Archive for August, 2005

The responses to my “Voices in Your Head” question on the Forum page have been varied and thought-provoking, and have helped me clarify my own views on the subject of vocal music.

My view is still difficult to pin down, though, because I have so many things I want to accomplish with music – I suppose, to an observer, my objectives may appear to run counter to one another. But there are so many things that need to be said, I have to be vigilant in order to avoid giving an incomplete picture of what is really going on in my mind.

Jerry commented that he would have more fun writing for Bjork than Renee Fleming. I would have just as much fun writing for either of them, and for any skilled singer who would take my work seriously. By “skilled,” I don’t necessarily mean trained in any particular style. All I’m looking for is a level of commitment and achievement within a given singer’s area of expertise.

Most of my vocal music has been written with specific singers in mind. And, not coincidentally, most of the vocal music I have written without anyone particular in mind has never been performed. While I wait for Renee and Bjork to get in touch with me, I will continue to write vocal music that is stylistically all over the map to suit the singers I know personally.

There are things to be accomplished with bel canto singing that can’t be done in any other way. The majestic grandeur expressed by the Queen of the Night, the disgust oozing from the Powder Her Face judge aria – these are artistic rewards that words alone can’t convey. Similarly, there is a raw power in certain pop vocalists that I want to take advantage of when needed.

When my primary need is to convey the words, there is nothing better than spoken text. Running the gamma-ut from spoken text to coloratura melismas, with everything in between and outside of those parameters – that’s where you’ll find me, again depending on what I am trying to convey.

In the discussion on the Forum page, one troubling angle of argument is the comparison of the “average” bel canto singer with the very best pop singer, and vice versa. It just isn’t fair to match the best of one discipline with the average of another, whichever way you are leaning. If we complain about the flabbiness of the average bel canto vibrato, or the poor intonation of the average pop singer, we make the same mistake as those who dismiss our compositional efforts by saying, “I’ve heard a lot of new music, the average piece doesn’t do much for me, so I don’t like new music.” The majority in any discipline will be, by definition, average.

One final note: I think the emphasis on bad vibrato is a bit misleading — the vibrato of great bel canto singers is an asset, not a hindrance, to conveying text. The issue of intelligibility is a bit more complicated. It’s important for Americans to recognize that when we speak, we use subtly different means to emphasize words from most Europeans. Many European languages, including British English, have an inherent melodiousness that is used to express feeling. In comparison to British English, American English can often sound monotonic – entire sentences go by on a single pitch. What do we use to give our spoken language expressive clarity? The answer is rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. Americans tend to be very sensitive to the speed and accentuation of words, phrases and sentences. Rather than rising in pitch in order to make a point, we are more likely to speak in powerful downbeats and syncopations. American pop music recognizes this distinction, but it has taken longer for art music composers to take full advantage of the rhythmic nature of our spoken language.

But more and more are figuring it out.

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“Do things, act. Make a list of the music you love, then learn it by heart. And when you are writing music of your own, write it as you hear it inside and never strain to avoid the obvious.” — Nadia Boulanger

Wise words from a wise teacher. The most important part is the end: “never strain to avoid the obvious.” It’s an easy mistake for young composers to make, thinking that great music is something outside of themselves, rather than something that comes from within. These composers often fail to realize that what is obvious to them can be revelatory to everyone else.

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of outstanding composers over the years, some of the most important voices of our time. The one thing they have in common — Cage, Carter, Bolcom, Reich, etc. – their music flows naturally from who they are. Their imitators, on the other hand, grasp at the techniques, the surfaces of the music, and miss the foundations, which come from life experiences, upbringings, intuition, personal quirks – in short, their humanity.

Young composers: Learn the techniques of the composers you love, but don’t mistake their paths for yours. The amazing truth is, no matter how many people there are on this planet, no matter how many there have ever been or ever will be, no two are exactly alike. The world needs to hear what you have to say, even if you may not think it’s all that significant. Approach your art with a microscope – leave the telescopes to the musicologists.

In his latest novel Here is Where We Meet, John Berger writes “”¦all you have to know is whether you’re lying or whether you’re trying to tell the truth”¦you can’t afford to make a mistake about that distinction any longer.”

The truth is in you.

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From client rules for Refuge, a “Christ-centered ministry” for troubled teens run by Love in Action:

“Clients may only read materials approved by staff. No television viewing, going to movies, or reading/watching/listening to secular media of any kind, anywhere within the client’s and the parent’s guardian’s control. This includes listening to classical or instrumental music that is not expressly Christian (Beethoven, Bach, etc., are not considered Christian).”

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“The ways of the Lord are infinite, I thought to myself, they go even through the butthole.”

Umberto Eco: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

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There are some things in life it’s taken me awhile to get around to.

Yesterday my wife gave birth to our first child. At this point, I am completely absorbed in this strange and sensitive little guy. I can’t say how much time I will be spending at S21 in the near future. Maybe I will keep up my regular postings (I have a backlog of things I’ve written already), maybe not. Right now, my life is less about prose and poetry and more about question marks and exclamations points.

So if my appearances are spotty for a while, best wishes to all of you, and keep up the great work on whatever you are doing.

