Archive for January, 2005

On Friday, Kyle Gann posted a terrific analysis of what he calls New Music: The Generation Problem. He compares his discovery of musical complexity at the age of 13 with similar discoveries being made by 18 year olds now. “Maybe I had gotten into musical complexity too early” he says, and describes how complex dissonances came to feel old hat by the time he was out of high school, leaving him ripe for the fresh attractions of minimalism. (I am summarizing rather broadly; please read his post for the full story).

But it seems to me that a more accurate comparison is between today’s 18-year-olds’ discovery of complexity and Kyle’s 18-year-old discovery of minimalism. For a young composer today, nothing about minimalism is fresh, just as we felt complex dissonances were pretty dusty thirty years ago. And we were right, and they are right, in a limited sense of the word: there is no way a young composer now can compete with his/her elders in mastering minimalist techniques. A whole generation has devoted itself to exploring simplicity. Of course there is much more to be done, but for a young composer the terrain looks pretty well trod.

And therein lies the trap of progressivism: novelty fades. As Robert Frost noted, a truth ceases to be entirely true when it’s uttered even for the second time. But, as he goes on to say, tongue in cheek, “Why abandon a belief merely because it ceases to be true? Cling to it long enough and… it will turn true again, for so it goes. Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favor.”

If novelty fades, what should our focus be? Maybe it is time for minimalism to feel irrelevant, so it can reemerge for its great music, not for its political significance.

Beethoven’s late quartets are remarkable for their novelty, but it is a novelty that was earned through a lifetime of mastery. There are composers now who are writing minimalist, or post-minimalist. music of astounding artistic value. Are they progressive or conservative? Who cares? Shouldn’t we celebrate the works, simple or complex, that transcend their origins and continue to create new meaning over time, despite shifts in politics?

None of this, of course, is a criticism of Kyle. What he has done and continues to do for the music of our time is truly extraordinary. And he makes some points in his post that I’ve left out here, and they are really quite good. (Really, go read it now.)

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As I noted here, I usually have three pieces I’m working on at any given moment. Typically, one of those pieces will be playful in nature; it’s important to me to keep a healthy balance between serious reflection and expressive exuberance.

I’m waist-deep in a very exuberant piece right now, a composition for wind ensemble entitled Blown Away. A number of years ago, my colleague James Kalyn, who directs the NC School of the Arts Wind Ensemble, asked me to write something for his group. I declined, partly because I had just begun work on an opera and a string quartet cycle and felt a bit overwhelmed, and partly because writing for wind ensemble had little appeal for me at the time.

But this past summer, I stepped down as Interim Dean here, and with that decision I had a newfound creative energy. I couldn’t wait to take on fresh compositional challenges, and writing for wind ensemble was at the top of my list.

Just after I had decided to write this piece, I learned that James would be leaving the school at the end of the year: his wife, musicologist Andrea Kalyn, had just been appointed Associate Dean at Oberlin Conservatory. So Blown Away became a fond (but certainly unsentimental) farewell piece, a tribute to what James has accomplished here. It will be premiered in May.

The fun part has been exploring the challenges and benefits of writing for this ensemble. It’s great to have a rich bed of saxophones to serve as a foundation for dramatic shifts in color. The possibilities of percussion combinations seem endless. And the fact that virtually every gesture originates with the human breath is both a limitation and an exhilarating resource — I love the shape, exertion, fragility, power, elusiveness, ephemerality, symbolism, necessity and unconsciousness of human breath. I can’t wait until they find a way to put all of those things into midi.

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I spent a lot of time last weekend with pianist Claude Frank, who was in town to play a recital. I’ve known Claude for about fifteen years, and I always look forward to conversations with him. He is a witty, charming, and very observant fellow.

 height=This time, conversation was a bit more difficult; the death of his wife, pianist Lillian Kallir, this past fall had clearly left its mark. It was tough to see him feeling low.

As usual, though, we spent a lot of time talking about music. One would think that we should have almost nothing to say to one another on this subject: in Claude’s world, music peaked with Beethoven and has been in steady decline ever since. Naturally, I have a very different perspective.

