ELEGANT PRIMITIVISM or ELEGIAC ENERGY – On the Conclusion of the Public Vote in the Carl Orff Competition

Orpheus 5

The public voting phase of the Carl Orff Competition concluded yesterday.  Now I guess the public ratings of the 115 entries are being weighted and tabulated to determine five finalists.  Five more finalists will be chosen by a select jury.  Sometime in June, we are told, the ten finalists will be announced.

Also yesterday I received this email from a friend, Kevin Jillette, which I thought included some astute and well formulated comments about the competition and Rilke (the bold facing and underlining is Kevin’s):

Hey Danny,

Just wanted to let you know that I managed to hear and vote for your Orff Competition entry, along with about 19 others. The whole thing is pretty compelling: I’m fascinated not only by the range of inspiration and imagination on display, but also by the fact of the competition having so many entries! I found myself wondering about these composers’ back-stories — beyond what the brief bios revealed — and wanting to know why they decided to enter the competition.

And then there’s the music, of course. In the pile of entries I heard there were some attractive, precious and semi-precious stones; a handful of handsome and perfectly acceptable paste numbers; a couple of clinkers; and a few real gems. Your composition is in that last category.

One aspect of Rilke that I’ve always enjoyed — even when at his most inscrutable — is the distinctive mood/breath his poetry exhales. It’s like the atmosphere of a peculiar world from which his works have arrived, wherein one encounters seeming paradoxes like elegant primitivism or elegiac energy. Your song is a inspired setting of Rilke’s text, and (IMHO) it makes marvelous, imaginative use of the stipulated materials. But beyond that, through some kind of alchemy, you’ve also managed to capture and convey that mood. Which is why — to me — your piece wins.


Thanks Kevin, and thank you for permitting me sharing your thoughts.

You can listen to and follow the score of “Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes” below:

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WEDDING MUSIC – 25 Years Together, 20 Years Married

Version 2

April 25, 1998, oh how young we once were…

“So, where did the two of you meet?” we are often asked.

“In the back of a Greyhound bus,” we respond by rote, and await the inevitable follow up question.

It was exactly 25 years ago, April 25, 1993, on the way back to NYC from the big Gay and Lesbian March on Washington we had individually attended that weekend (back then Bi and Transgender were yet to be added to codify LGBTQ).  I tell that story, and how our marriage exactly 5 years later made us out-law marrieds until the final federal seal of approval in 2015, in my “Our Time Has Come” blog post.


Ed and I, closer in time to today…


Today, on our 25th anniversary of togetherness, and 20th anniversary of marriage, let me share some little bits from our wedding, specifically the music of our wedding.

Ed is a Quaker with a capital Q, and so our wedding was a Quaker ceremony in the 15th Street Meeting House, with all the traditional Quaker trappings, including the marriage certificate with our vows written out in beautiful calligraphy, signed and witnessed by all assembled wedding guests.  I like the Quaker wedding traditions, but call myself “spiritually unaffiliated”; if I have a religion, it is Music.  So we found ways that music would be as much a part of our wedding as Quakerism.

But before I show how we accomplished that, let me start with the musical tradition that features in pretty much every wedding, the married couple’s first dance.  We chose a double feature of songs, starting slow and then going full swing.

Heirat (Married) – Greta Keller – from Cabaret

Oh wie wunderbar, nichts ist so wie’s war, durch ein winziges Wort: Heirat

Aus dem Erdgeschoß wird ein Märchenschloß durch ein winziges Wort: Heirat

In the movie version of “Cabaret”, my all time favorite movie musical, only the German version of “Married” is heard playing on the phonograph.  I’ve always found this recording awfully lovely, and it being from “Cabaret” and me having been born and raised in Germany, this “marriage” song felt just too appropriate.  Besides, Ed and I do live in a ground floor apartment (Erdgeschoß) we’ve turned into our dream castle (Märchenschloß).  Ed wanted to dance to something more upbeat too though.  So after slow dancing to “Heirat”, we swung out to Ella Fitzgerald belting out Cole Porter’s “From This Moment On”.

