Archive for May, 2005

On Saturday, we climbed into my brother’s Fiat and zipped 50 miles up the Seine to the Moulin d’Ande, a 12th-century mill tucked away in a small forest. The property was owned by auto magnate Louis Renault in the early 20th century; he developed it into a charming country retreat. Now it is owned by Countess Suzanne Lipinska who, in addition to her royal lineage, was an assistant to François Truffaut in his masterpiece Les quatre cents coups. She has turned the property into an artists colony specializing in chamber music and screenwriting.

Whimsical sculptures punctuate the grounds, which overlook a peaceful river valley. Locations for famous scenes from Jules et Jim are still recognizable, so that you almost expect to spot Jeanne Moreau strolling across the lawn. The cottage-style rooms are named for alcohols — my wife and I stayed in the Absinthe. Upon arrival, one immediately feels a release of all the built-up energy of the city, for which the only appropriate response is to pass out on one of the comfortable beds for a midday nap.

After a brief but refreshing coma, we assembled on the lawn for cocktails, then moved indoors for a recital of German lieder that was actually pretty atrocious — the soprano was just okay but the poor pianist was overmatched and had a bit of a meltdown. It was a tortuous ninety minutes, but then we convened at 10 pm for a splendid supper. I sat at a table with a string quartet that had come up from Paris for a weekend of intense rehearsal. They took the vocal recital as a personal affront, repeatedly exclaiming in horror at the poor preparation. It turned out one of them had lived in NYC at the same time as I had, and another lived in San Francisco for a number of years, so we had quite a bit to chat about. I asked them about contemporary French music outside of the Boulez circle, and they gave me a list of younger French composers I should get to know. The wine flowed freely, and we had friendly arguments about all kinds of musical topics into the wee hours.

Many people believe that music is a universal language, but those of us here at S21 are wiser — we know that sometimes music can be an intensely divisive subject. Nonetheless, in the midst of all of our intercontinental disagreements and misunderstandings, I learned that there is one topic guaranteed to resolve any social discord.

We can all tell good viola jokes.

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The premiere of What Happened went very well Thursday night. We got a good audience of appreciative music lovers who seemed to find the piece a bit puzzling (appropriate, since I find it a bit puzzling myself) and provocative. Best was the second movement, entitled Congregation, in which three rich chorale textures in overlapping tempos converge in an explosion, followed by quiet chaos. The whole piece explores situations like this: seemingly predictable passages somehow end up heading in distant, ephemeral directions. The score of the second movement carries these lines from Daniel Defoe (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.

After the performance, a group of us headed out for drinks and great conversation, followed by unbelievable ice cream cones at 1 am — each one sculpted into a lovely abstract design.

This premiere came about because of a conversation I had last fall with two of the musicians. After a performance of electronic music they were involved in, we were chatting about their careers, and they mentioned they were performing in Paris in May. I asked them if they would like to premiere a new piece there, they were delighted, et voilà! I got this tax-deductible trip out of the conversation.

Now that the concert is past, I am walking all over, taking in the sights of the city. It’s my fourth time here, but my first extended visit in 20 years. My hotel is on the block where Hemingway and Descartes spent many fruitful years. In fact, I spent some downtime this afternoon in Luxembourg Gardens, where the starving Hemingway would stroll around with a baby carriage, waiting until the police were looking in the other direction so he could pounce on an unsuspecting pigeon, throttle it, then stuff it under the blankets for a cheap meal.

As I walk the streets, the architecture is tremendous, the sunlight is intoxicating and the smells from the pâtisseries are irresistible. It’s easy to forget to keep an eye out for the occasional crème du chien on the sidewalks.

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Greetings from Paris — I must say, a damn fine place to be this time of year.

I have eight nights in the City of Light. Eight nights gives me just enough time to avoid rushing around, trying to cram everything in, but also just enough so that I will barely settle into the remarkable rhythms of Parisian life before I will have to head back home. Of course there are struggles and frustrations here, as anywhere, but there is also a fantastic sensitivity and respect for the highest aspirations of civilization that I find really refreshing. Returning to these streets, these gardens, these plazas from time to time is a delicious balm for any soul that despairs of the value of human achievement.

