcome with sadness—sadness that a young man, so full of life, should ever have to go through this terrible experience—and as I drove away, the melancholic melody that begins this piece came into my head.

The piece isn’t at all the story of Jesse’s tragedy, but it was certainly inspired by it. And listening to it now, I hear it as an expression of that unspeakable sadness, of the anguish that such incomprehensible experiences cause us, and which are, alas, so much a part of human existence.

This is the first in a series of occasional articles about specific pieces.

Silken Roses

This article was originally published on JULY 31, 2011

And now, for something completely different…

Mark Carlson:Silken Roses

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 and surprising loss of a lover (she had, in fact, just gone through a difficult divorce), and the words immediately suggested to me a country-western song. I think Frances was surprised that I had responded to her words as I did, but I could hear it no other way. And, bless her heart, she hired a group to record it.

It’s now a fairly distant memory, but as I recall, the group sight-read the song, asked for my feedback, went through it again, and then recorded it. It was impressive!

Not long after that, I completely lost touch with Frances. If anyone out there knows her, please let her know I’ve been thinking about her.  And I am delighted to have this anomalous piece of music—well, not entirely anomalous, if you know everything I have written—as part of my output.

And so I put away the flute one last time…

This article was originally published on JUNE 13, 2011

Playing flute in high school

Playing flute in high school

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 wanted to do as a flutist.

This change-of-life has been looming for some time. I was exhausting myself with composing, teaching at UCLA and SMC, running Pacific Serenades, and performing, all at the same time, year after year. It took a long time for me to realize that something had to give, and as a result, two years ago, I took a trial hiatus from flute playing for a little more than a year. During that time, I realized I was content not to be a performer, but as I had already scheduled a number of performances for this season that has just ended, I decided to give it my all and then retire in peace.

I’ve often joked that performing was the price I had to pay for my love of rehearsing. Getting to play great music with wonderful musicians has always felt like a gift from on high, but playing onstage was never quite as fun for me. I was myopic enough to assume that this attitude was the norm, until eventually it dawned on me that many of the musicians I most admire actually enjoy performing. Imagine that! It was so revelatory—and such a foreign concept to me!—when I recognized that my fellow Pacific Serenades musicians were actually having fun onstage. From that moment on, I made it a life goal to know what it was like to truly enjoy performing.

Eventually I succeeded at that and did enjoy the next several seasons of performing. But there are still only so many hours per day, and now that I am just one year away from age 60, I am vividly aware that there are only so many years in a life, too. Now, I’d rather spend those limited hours and years composing, and that makes me very happy.

I am so grateful to have spent all of these many years performing. It has made me a better composer, a better and more complete musician, and a more integral part of the musical community than I would have been otherwise. I’ve been blessed by getting to work and play with many amazing musicians, both professionally and casually, and I am glad that they count me among their friends and colleagues.

I’ve had a handful of performances that I am truly proud of, and when listening to recordings of those, I think that they were as good as any I’ve heard of those pieces. Also, I made a few recordings for CD that I think are excellent.

And I’ve always enjoyed being able to produce a beautiful tone on the flute. All of my teachers were devoted to the ideal of an open, big, warm, and noise-free sound. It is that kind of sound that has made me love the flute, and the pleasure in making that sound has been one of the things that has kept me playing all of these years. In today’s world of flute playing, that ideal seems to have been supplanted by a harder, edgier, more closed sound, so much so that on those rare occasions when I hear the kind of flute tone that I love, my heart jumps for joy.

It is a beautiful sound, and I will miss making it.

Other than that, I am happy with my decision. And so, I say farewell to you—my beloved instrument, my constant companion for most of my life—with deep gratitude for all you have given me.

My First Published Article

This article was originally published on 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 a few weeks ago!

Alexandra Pierce was my first-year music theory professor at the University of Redlands, when I was a student at the University’s experimental school, Johnston College, and I studied piano with her the following year. Later, I studied movement education with her and her husband, Roger Pierce, and this immediately and forever became an integral part of my life. In fact, it was a significant aspect of my personal growth and changed me for the better, both as musician and person.

I am so happy that Alexandra has written and published this book, the culmination of many years of unique and ingenious work.  If  my review leads others to read it, I will be so gratified. It’s a wonderful book!

Here’s a link to Deepening Musical Performance through Movement on Amazon.

Writing about Pacific Serenades, part 2

This article was originally published on 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 to the New England Conservatory, where I had already been accepted for grad school in flute the following year. Like many people who don’t live in Los Angeles, I had such a bad impression of the place and assumed I would be eager to leave after my one year here.  Imagine my surprise when, pretty much as soon as I arrived here, I felt as if I were home.  I never left.

I was so drawn to its innate physical beauty—and even more, to the aesthetic freedom that I found here. Some 30 years later, I drew on my deep love  and appreciation of LA when I wrote this introduction to the 2004 Pacific Serenades season:

Southern California has long held the world in its spell.

It is a place of rich natural beauty—of sensuously rolling hills, of fragrant sage and orange blossoms, of carpets of golden poppies bending in gentle breezes, of grand mountains, of the blue Pacific.

It is a place of beautiful Mediterranean homes nestled in those rolling hills, of improbably long streets that seem to traverse many worlds, of exotic foods from every land, of Hollywood.

It is a place whose mystique has called to many who seek freedom and adventure and a life unfettered by the traditions of their homelands.

It is a place that has nurtured creativity—among expatriates who came here seeking artistic freedom and among homegrown artists—allowing for the blending of new and old, of one culture and another and another, and for the creation of new art forms and languages.

Among the many creations that this rich and unique culture has given rise to is Pacific Serenades—a singularly Southern California ensemble which has created its own traditions.

For eighteen years, we have taken our freedom to heart, freely expressing music in the ways we value most:  with excellence, with a love of overt beauty, with a commitment to lyricism—to music which moves us and uplifts our spirits—and with the personal warmth and friendliness so natural to this, our home.

Writing about Pacific Serenades

This article was originally published on 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 midst of this celebratory season got me reminiscing about one of the things I have done for many years as Artistic Director, and that is to write an introductory blurb published in our annual season brochure and then, usually, in our season program. I think that this is the first of these I wrote, which was in our 1998 season brochure:

Being a Los Angeles artist is one of the luckiest things I can imagine.  Here, there is a unique freedom—a freedom to create outside the fossilized boundaries set by European and East Coast traditions, with a fresh palette as diverse as the many people that have come here seeking a new way of life.  Here, we unabashedly embrace overt beauty.  Here, we know that melody is the newest thing going around the music scene, and that the best music moves us and uplifts our spirit.  Here, we are at the forefront of a new musical Renaissance.  Care to join us?

It was in the preparation for this season—our 12th—that I decided to be more outspoken about our aesthetic outlook. I wanted to make an overt statement that what we were (and are) doing is about the most adventuresome, most courageous thing going on in the classical music world. Thirteen years later, I stand my ground.

Here’s one I wrote for our 2003 season, and I really think it expresses well what Pacific Serenades is all about:


To sing is human.

There was a time when lyricism was undeniably the soul of music.  There was a time when spinning a good tune was as natural to a musician as . . .  well, as singing.  And though in some circles this gift has been discarded, lyricism remains at the heart and soul of Pacific Serenades.

Lyricism comes in all forms, whether virtuosic or simple, sacred or worldly, profound or light-hearted.  But when a good melody begins its journey, it takes you with it, and its beauty resonates within you long after it has been sung.

Lyrical music is meant to carry you away to places beyond the cares of this world, as well as into the depths of those cares—to express the richness of your experience and of the unknown.  To sing is, indeed, human—and divine.