From This Moment On – Ella Fitzgerald

Version 2

Wedding photos and our Quaker marriage certificate

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STILLES ENTSETZEN – AWESTRUCK, AWFUL REGRET – One More Week of the Carl Orff Competition’s Public Voting



“Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes” evokes the lead-up to Orpheus’ fateful turn to glance at Eurydice, the awestruck, awful regret at that moment and its terrible aftermath.

“Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes” beginnt kurz vor den fatalen Rückblick Orpheus zur Eurydike, welches stilles Entsetzen und bewegte Reue auslöst, sowie den endgültigen Schicksalsfall.

Above you can read my description of the piece “Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes” on my entry page for the Carl Orff Competition (you can also listen to my piece and rate it).  When I submitted my entry and filled out the on-line forms, the text box provided for the composers to describe their piece was so small, I assumed there would be, like there usually is in these things, a strict, low word limit.  Knowing I wanted to describe my piece in both English and German and worrying about how little text space I might be allowed, I wound up writing descriptions that are nearly haikus.


Orpheus’ fateful turn to glance at Eurydice

the awestruck, awful regret at that moment

its terrible aftermath

Der fatale Rückblick Orpheus zur Eurydike

welches stilles Entsetzen und bewegte Reue auslöst

sowie den endgültigen Schicksalsfall.


Well maybe not great poetry; I probably do a better job with my musical composition.  But I did work hard to find just the right words in the right formulations.  Yet the German and English descriptions are not really literal translations of each other, but the kind of freer reflections one finds when poetry is carefully translated, where the right dictionary definition may be better substituted by words or phrases with the right cultural and emotional connotations.

Orpheus return-to-overworld

Which brings us to the differences between Rilke’s original German text and the English translation (both of which I reprint here, along with the score and recording of my interpretation).  I set the original German text because it is the original Rilke, but also because it is superior to the English translation (a Spanish translation was also made available).  There are many reasons why I think that, but I’ll share one example with just one word.  In the English translation, Eurydice is said to no longer be Orpheus’ “property”.  The word used in the original German is “Eigentum”.  That is a direct, literally true translation.  Eigentum means property.  But Eigentum in German contains the word “Eigen”, which means “what is one’s own”.  So “Eigentum” literally means “that which is one’s own”.  Which is what “property” means too, but not in the way that includes a spoken reference to one’s sense of self.  Also, the word “Eigentum” is full of lovely long held vowel sounds and soft consonants, whereas “property” boasts the opposite in all, only short, curt vowels and explosive consonants.  In the English version I can only feel the ugly, mercantile, possessive aspects to describing Eurydice as belonging to Orpheus.  In the original German I can also feel the loving, soulful connection.

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CARL ORFF COMPETITION – Let’s Hear it for the Underdogs

CO banne


Dear Danny,
Your Orpheus,  Eurydike,  Hermes​ is a brilliant,  powerful piece,  spellbinding from its first note to the final silence,  tense,  tumultuous between,  each step possessed,  pauses as loud as the notes,  the whole astounding,  overwhelming.


Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes – Danny Ashkenasi (text: Rainer Maria Rilke)


O1It’s been four weeks since the public evaluation phase of the Carl Orff Competition went live, with two more weeks to go.  I posted my blog piece about the competition parameters and my entry “Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes” and put the word out to friends and family.  Among the many kind responses that came my way, Aunt Azzie’s (AKA Alice Leake) succinct and evocative appreciation (reprinted above) is everything I could have wished for and then some.

Thanks, Azzie, your check is in the mail.

In addition to my post, you can listen to and also rate my competition entry here, and check out and rate any of the other 114 entries here.

O10The Carl Orff Competition urges the public to “Please be fair! Vote for at least five entries and look at as many composers as possible.”  In a newsletter they make the same appeal so that “in the end, the best composers win and not the best marketing specialists. ;-)”

Marketing specialists?  Indeed, there are five or six entries that have amassed such a huge amount of page views that they leave all other competitors far behind.  The implication being that even with the competition purveyors hoping to even out the playing field by favoring ratings from those who evaluate multiple entries, a huge “fan base” is likely to overtake all other factors.  (I should add that of the 10 finalists, five will be chosen by the public vote, while the other five will be chosen by a jury.)