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Strikes me that it’s been awhile since I’ve said anything about my composing, which is what this blog is purportedly about, so”¦

I spent most of June revising. Since then, I’ve been focused on three pieces. I’ve just about finished a trio for flute, horn and piano – it’s sitting on my desk waiting for me to make some last-minute adjustments before giving it to the musicians who will premiere it in October.

In the last few days, I’ve started working on a clarinet and piano piece in which I’m experimenting with some harmonies and phrase structures I’ve avoided in the past.

Meanwhile, a good chunk of my time this summer has gone into the second and fourth movements of my fourth string quartet (I’ll get to the third movement once I have the second and fourth worked out). I began this piece back in 2002; it’s one of a set of six quartets I’ve been working on since 1998, each of which zooms in on a specific aspect of Classical form with a complexity of viewpoints that would have been impossible 200 years ago.

The first quartet – Jests and Tenderness – focused on the Classical scherzo, digging beneath the surface of humor and unearthing a core of rage and despair.

The second quartet – Flight – concerned itself with the sensation and mechanics of flying, by turns rapturous, comical, innocent and menacing, in an array of six fugues that vary in faithfulness to the Classical model. (For example, the subject of the first fugue is a texture, rather than a line.)

In Air, the third quartet, I used 18th-century aria form to study the way we breathe and the way we respond to and affect the air around us. (This piece may be premiered in November in Sofia, Bulgaria, although that performance is not set yet. It will definitely get its American premiere here at the NC School of the Arts next January.)

Now this fourth quartet. The title is Rounds: it’s based on the Classical rondo, but with explorations of everything that roundness can imply – canonical rounds, circles within circles, cyclic themes, smoothed timbres, etc. In keeping with the rondo concept, it is also the most light-hearted of the six quartets, with dance club music exerting a substantial presence in the second movement.

Why would I put so many years into a project like this? Partly in order to challenge myself, to make a creative investment that goes beyond simply capturing the sounds that careen around my head. There’s a great joy in just letting music flow (which I’m doing in the clarinet/piano duo), but there’s also a deep satisfaction in spending years working through the ramifications of a single idea. Hopefully, when I’ve come out the other end, I will arrive at a deeper comprehension of design, tradition – and life itself.

But the reason I’m investing all of this time and effort into finding contemporary relevance in old ideas is because I feel like the world I live in has enough people going for novelty. Nothing wrong with new things – I’m rather fond of them myself. But a balanced boat has both bow and stern. I see so many people chasing after the latest headlines with little awareness or memory of where we’ve been. Many others engage the past simply for its sentimental value, rather than for greater awareness and perspective on the present.

I assume that a great piece of music is going to keep my interest as a listener. With this cycle of quartets, I’m looking to keep my interest as a thinker. I am trying to make an honest, open-eyed assessment of who we are, part of which involves having a deeper understanding of who we’ve been. I can’t guarantee what I will end up with, but I have my sneaking suspicions.

Some people won’t hear the music for the concepts, believing without listening that there can be no value to writing sonatas and fugues in the 21st century. But there will be others who will give me credit for doing what I have to do, regardless of fashion. Either way, I’m very curious to have the whole set completed – at this pace, probably another five years or so. When finished, hopefully there will be a double benefit: six terrific pieces, and a better composer.

Of course, I can’t help being reminded of the old joke about the composition student who complained, “I’ve been working on this passage for months, and I just can’t get it to sound spontaneous!”

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I seem to be on a binge with terminology, so here’s another diatribe.

In some circles, the worst criticism a piece of music can receive is to be labeled dated.

But I’ve always felt that all music goes through a period of sounding dated – when the novelty has worn off, but we don’t yet have enough distance to appreciate other qualities.

Music that’s 20 to 40 years old has a good chance of sounding dated to me. There are many wonderful exceptions, of course.

When I was a student in the 1970s and 80s, I had a hard time listening to a lot of music from the 1930s to the 1960s. It often came across like a cheap Hollywood soundtrack or gee-whiz sci-fi. Now I can listen to this same music and hear which pieces truly cut to the core of our beings, and which ones are merely messages from a lost planet.

Meanwhile, the music from the 60s to the 80s that used to keep me on the edge of my seat now sounds – well, dated.

Part of this phenomenon is the natural result of young musicians constantly reacting to their immediate forebears. The last thing most 20-somethings want to do is sound like their parents’ generation. As we get older, we often come to appreciate our parents’ generation more, while finding the passions of our own youth distasteful. Music that may be perfectly viable in every way can attach itself to unattractive associations, based on where and who we were when we first heard it.

So new things come before us all the time, pushing the old new things aside. Which is a good, natural process, but also a problem for all of us. One of the reasons new works no longer enter into any kind of performance “canon” is because when they are no longer new they are deemed worthless — even the early works of living composers.

But I’m always careful to respect the accomplishments of those who have come before me, even if I have no intention of following in their footsteps. Their time comes, their time goes, and perhaps it will come again. Why expend negative energy on criticizing music for being dated, if we are all destined for same purgatory?

As the saying goes, Choose your enemies carefully, for you may come to resemble them.

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