Archive for the “contemporary classical” Category
When I first began to blog on an infinite number of curves, it indeed curved in multiple directions, covering my thoughts and observations on a variety of seemingly unrelated topics. Part of the premise was that all topics are related, even though their relationships are not always readily evident.
More and more, though, I see this blog has become something a little less distinguished, a listing of performances, events and accolades — external signposts, as opposed to thoughts. I’ve been fully aware of this shift as it has been taking place, and I have explained it away to myself through various means. And now it is time for me to own up to what has happened.
There are at least three independent strands that have influenced the shift. First, over the course of eight years, I have said a substantial portion of what I have to say. There are a few things I haven’t gotten to yet, and their times may come, but a lot of my thoughts on the subjects nearest and dearest to my heart are already out there. This is a phenomenon other bloggers have encountered and commented on. The blog as a format has reached a plateau.
Second, I am valuing my privacy more and more. That seems like a funny thing to say because I have always valued my privacy, but every passing year makes privacy feel more precious. I suppose it’s because all of my actions, tastes, interests, etc, have become much easier for strangers to gather and decipher than was the case even eight years ago. It feels, in fact, like the level of privacy I took for granted in my youth is something that would be extremely difficult to attain today, and is probably unimaginable for generations of composers active now and in the years to come.
Finally, I seem to have reached a point in my development where I am more conscious of an urge for purity of expression, as opposed to an urge to try new things. In that sense, infinite curves are not as appealing to me as a few discrete, well-placed dots. That may be a product of my age, or the result of years of compositional growth, or some other factor, I don’t know. Somehow I find the image of the retracted arms of a melanocyte appealing. Melanocytes are the skin cells that create melanin, or pigment. These cells, unlike the other 90% of our skin cells, have long arms, like an octopus, that allow them to send their pigments to the follicles our hair grows from. As we age, the tendrils of these melanocytes retract. Our hair receives less and less pigment, and is allowed to exhibit its true color, which is white. Others choose to see this development as a loss, but I’m inclined to see a gain: instead of dressing itself up with color from the outside, my hair is gradually becoming more and more comfortable just being itself.
In much the same way, I am less and less interested in dressing up my life and art in the colors that I find reaching me through the tendrils of culture. Instead, I am content with the absence of color, a turn to a more nuanced texture. It’s a shift in focus from the infinite to the infinitesimal. That’s not an attitude, a perspective, I can recommend to young composers – and it certainly is not one best suited to the blog format — but it suits me for the time being.
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image by Julian Semilian
The premiere of Seven Stories is coming up in a few weeks (via Le train bleu, Feb. 6, NYC to be exact) and I just realized that though I’ve written about it frequently over the past year or two (here, here, here, here and here) I’ve focused mostly on the text and said very little about the music.
Today I’m going to reverse that. Here’s very little about the text, then more about the music:
In The Divine Comedy, Dante ascends seven stories of purgatory to reach paradise. I’ve written a piece about a stuffed animal that falls seven stories from an apartment window. As she plummets in slow-mo past seven windows, she peers in at the occupants and struggles to make sense of what she sees.
The text presents a challenge that music seems particularly well-suited to surmounting, namely: how to convey two simultaneous but different senses of the passage of time — part free-falling, part floating. I’m foregrounding the familiar experience of being in a perilous situation, when time seems to slow down and details we wouldn’t otherwise notice get suspended, frozen. And I’m trying to prolong that experience for about twenty minutes. Meanwhile, I have to coherently communicate about 1800 words of text (fortunately, I have the superb soprano Mary Mackenzie shouldering her share of that burden).
I ended up with a musical world that establishes and maintains a specific balance between action and stillness, treble and bass, repetition and development, textures rich and spare. There are a number of passages in which I was attempting to create aural illusions, using simultaneously rising and falling patterns with a constant shift in pre-eminence.
Composers often shy away from discussing emotional content, for good reason – it’s too easy to fall into misleading generalizations about aspects of music that are personal and subjective. But I’m a man whose folly can sometimes pretend to be courage, and I’ve certainly never been accused of having good taste, so I’ll plunge in. Having put the narrator of Seven Stories in a hopeless situation – a downward plunge to the pavement — it was critical to me to avoid even a hint of self-pity, to create a journey that the narrator would embrace with a sense of wonder, as opposed to fear. This narrator is, after all, a stuffed animal, a creature designed for play. That emotional scenario – wide-eyed innocence in the face of doom — called forth another specific balance: orbiting musical gestures with bright centers and dark edges. I put a lot of thought – rational and intuitive – into that balance. I’m curious to see how well it comes across at the premiere.