With that in mind, I thought I would highlight a half dozen or so entries that perhaps for lack of marketing muscle currently sit among the lowest page view counts in the competition so far, but which I found particularly accomplished, lovely, smart or all three in one.  Caveat, these aren’t the only pieces I really enjoyed, just a few of the ones I have heard so far that deserve a bit more attention.

CO JelleJelle Vansielegham’s composition is, in a word, lovely.  Comfortably residing in the tradition of french impressionists.  A moving, deeply expressive vocal line flows over excitedly murmuring harp arpeggios.

CO - Jellescore


Like most competition entries, Vansielegham’s recording is computer generated and doesn’t include a sung vocal line.  Instead a natural sounding cello takes its place, and you must read the score to see how well the words are supported by the beautifully rendered melody lines.  The entry page is here.

CO Alessio


Alessio Ferrante’s musical language suggests a performance as it might have occurred in ancient Greece itself.   The main descending theme heard in the voice and the harp repeatedly evokes the ultimate descent back in the Underworld that will inevitably follow after the song’s subtle and sad conclusion.  Here is his entry page.

CO alsessio score

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HAPPY SONGS FOR DARK TIMES #1 – A Grand Hotel Extravaganza


Sometimes the right slice of music can be a sure fire happy picker upper.

These are dark, soul depressing, body wearying times we live in.  More than once I have been hearing people talk about how they feel sick in their guts, their stomachs clenched since November 2016 or thereabouts.

Sleeplessness, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, the actual ailments, whether as metaphor or real symptom, can travel the body (politic), but since I find myself home on the couch today with a very real and lingering stomach discombobulation, I will go with the clenched guts.

How to feel better at least for the moment, when you know the real cure for this ailment will take time and diligence (pepto bismol and rest for my body, voter turn out and defending democracy and rule of law and ethics for the body politic)?

Some turn to alcohol or drugs to blast away the blues.  That may work for a while but the side effects tend to be dire.

Safer may be the right comedic movie or book.  Or a nice walk in just the right environment.  That may take a few hours commitment and certain logistical efforts.

I have found one way to get a quick burst of happy, even if only for a few minutes, one that works without fail even on my often habitually melancholy nature.

There are certain songs, certain pieces of music, when they play I can not help but get happy.  My mood will lift with certainty.  I may even start dancing with glee, regardless of how I felt just the moment before.  It’s like an aural Vitamin B shot.

It just happened again 30 minutes ago when my laptop’s music shuffle played the final track from the soundtrack of Wes Anderson’s movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, originally heard during the conclusion of the film’s end credits:

Traditional Arrangement: Moonlight – Alexandre Desplat


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Another Year, Another Trio of First Grade Operas.


Three first grade operas have performed in their classrooms in front of an audience of parents, grandparents and loved ones.  In three consecutive days 1-3’s “Diamond Kids”, 1-2’s “The Alicorns” and 1-1’s “Imagine” regaled audiences with stories, dialog, lyrics and music all created by the first graders themselves.  I delighted in the spirited performances, the parents’ pride and joy, and the two massive bouquets of flowers and one bottle of 50% Kentucky bourbon I received as thanks.

There’s really no substitute to seeing the performances live, the classroom turned into a theater with set decoration and costumes designed by the kids, while the whole class as one chorus sings every song, while each individual child gets to act out a scene in the opera (if one character is in six scenes, six children share playing that character over the course of the performance).  However it could be amusing (and edifying) to get a quick synopsis of each opera, with a sampling of some of the music and lyrics the children wrote, so here goes:

Diamond Kids

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1-3’s opera centers around a field trip to the mines.  Cal and Devin know about the secret Rocky Cave inside the mines, where they expect to find diamonds they plan to steal.

Meanwhile Alex annoys best friend Bex with offers of avocado and broccoli and a rather militant attitude against cookies and cake.  It turns into quite the operatic contretemps:


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M - 100

March 24 – March For Our Lives –  Millions are on the streets in the USA. 

Here are some impressions from New York City. 

With appropriate and inappropriate songs that went through my head as Ed and I participated.


Subways were so congested, many of us got off at 59th street to go what should have been just a few blocks to get to the start of the march.  But so many were participating that the entry into the starting area moved up to 79th and then 86th street.  So thousands were already streaming up Columbus Avenue in a kind of major mini match just to get to the actual march.


