Archive for March, 2005

It’s been just over a week since the Russian premiere of Amadeus ex machina, and I’m finally getting around to an attempt to describe what happened after the concert.

First of all, the audience members were of all ages, from children to senior citizens, pretty evenly distributed, which is always nice to see.

After the applause for the Barber Violin Concerto died down, four of us assembled on stage for a post-concert talk: the conductor (Jeffrey Meyer), two composers (Sergei Slonimsky and me) and the violin soloist doubling as interpreter (Anastacia Khitruk).

A. Khitruk

Post-concert talks are practically unheard of in St. Petersburg, so none of us really knew what to expect. About thirty-five people stayed to ask questions. It was certainly an odd scene: an audience member would ask a question in Russian, Anastacia would translate it into English, I would take a crack at answering it, she would translate my response into Russian, then Sergei would give his answer. All of this would be fine, except Sergei’s answers were never translated into English, so I had no idea what he was saying. For all I knew, he was telling the audience that my answers were idiotic. At one point, I could tell he was talking about my piece, but I really had no way of telling what he was saying.

l. to r.: Khitruk, Meyer, Dillon, Slonimsky

One older gentleman in the front row held forth for a while, and I was able to get the gist of what he was asking. When Anastacia translated, my guess was confirmed. He said he wanted more American music, and not just the pretty stuff by Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland. He wanted Elliott Carter, and other challenging composers.

I thanked him for his sense of adventure. I said that there are so many people in the world who don’t want to know about anything outside of their own experience, so the rest of us have to work extra hard to make challenging connections.

Afterwards, I was bewildered by the line of autograph seekers: people, young and old, who wanted me to sign their programs. Not a scene I’m used to in the States.

Later, I asked Anastacia what Sergei had been saying about my music. He seemed like a very pleasant man, and his piece, Symphony No. 8, was a striking concertino-for-orchestra with some truly beautiful moments.

Sergei Slonimsky with his uncle Nicolas (r.) and John Cage (c.)

Turns out he loved my piece, had a number of nice compliments, but completely misunderstood the title, telling the audience that Mozart was NOT a machine.

What should a composer say when appreciated for the wrong reasons?

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Rodney Lister and David Toub have given me their personal answers to my question What pieces from the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s have changed the way composers think about composing? which I appreciate greatly, since I didn’t know several of the works they referenced, and will now enjoy tracking them down.

But therein lay my difficulty in answering Radvilovich’s question: my immediate response was completely personal, and he was looking for broader cultural significance. So here’s another approach to the same question. I’ve come up with a short list of works from the 1970s that had an immediate and far-reaching impact on compositional styles. Mind you, these aren’t necessarily pieces that had an impact on me, or even pieces that I particularly like. But a significant number of composers rethought their paths after these pieces were first performed, or at least borrowed heavily from them, either technically or stylistically.

George Crumb: Voice of the Whale
George Rochberg: String Quartet No. 3
Steve Reich: Drumming
David del Tredici: Final Alice
Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach
Joseph Schwantner: Aftertones of Infinity

Any arguments with this list? What have I left out? Please let me know: it’s easy to overlook things, or take things for granted that somehow seemed too obvious. And I’m happy to add to this list, if appropriate.

Next I will attempt a list for the 1980s, although I expect to have a harder time with that one.

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The seminar drew to a close in amiable fashion, with many handshakes and stammered, multi-lingual attempts at well-wishes. Radvilovich then invited us to join him for coffee. We cleared out of the room just as a musicology conference was gathering and trudged through the snow to the Café Idiot.

Café Idiot

A group of five of us sat at a round table and ordered our hot drinks, which the Café Idiot traditionally serves with a complimentary shot of vodka. I don’t know if it was the vodka, the brisk walk or the informal surroundings, but Radvilovich warmed up quite a bit, and I was able to ask him more about his work and the contemporary music scene in Russia.

He began by lamenting the level of performance of new music in Russia. He raved about the recordings I had brought featuring American performers, where every detail was so polished, and the music was really allowed to sparkle (thank you Cassatt Quartet, Mendelssohn Quartet, Carolina Chamber Symphony). He spoke of a flute/percussion duo he had written, which was performed in Germany by a pair of Americans. He was shocked that they were willing to rehearse for four hours straight. He asked them how much time they had spent with the piece, and they said it was their eighth rehearsal, which he found astounding.

(That’s actually one of the reasons I prefer writing chamber music to writing for orchestra. Orchestras can’t afford to make that kind of commitment, whereas it’s not uncommon for chamber ensembles — it’s not always the case, of course, but it is certainly more frequent.)

Radvilovich then bemoaned the lack of support for new music from the administration of the St. Petersburg Conservatory (sound familiar to anyone?) and the difficulty of getting his hands non-Russian music. He said he has been teaching his students Berio’s Sinfonia for years, and yet he’s never seen a score.

