“I have been read by Eliot’s poems and by Ulysses and by Remembrance of Things Past and by The Castle for a good many years now… some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that our relationship has become very intimate.”
Archive for February, 2005
In 1919, cut off from royalties and family estate earnings by the Russian Revolution, Stravinsky composed a “pocket theater” work for three actors, 1 dancer and 7 instruments in the hopes of making a little money on tour around Switzerland. Unfortunately, an outbreak of Spanish Influenza, which killed almost 20 million in Europe, closed down all performance venues, so the debut tour of L’histoire du soldat ended after one performance.
In an effort to make something out of nothing, Stravinsky composed a suite arrangement of the piece for clarinet, violin and piano. He skipped several movements from the original, because they didn’t translate well for the reduced ensemble. Most notorious of his omissions was the final Triumphal March of the Devil, which brought the original piece to a powerful conclusion.
Clarinetists and violinists have long lamented this omission on Stravinsky’s part: the suite as he arranged it has a very unsatisfactory ending. Igor Begelman and Joseph Genualdi decided to do something about it. What did they do? They asked me if I would come up with an arrangement of the final march.
I can’t speak for other composers, but I get this type of request from time to time, I suppose on the assumption that anyone who can write music is certainly qualified to make arrangements. Not a bad assumption, as far as it goes. I usually respond by saying that I would be happy to write an original piece for them if they need some music, but arranging other composers’ works doesn’t interest me.
But this situation was different, for two reasons. First, the piece in question is an unqualified masterpiece of the twentieth century, and Stravinsky’s arrangement is truly a diminishment of the original. Second, there was a huge challenge to overcome: the original devil’s march ends with an extended percussion cadenza. How could that possibly be rescored for clarinet, violin and piano?
My answer: make use of the unemployed musician who gets the thankless task of serving as page-turner for the pianist. For the last movement, the page-turner is unnecessary, so I’ve provided him/her with a simple tom part to play throughout the march, wherever Stravinsky indicated bass drum. The pianist plays high clusters for the cymbals, and the clarinetist honks indeterminate multiphonics for some of the intermediate drums. When the cadenza begins, the tom part heats up, the pianist closes the keyboard lid and starts rapping on it (great resonance!). The violinist and clarinetist lean into the piano, grab some mallets and play Stravinsky’s rhythms on the soundboard and iron frame.
The result is a “pocket theater” ending to this otherwise untheatrical arrangement. You may not feel that it is an improvement on Stravinky’s version (I think it is), but at least it’s an alternative for musicians who are not too artistically inhibited to take it on. And it will be premiered here on February 22nd.
The release last month of Richard Taruskin’s new Oxford History of Western Music has many discussing the concept of musical literacy, weighing in on his view that literacy is on the wane. Whether you agree or disagree, it’s a provocative topic, and a great example of a “report” that can actually end up affecting the news. The Literacy Issue will likely be part of the discussion when people talk about art music for some time to come. Some will welcome what they perceive as the inevitable; others will take up the fight to defend what they love.
In any case, the whole notion got me thinking about how we learn to compose. In an interview shortly before his death, Ernst Toch described his first connection to the world of composing, finding a copy of ten string quartets by Mozart in a shop window: “I bought it. I was carried away when reading this score. Perhaps in order to prolong my exaltation, I started to copy it, which gave me deeper insight. By and by, I bought and copied all the ten scores. But I did not stop at that. After having copied three or four I became aware of the structure of the single movements. And when I started to copy the fifth, I decided I would only continue with my copying up to the repeat sign, and then try my hand at making that part myself which leads back to the original key (called “development” as I was later informed). Then I compared with the original. I felt crushed. Was I a flea, a mouse, a little nothing when I compared what I did with what Mozart did; but still I did not give up and continued my strange method to grope along in this way and to force Mozart to correct me.”
When I was in my early teens, I decided that the world needed me to arrange the fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier for string quartet. My efforts failed to draw headlines, but I learned so much from the process. Copying out by hand, I learned intuitive lessons about texture, balance, imitation and development in ways that practically made formal fugue study irrelevant.
Which brings me to my question: Does anyone do this anymore? With the technological means to notate music or even create sound directly, surely the learning process of copying by hand is a thing of the past. I’m not lamenting its passing, but I’m wondering what the contemporary equivalent is for a young composer, before s/he encounters formal study. I have some ideas of my own, but I’m curious what others think. How do young composers immerse themselves in the music they admire? What is the current equivalent to following the compositional process with pencil and paper?
In “On Significance in Music,” (1942) long before the serialists overtook academia, philosopher Susanne Langer marvelled at the way that musical disagreements tended to take the form of dogma vs. heresy.
There was a time when I thought we might be beyond all of that, but I’m starting to hear more and more us-vs.-them divisiveness in the music world.
Many years ago I heard an audience member needle John Cage, trying to get him to say something negative about Milton Babbitt’s music. Cage deflected him several times, then, as close to exasperation as I ever saw him, said, “There are so many people in this world. Why can’t Milton do what he wants to do, and I’ll do what I want to do?”
So I ask the same question: Isn’t the music world big enough for all of us to do what we need to do? Can’t we care deeply about what we do without insisting that there is no other possibility? What is it about music, that most ephemeral form of expression, that makes people behave so territorially?
Langer has an answer: “Whenever people vehemently reject a proposition, they do so not because it simply does not recommend itself, but because it does, and yet its acceptance threatens to hamper their thinking in some important way. If they are unable to define the exact mischief it would do, they just call it degrading, materialistic, pernicious or any other bad name. Their judgment may be fuzzy, but the intuition they are trying to rationalize is right; to accept the opponent’s proposition as it stands, would lead to unhappy consequences.”
I think she was right then and now. So when I hear someone making music that is foreign to my artistic needs, instead of coming up with derogatory names, I think Thank god s/he’s doing that so I don’t have to.
What do you think?