Thousands waited for hours up Central Park West for their section to join the march:


Paul McCartney joined the march, telling reporters “This is what we can do, so I’m here to do it. One of my best friends was killed in gun violence right around here, so it’s important to me.”  The march would pass by the spot where Lennon was assassinated.

Imagine – John Lennon




This picture made quite an impression on Twitter, and reminded me of the heartbreakingly apt Nick Cave song featured in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”:

O Children – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds


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My Entry in the Carl Orff Competition

Orpheus 4

I composed a chamber work, a song in the tradition of the “Lieder” of the salon, called “Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes”.

It describes the moment in Greek mythology when Orpheus, leading his wife Eurydice out of the world of the dead, turns back to look at her, despite having been warned not to, thus losing her forever.   The lyrics are excerpted from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.  You can listen to it here (and follow the score further below):

Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes  –  Danny Ashkenasi  –  Baritone: Peter Clark

I composed this piece for the Carl Orff Competition.  So this is the moment I ask you to please go to their website and show my entry some support.  Because in addition to a select jury, the public vote determines whether an entry is chosen as a finalist.  You will find my entry listed either in the middle or near the bottom of the page (or maybe elsewhere yet, they seem to keep randomizing the order, but those have been the two consistent locations), or simply go directly to my designated entry page.  There you can give my piece a rating; you can even leave a review.  (And do listen to and rate other compositions too; it’s fun and the competition will then value your input more highly.)  You have until April 30.  Tell your friends and family.  🙂

Thank you.

The Carl Orff Competition included the following parameters for the composition:

  • “The text must be fully completed. It is only a part of the poem ”Orpheus.Eurydice.Hermes” not the entire poem. It can be in German, English or Spanish” (I chose the original German).
  • “The work must be between 4 and 6 minutes in duration.
  • The work must be written for solo baritone (alternatively solo soprano), harp (alternatively piano) and a frame drum. The singer should be able to play the frame drum”.  (I chose baritone and harp. I enjoyed writing for the harp again.)

Additionally, “the sculptures by Antje Tesche-Mentzen should serve as a source of inspiration”.  (Pictures of the sculptures are included in this post.)

Here is the excerpt of the poem “Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes” by Rainer Maria Rilke the Carl Orff Competition designated, first in German:


Sie war schon nicht mehr diese blonde Frau,

die in des Dichters Liedern manchmal anklang,

nicht mehr des breiten Bettes Duft und Eiland

und jenes Mannes Eigentum nicht mehr.

Sie war schon aufgelöst wie langes Haar

und hingegeben wie gefallner Regen

und ausgeteilt wie hundertfacher Vorrat.


Sie war schon Wurzel.


Und als plötzlich jäh

der Gott sie anhielt und mit Schmerz im Ausruf

die Worte sprach: Er hat sich umgewendet -,

begriff sie nichts und sagte leise: Wer?

Orpheus 6


And in English:


She was no longer that woman with blue eyes

who once had echoed through the poet’s songs,

no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,

and that man’s property no longer.

She was already loosened like long hair,

poured out like fallen rain,

shared like a limitless supply.


She was already root.


And when, abruptly,

the god put out his hand to stop her,

saying, with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around–,

she could not understand, 

and softly answered



Finally there was one more request, if not quite requirement, for the competition:

“It should also be noted that Monteverdi in his opera ”Orfeo” used a rhythm during the song ”Nehmt mich auf Ihren stillen Wälder” which corresponds to the initials of Carl Orff ”CO” in Morse code.

Orpheus 2

On the occasion of the renaming of the competition this is a fact which could be taken into account but is not obligatory.”

As you can see, the Monteverdi / Carl Orff morse code rhythm made it into the playing of the frame drum in my version, starting at measure 9:

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Ed and I originally saw “Kinky Boots” when it was still in previews.  We had treated each other with reciprocal Broadway tickets for Xmas, because we had high hopes for a Harvey Fierstein / Cyndi Lauper musical collaboration.  The performance ended with the audience in ecstatic jubilation, echoed by the critics after opening night, and four years later “Kinky Boots” is still going strong on Broadway.