I have done a lot since arriving Tuesday afternoon, but two things stand out: visits to the Pompidou Center and the Cité Universitaire. The former’s exhibition of contemporary art was a great refresher course in the wit and audacity of early minimalism — Donald Judd, Carl André, et al — as well as some wondrous new works, including a 2001 film, a Japanese-Vietnamese coproduction (I believe it was called Approaching the Complex) that featured images, both otherworldly and strangely familiar, of young men bicycling rickshas on the bottom of a lake — limbs straining with effort, and sudden, beautifully bubbling outbursts as they shot up to the surface to gulp down more air, before returning to their Sisyphean exertions.

The Cité Universitaire is where my What Happened will premiere tonight. An international village within the city, the CU is a place where students from around the world come in order to be able to afford to pursue their studies in this cultural capital. Each building houses students from a different country, providing an oasis of familiarity to young people who may be exploring the world beyond their homelands for the first time.

My music will be played in the Danish House, a modest brick edifice with a spacious, wooden music room. The concert is being given by the Atlantic Ensemble, a group whose character is personified by Wei Tsun Chang, a terrific violinist who approaches every note he plays — whether it was put on the page by Mozart or by an unknown living composer — as though it was the most fascinating thing he could possibly be doing. In rehearsal last night, we tried a number of last-minute adjustments — shifting bowings, registers, etc. — in an effort to make every nuance sparkle. I think the performance will go very well — I will try to give a follow-up report in the next few days.

But not before I spend a few more hours sitting in outdoor cafes and soaking in the impossibly fine evening air.

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Tonight I’m off to Paris — on Thursday my piano quartet What Happened, which I wrote about in January, will be premiered at the Maison Danoise. I’ll also be visiting family and taking a trip to the Moulin d’andé, so it remains to be seen how much blogging I will be up for. Barring unforeseen challenges, I should be able to file a few reports.

Based on the rehearsal I heard last week, the music will go well. We’ll have a final rehearsal on Wednesday night, which will give me a good idea of what to expect in the concert.

As much as I’m looking forward to the performance, though, what I’m really looking forward to most is the food. I have a list of restaurants that will test my ability to keep from swooning.

Meanwhile, I have to practice shifting my voice up into my nasal passages.

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We are all familiar with the struggles that composers face in finding artistic and professional success. The difficulties are enormous and the external rewards are few.

Elodie Lauten made a great list of reasons not to compose last month. I agree with all of her reasons, but I’d like to offer a complementary list of the reasons why composers’ work is essential:

  • There are so many people who devote their lives to destroying things, it’s important to have just as many people devoted to creation, in order to balance out the ledger.
  • Composers create a unique record of what it means to be alive at this moment. Their record is different from poetry or prose, it’s different from visual representations. Without that record, we, as a civilization, know ourselves a little less, and the future understands us a little less, which is to our detriment.
  • Composers teach the world to listen more closely. We will never reach a point where people listen too closely to themselves, or to one another. Our presence, our work, serves as a reminder that listening brings greater wisdom and awareness.
  • Composers make a unique connection to the past and the future. The musical ideas that get passed on and transformed from the beginning of time to the end are a tangible demonstration of the consistency and variance of life itself.
  • New music surprises us, and rewards us for our willingness to be surprised. Developing the ability to accept and grow from surprise is a crucial survival skill.
  • Living composers, forging music from their best and worst thoughts, demonstrate that the joys and indignities we all experience in our daily lives should never be wasted.

And finally:

  • It feels good. Never underestimate the importance of doing things that give you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Those good feelings feed one another, feed our relationships with others, and in turn are passed on to people we never meet.

If, as individual composers, we are ignored in our own lifetimes or forgotten when we die, that is beyond our control and, to a certain extent, irrelevant to our purpose. The truth is, most people are ignored and forgotten by society at large, and each one of us has come from a long line of ignored and forgotten people, what Thoreau called lives of quiet desperation. For adolescents, this is a tragedy. For adults, it should be an inspiration.

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Just back from Boston and a lovely (and rare) opportunity to perform with my wife. She’s a fantastic flutist and I am a mediocre pianist, so I always feel like I’m holding her back a bit, but it’s still a great pleasure to share the stage from time to time. The piece was a slight work of mine, suitable for a mediocre keyboard player — so it’s fair to say that the performance was masterful.

