Archive for March, 2006

Eb minor. Clarinet: A – A – Db. Sing it. No, second A longer. Two beats, three beats longer. Sing. Better. Next? Slower. 7/8. Cello on the bass, piano in double octaves up high, quiet. One measure. Two measures? Yes. Bring back harmonies from the beginning. A little faster, still quiet. Clarinet alternating high and low sixteenths. No: too much too soon. Save it. Move on – figure out the clarinet later. Piano is moving – where? Take over the bass. Four different chords in this bar, then two in the next. Here comes the clarinet. Is this the right moment? Forget it, check the timing later. Move on. Clarinet: F# — B – E – F. Sing. Maybe. Now the same thing a little faster. Vary it later. Still quiet. Need a different harmony here: too predictable. Mark the spot, move on. No, back up, sing the whole passage. Run through in double time. Pacing, pacing, ignore the details.

Clarinet still comes in too soon. Push it back to the next bar. Try again, not quite double time, but still fast. Ignore ignore ignore the details, just get the timing right.

That will work. Now fill in. Run through again at half speed, imagining every detail. Tough to hear this spacing. Try again. Okay, that’s right. Now the next beat. The rhythm dies here, just for a moment. No good. Maybe it’s the bar before. Where you are is only half the battle, the rest is how you got there. Try again, try again. Half speed.

This chord is a little empty. Needs to be richer. Subvert the overtones, then confirm them. Appoggiatura in the inner voice. Nice. Brilliant!

Brilliant? No, not good enough. Try again.

God, look at the time.

Don’t look at the time.

Switch pieces.

Viola leads, violins underneath. Concealed pattern emerges, then folds back into texture. Off-kilter pulsations in the cello. Now loud, suddenly. Needs an eingang in the viola. That should do it. Fine. Compare to page three. Ah, forgot about that double-stop. Rethink. How important is it? Sing. Again.

Again.

Again.

Seems pretty important – not ignorable. Like maybe it could expand into something new. Grab it, ride it, improvise, listen.

Wow.

Okay, back to page 12. Concealed pattern emerges, then folds back into texture. Off-kilter pulsations in the cello. Now loud, suddenly. And double-stop. And again. And again. Obsessive! How important is it? Can’t ignore it now.

Phone. Hello? No. No. No. Can I get back to you? Thanks, bye.

Time to switch pieces again.

Back to the clarinet. F# — B – E – F. Sing. Try these harmonies on the piano? Not yet. Just listen inside. Listen to it at half speed. Listen. Listen. Okay, here it gets a bit stodgy rhythmically. Goose the bass line, too repetitive. Sharpen the pencil, fill in the inner voices. Cello pizz, easy. Not too much. Nice.

E Major? Sure, why not. Recitation tone. Make it hang, hang, hang. Chords change beneath. Regular, then irregular. Spinning, dizzy. Then fly away into cello harmonics. Too much piano – only need a whisper. Forget the eraser, just cross it out. That’s it. Now float, float, float. And gently land.

Got it got it got it.

Got it got it got it got it got it.

Now, how about that empty chord?

Ooh, look at the time.

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“We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

– Ada Louise Huxtable

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Composers frequently bemoan the fact that conservatories are slow to acknowledge innovation. We should try to get over that. They are conservatories, not exploratories. Asking a conservatory to produce new music is like asking a library to write books. Given their mission – to train musicians to perform increasing amounts of music at the highest level possible – it’s amazing how up to date they can be.

So what can conservatories do for us? They can produce musicians in the future who will be equipped to perform our music when we are no longer around. I’m not saying they definitely will, but that’s their mission, that’s what they are designed to do. We have to accept the fact that they move incredibly slowly, but their mission is so daunting, that shouldn’t be so much of a surprise.

It’s easy to look hungrily at institutions that produce vast quantities of musicians every year – seems like such a lost opportunity when you have trouble finding anyone to perform your latest magnum opus. But if we support the mission of these conservatories, gently prodding them in the right direction rather than wishing they would be something other than what they are, they should eventually catch up to us.

If we’re worth catching up to.

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Percussionist/Composer J. B. Smith stopped here on Saturday in the midst of a 9-week tour. His road show is all about percussion and electronics, kind of a modern-day soloist touring with his own orchestra-in-a-box. The theme of the evening was looping, as three of the pieces featured the performer continuously recording his performance and building textures with the playback.The most attractive pieces were the oldest and the newest. The latter distinction was held by Eric Richards: his finalbells dates from 2004. Richards has flown under my radar to date, but this piece had an appealing obsessiveness. For over ten minutes, Smith rubbed superballs on thirteen cowbells. As he played, his performance was looped and played back over the speakers, the combinations of overtones resulting in sounds that were truly lovely, sometimes sounding disorientingly like human voices. It was the kind of piece I tend to find annoying after about five minutes, but I stayed with it and ended up enjoying the decadent surrender to sensuousness.