I promised him I would see what I could do to help, which may not be much, but whatever is possible is necessary. I asked him for copies of his music, and I understand that a package is now somewhere in the postal ether on its way to my door as I type these words.

And I’ve got plans for that package.

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When I left off in Part 8, I was beginning to describe Radvilovich’s aggressive questions after my lecture. First he asked why I had brought two overtures (the Adams and the Ades) — two pieces for the theater. Didn’t I believe in absolute music? Then he questioned my approach to sonata form. Either I should subscribe to Schoenberg’s principle that a composer should have the entire piece worked out before writing a note, or I should believe, as Cage did, that everything should be beyond my control. He then expressed disinterest in anything having to do with popular culture, which he described as selling out to Hollywood.

This all seemed far enough off the mark that I began to wonder how well my little lecture had been translated, and indeed, how well his questions were being translated back to me. But I did my best to address the questions at face value. I described Karl Jung’s four cognitive functions (which I have written about here), explaining that I make certain musical decisions intuitively, so they are neither planned in advance nor are they left to chance. I described creativity as a process of discovery, not dictation. To answer his comments about popular culture, I spoke of art as a specific balance between the world we perceive and the world we imagine. A significant part of the world I perceive is dominated by popular culture, so it would be dishonest for me to ignore it.

I couldn’t be sure if my answers were satisfying or discouraging, but in any case, Radvilovich changed the subject. He started asking questions about the current state of affairs in American music. I have a tough time generalizing on these matters, but I did my best to outline some current trends: Downtown, Neo-complexity, Neo-romanticism, Post-minimalism. We talked about Feldman, Reich, Harbison, Ferneyhough. One of Radvilovich’s colleagues, a fellow who bore a resemblance to a young Shostakovich, asked me if there were any composers who didn’t worry about fitting into categories, and I said “most.” He then asked what I thought of Elliott Carter. I told him Carter was one of my teachers, I admire him tremendously, and I consider his music to be beautiful and brilliant. I added that JS Bach was also one of my teachers whose music is beautiful and brilliant, but I had no desire to imitate him. In fact, Carter is a half-century older than I am, so it would make about as much sense for me to write like Carter as it would for Carter to write like Puccini.

I asked which Russian composers were comparable to Carter. They answered that there were some who were as famous, but none who were as good, and I was reminded again of Dostoyevksi’s literature of self-loathing.

We then launched into a discussion of how one learns about contemporary composers. They complained that the Russian media ignore new music. I told them the same was true in the US, but that the internet allowed for a free exchange of ideas and information, that composers had the opportunity to promote their work directly to interested parties. They said they didn’t want to promote their music — but the word they used, at least in the way it was translated back to me, was “propaganda,” which must certainly have very painful connotations for them. They also said that the internet would be a good way for them to learn about us, but not for us to learn about them.

It takes a lot to get me depressed, but they were making some excellent progress in that direction!

Then Radvilovich asked a question I would like to pass on to Sequenza21 readers. He spoke of works that change the direction of creative discourse. He gave two examples: Boulez’s Le marteau sans maitre in the 50s and Berio’s Sinfonia in the 60s. He asked what works have had a similar effect in America since then.

I know my answer. What is yours? What pieces from the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s have changed the way composers think about composing? Let me know, and I will send back to him an Official Sequenza21 List of Galvanizing Works from the late-20th/early-21st centuries.

And later I will have a follow-up: coffee and vodka with Radvilovich at the Idiot Cafe!

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As promised, here are some snaps from my trip to St. Petersburg:

On the Bridge of Sixteen Balls

Shuvalovsky Palace (where the St. Petersburg Chamber Orchestra performed)

In rehearsal

Every Russian home should have a Fairy and a Mr. Proper.

More later.

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To pick up where I left off in Part 5, I followed my discussion of compositional process by playing a recording of Amadeus ex machina. They pored over the score. When it was over, they sat in silence, which took me a bit by surprise — in similar situations, I always find a way to express appreciation, or at least encouragement.

Composition Seminar. Radvilovich is seated third from the left.

I decided to talk about my evolving, complex relationship with my cultural heritage. I showed them the first movement of my first string quartet, which builds a sonata form out of a conflict between two bitter parodies: the first theme is a mindless, noisy lampoon of popular music; the second theme is a fussy, refined-yet-clumsy takeoff on 20th-century neoclassicism. I explained my approach to sonata form, which is less about pouring new wine into old bottles than it is about setting a process, a formal dynamic, in motion, then letting it play out in time.

I put on a recording of the Mendelssohn String Quartet playing the piece. Again, they pored over the score. Again, no response when the music ended.