K2Broadway tickets being rather expensive, even half price at the TKTS booth, Ed and I are not likely to see any show more than once, no matter how much we like it.  But then Jake Shears, the lead singer of my fave pop band “Scissor Sisters” took over the lead role of Charlie Price, and his tenure at “Kinky Boots” would overlap for 4 weeks with “Whose Line Is It Anyway” improv comedy performer extraordinaire Wayne Brady playing the other lead role Lola.  Two of our favorite idiosyncratic talents starring together in one of our favorite shows.  Four years after our first joyous visit, we decided we would treat ourselves again.  Half price tickets at the TKTS booth.  Still had to pluck down 9 Harriet Tubmans (currently still Andrew Jacksons), but we took the splurge.

One delicious irony of the current casting is that the flamboyant gay guy is playing the straight guy and the straight guy is playing the drag queen.

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Phatom Thread

Phantom Thread – Psycho – Cloud Atlas – Platoon – Lorenzo’s Oil – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – American Crime Story: Versace – The Club – Schindler’s List – Jesus Christ Superstar – Moonlight – Jackie – Under the Skin – A Single Man – The Red Violin

Johnny Greenwood’s score for P. T. Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” may win the Oscar this Sunday (although most Oscar pundits peg it as runner up to Alexandre Desplat’s lovely waltzes for “The Shape of Water”).  It is my favorite movie score of the year, deftly evoking both unabashed romanticism and prickly modernism reminiscent of mid 20th century music.  (A great part of “Phantom Thread’s” extraordinary achievement resides in how every element of the film, story, cinematography, acting etc. feels unusual as well as rooted in the era it takes place, as if this original love story could have been made in the 1950s, minus a few cuss words.)

Greenwood’s lush score favors strings, in a small chamber configuration and full string orchestra, joined by harp, percussion, piano and celeste.  Some of the more overtly romantic tracks feature the piano prominently, but the first time the main theme is played, it is the string orchestra on its own, sighing away in the upper registers, in close harmonies and polyphonic echoes of the main motif:

Phantom Thread – Phantom Thread I – Johnny Greenwood

The Phantom Thread theme is played four times in the score, each time in a musical and instrumental variation; a piano/violin duet, an extravagantly double-stopped solo violin version, and another, more stately, heavy version for the string orchestra, accompanied by timpani:

Phantom Thread – Phantom Thread III – Johnny Greenwood

It is however the first version that struck me the most, and reignited an ongoing fascination I have with what I call the “sighing strings of cinema”, movie score pieces that exclusively utilize string orchestra in gorgeously heart-tugging, soul-stirring ways.  There is a purity as well as a richness of tones in a string orchestra, and a variety of expression, even when limiting the parameters to what one may call “sighing strings”.   Turns out there are a quite a few accomplished examples of that extremely particular subset of movie music, so I will try to keep my examples limited to the pure variety exemplified by Phantom Thread I and not the “impure” accompanied-by-one-or-more-non-string-instruments options as exemplified by Phantom Thread III … except for one or two can’t-help-myself exceptions.

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John Gavin and Janet Leigh in “Psycho”, both well worth sighing about

My fascination with string orchestra music begins with one of the all time great scores ever composed for a movie, Bernard Herrman’s music for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”.  One of the great composers of classic Hollywood (“Vertigo”, “North by Northwest”, also for Hitchcock) who also defines the modern era with his score for “Taxi Driver”, Herrmann chose to match Hitchcock’s stark black and white aesthetics with the stripped down palette of the string orchestra.  Everybody knows “Psycho’s” most famous musical cue of the shrieking string glissandos that nerve janglingly accent the knife slashes of each murder – arguably the most famous musical cue in all of movie history, but Herrmann’s complete score for “Psycho” deserves recognition as one of the most accomplished scores for string orchestra in the 20th century, inside and outside the cinema.