The oldest work was You Can’t See the Forest — Music (1971) by Daniel Lentz. A sly conceptual piece, YCSF — M is performed with a single, full wine glass. The percussionist taps occasionally on the glass, taking a sip of the wine from time to time, so that the tapping pitch rises microtonally throughout. Meanwhile, he intones seemingly random phonemes (nt, ee, est, rr, etc.). All of this, in keeping with the evening’s theme, was recorded and played back as he performed. As a result, a gradual microtonal cluster builds from the tapped wine glass, while the spoken phonemes slowly coalesce into familiar aphorisms, such as the one suggested in the title.

The piece concludes with the performer slowly draining the glass, while the recording shimmers into a sparkling cluster accompanying comically mundane adages (“you can lead a horse to water — “).

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Saw a production of The Dead last week – a musical based on the last chapter of James Joyce’s Dubliners. Great example of the benefits and pitfalls of genre crossing.

First of all, the idea of creating a musical out of this story is absolutely cracked, almost as crazy as turning it into a movie, as John Huston did in 1987. Period detail is no substitute for Joyce’s prose. And both the film and the musical completely botch the surprising dramatic arc of the story.

But despite those issues, I found myself admiring the adaptation, perhaps for reasons that weren’t intended by the adapters.

One of the problems musicals face is the shift of flow between drama and music. Just when you are getting into the story, everything has to stop so someone can belt a song. Contriving events so that the songs arise naturally out of the action takes a lot of skill – and some luck.

The Dead solved this problem rather neatly: most of the action takes place in an evening musicale, a gathering of friends to sing old and new songs together. A band of six instrumentalists huddle in the corner of an enormous Edwardian drawing room, while characters take turns singing. Why do they sing? Because that’s what they’ve gathered to do.

(Extraordinary to think how often this must have happened – people getting together socially to sing because otherwise they would have no music in their lives. Are we spoiled now, with our push-button soundworlds, or simply tragic?)

Much of the music in The Dead is very weak, but I found myself enjoying the insipidity, because it felt dramatically true. These people wouldn’t have gathered to sing Wagner or Verdi – they would have sung everyday tunes, some of which would be quite fetching, while others would be godawful.

Unfortunately, every once in awhile, a Broadway-style number was inserted, and the clash was just bizarre. And thereby lies the pitfall of genre crossing – musicals seem to demand a Big Number at some point, but the story and the setting of The Dead doesn’t support Big Numbers. I almost wished that it hadn’t been conceived and promoted as a musical, but rather as a play, much of which is sung. As it was, the audience came away disappointed, because the experience didn’t have the expected payoffs.

Is there a formula for making these kinds of genre crossings effective?

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A year ago, I reported on the strange case of junk mail I was receiving addressed to Ann Merriman. Ann is not a real person, she is a character in my opera. Mostly credit card offers, the mail was clearly intended for an upscale recipient – someone with far more disposable income than I will ever see.

Now the latest twist: an offer that prominently displays the word CONFIDENTIAL on the envelope:

So am I allowed to open this?

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Robert Carl was in the neighborhood last week for the premiere of his saxophone quartet Where Sound and Thought Meet, so we brought him by to talk with our students.

I’ve known Robert for about 20 years, but this was my first opportunity to spend an extended amount of time with him. He’s a wonderful conversationalist – witty, erudite, and down-to-earth. He played a recording for us of his String Quartet No. 2: Fear of Death/Love for Life, which is from 2001. The piece is in three movements; the outer movements trace the juxtaposition of the title, and the inner movement serves as a connection and reflection of its partners.

The students were crowded around the only score, so I wasn’t able to see it, but the piece has a very strong profile that is easy to recall. The first movement features wrenching harmonies, with twisting, overlapping glissandos that feel agonizingly like skin being slowly torn apart. The third movement begins with a rapid-fire, two-note motive that feeds a steadily developing rhythmic frenzy.

When I asked him about his harmonic language, he went over to the piano to play a recent etude for us that demonstrated some of his current interests. A supermodal melody centering around D in the inner voice functioned as a cantus firmus. Bass notes were chosen that have that D in their overtone series, while also matching up with subsidiary tones in the melody. Every slight adjustment in the melody spawned a host of new partials circling the central line. The result is a harmonic world that connects to the melody in a way that sounds both fresh and yet logical. Crossed with Carl’s elegant sense of rhythm and registral interplay, the music manages to be both captivating and strangely soothing.

Robert was a great guest: gently challenging the students, answering their questions honestly, covering a wide range of topics from the sublime to the ridiculous. Be sure to keep an eye out for him if he comes to your neighborhood.

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