Deeply immersed in a lengthy work these days, and loving it. The challenges of extended compositions satisfy like nothing else. Every session of composing takes a substantial amount of time just to get started; one can’t simply pick up where one left off and make meaningful progress. Details pile up on details, and keeping them all straight while retaining a clear sense of the work’s core tests the composer’s endurance, concentration and clarity of vision.
Efforts like this bring me deeper into a sense of who I am, while simultaneously letting me lose myself in another world. For a few hours a day, I feel pleasantly delirious.
I’ve had so many things to absorb this fall, more than I can communicate coherently. A few things stand out. The premiere of David Lang’s Love Fail trusted its silences and Medievalism with inspiring confidence. Having dug into Gabriel Kahane’s work in preparation for our meeting last week, I was not surprised to find him engaging, thoughtful and direct, and left with the puzzle of how many of his major works – Crane Palimpsest, February House, a work in progress about the WPA — engage with what I assume is his grandparents’ or even great-grandparents’ generation.
And this brings up an intriguing question. In both Lang and Kahane, I am hearing evidence of a reactionary cultural trend that is all the more intriguing because it is coming from such insightful and observant artists. It’s an interesting place to be, a stark contrast to where this culture was twelve years into the last century, when artists were blasting the sacred structures of their art forms from their very foundations. And I use the word “reactionary” advisedly – this is not the same conservatism we have seen cropping up with regularity over the decades, but truly a reaction to what seems an overwhelming cultural momentum, when the truths of yesterday are quickly swallowed up by the news of today and the predictions for tomorrow.
Lest anyone is reading this as a lament, either pro or con, let me assure you it is neither praise nor condemnation: great art can be radical, great art can also be reactionary. It can even be moderate, believe it or not (and I should also add, as people often misread things they find online, I am not talking about politics, but culture). No, I’m not interested in predetermined “right” paths, I’m just curious about how these things unfold, what artists tell us about our world, the world we experience and the world we imagine.
After close to three decades of teaching composition, I find myself with a fascinating studio of young composers this year presenting me with fresh challenges I’ve never faced before. I love that. The work they bring me each week surprises me no end, and it’s startling to realize that none of them resembles another of them, and none of them are doing work that resembles the music I was writing as a student in any way.
And, in case you are wondering, I am fully aware that this post is rambling in a manner that is perhaps not characteristic of my blogging over the years. As I said at the top, I am greatly enjoying the depths I am finding in my extended work these days. Concision is not where my mind is right now. It is time to think of the holiday, and this holiday will bring me in touch with, I believe, thirty relatives, though there may be more than I am recalling. And the end of the holiday will bring me even deeper into my current work, which is a place I can’t wait to discover.
Seasons greetings to you all.
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We’re in the thick of our Intensive Arts session right now: two weeks when classes are suspended so we can focus on creative projects. Tonight a bash of new music for saxophone, including my Sparkling in the Dark. On Monday we’ll have an improv session – 65 musicians going who knows where for 90 minutes. Tuesday night is the percussion ensemble show. On Wednesday we’ll spend two hours looking at everything the clarinet has done over the last hundred or so years, with clarinetto primo Oskar Espina-Ruiz as our guide. And every day has Dance-a-Day sessions, wherein composers and choreographers are matched up for two hours to create a new collaborative work each day.
We’re also taking this time to immerse ourselves in the music of Gabriel Kahane. This past week, students gave presentations on two of his major works to date: his piano sonata and his epic orchestral song cycle Crane Palimpsest. Kahane’s particular blend of pop and classical influences sparked thoughtful and avid discussion. I posed the question of “what is taboo in this music?” to which one student responded that this is a composer who just goes for whatever interests him rather than avoiding things that might seem inappropriate.
On Tuesday we’ll have Kahane Skyped in for some face-time with composers and other interested musicians. Looking forward.
And here’s a big hay-low to the courageous doctoral students at Florida State who are tackling Furies and Muses, my 30-minute work for bassoon and strings, tonight.
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Woke up at 4 am with a series of phrases looping through my mind. Not just repeating, but looping, the last note of the final phrase leading directly into the first note of the first. Over and over, spooling through half-crazed, dream-inflected imagery as I bumbled back into and out of sleep over the next three hours.