Here’s how I’ll find out:
Text and music by Lawrence Dillon
Mary Mackenzie, soprano
Le Train Bleu
Ransom Wilson, music director
85 Avenue A, NYC
February 6, 2013
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Next week, the Emerson Quartet will give the fourth and fifth performances of my fifth string quartet. The third performance took place in April, which gave me the luxury of having close to six months to make some adjustments. Have I mentioned how much I love revising? Of course I have. I’ll grab every opportunity I can get to make sure every moment in a piece sparkles, and every sparkle illuminates the overall design. Who cares if I leave a messy chronology behind for musicologists? Those kinds of concerns are a waste of brain cells. All I care about is the composition – it has to be as good as I can make it.
I spent the second half of June buffing up the piece, keeping careful track of every little change. Then I printed up a new set of scores and parts, and created four cheat sheets listing all the adjustments. I mailed the rather unwieldy package to Eugene Drucker in early July.
Every chamber ensemble has its own personality, and every musician handles the materials of performance a little bit differently. Lawrence Dutton, the violist, is replacing his old part with the new one I sent. The violinists – Drucker and Philip Setzer – incorporated the changes into their old parts, so they wouldn’t have to recopy all the rehearsal markings they put into the new part. (these markings include fingerings, bowings, cues, etc – the result of a multitude of decisions made by the performers as they learn a new piece). Philip cut and pasted some of the new part into the old. Last I heard, David Finckel hadn’t yet decided which part to use. That’s not too surprising: with all the things he is doing, it’s amazing he has time to get dressed in the morning.
Come to think of it, I may have a time-saving suggestion for him: David, it might be a good idea to start sleeping and showering in your tux.
Be that as it may, the list of changes I sent them in July looked like this:
LIST OF REVISIONS (aside from adjustments we made in rehearsal (metronome markings, etc.) which also have been added to the score and parts):
I. Theme and Variations
- Mm 5, 7, 9, 11, 14, 16, 18, 21 – 16ths added to Vn II
- Mm 30 is now 5/4, with a B added in Vla.
- 173-4 – new stuff in Vns
- Mm 72-79 transition CUT
- What was 114-118 (now 106-9) is changed in the Vns, with added Vla
IV. Fantasy Variations
- 42-69 (Shadows) expressive shaping and articulation
- 71-90 (Pastorale) revisions in Vc
- 77 not in 4/4; Vns revised
- 127&135 new notes in vla and vc
- 138 vn slurring change
- 144 revised in all parts
- 157-8 changed to 4/8
- 170&177 new notes in vla and vc
- 180 vn slurring change; Eb removed from vc.
- 195-7 Vc octaves reversed
- 226, 228, 230 – 16ths added to Vc
Performers who have worked with me frequently are used to these kinds of picayune adjustments. Nothing too major, but just enough to warrant a new printing. I don’t know if the Emerson guys have this happen to them on a regular basis. I can imagine them next week circling me in a collective throat throttle. I appreciate how precious their rehearsal time is, so having to set aside time to learn completely new music they hadn’t planned on can’t be too thrilling.
But the truth is I’ve worked with them enough to know they’ve seen it all, and I’m sure they will be more than gracious. Honestly, I’ve not had a more satisfying collaboration with an ensemble, and I’ve had many great ones. I’m looking forward to sitting pretty once again, smiling as another of my crazy little compositions gets the hell played out of it.
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What do insects and paper airplanes have to do with chamber music? Probably a lot more than I realize, since it seems like music has something to do with just about everything. But as of this week, they are more intimately connected than ever before.
Bridge Records has just released Insects and Paper Airplanes, an album comprised of three of my string quartets and a piano quartet. The performers are the incomparable Daedalus String Quartet and pianist Benjamin Hochman.
How new is it? So new, I haven’t even received my copy yet. But you can get yours just about anywhere your fingers can tap into a web connection.
The title Insects and Paper Airplanes comes from the second movement of String Quartet No. 2: Flight. Like the other five movements in my second quartet, it’s a fugue. Like the other five movements in my second quartet, it’s about flight. Like the fourth movement in my second quartet, it’s a scherzo, and that’s where the title comes in. Insects is a scherzo and Paper Airplanes is a contrasting trio section. Insects features fast buzzing music and Paper Airplanes is all doomed, harebrained swoops.
So, a fugue-scherzo-flying thingy about bugs and toys. That about sums up the second movement of my second quartet.
And it says a lot about the nature of the music contained on this disk. Insects and paper airplanes belong together the way fugues and scherzos belong together, the way the past and the present belong together, the way vastly different cultures belong together – because, to quote the guy I’ve been hanging out with for a number of years, “there are no two points so distant from one another that they cannot be connected by a single straight line – or an infinite number of curves.”
The question is not whether they belong together – they are together whether they belong or not. The real questions are: how can we help them thrive in one another’s presence? And how do we keep them from destroying one another?
These are questions worth devoting a lifetime to.
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Postmodernism, as it flourished in my salad days, had many characteristics, but the most telling was the employment of a new kind of dissonance: the dissonance of incongruent styles. Postmodern music reveled in sequences of unrelated ideas, jolting the listener from any sense of meaningful continuity. Following the single-mindedness of much post-tonal and minimalist music, it was a breath of fresh air.
