Friday, August 13, 2021

Distant Places - Album Release!


I’m happy to finally share my newest album, Distant Places! This album has a very special meaning for me on many levels. For one, it comes on the heels of completing my Ph.D in composition, which was partially responsible for the delay in finishing production. Secondly, this album was made with some of my favorite musicians in the world. Some have been a part of The BQE Project for many years (playing live music to film) and others have been friends since my college days. Everyone on this album worked tirelessly to capture my original intentions for each track...and that they did!

          The third reason for the albums significance is its representation of the best I can offer at this stage of my life. I tried to shape this album as a story....much in the way the Beatles structured Sgt. Pepper (not that I’m making any comparison musically). However, each piece contributes to a general arc of emotions, energy, tension and release. I thought it might be helpful to include background information on the writing concept and performance of each piece, as there are many stories within each track of the album.


To listen to Distant Places on Bandcamp (and to purchase), click below.


Track Descriptions:

Cat and Mouse:  This piece reflects the influence of J.S. Bach. I’ve always been fascinated with his inventions and fugues. The title suggests what the music does, which is to say one part is constantly chasing another (as in many 2-part inventions). Funny story about this piece: It was performed at Rowan University years ago. I was playing the udu part along with percussion students. My cousin was in the audience and overheard some young student quietly announce: “The cat and the mouse by Tom Nuzzola...who the F*&^k is Tom Nuzzola?” That’s when I knew I had arrived ;)


Over the Horizon:

This was written for Todd Reynolds – a musician I’ve known and admired since my college days. The following program notes convey what the piece is about: “Something liberating awaits us ahead….We can see it faintly in the distance, appearing as a simmering, maroon-like hue just above the horizon – always in view, yet not attainable. However, we are driven in its direction.” Over the Horizon expands upon a musical motive consisting of consecutive fourth intervals, as heard in the opening measures and serves as the basis for compositional development. The harmonic trajectory throughout represents a pushing and pulling towards an unattainable goal, represented in part by the contrasting use of the major and minor third interval within a triad.


Crossing the Line: In this piece I wanted to use the pandeiro in a less than traditional sense. Particularly, I was interested in incorporating rhythms that might be used with tabla or any hand drum in which fast rhythms could be executed. This was mostly possible due to the talents of Sergio Krakowski. When I showed him the part, he rose to the occasion and worked out these rhythms to perform them convincingly on the pandeiro as is heard in the opening measures and beyond. The guitar part serves to both present the tune and also set up an ostinato section for the pandeiro solo. The title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek as it refers to the fact that the guitar part crosses the bar line at several points. Phrases are displaced rhythmically, changing the listener’s perspective on the line itself.


Bass Palmas:

Composed for bass quartet, Bass Palmas explores the upright bass for its full potential as a melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic voice. I wanted this to be satisfying without other harmonic instruments and therefore, added only percussion. In terms of its structure, Bass Palmas is driven by an ostinato pattern (pizz) that ushers in floating, ambient textures and aggressive, high range solo lines. A rhythmic accompaniment of cajon and hand claps (palmas) assist the rhythmic drive and reinforce an unstoppable groove, which switches from pizz to arco and then back again. The piece culminates in an overlapping of patterns that cross over the bar line using a series of dominant seventh chord with added major / minor third inflections.


Red Sky: This piece sounds like its title. I envisioned a red sky in creating the guitar part. Other instruments were added in support of the feeling /color. A companion video can be found on youtube with various displays of a red sky.


Rochester Suite: This work is largely reminiscent of my days at the Eastman School of Music.....and of Rochester, NY. Throughout these movements I sought to communicate the experiences of being in Rochester and living within the Eastman community. I also wanted to provide a sense of time travel for my fellow alumni through highlighting certain experiences musically. Except for Fifth Floor Annex, I’ve made three videos to accompany these movements with photos spanning several decades (including images of Rochester from the early 20th century).

a.)  Garbage Plate:

Anyone who has ever been to Rochester will be familiar with this meal, which is the main “plate” at Nick Tahous (home of the famous garbage plate). Almost all of the performers on this piece attended Eastman around the same time as me or slightly later. It was important to record with players who shared in this background. The overlapping lines and “rough and tumble background rhythms” are meant to convey the funk (as it were) of the food and experience of having a Garbage Plate at Nick enjoyed after a night of drinking and general debauchery.

b.)  Sibley Tower: I’ve seen Sibley Tower a few times. However, the name itself inspired me to capture the somewhat melancholic atmosphere of downtown Rochester. In the accompanying video, I’ve included shots of the early trolley tracks, department store windows, and the Eastman School during its early construction—as well as concerts displayed on the marquis outside the Eastman Theater (now known as Kodak Hall). There is a dream-like atmosphere to this piece, which allows for a stream- of-consciousness effect.


c.)  Fifth Floor Annex: The title refers to the percussion practice rooms on the fifth floor of the Eastman annex. Anyone who practiced on this floor, and was not a percussionist, would most likely complain about the noise. Occupying three rooms, the percussionists (including myself) have certainly driven others crazy with our “’round the clock drum set playing” and rudimental exercises. Created as a drum corps piece, Fifth Floor Annex is dedicated to Steve Gadd (who incidentally heard this piece and replied, “Sounds great!”).


d.)  Going Home (long road back from Eastman): The suite concludes with a track that reflects that long journey back home each summer as well as the final year at Eastman. The guitar perfectly captures the sentiment of both the school and city of Rochester. The accompanying video includes many beloved figures whose presence spanned several decades at Eastman – namely Junior, Dean Paul Burgett, Chaplain Cyril Roberts, and John Beck.


Get the Point:

This piece reflects one of the principle teachings of Bob Moses (known today as Rakalam), focusing on a single recurring accent over two measures, while playing your instrument and improvising. Moses suggested singing the rhythms and either clapping or performing the recurring accent. Close friend, and wonderful musician, John Hollenbeck joins me on this track. I am singing the rhythms, which have been written out and translated on the drum set by John. This was a fun piece to record!



Although written for percussion, the intention was to make a percussion ensemble sound more like an orchestra. Themes, motives, and lines run through the ensemble—similar to how they might in an orchestral setting.


Just Passing through: I originally conceived of this as a piece to be performed with a looper. In fact, that is the way to approach this for future performances. Each bass line is played and then looped in preparation for the next event. Everything is performed to a percussion track, which helps the bass move from section to section.


Pablo’s Journey: I don’t know who Pablo just seemed like a good title. Pablo’s Journey was originally intended for guitar and pandeiro. However, it made more sense with upright bass, which is what you’re hearing in this recording. The piece is a journey through several chords and harmonic perspectives on the main motive. Paul Livant did a stellar job of learning this guitar part.....not easy to play!


Velvet Carnival: The title came later. The feeling is that of a carnival going a bit out of control – at times dreamy and other times, erratic and wild. Velvet describes the general texture of the piece...especially the main motive following the introductory statement.


Golem Overture: I wanted to conclude the album in a dramatic way and this seemed fitting. The overture consists of several themes from a commissioned score for the silent film “The Golem.” The piece travels through the various scenes and emotions encountered in this film including: Rage, love, fear, innocence, prayer, and rejoicing. I’d love to turn this into an opera some day.

Hope you enjoy!


Tom Nazziola


Saturday, June 9, 2018

Composing Outside the Lines (or within)