And yet I always find our exchanges fascinating. In some ways, I prefer to talk about music with someone whose perspective is very different from mine. Rather than being aggravating, I find it helps me clarify my viewpoint, and it reminds me how subjective music is.

I like to think that this characteristic would make me a very bad president.

In Emerson’s words: “Shall I tell you the secret of a true scholar? It is this: every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him.”

I can’t speak for scholars, but if I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life with myself, I’d just as soon welcome some sharply dissenting voices into my head from time to time, if only to fend off tedium.

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Last week I tried to describe a strange thing that was happening in the third movement of my piano quartet, in which the music seemed to be saying something quite different from what I had envisioned. Now things are heading in another direction.

First of all, I should clarify: Milan Kundera once wrote that the novelist should never be smarter than the novel*, by which he meant that the process of writing should be one of discovery, not dictation.

So my experience with Scattering was not really surprising to me: I always try to be open to learning something new from each piece I write. But over the weekend things started developing in an unexpected direction. I noticed a weak moment toward the end of the piece, a measure that simply didn’t measure up to the rest. I picked away at it, as if it were an irritating scab, and it gradually grew and grew into a fearsome outburst, a chaotic flurry of figures that sounded unlike anything that had happened previously in the piece.

And there was my answer: just beneath the surface of this sparkling, joyous music was a outpouring of ferocious, bloody outrage. I found it, nurtured it, and helped it shine, and now Scattering has a very different shape and tone from a week ago.

The rest of the piece remains pretty much the same, but oddly enough, sometimes the passage that sticks out from the rest of the music is the one that actually helps hold it all together.

*”When Tolstoy sketched the first draft of Anna Karenina, Anna was a most unsympathetic woman, and her tragic end was entirely deserved and justified. The final version of the novel is very different, but I do not believe that Tolstoy had revised his moral ideas in the meantime; I would say, rather, that in the course of writing, he was listening to another voice than that of his personal moral conviction. He was listening to what I would like to call the wisdom of the novel. Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.”

— Milan Kundera, acceptance speech upon winning the Jerusalem Prize, 1985. Translated from the French by Linda Asher

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Following a flurry of recent blogging on the topic of cell phones in concert halls (here, here and here) I thought I’d share a technique I used last year at the opening concert of Watson Chamber Music Hall. I came out on stage to make some introductory remarks. I then pulled my cell phone out of my pocket and said: “I just want everyone to know that I have one, too. And I’m turning mine off!”

General laughter, no offense, and everyone who had forgotten to do so quickly pulled their cellular umbilicals out and disconnected.

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Just finished Stephen Toulmin’s remarkable book Return to Reason.


In it, he argues for a philosophy of balance between theory and observation, a balance he says existed until the mid-17th century, when rationalism began to hold sway. He makes a persuasive case with examples from all the disciplines, including music. Example, talking about early twentieth century V

…artists and scientists acted like bicyclists: they pedaled with confidence just so long as no one asked how they did it; but once they were asked how they avoided upsetting the machine, they lost their balance. Methods of representation and communication that had served well previously were challenged: more self-conscious techniques were needed, to avoid assumptions that were seemingly taken for granted in earlier language and literature, the fine arts and the sciences.

Wonderful observations, metaphors and turns of phrase abound. Gave me much to chew on in my own work.

Also reminded me of a great line from Joe Orton’s play What the Butler Saw: “You can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world. It just isn’t rational.”

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Almost three weeks into this Composer Blog, I guess I better say something about the music I’m working on.

I typically have three pieces in the cooker at any given point: one in rough draft, one in a messy, half-baked state, and one getting some finishing touches. This multi-task approach began during my student days when I noticed that the completion of every piece was followed by a state of depression which made starting the next piece unthinkable. Many creative artists have remarked on this pattern: there is an exhilaration that comes with the conclusion of a new work which is often followed by an emotional letdown.

I resented riding on this roller coaster. I felt like I wasn’t getting as much done as I could have been — the effort involved in climbing into each new piece was exhausting. So I started the habit of beginning each new work well before its predecessor was completed.