After a while, though, the jolt, like any esthetic jolt, had less and less of an impact. By the time we got to the end of the XX century, these juxtapositions felt merely like life as we lived it — no more jarring than the daily, surreal shifts of international banking or political polls.
At that point, some of us abandoned the idea of using irrational juxtapositions for their shock value. The challenge, rather, was in finding a way to give these disconnections some kind of formal coherence. After all, if this is merely how life is, then we needed to stop complaining and build something beautiful from it.
Over the course of the 1990s, I felt a growing urge to work with bigger canvases, formally speaking. I could have gone the path of some minimalists, stretching small ideas out into mind-bending proportions, but that would have been a rejection of the truth I had found in postmodern art.
(We all have to find our own truths, and the minimalist truth – no less true in an objective sense – wasn’t the one that moved me.)
After a little bit of experimentation, I became convinced that stylistic dissonance could be used as a basis for large forms, in the same way that harmonic dissonance was used to build large forms in the late 18th century.
And here is an excellent place for you to scoff at a foolish sounding idea. I did so myself at first. But then I realized that until harmonic dissonance was used to build large forms, there was no reason to believe it would work. There is nothing inherent in the V-I resolution to suggest it could provide the impetus to design a coherent, ten-to-twenty-minute composition. But Classical composers tuned themselves so precisely to the implications of these harmonies, experimented so thoroughly with ways to play out these forms, they were able to find a manner of proceeding that has served as a model for composers ever since.
So, could stylistic dissonance have the same potential? Could composers dig into these cognitive clashes and find ways to create large forms? The answer came to me through the works of Mozart, who was playing with stylistic conflicts quite a long time before postmodernism existed. Just take a look at the first theme from the last movement of the C Major Symphony, K. 551, where four bars of dry academic fugal material is followed by four bars of opera buffa:
And if that wasn’t enough to cue the thumb to the nose, later in the same movement this silly little flourish is given a full fugal treatment usually reserved for only the loftiest of themes:
But the Jupiter Symphony Finale is justly celebrated for contrapuntal dexterity in the guise of fun and games. I was more interested in Mozart’s use of contrasting styles in his formal organization. And examples abound. Take the first page of the K. 332 Piano Sonata:
For the first 12 bars, we get an accompanied aria. Cadence, then we’re in hunting-horn land. At least that’s what we hear in the left hand – the right hand plays little tinkly music box flourishes up top. Music boxes on a hunt? Talk about making something beautiful out of clashing materials. WAM sticks with this mashup for a full 10 measures – nothing but I and V — before we’re suddenly thrown into a Sturm und Drang chromatic hell.
Forty measures, four vastly different musics. At this historical distance, it all sounds like Mozart to our ears. I suspect it sounded just this side of deliriously insane at the time. But the stylistic madness is kept in check by a brilliant sense of timing, the balances that gradually emerge over the course of the movement.
With this and other examples in mind, I embarked on a sustained effort to use postmodern techniques in the service of formal coherence. The Classicists kept their wildest forays focused through a network of clear-cut phrasing and a hierarchical tonal language. That didn’t feel like the right approach for our times. Rather, in many of my works, I’ve balanced incongruous stylistic jumps with an obsessive focus on specific formal principles. Example: in my fourth string quartet (The Infinite Sphere), an unrelenting approach to circular design – wheels within wheels within wheels – allows me to bounce through widely varying styles and vocabularies without (figuratively speaking) the wheels flying off.
My approach to form has never been architectural, or at least not primarily architectural, but more like free narrative: characters are developed and interact in ways that I feel are convincing. Narrative, compared to any visual counterpart, seems like a more appropriate parallel for the way music occupies time. The mistake, for me, is when we, as composers, proceed in a plot-driven manner – this follows this follows this – as opposed to listening closely to the material and letting it occupy the temporal space it requires.
I treat my musical ideas the way I treat human beings – not as puppets in a puppet show – they have lives, needs, aspirations of their own, and my job is to help them realize their potential.
I follow no rules, as such, in these compositions. Principles, yes. Techniques, yes. But the bottom line, as I’ve alluded to above, is to become so intimately acquainted with the material that I can let it speak for itself.
Although it often seems as if I’m letting the material become so intimately acquainted with me that it feels comfortable using my brain cells.
A few weeks ago, a reader suggested I post an excerpt from a piece I was working on in which the hands of the pianist were playing in two very different styles. I said at the time that I was having trouble posting musical examples, but as the Mozart samples above indicate, I’ve solved the issue. So here are 8 bars of the piece I was describing.
Quick and dirty facts: Clarinet and piano. Tempo is 108. As I said before, each hand is relatively easy; I’m just having a tough time getting them to work together in my hands. I’m sure any real pianist would have no problem. In any case, the top staff is metronomic, the bottom staff is languorous.
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