Another highlight of the trip was the chance to visit with my sister in Jamaica Plain and take a long walk through the Arboretum on Saturday morning, passing through a thousand lilacs with pointed blossoms and heart-shaped leaves.

Tonight’s the premiere of my Sonata: Motion for flute and piano. It’s going to be played by Tadeu Coelho and Allison Gagnon. I heard a rehearsal last Thursday that reminded me how fortunate I am to have such unbelievable artists dedicate so much time and hard work to my music. Allison is a pianist of tremendous sensitivity, and Tadeu makes everything look easy. You can never tell when he is circular breathing: there’s no break in the sound or sign of effort.

The premiere of Blown Away went very well on Friday night, according to the disk I received yesterday. I’m very happy with the piece. It was my first attempt at writing for wind ensemble, so I was ready for disappointment — I wasn’t sure I had a secure grasp of the medium. But it worked beautifully, and it was also an excellent learning opportunity for me, if I ever decide to write for wind ensemble again.

Heard a rehearsal of another piece of mine yesterday, one that’s slated for a premiere next week — but more on that later.

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Too much to talk about today, and too little time. Tonight the NCSA Wind Ensemble will premiere my Blown Away, which I wrote about here. Unfortunately, I won’t be there to hear it, because I’m heading up to Boston to premiere my Processional for flute and piano with my wife, flutist Rebecca Nussbaum, at Tufts University’s Goddard Chapel on Sunday.

Rebecca Nussbaum

Wednesday night I heard a Jerry Bowles Birthday Concert — well, at least it was in North Carolina, included some Shostakovich and a premiere — but no fried chicken or Puligny Montrachet. The program featured Russian pianist Denis Plutalov playing Shostakovich preludes and fugues, Liszt’s antepostmodern Variations on a Theme of J.S. Bach, and the premiere of the four-movement version of William Robert Stevens’s Insomnia. Hope we didn’t keep you up all night, Jerry.

But I really want to talk about the concert I heard last night. The Carolina Chamber Symphony played at Wake Forest University’s Brendle Hall, an amazing program of Beethoven, Barber and Russell Peck.

Unfortunately, I’ve got a plane to catch, so it will have to wait.

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In March, I wrote about a seminar Kenneth Frazelle gave on his Sonata-Fantasy for piano. At the time, it was a work in progress. On Saturday night, it was premiered at the spanking new auditorium of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, which commissioned the piece to celebrate the new Babcock wing.

The auditorium was packed, standing room only. It appears to have been designed as an all-purpose venue, which is always a frightening concept to me — all-purpose venues so often serve no purpose particularly well. The seating in the new auditorium is of the creaky bleacher variety. Surprisingly, the acoustics are not bad — not terribly warm, but very clear. I would guesstimate the space seats 150-200.

The Sonata-Fantasy is huge, just on the other side of thirty minutes, in three movements. I wrote about the first two movements a couple of months ago, but the third movement was brand new to me. On second hearing, I had more trouble with the first movement than I had before — the range of ideas and mercurial shifts were harder to follow without the score. I’ll be curious to see how I respond with further hearings.

The second movement is still spectacular. And the third movement is a wonderful surprise, an epilogue that is both concise and far-reaching.

The audience ranged evenly in age from 20s to 70s, and there was a tremendous electricity in the air, the feeling that we were experiencing something new and wonderful, and experiencing something new and wonderful really mattered.

We live in a time when more music is being produced than ever before, yet no era has been less sure of what music is, or more skeptical of the cultural value of music.

Saturday night, for thirty minutes, the value was not in question.

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This weekend I attended two performances of Kirke Mechem’s Tartuffe (1980) performed by the Fletcher Opera Institute. Based on the familiar Moliere play about religious hypocrisy, Tartuffe is a great example of anti-modernism. Although Mechem acknowledges the mastery of Bartok, Britten and Stravinsky, the music in this opera is more beholden to sophisticated 1940s film scores: one can imagine Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart mugging to some of its twists and turns.

