Next Wednesday, June 19th, the Atlantic Ensemble will wash up in Truro, Massachusetts with a performance of Saturn Dreams of Mercury. Here’s what I wrote about the piece for the premiere last fall:
In outlining his second artistic principle – Quickness – Italo Calvino describes himself as “a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury,” an older man predisposed to introversion and melancholy who nonetheless aspires to the speed and agility of the young god in winged sandals.
Performance details here.
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Or Trouble Squared?
I’m in the thick of composing a double concerto for cello, bass and orchestra. I’m having a fantastic time with it, partly because it poses some terrific challenges.
First of all, any concerto presents a balance problem – one player vs. many. The balance problem, for me, manifests itself in two ways: volume and color. Without much prodding, the orchestra can easily produce enough sheer volume to consume the soloist. Add the range of color the orchestra has at its disposal, and a solo instrument can quickly seem dull by comparison.
Some instruments have a prominence, an attention-getting quality, that helps offset this balance problem. Unfortunately, neither the cello nor the bass is one of these instruments. Sure, there are some successful cello concertos and some interesting bass concertos, but it often boils down to a choice between sacrificing the possibilities that the orchestra brings to the table or creating a piece in which the soloist saws away to no discernible effect.
Then there is the problem of matching the cello and bass with one another, making them equal partners. The part of the cello range that extends above where the bass can play (barring harmonics) can be very powerful, whereas the part of the bass range that lies below the cello is, however wonderful in its own right, easily overwhelmed. It’s difficult to keep the bass from sounding like a weaker sibling, and the cello from sounding like a smartass bully.
My first concerto was a triple concerto for oboe, oboe d’amore and English horn, a fun commission I got right out of grad school. I had great dreams for the piece. Whatever qualities it may have had, though, it mostly served as a quick introduction between me and the concerto world. The oboists were clearly audible most of the time, but I found that wasn’t enough. Whenever they were covered up, one couldn’t even tell if they were playing – so much of oboe playing is invisible – and the disconnect between what I was seeing (three musicians standing up in front of the orchestra) and what I was hearing (a rich orchestral texture with no solo element) bothered me.
(Whenever a student of mine is working on a concerto, I always point out that pizzicato is a concerto’s best friend. The entire string family, playing pizzicato, can provide a full backdrop for a soloist that never risks overpowering the main voice. I only wish I had taken that advice a bit more frequently in the five concertos I’ve written.)
Of course, I’m well aware that nobody in the audience will (or should) care a bit about the challenges I face in writing a piece. “That wasn’t bad for a cello-bass concerto” is not the kind of reaction I’m looking for. The piece has to somehow transcend its limitations, make us hear only opportunities. And yet it can’t sound like it wants to be something other than it is, which is a piece that features cello and bass accompanied by orchestra.
So this is the private battle I’m engaged in these days. Right now I’ve completed two drafts, which means I’ve set up a very specific relationship between the two soloists and a general idea of the relationship between the soloists and the orchestra. Next I need to get down-and-dirty with the orchestral details, answering questions of how much is enough, how much is too much.
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Next Thursday and Friday night, Concert Dance Inc. will reprise its performances of The Better Angels of Our Nature at Ravinia. I had the pleasure of attending the premiere four years ago; it’s a really lovely production. Here’s ticket info.
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Over the years, many people have told me, and I may have told one or two myself, that you can’t really be a composer and have a family. Now that I’m seven+ years into fatherhood, I’d like to share my current perspective.
History gives us conflicting – even paradoxical – evidence. Bach’s twenty-one kids didn’t seem to slow him down even a tad. On the other hand, we should probably be grateful (for their sake, if not for his and ours) that there were no little Beethovens demanding Papa Ludwig’s attention.
Although history is often illuminating, the lessons are so inconclusive and the expectations of parenthood have changed so much over the years that it really makes more sense to stick with the present.
Occupying ones imagination with music that nobody else can hear requires a great deal of focused attention, and young children would seem to be designed to suck up focused attention like an invading army of vacuum cleaners bearing down on a colony of dust bunnies. I think it is fair to say that having children is going to put at least a temporary dent in the depth – if not the breadth — of your output.
Also, with thousands of composers crawling the planet chasing commissions, performances and other signs of attention, one is definitely put at a disadvantage if preoccupied with the well-being of wholly dependent fledglings. There is only so much time in each day, and lost time is one of a composer’s worst enemies.
On the other hand, nothing gives you a clearer perspective on your own childhood – and any current childish tendencies you may have retained – than having kids. Progeny can be very effective playback devices, helping you revisit your most cherished limitations and assumptions in real time. What you do with that perspective is up to you. For some, that kind of perspective can stunt creativity; for others (and I’ll go ahead and put myself in this category), it provides creative clarity and direction.
An immeasurable element for consideration is the love one gives and receives as a parent, a love that only resembles other loves superficially. Again, what you do with that love is up to you. For some, it provides contentment that serves as a palliative to the itch of ambition, slowing down the urge to create. For others, it can bring a measure of self-confidence that impels one to seek otherwise unattempted levels of achievement.
I can only speak directly about fatherhood, and only from my own experience, and my experience is, like everyone’s, limited. So far, the positives have far exceeded my hopes.
Motherhood is a topic both closely related and unfathomably distant. In all the discussions about the differences in opportunity for male and female composers, I don’t believe I’ve heard specific mention of the difference between being a composer who is a woman and being a composer who is both a woman and a mother. Anecdotally, I can say that the composers I’ve known who were also mothers didn’t have large families. If anyone can point me to data on this topic, I’d be much obliged. It makes sense to blame Robert for Clara Schumann’s lack of development as a composer (though their letters show him urging her in that direction), but it’s difficult to understand why one doesn’t hear of her seven children being an impediment.