When it was finally time to surrender to the light of morning, I pulled myself out of bed and went through the curtain-raising rituals that open each day: ablutions, breakfast, herding the kids off to school. Through it all, said loop spun continuously, despite my best efforts to banish it, replace it with other thoughts.
A bit of coffee zapped my brain and clarified what I was hearing. It was a passage from an extensive piece I’ve been working on. I realized, with horror, that the word “street” occurred twice in the course of the looping passage, a correspondence I hadn’t noticed, though I work very carefully to marshal the effects of those kinds of repetitions when they occur. In other words, the text of this piece is full of deliberate repetitions, so I was blasted to discover one I hadn’t noticed before. Here is the line of text, intentionally puerile, because I was trying to capture an adolescent mind’s first attempts at poetic expression:
Through dusty streets and brambled pathways,
Through snowflake days and streetlamp nights,
As I said, the music for those lines was looping relentlessly through my mind for four hours. It was as if the piece was doing its damnedest to make me notice the problem and fix it. Which I did, of course, feverishly making excuses for the oversight – the piece has well over 2000 words of text, these two lines came into this particular confluence late in the game, the repetition is a bit veiled by the compound word “streetlamp.”
After it was fixed, the loop faded away.
Yet another example of some of the craziness one endures in the process of composition.
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Today my studio is officially back in working order after the extensive renovation I mentioned in my last post. Frankly, not a moment too soon. I pride myself on being able to make progress, compositionally speaking, under any circumstances, but it’s very, very nice to have my familiar ambience back again after several months of disarray.
I have four projects that I need to complete, so naturally I’ve been focused on another new idea that came out of the blue, so far off my usual plate of preoccupations that I’m afraid I couldn’t even stab it with a pitchfork. It’s a big piece, over 20 minutes of continuous music, and I’m finding myself in an unfamiliar position, weighing the overall picture vs. the details. I’ve realized that I need to squelch the desire to make decisions that are compositionally interesting to me, in order to let the purpose of the piece speak clearly. In other words, I am challenging myself not to challenge myself, to avoid doing things in the music that will make it more fun to compose.
I’m also working a whole lot more methodically than is my habit. I’m accustomed to finding a sound world for a piece and then teasing out that world’s implications via intuition, improvising with the materials to find my way. In this piece, though, I’m planning, mapping, diagramming, because the basic premise is so much a part of who I am that spontaneity isn’t an issue.
So I find myself, at the end of November, back in familiar haunts, but wrestling with fresh monsters. Ah, stability!
Someday I may learn what that means.
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I’m working on a septet for piano, horn and strings in four movements that explores various types of sanctuaries. The first movement is titled Domed and Steepled Solitude, for a sanctuary that I find particularly potent. The title comes from a letter by a young Mark Twain in which he describes his method of surviving the noise and hubbub of urban life.
Finding true solitude – not just a space of ones own, but a mental attitude that can serve as a real sanctuary from disturbance – has been a lifelong pursuit for me. The way my schedule works, it’s been a fruitful pursuit in the winter and spring, less so in summer and fall. This fall my studio has been undergoing renovations, and I’ve had to reach deep inside to gather the resources for the kind of sanctuary I need. After two months on the lam, I am feeling more pursued than pursuing.
But studio renovation will be completed soon, and personal schedules should hit winter’s pace in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I have this septet, which seems to have come along at just the right time for me.
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In my last post, I said I was getting ready to travel, but Sandy has adjusted my plans. The premiere of Seven Stories, which I wrote about here, has been postponed until the Lower East Side has an opportunity to dry itself out – Ransom Wilson is looking into a possible January date. Other things are far higher on everyone’s priority lists right now.
Given my plans to catch Seven Stories rehearsals and performance, I’m going to miss the Atlantic Ensemble’s performance of Saturn Dreams of Mercury tonight and Low and Lower’s performance of Poke this Friday night. Here’s wishing the musicians (and audiences) involved all the best.
We’re all familiar with the sensation of being in more than one place at once. For composers, it’s often a double-exposure involving our real-time environment blurred with the shadowy outlines and vivid details of whatever composition we are working on. How many times I have found myself struggling to follow a conversation while notes and timbres are chasing one another through the cracks in the dialogue? It’s a wonder I’m ever able to hold up my end of a chat with anything resembling coherence.