Kirke Mechem

Many of us cannot imagine a more horrifying scenario for a new(ish) opera — music indebted to 1940s Hollywood, without the slightest hint of irony? And yet this opera works in a way that many operas can only envy. There is no attempt at or interest in innovation; rather, all available resources are used in support of telling the story, a story that unfortunately seems both timely and timeless. Occasionally those resources include newish sounds, but not often.

Like many operas, the first act leaves a lot to be desired. The pacing is bit uneven and unconvincing, the scoring is too heavy from time to time, and Mechem frequently succumbs to an unfortunate tendency to extend the last note of a phrase, making some stretches of the text incomprehensible.

But, as in many operas, the weaknesses of the first act are more than compensated for by the effectiveness of the second and third acts. The text-setting, orchestration and pacing get better and better as the evening goes on, working seamlessly to deliver a very entertaining final 90 minutes of theater.

And the first act certainly has its moments: one of the highlights of the performance is a first-act duet in which Mariane laments her unrequited love, while the maid Dorine mocks her in an amusing canon.

For those who attend performances only in the hope of hearing something unlike they’ve ever heard before, this opera would be a complete waste of time. If, however, you have no objection to superb craftsmanship and artistry that puts itself in service of high entertainment values, Tartuffe is a success.

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I’m trying to keep myself regular, so a bit more pruning is on the menu for today.

Going by decade, Sequenza21 readers have voted Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach as the most influential piece of the 1970s, and John Adams’s Harmonielehre as the most influential piece of the 1980s. How about the 1990s? I know I have specific pieces that affected me in a very powerful way, but I’m not so sure their influence was as cultural as it was personal. I’m curious to hear from younger composers on this one.

To refresh your memory, the nominations are below. Again, I’m not looking for the best piece, whatever that means, but the piece that had the most widespread impact on American composers — widespread in the sense that it affected the greatest number of composers. What do you think?

Gyorgi Ligeti: Violin Concerto (1990)
John Cage: Four2 (1990)
Iannis Xenakis: Knephas (1990)
Pauline Oliveros: Crone Music (1990)
Martin Bresnick: Opere della Musica Povera (1990-99)
Julia Wolfe: Four Marys (1991)
John Cage: Five3 (1991)
Robert Ashley: Improvement (1991)
Milton Babbitt: Mehr Du (1991)
John Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer (1991)
Meredith Monk: Atlas (1991)
Judith Weir: I Broke Off a Golden Branch (1991)
Frederic Rzewski: De Profundis (1991)
John Adams: Chamber Symphony (1992)
Magnus Lindberg: Clarinet Quintet (1992)
Conrad Cummings: Photo Op (1992)
John Cage: Fifty-Eight (1992)
David Lang: Cheating, Lying, Stealing (1993)
Milton Babbitt: String Quartet No. 6 (1993)
David First: Jade Screen Test Dreams of Renting Wings (1993)
Michael Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony (1993)
Elliott Carter: Symphonia (1993-96)
Magnus Lindberg: Aura (1994)
Olivier Messiaen: Eclairs sur l’Au-Dela (1994)
Milton Babbitt: Triad (1994)
Gyorgi Kurtag: Stele (1994)
Mikel Rouse: Failing Kansas (1995)
Michael Gordon: Trance (1995)
Eve Beglarian: Landscaping for Privacy (1995)
Mikel Rouse: Dennis Cleveland (1996)
Gerard Grisey: Vortex temporum (1996)
Tobias Picker: Emmeline (1996)
Esa-Pekka Salonen: LA Variations (1996)
Tan Dun: Marco Polo (1996)
Michael Finnissy: Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets (1997)
Thomas Ades: Powder Her Face (1997)
Sofia Gubaidulina: Canticle of the Sun (1997)
Michael Finnissy: Multiple Forms of Constraint (1997)
Pierre Boulez: Sur incises (1998)
John Luther Adams: In the White Silence (1998)
Beat Furrer: Still (1998)
Mark Adamo: Little Women (1998)
John Adams: Naive and Sentimental Music (1998-99)
Elodie Lauten: Waking in New York (1999)
Toshio Hosokawa: Koto-uta (1999)
Louis Andriessen: Writing to Vermeer (1999)
The Magnetic Fields (aka Stephin Merritt): 69 LOVE SONGS (the album) (1999)

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