Uncertain, I asked if they would like to hear more music or if they had any questions. Radvilovich indicated that I should play one more piece. So I played the slow movement of Furies and Muses, an aria about the desire, (as opposed to the ability) to sing. (I posted this movement here a month ago)

This score provoked a bit of Russian Discussion — while the music was playing, which was mildly annoying. When it was over, Radvilovich began asking questions. He did not look at me as he spoke, but rather talked down at the table between us. His questions were not the friendly softball tosses I have fielded many times in the past. I suppose it was closer to hockey: all flying pucks and aggressive hip checks.


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Tonight, shortly after the Russian premiere of Amadeus ex machina, another piece of mine, called Devotion, will get its NYC premiere. Students from the North Carolina School of the Arts will play the piece in Lincoln Center’s Clark Theater. I’m not sure of the exact time.

Sorry I can’t be there, but I wouldn’t have missed this week for anything. I only wish I had time to write about everything I’ve seen: last night I went to the St. Petersburg Opera’s production of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, and right now I’m on my way to a Stravinsky double bill (Le Rossignol and Oedipus Rex) at the Mariinsky Theater. I will have a lot of reporting to catch up on when I get home.

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Huge improvement in the next rehearsal of Amadeus. I’m very encouraged that Sunday’s performance will be a success. The musicians seem to be understanding the piece; apparently they have just become aware that the composer is present, and they are stealing glances my way as they play, looking for signs of approval.

I approve, I approve!

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On Thursday, I met with Alexander Radvilovitch’s composition class from the Conservatoire. We met in an astonishing room of faded, 19th-century splendor: red walls and dark, patterned woods, scuffed into indiscernibility (I will post photos from the seminar and other events on this trip when I return home — my time on the internet here is too brief and scattered to attempt a camera hookup).

Just before I left the States, I got word that Radvilovitch wanted me to bring scores and CDs of music that had influenced my work. I didn’t have the time or the luggage space to fully answer his request, but I quickly packed scores and disks to two brief, contrasting works that I felt would provide a provocative introduction to my Amadeus ex machina: the overtures to Adams’s Nixon in China and Ades’s Powder Her Face. It was a gamble: I had been warned that the students would be unaware of Charles Ives.

The atmosphere in the class was fascinating on several counts. First, a pleasant surprise: the students, all composers, seemed to be evenly split between men and women, a balance that has been rare in my encounters with composition classes in the US. Second, the seminar was conducted through three interpreters — two students from the Conservatoire and one recent alum. Third, although I am accustomed to encouraging discussion, an informal give-and-take, in these kinds of encounters, Radvilovitch made it clear that he expected me to hold forth, lecture style, and he would save his responses for last.

All of this made it very challenging to gauge the temperature of the room, not only in order to give my music an effective presentation, but also to share my experience in a way that might benefit these young composers. In my younger, more sensitive days, I might have felt like a trap was being laid for me, that they were going to let me go out on a limb and then attack me for my aesthetics, my technique, or even my manner of presentation. But over time I have become more and more supportive and nurturing of all composers — even the jerks — and I’ve developed a corresponding sense of confidence in these situations. In ways I can’t quite explain, even to myself, I’ve experienced a growing sense of closeness to everyone who feels this strange compulsion to shape sound that helps me feel more trustful and readily communicative.

So I talked briefly about minimalism and played the Adams. I spoke of distortionism and played the Ades. Then I started talking about the compositional process behind Amadeus ex machina. I quickly found myself abandoning any attempt to explain or represent American music, which is an uncomfortable stance for me to take in any circumstance. Instead, I spoke to them directly as composers, about the things that all composers are familiar with: the little epiphanies that have far-reaching consequences, the puzzling and rewarding journey toward self-awareness.

I’m going to have to stop here, but I will pick up this story as soon as I can, to tell you about the amazing questions and responses I got at the end of the seminar. That’s it for now, though.

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Jeff warned me that I would be surprised by St. Petersburg’s low standards with regard to ensemble playing, from students at the Conservatoire to the Kirov Orchestra under Gergiev. Unfortunately, the second rehearsal (I skipped the first) of Amadeus ex machina proved him right. Despite his best efforts to get them to cohere, the musicians seemed perfectly willing to accept sloppy attacks that would never be tolerated in an American ensemble. It’s very difficult to explain: it’s not that they are poor musicians — far from it — but this is an aspect of their training that has clearly been neglected. One would almost think that they prefer the blurred effect they were getting to the clarity of ensemble playing prized by American orchestras.

This flies delightfully in the face of the conventional wisdoms I was raised on, where Russians are highly disciplined cogs in a machine and Americans are freedom-loving nonconformists.

Amadeus ex machina will suffer with this lack of precision, but there are two more rehearsals, so I still have hopes that progress can be made before Sunday.

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