This past week I’ve been in triple-exposure land, thanks to Sandy. With family members still powerless in New Jersey, not to mention countless friends struggling with conditions in the region, I’ve been avidly digging through all the media coverage I can find, hoping to get a sense of what is really going on.
Of course, all of these images and statistics are seeping their way through the harmonies and contours of three different pieces I’m currently working on. They churn and slosh together, valuables mingling with debris. It’s a dizzying combination, one that may help partially explain the dumbfounded look my family has come to recognize as my more-or-less permanent expression.
Then I step outside and see the chores of a normal autumn day awaiting me, as though nothing were awry. And those simple tasks, familiar daily distractions, seem more surreal than anything I can imagine.
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Saturn Dreams of Mercury is getting its third performance this coming Monday at Western Kentucky University when the Atlantic Ensemble lands in Bowling Green. Wish I could get there from here in less than ten hours, but it’s not meant to be. Instead, I’ll be packing for another destination – more about that next time.
Meanwhile, I’ve written about SDoM here. If you’re in the vicinity, let me know how it goes.
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Over the last forty years, I’ve taken a lot of different approaches to harmonic structure in my music. Each one has its benefits and drawbacks.
Tertian harmony has one amazing benefit that I don’t hear commented upon very often. More than any other method of building vertical sonorities, triads allow for an astonishing variety of embellishment.
Appoggiaturi, acciaccaturi, anticipazione — and that’s just the A-list. You can drizzle them all over a set of triads, with endless variation. But try using them with harmonies of other design, and you run out of options pretty quickly. A suspension on a quartal chord? Sorry, not going to happen. Neighbor tones around a cluster? Well, sure, but it’s not really the same thing.
So I enjoy using all kinds of vertical vocabularies, and, as I say, each has its benefits.
Pile up the thirds, though, and you can bet I’ll be going to town with those auxiliary dissonances.
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nu rehearsing in Watson Hall
The nu ensemble, our new music band, has its first concert of the year coming Saturday. On Friday, Saxton Rose, nu’s new music director, will pay a visit to our Composition Seminar to tell us about the group and the rep.
Here is the program. Apparently this will be the first performance of the Cage in over seventy years:
- Wolfgang Rihm: Will Sound (2006)
- Giacinto Scelsi: Prânam II (1973)
- John Cage: Dance Music for Elfrid Ide (1940)
- Benjamin Broening: like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment (2005)
- Caleb Burhans: oh ye of little faith…(do you know where your children are?) (2008)
Saturday, October 27, 7:30 pm
UNC School of the Arts
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Just a couple of observations:
1. As far as I know (and I’m just a composer, so what do I know?), sociopolitical systems aren’t, by their nature, corrupt. But all systems are corruptible.
No form of government – democracy, autocracy, whatever – is inherently corrupt. No form of corporation – mom&pop, international, educational — is inherently corrupt.
Corruption occurs when people use a system – a form of government, a corporation – for personal gain at the unwilling expense of others who interact with the system.
Systems will always be vulnerable to corruption, because there will always be people who are interested in using them for personal gain at the unfair expense of others. Societies stand to benefit when systems have outside oversight to minimize systemic corruption. Eliminating corruption is not a reachable goal, but keeping corruption in check is.
2. Speaking of outside oversight and keeping things in check, from my little corner of the world, it appears that our government’s system of checks and balances works well on the executive and judicial branches – which is to say, the power of the executive and judicial branches to impact our society seems to be appropriately measured. I don’t always like their actions and decisions, but the processes they go through to make those actions and decisions seem, for the most part, well designed.
But – again, from my little corner of the world – the legislative branch appears to be too cumbersome in design to handle its responsibilities effectively. I’m pretty sure this flaw is not fixable, because 1. the checks and balances on the legislative branch do not have the power to focus legislative activity, 2. The electorate has an easier time holding executive candidates, as opposed to legislators, accountable, and 3. the cumbersome design has a powerful incentive for self-preservation.
As a result, we limp along to the best of our ability despite the encumbrance.
Now back to the music.
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