I can only guess what it would be like to be the mother of many children and maintain a life as a composer. Does anyone know from personal experience?
I realize I’m treading on somewhat treacherous terrain, full of chicken-and-egg ramifications, so I’ll just add that I don’t have an agenda, other than to raise questions I haven’t heard raised, and possibly get some answers, or at least reasonable discussion.
And, of course, I’m sensitive to the fact that just because I haven’t heard a topic discussed in no way assures that the discussion hasn’t taken place out of my earshot.
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I’m off to Seattle today. I think I have alluded to, but not explained, the wonderful situation I am walking into. It’s a situation every composer should be afforded on a regular basis, so I’m going to describe it in the hopes that my description might spur other organizations to imitate it.
I’ve been commissioned by Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Commissioning Club to create a septet to be premiered on their summer festival. Over the last six months or so, the club, led by composer Jeremy Jolley, has been getting together from time to time to discuss my music. On Sunday they will meet me — and I will meet them — for the first time, and we’ll talk about the new piece I’ve written. Then in July I will return for the premiere.
What’s not to like about this scenario? Curious music lovers support the creation of a new work and get a glimpse into a composer’s creative process. The composer gets paid for his work and gets it performed before a knowledgeable, engaged audience.
There are so many communities that have the resources to create this kind of setup. All it really takes is one person with vision and persuasive skills to bring it off.
So I’m getting ready to board transcontinental. If I find out more about how this club works, I will share when I return.
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In my last post, I declared the intention to complete my sixth string quartet by Tuesday.
Tuesday is tomorrow.
As it happens, I am nowhere close to finishing this piece. But the pressure I put on myself to get it done had some benefits. I now have some very clear parameters I’m working with:
- Two movements
- First movement is a long, excursive piece; second movement is much shorter, very concise.
- There are two possible endings for the first movement – I think that deciding how to end the first movement may be one of the last things that happens in the compositional process.
- There is a lot of work to be done on the second movement, but I think it’s mostly clerical work (making sure all the details are in order), as opposed to imaginative work (figuring out what needs to happen).
I still intend to set it aside on Wednesday for other projects. Can’t wait to see what I think of it when it returns front-and-center.
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I’ve been working on my sixth string quartet off and on for the last few months. I don’t have to get it to the group that will premiere it until next January, so no rush. But my work on it has coalesced to the point where I’ve decided to give myself a deadline of next Tuesday to finish it.
Why next Tuesday? There are a couple of orchestra pieces I need to get cracking on, and I’m going to an orchestra concert next Tuesday night, so I figure I will sit down next Wednesday morning and crack away, preferences and prejudices fresh in my ears
But why not just set the quartet aside in whatever state it happens to find itself? Because, as I say, the piece is at that point where some pressure – even artificial pressure — will be beneficial. I could dicker around with it for another year, but it’s close enough to being a real composition that I want to just force the issue a bit. Focus on getting it done, and a lot of the loose pieces may fall in place.
Really, it’s a no-lose situation. I might not complete the piece by next Tuesday – in which case, I still have 8 months to finish it. By forcing myself to push through it, I might end up with something I really don’t like – but again, I have another 8 months, and one of my favorite things to do besides starting a new piece is to start over on a piece I’ve chucked in the recycling.
Then there is always the chance it could turn out just right by next Tuesday.
Then I have eight months to write number seven.
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In my last post, I gave a heads-up about Piotr Szewczyck’s upcoming performance of the Violin Futura project at Carnegie Hall. One of the items he’ll be dishing out is the premiere of Broomstick, a piece for violin and piano I wrote last year. Here is a little pre-premiere info:
To illustrate the first of his six artistic principles – Lightness – Italo Calvino recalls the weight of the domestic life borne by women through the centuries. In a leap that conveys the power of the imagination, these women took the tool of their servitude – the broom – and transformed it into an extraordinary symbol of lightness and power, donning their steep-peaked hats and soaring off to the moon.
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Carnegie Hall. May 6th. 8 pm.
After performing his Violin Futura program a gazillion times all over the map in the last six years, Piotr Szewczyk is bringing it to NYC next month.
What is Violin Futura? In the words of Santa Fe New Music, it is an “enthralling program [that] shows off the diversity and range of the contemporary violin.” As Piotr says, “I created the Violin Futura project because I wanted to expand the contemporary violin repertoire with pieces that are exciting to play and listen to while bringing something new and unique to the repertoire. Violin Futura is currently in its 3rd edition and I have over 40 pieces written for me by composers from United States, Germany, England, Japan, Canada, Mexico, and Australia.”
The version he will be playing at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall includes works by Kari Henrik Juusela, John Kennedy, Marc Mellits, Gary Smart, Adam Schoenberg, Richard Belcastro, Sydney Hodkinson, Clifton Callender (World Premiere), Moritz Eggert, Piotr Szewczyk, Ethan Wickman, and Lawrence Dillon (World Premiere).
The admission price is $10. Anyone interested in an introduction to what the 21st-century violin is about can have it all at an excellent price.
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End-of-the-year recording session coming for my students on Friday, the last day of classes. The Cassatt String Quartet will be in town to record three of my students’ works:
Kenneth Florence: Aeon Transfer
Nicholas Rich: Songs at Sunset
Bruce Tippette: Tranquil Lullabye
All three works are challenging, but I’m sure the composers are going to be mighty pleased with the results. As for me, it will be great to reconnect with this wonderful group: I’ve known violinists Muneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower since 1997, when the quartet premiered Furies and Muses at the Swannanoa Festival.
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