My first lesson with composer Tania Leon was something that would change my approach to composition forever. Professor Leon asked me to define a line (actually, she gave me a week to think about it and return with a definition). I was confused as to what this could possibly mean aside from a straight line between points A and B. When I returned for my second lesson, we discussed the various definitions of a line – particularly in the context of music. To illustrate the endless possibilities, Professor Leon drew a squiggly line on paper and then asked, “how would you notate this?” I remember thinking I wasn’t clear on exactly how to represent the shape before me, but soon realized this was an introduction to the concept of representing sound through notation in a way that expresses the organic shape of a musical line - beyond approximating the shape via conventional rhythmic notation, etc. The point of the lesson was to utilize notation in a manner that expresses the exact, organic shape of the musical idea in your head. It can mean anything from graphic notation (if this effectively conveys the idea) as well as micro subdivisions of the beat....but accurately executed! The latter can be a painstaking process as organically conceived rhythms often look complex when notated correctly on paper. However, this concept is crucial for pure, unadulterated compositional thought…especially in an environment where notation software can make it easy to input the closest sounding conventional rhythm. The concept of representing a line exactly as it appears forces one to search for the notation that will communicate that which sounds free and natural….almost in the manner of an improvisation. In a sense, the concept of “defining a line” deals with every conceivable musical shape beyond a straight line. As a suggestion, try singing your organic idea and recording it. Then transcribe the audio exactly as your hear it without altering the natural rhythm.  Notation programs such as Sibelius or Finale make it easy to select an idea which is “close enough”; however, truly complex rhythms require all sorts of manipulation and editing (not to mention a firm grasp of math in terms of note value and subdivisions – especially in the area of nested triplets / groupings, etc.). This approach will bring you closer to expressing your original ideas more accurately and also force you to think about what it is you really want to say as a composer. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Percussion ensemble in the 21st Century: An orchestral vision

As a family of instruments, percussion is constantly growing and evolving in the orchestra as well as with other ensembles. Having grown up as a percussionist, I’ve played in many percussion ensembles observing changes in the repertoire over the years – from the types of instruments used to the style of composition. Although there are many pieces that focus on small sections of the percussion family (groups of three or four), the available number of players in a college setting, and even professional percussion groups, ranges from 3 – 12 or more. In the university setting, pieces for large ensemble are accommodated by combining both undergraduate and graduate students (which is often done) as well as the use of outside players. This flexibility allows composers to explore the multitude of percussion instruments, thereby creating a more colorful pallet. That said, it makes sense for composers to think of the percussion ensemble as an orchestra and not just a choir within the orchestra. When one considers the variety of instruments from pitched (e.g. marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, xylophone, timpani etc.) to non-pitched (snare drums, concert toms, cymbals, triangle, gong, etc.) it is possible to group the instruments in sections much like an orchestra. Add to this the unending list of instruments adopted from other cultures (Djembe, Cajon, dumbek, congas, Bohran, dulcimer etc.) as well as the piano and diversity within each area of membranophones, idiophones and aerophones becomes limitless!

Monday, July 31, 2017

Organizing Your Workspace

While it’s true that some people know exactly where everything is in a messy office, there’s a chance they are missing out on the benefits of keeping an organized workspace. One of these benefits includes a more positive attitude in tackling new and old projects - no matter how small, large or numerous. The initial feeling one experiences when waking into a congested room can create an overwhelming sense of chaos. Similarly, sitting at a desk filled with papers strewn about can affect the desire to even begin a project; it’s just not very inviting and often feels like there’s too much to do! However, the opposite experience occurs when only one item at a time is displayed on your desk or workspace. This minimalist approach makes life feel more manageable. The ability to move through each item productively is accelerated because the visual layout promotes a more focused effort. One is not distracted by mounds of paperwork waiting in the periphery. It’s worth experimenting to see if these changes make a difference with individual work habits; limit yourself to placing one item at a time on your desk with nothing else in your field of vision. Since I have often sat in front of multiple projects without the drive to get started, I now appreciate the difference within myself when facing a messy desk vs. an organized workspace.
Even though some have a knack for finding a needle in a haystack, for most it can be overwhelming and frustrating. The simplest solution is to take a full day to organize your workspace. Begin by stacking projects in order of priority and then viewing one at a time until each is completed. The effect is an ability to move forward with clarity and peace of mind. In the process, you may discover lost projects, forgotten themes and old ideas (for those of us who compose) that suddenly seem new.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Is your music too difficult to play?

