Archive for September, 2006


“Better to have some of the questions than all of the answers.” — James Thurber

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Lawrence Dutton, violist of the Emerson String Quartet, had rotator cuff surgery this summer, so the quartet has revised its fall concert programs to perform with various pianists who have been kind enough to step up on short notice.

They were here the other night with Menahem Pressler for a fantastic program in Brendel Hall – Mozart’s Eb Major Divertimento and Brahms’s G Minor Piano Quartet. The Mozart is a divertimento in name and form only – it’s really more of a profound, unaccompanied triple concerto. The piano quartet is one of Brahms’s most instantly loveable works from first bar to last.

Cellist David Finckel landed in the airport at about a quarter to eleven in the morning, raced off in a rental car to a 12:00 rehearsal, spent the afternoon attending to various obligations, grabbed a 10-minute nap and walked out on stage to a packed house at 7:30 p.m. His performance, as always, was exquisite: every note, every phrase was juiced with implications and connections. We met briefly afterwards, talking about the concert, our kids, and the upcoming season at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which he runs with his wife Wu Han, and which opens tonight.

I’ve known David for over thirty years, since the summers I spent at the Vermont music camp run by his father, Edwin Finckel, who was my first composition teacher. It’s always a pleasure to see him and to hear him perform, but I was also sorry to see how exhausted he was. After the concert, he was ready to collapse, which was a good thing, since he had a 7:00 a.m. flight the next morning.

Music is a sublime art form, but it can be a hellish profession.

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I’ve written before about my practice of working on several pieces at once. Some readers could conclude that the pieces I write under those circumstances would all sound alike, but quite the opposite is true.

Working on several pieces at once helps me resist the urge to put too many eggs into each basket. Rather than using everything I know in each piece, I am able to clearly define what each piece should be about, in contrast to the others I’m working on. If one piece is primarily lyrical and another is more theatrical, I can turn my attention to the one that I feel best able to make progress on at the moment.

It also keeps me from working too quickly on any given piece. I like to compose a given passage, then set it aside to look at the next day, after I’ve had a chance to sleep on it, rather than pushing forward immediately. Sleeping on an idea or passage gives me a clarity and perspective I don’t have in the initial stage. If I work on passages from different pieces on any given day, I have several things to come back to the next day.

Generally speaking, I have three compositions going at once: a piece in its initial stages, one that I am well into, and one that is getting its final refinements. At least, that’s the way I’d like to have it under ideal circumstances. Naturally, the real world imposes all kinds of unforeseens that push and pull on the creative process for one piece or another. But when I hit that balance of three pieces at three distinct stages of completion – well, that’s when my work proceeds most smoothly, and – more importantly – that’s when I get the best results.

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I’ve always admired composers who are ravenous listeners, devouring new scores and recordings at a prodigious rate. I admire their curiosity, their hunger, and their encyclopedic knowledge.

I used to be a ravenous listener. It’s astonishing to me now to think of how much of my teens and twenties were spent with enormous headphones clamped over my ears, poring over scores when I could get a hold of them, trying to imagine how each sound looked on the page when I couldn’t. I always emerged from trips to Patelson’s with an armload of piggy-bank busting scores, music from a thousand years ago, from another continent, from around the corner, from last week.

For my doctoral exam, we had a listening list of over 800 pieces, all genres, all eras. I’m the only person I knew at the time who tracked down recordings of every piece and dutifully listened, taking notes.

But something happened in my early thirties – I had had enough. My mind was so full of other people’s music, it was time to peel it all away so I could hear my own voice.

Now I spend almost no time listening to recordings – maybe one or two new disks a month. I feel guilty about this, like I’m shirking some terrible responsibility. I also rationalize that I more than make up for it by attending 50-80 live performances a year.

The risk I am taking is that of being out of touch with what other people consider the most important artistic issues of the day. The benefit? I’m playing my own music in my head every minute, and each passing year brings me closer to a more precise understanding of the sounds I need to bring to life.

On my more confident days, I believe I laid a strong foundation of repertoire in my early years, and am reaping the rewards of all my careful studies.

On my less confident days? I find myself posting little apologies, like this one, on an infinite number of curves.

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“…music is for the people, for all of us: the dumb, the deaf, dogs and jays, the crazy, weak, hurt, the weed keepers, the strays. The land of music is everyone’s nation – her tune, his beat, your drum.” – Eric Stokes

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