I’ve imagined this process as standing ankle-deep, waist-deep, and up-to-my-neck deep all at once.

Each stage has its own rewards and drudgery, so when I find myself, say, gasping for breath in the up-to-my-neck piece, I’ll switch to the ankle-deep piece and find plenty of fresh air to satisfy my lungs. If that begins to run dry, I switch to the waist-deep piece, and so on. The point is, I never stop making progress somewhere.

So right now I’m working on three pieces. The one near completion is a quartet for violin, viola, cello and piano. It’s in three movements: Gathering, Congregation and Scattering. Through it, I’ve been trying to come to grips with the emotional arc I felt (many of us felt) as this past November 2nd approached, arrived and passed.

We can describe an emotional arc in words, but a musical trajectory can be so much more complex and multifaceted. So, for example, it is easy for me to say that my emotional arc last fall was excitement and anticipation followed by shock followed by despair. But when I explored that internal journey through music, I found things were, indeed, much more complex than I had realized.

The second movement, Congregation, takes its inspiration from a passage in Daniel Defoe’s The True-Born Englishman (1701).

Wherever God erects a house of prayer,

The Devil always builds a chapel there;

And “˜twill be found, upon examination,

The latter has the largest congregation.

These lines provided me with a clear enough framework for the music, although the results did give me a few surprises along the way. But what was truly puzzling was the last movement, which I expected to have a clear relationship to my current emotional state. Instead, I found the music had shades of comedy — it was almost light-hearted.

But surely that wasn’t an accurate representation of how I felt after the election! Like fifty-five million others, I was stunned by the results, desperate for an explanation, and terrified of the direction we were heading in.

And yet I had written this music that exuded sparkle and a twisted joie de vivre. Over the last two months, I have frequently decided I would discard this third movement and start over with something that was more in keeping with how I understood my mood.

But music has the power to speak the truth, even when we can’t completely understand what it is saying. I had to believe that the music I had written was saying more than I was capable of saying in any other way.

Over the course of the 1930s, more and more European compositions featured passages with nightmarish march rhythms. You don’t find these passages in American music of the time. They are frightening, grotesque, and they speak an emotional truth that was not generally recognized at the time. It is almost as if something was in the air that could not be put into words, but could not be kept out of the music.

So my quartet will premiere in Paris this May with a brief, puzzling final movement called, I think all too accurately, Scattering.

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Look at

what passes for the new,

You will not find it there but in

despised poems.

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

William Carlos Williams

from “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”

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On Friday, I taught a Composition Seminar here, and brought up the issue of creative balance alluded to in my recent post, The Components of Musical Experience. While it’s fresh in my mind, this is a good time to share some tips, not only for maintaining balance, but for saying goodbye to writer’s block forever. So here we go:

All of this is based on the four Jungian psychological functions — thinking, feeling, intuition and sensation — I’ve noted before. Everyone is different, but people tend to have one of these four functions as a strong point, and one as a blind spot. Finding your own balance is a very personal affair, but the more you are able to bring all four of these functions into the creative process, the richer your results are likely to be.

Writer’s block — any creative block — typically comes from an over-reliance on one of the four functions. We are all familiar with the feeling of banging our heads against a particular problem without making much progress. I’ve learned that the most effective route to getting past this frustration is to examine the way I am approaching the problem: is my approach too rational? too intuitive? Once I have identified the function I am over-relying on, I try out one of the others.

In composing, for example, you may have an outstanding theoretical concept you can’t seem to bring to fruition. Try improvising (intuition), or think of a powerful sensation you can tap into, eg this passage should sound like a delicate rainfall, and you will often find that the path becomes clear.

Sometimes the front door is locked, but the side door is wide open.

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 height=Checking in late (two days after his birthday) with my favorite Feldman memory: it was back in the 70s when I was a teenager — right at that age when we were convinced we knew what was important and what was frivolous. One of us made a snorting, dismissive comment about Copland, and he fixed us with a fierce stare and said, “Never underestimate the amount of skill and concentration that Copland put into choosing every note.”

Great, great lesson, and one that has stuck with me to this day: critique the music, not the style.

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