For several years now I’ve discovered that much of the music I compose is difficult to perform… least that’s what I’m told. I didn’t think this would be the case as it’s not especially difficult on a reading level; however, having the luxury of working with some of the top instrumentalists in New York City, I realize from their feedback that the execution of my music is not always easy….in fact it’s hard. This brings up a valid concern…if the music you compose is too challenging, will it limit performance opportunities? It's very possible; however, a good piece will eventually find its way to the concert stage and capable musicians will take on the challenge. While I am currently trying to strike a balance in my own music moving forward, I don't feel the need to modify difficult pieces as long as I’m genuine about what I wish to express. I can remember being told by past teachers that every note, chord and phrase must be written with intention……and THAT is what should serve as the criteria for what you keep and what you throw out! That said, I have never approached a composition with the sole intention of challenging a player. When it happens, it’s always a pure byproduct of an intentional idea. Music should come from your inner voice ….even if the result pushes the performance envelope.
           This brings me to a more supportive point on this subject, which is best expressed by the premiere of Stravinsky’s Right of Spring in Paris on May 20th, 1913 - a performance which apparently upset many audience members with its strangled bassoon melody and outrageous choreography. Writing for the bassoon so high in the register, as Stravinsky did, was simply unheard of….it was not idiomatic for the bassoon. Of course, this piece is now part of the standard orchestral repertoire and considered mild in the context of 21st century works. While I wouldn’t suggest pondering the fate of your composition (wasted energy), I do recommend spending time and attention pursuing those difficult ideas as long as they are genuine and physically possible to play. Although some will wrestle with your music (in both performance and listening), a really great piece may become part of the standard repertoire as did the Rite of Spring. The level of playing will continue to develop and evolve over time. So don’t worry if your music is ahead of the curve……….eventually the playing level will catch up or even surpass your difficult creative ideas! 😀

Friday, November 25, 2016

Multi-tasking: Friend or Foe

It would seem that multi-tasking is the way of the 21st century. While most of us multi-task to some degree or another, there is an unforeseen drawback to keeping everything moving at the same time. As I’ve learned from my study of martial arts, when multi-tasking one runs the risk of not doing everything at  the same level of quality. The perception is that one is saving time…but at what cost? Simple mistakes are often made (e-mails, letters) and quality is often sacrificed. In fact, multi-tasking can result in readdressing some items that were not fully completed the first time. The adage “Haste makes waste” still rings true today…and for good reason. So what is an efficient alternative? Most of us have only become busier yet many seem to think we have endless time to complete tasks. Although it sounds like a slower alternative, the answer is to tackle each project one at a time with a completely focused effort. This means nothing else can occupy your mind (or your desk) except the task at hand. The reason why this may not have worked for many is that daily tasks are usually mixed with daydreaming, texts, phone calls, coffee breaks, etc. When you eliminate everything but the main event (so to speak), you will not only finish much quicker than when multi-tasking, but the quality of each effort will be considerably higher. I’ve adopted this approach from experiences at my karate dojo (Shoreikan), in which we’re taught to leave the world behind upon entering the dojo. This very act establishes the discipline needed to do one thing at a time with extreme efficiency and quality. I believe it has helped me to become a more focused student, artist and individual. Give it a try ;)

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Album Concept

One of the most significant albums to influence my conception of what an album experience should be is the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I was fortunate to have parents that introduced me to the Beatles at a young age (although I was too young to really know exactly what I was hearing…that appreciation came much later). Throughout my life, I always returned to this particular album with the same feeling….as if I were going to a show (in the theatrical sense). Each track has its own color and story to tell and no matter how varied the instrumentation, everything sounds like it belongs together. In general, the Beatles never hesitated to mix instrumentation (and styles) within the same album (especially during the later years). In contrast, there has been a trend for several decades now in which artists release albums that feature the same instrumentation, same production……same sound. While this has its merits from a marketing standpoint, I’m personally much more attracted to the Beatles’ approach – especially when applied to my own music. Bear in mind that there can be drawbacks to an album with such diversity in style and production; record labels might be reluctant to sign an artist whose music doesn’t fit neatly into a marketable category…this is a real issue which I’ve experienced myself! Be that as it may, I’ll continue to search for the right situation for a future record label as I want to stay true to the creative freedom that I’ve enjoyed so much in the work of the Beatles. If I can come even a little close to creating a stimulating listening journey as the Beatles did in their various albums (a Magical Mystery Tour, if you will ;), then I’ll be that much closer to returning the gift that was given to me by one of the best bands of the 20th / 21st century.