Beyond the screaming shower strokes, Herrmann’s “Psycho” music masterfully sustains an overall mood of unnerving tension through jagged, propulsive syncopation, in its main title “Pursuit” theme, as well as eerie motifs that rise and fall up and down scales, long held notes of foreboding, and nagging pizzicatos. Yet there are also themes of intense longing and melancholy, which may be less remembered aspects of the score but which are in part the most beautifully haunting tracks, and great examples for this post’s sighing strings.  So while most of us may recall the strings of “Psycho” as messengers of horror and unease, I’d like you to also take in the sweet sorrow in the theme of the heroine, doomed because of a mistake she will make out of love:

Psycho – Marion and Sam – Bernard Herrmann

Psycho - Norman


Deep yearning is also the root of this next piece, but it reflects the longing in Norman Bates’ twisted soul, as he tells Marion perhaps a little too much about life with his mother, and finds himself a little too much attracted to Marion.

Psycho – The Madhouse – Bernard Herrmann

Both these tracks exemplify the emotional, yearning, sighing strings that are as much a part of Hermann’s “Psycho” score as those murderous harpy string slashes.

But, fine, I’ll throw in those for kicks too.  It’d be silly to leave them out of any discussion of “Psycho”, I suppose:

Psycho – The Murder – Bernard Herrmann

Psycho shower

Alrighty then…


My second most favorite cinematic string orchestra piece comes from “Cloud Atlas”.  It is the Cloud Atlas Sextet arranged for string orchestra.  In the storie(s) of “Cloud Atlas” the sextet is composed by one of the time-hopping movie’s 1930’s era characters; it’s music that, though forgotten in its own time, will resonate in a variety of ways in future ages to come.   This concert version is discovered by another character in the the 1970s on one of  only six vinyl copies believed to remain of that recording:

Cloud Atlas – The Cloud Atlas Sextet for Orchestra – Tow Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil, Gene Prisker

I love this theme and this arrangement.  How it sighs and pulls and enraptures.  It sounds perfectly like what a classical composer in the 1930s might have composed for string orchestra, which is of course exactly what it is supposed to be, not a soundtrack cue in a movie.

And speaking of classical music from the 1930’s, one can’t discuss the sighing strings of cinema without this most famously cinematically incorporated string orchestra piece from the classical concert repertoire:

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Five Minutes in Lockdown

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 7.17.50 PM

A few months ago I was conducting a third grade choir class in a Tribeca school, when an alarm sounded.

“Lockdown”, one of the two classroom teachers in the room with me and 25 third graders announced.

Swiftly, and calmly, the children congregated in a group sitting on the floor in a blind spot corner of the room, not visible from the door.  One teacher took a key out of the classroom’s call box and locked the door from the inside.  She also taped blank sheets of paper over the door’s window.  Then she joined the rest of us in the blind spot.

I sat still in a chair.  In decades of being a teaching artist all over the New York metropolitan area, I had been part of numerous fire alarms, all of them drills.  But this was my first lockdown alarm.  And whereas in a fire alarm one calmly lines up the students and walks with them down the hallways and stairways out of the school, onto the street, and at least a block away from the building, in this case the procedure was to collectively cower quietly and out of sight in a hidden corner of a locked room.

I assumed this was just a drill.  But I didn’t know.  I thought about asking the teachers if they knew a drill was planned for today.  Sometimes school administrations give advance warning of drills, sometimes they surprise the community to test the response.

But I decided just asking the question could cause anxiety.  I felt my role was to be calm and collected and look unworried.  My ignorance and inexperience would go unaddressed.

The children looked remarkably calm and patient.  The teachers looked calm and serious.  There was also a quality of discomfort under their professional demeanor that may have come from feeling anxious or angry.

I first thought how odd it was that such a lockdown drill was taking place in a New York City school.  Wasn’t this exercise an overreaction?  And the kind of thing that would be undertaken in the heartland of the country, not here in cosmopolitan NYC?  Then I remembered that Sandy Hook Elementary School is only 30 or so miles away.

I assumed that, of course, this is a drill.  Still I found myself listening carefully to any sounds out in the hallway.  I wanted the ongoing silence to confirm my assumption.

Thoughts of Sandy Hook stayed with me.  I felt a rising panic in my guts.  In all my experience of fire drills, including many that were unscheduled and might have been for real incidents, I had been calm and untroubled.

But now I felt a bubbling up of terror in my stomach.  Rising tremors of wordless fear.  I had to work to get the feeling under control, not allow myself to show the anxiety that wanted to paint itself on my face, not allow the tears pressing behind my eyes to emerge.

There was no way I was going to indulge in panic in front of the children.  I suppressed the fear, and with outward calm waited out in silence on my chair away from the classroom door, while the teachers sat quietly on their chairs, and the children sat quietly in a crowd on the floor.

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 7.20.23 PM

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LIGHT ENTERS THE HOME – with a “light”hearted music quiz



I’ll have a picture with my puzzle, please

Longtime visitors to my site will have noticed that I love sharing photos, under the “Two-fisted Touristing” rubric, of scenic vistas from around the world or places and events in New York City.  And sometimes I share images that just capture my eye, that give me a visual joy, things thrilling to capture and share in a frame of pixels.  I often find myself drawn to images of light play, its illuminations, its refractions, its shadows, its contrasts.


Hi, it’s me, being swathed in the light entering the home

Today I share a bunch of shots that all fall under the theme of “Light Enters the Home”.  Pictures I have taken this day or the other over the course of several months, when a shaft or spill of light shone into our home in a way that caught my attention and made me reach for the cell phone and click.

Maybe because we live in a ground floor apartment that doesn’t exactly get bathed in vast amounts of light any time of the day or the year, I am especially intrigued by the subtle particularities and dramatic flourishes natural light sometimes makes in our rooms.  Whatever the reason, I noticed that I had liked enough of these light-in-home pictures I made over the last year to collect them in a blog post.

And to make the whole endeavor more musical, I will, as is becoming a bit of a “thing” here on Notes from a Composer, include a musical guessing game: a collection of “Light” titled music tracks to identify, plus added musical trivia queries.  Track titles and artist names can be gleaned from the tags at the bottom of the post.  Enjoy!



Which “cutting” band asked Ian McKellen to thrill like Vincent Price in this song?



Sun tea visibly soaking in the sun rays on the window sill planters:



Which classic cinema comedian composed the music for his movies, including this “lighted” one?


Rothko wannabe in the bedroom window.



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The sky is paper

Bleeding upward from the edge

There are ink towers


My brother will be

There to meet me at the dock

Has it been five years?


Now there are seagulls

Wheeling and diving above

They scare the baby


There is a woman

Made of iron standing there

With her fist up high


I speak one language

Around me I hear many

But I know just one


I thought I smelled it

But it’s not my uncle’s bread

I guess I’m homesick


We stand at the rail

As we sail into loudness

But we are silent


A single snowflake

Back at home my cherry trees

Are about to bloom


There is a city

Rising like a different sun

It is before us


This series of nine haikus were written by Ellen McLaughlin and set to music by me in 2001 at a Composer/Librettist workshop.  With all the hateful dehumanizing rhetoric swirling around questions of immigration these days, I feel compelled to share these words, how they evoke with rich humanizing specificity one immigrant’s experience.


Ellen McLaughlin in “Angels in America”

Ellen McLaughlin is the acclaimed writer of plays like “Infinity’s House”, “The Trojan Women” and “Helen”.   She also, incidentally, iconically, played the Angel in the original Broadway production of “Angels in America”.  She was one of five writers thrown together with five singers and five composers, of which I was one, for two weeks during a very intensive workshop hosted by New Dramatists.  Every two days each writer was paired up with a different composer to collaborate on a specific assignment for a new music theater collaboration.  By the end of the workshop 26 pieces would be written and performed by all involved (It should have been “just” 25, but I ended up composing two pieces for the 5th assignment – which is another story altogether).

Ellen and I were paired up for the fourth assignment.  For this collaboration each writer and composer were given individually fashioned instructions.  Ellen was required to write her text in haiku structures.  It was solely her idea to write a piece from the perspective of an immigrant entering New York harbor.  Within less than a day, she sent me the text.  At first read I knew it was perfect.  I emailed Ellen that I loved it and set to work (making ours perhaps the simplest exchange between collaborators for the whole workshop).  I had a day to set it to music.

My instructions had been to not repeat any musical ideas; I was to compose a thoroughly through-composed piece, no verse or chorus structure, no motifs that are restated.  After having already written three pieces firmly residing in musical theater and song structure traditions, I was eager to embrace the assignment’s direction.  I also chose to add additional challenges for myself by experimenting with a cappella and using spoken text and vocal “sound effects” as musical materials.

The richly voiced baritone Patrick Mellen was assigned as our lead singer for this assignment, but for the first time we were given the option to include as many of the other four singers as we wished (and every composer did enthusiastically write for all five).  It was my first chance at that stage to compose for the soprano Jeannie Im, who told us during first day introductions how much she enjoyed singing stratospheric coloratura.  Ellen’s evocation of circling seagulls gave me the perfect opportunity to indulge Jeannie.

In the end, I wound up finding a bit of a loophole around the “don’t repeat yourself” stricture the workshop instructors had imposed.  The final haiku echoes the musical phrases of the first haiku, but in reverse order.  The end is a near aural mirror image of the beginning.  Rather than being taken as a bit of a cheat on my part, the instructors appreciated the musical gesture.



Haiku New York

Text: Ellen McLaughlin, Music: Danny Ashkenasi

Baritone: Patrick Mellen

Tenor: Nicky Paraiso;  Alto: Anita Hollander; Mezzo: Lovette George; Soprano: Jeannie Im



Haiku 1

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Notes on Myself

Danny books

Sometimes I am asked, in applications for grants or music competitions for example, to write about myself.  It is a certain special torture to have to act as your own greatest champion in writing (or in person), but that is what is often required of any artist, or perhaps even most of us, in many fields of work, in order to be given opportunities, to “get ahead”.  What follows are excerpts from one such required essay I have written, leaving out some of the biographical nitty gritty and focusing on some essentials.

Here is a bit of how this composer sees/hears themself:


I am an American composer/writer/actor born and raised in Berlin, Germany, living in Brooklyn, NY.  I’ve composed “pop” songs and “art” songs and chamber works for various instrumental combinations; yet my main body of work as composer/writer lies in music theater in all its variety: musical comedy and drama, opera, oratorio, experimental, children’s theater, original stories, adaptations of classic texts and writers, as the sole author/composer and working with collaborators.


My greatest strength is melody.  Drawing in as well as surprising the listener.  Creating musical phrases that caress and prick, soothe and confound, that are smart and visceral, moving emotionally and intellectually, but mostly do what music does best, exist in the ineffable.


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In the Name of Love on MLK Day



Today our nation commemorates Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The message and significance of Martin Luther King Jr. and what he represents for the aspirations of our country and the world weigh more heavily, sadly, today, than they have for a very long time.

This Thursday a choir of third graders in Manhattan will quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the conclusion of their chorus performance.

I was brought into their school to direct the third grade chorus on short notice in late October when the original chorus director left unexpectedly.  When I was told the performance was scheduled for this coming week, I immediately suggested that for the concert’s finale the children could sing U2’s paean to Martin Luther King Jr. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” while also quoting lines from the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Pride (in the Name of Love) – U2

U2’s lyrics about the oppressed and those who would stand up to oppression throughout history, as well as the third verse that pointedly references Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, will be sung in full by the children.  The hummed phrases will be repeated and sung as accompaniment to excerpts from “I Have a Dream”.  Each of the four individual third grade classes will quote in unison one of the four most well remembered sentences from the speech.  After the final full throated refrain of “Pride”, the concert will end with the word “love” held in extended harmony.

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One of Ed’s Christmas gifts to me was three puzzles made out of photos he had taken.  This was for one of our traditional “little” gifts we give each other, and Ed boasted of a Groupon offer that allowed him to avail himself of this otherwise expensive service at a 95% discount.  95% discount?  Looks to me like we were the lucky beneficiaries of a Groupon typo.

The first puzzle I worked on would be the one of the two of us, taken this summer at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.


The puzzles arrive in their completed state.  So I had to break up the puzzle into its 120 pieces.  Kind of scary what that does to Ed and me in this picture…


120 piece puzzles are not that hard to do, and it wouldn’t take me long.  But there would be a few subtle difficulties that kept things interesting.  In particular the fact that the puzzle pieces themselves are quite similarly shaped, so if they also look very similar there is a danger of fitting them together incorrectly.


It’s a Puzzlement, musically, as well…

As usual here, try to guess title, singer, source of the songs – or discover these tidbits in the tags at the bottom of the post…


Is it a matter of narcissism or merely the fact that those pieces are just the easiest to locate that I’m putting my face together first?


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