Archive for June, 2007

Anne Midgette has a nice article in the NY Times this week on the current state of chamber music. All of her insights and reportage were worth reading, but there was one coincidence I found particularly interesting: the experts she interviewed all defined chamber music by the number of performers. Only Midgette’s definition – “a few people playing music in an intimate space [italics mine]“ – took the location into account. Of course, the experts had to accept their locations as given.

But location is really the crux of the matter. Any definition of “chamber music” has to start with the word “chamber,” which indicates a smaller room within a larger structure. Chamber music got its name because it was originally played in private homes for small gatherings. It was only in the late-nineteenth century that enormous auditoriums were built for thousands of listeners. The benefit, of course, was increased access, but the drawback was intimacy, which, as Midgette says in the article, is a defining feature of most successful chamber music experiences.

Midgette cites the problems of the Tuesday Musical Association, which presents chamber music in a 3000-seat hall in Akron, Ohio. She also quotes Wu Han, reporting that Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s subscriptions increased when Alice Tully Hall was closed for renovations. Those are two great examples of spaces that increased access at the expense of the music. I haven’t been to the Akron concert hall, but Tully has always felt hopelessly cavernous to me. And what is the point of giving access to thousands if you average 67% capacity?

Next March, we’re having the Emerson String Quartet play two concerts here in a cozy chamber hall that seats just under 300. Unfortunately, a lot of people who want to hear them won’t get in – there just aren’t enough seats for all the interested listeners. But I can guarantee that the ones who do get in will have an experience that’s tough to match. It certainly won’t be found in any of the enormous concert halls we’ve built in our rush to share our enthusiasms with as many people as possible.

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Seven pieces I’m working on this summer:

Still Point
The Alchemist
Untitled nonet
Two as-yet untitled orchestra pieces

All of these works are in various stages of completion, and four of them are slated for fall premieres, but the one that I’m really in the thick of hashing through is Still Point, a chamber setting of a sonnet. The text is lovely, but for this post I want to focus on the form, because I’m always fascinated by the differences between clock and musical time.

This particular sonnet has an English, or Shakespearian, rhyme pattern:


but more importantly, each quatrain contains, in fine iambic pentameter, 40 syllables, and the final couplet contains 20 syllables. All other things being equal, the music for each quatrain should be of equal length, and twice as long as the music for the couplet. But in my first draft, here is how long each section lasted:

first quatrain – 1:00
second quatrain – 0:44
third quatrain – 0:42
couplet – 0:38

These unequal proportions quickly make perfect sense: the first quatrain is expository, and the final couplet contains the volta, or change of direction, and so requires a bit more time to unfold than a straight setting of half the syllables would imply. Looking at the first draft indicates to me that I am responding not just to the number of notes required to get through the text, but the relative weight of the words’ meanings which, again, makes perfect sense. The result, in any case, is four sections of music, with the first section taking about one-and-a-half times as much musical time as the other three.

But the piece isn’t all singing: there is also an extended instrumental introduction and interludes between each verse. Here is the pattern of the entire piece, in first draft:

Intro – 1:02, first quatrain – 1:00
first interlude – 0:20, second quatrain – 0:44
second interlude – 0:34, third quatrain – 0:42
third interlude – 0:38, couplet – 0:38
coda – 0:10

The longest section of the piece is the introduction, while the coda is the shortest. The three interludes grow progressively longer, until the third is twice as long as the first – and equal in length to the couplet that follows.

I should hasten to add that I didn’t plan out these proportions, and I’m not sure that they won’t change in the final version. My interest in this exercise is in finding the patterns that arise when I compose intuitively, and maximizing their implications. I also look for patterns that will tell me something about how I might proceed in a similar situation in the future – either following something of the same approach, or deliberately setting up a contrary pattern.

At this point, I’m on the fourth draft, and the relative proportions are roughly the same, give or take a couple seconds here and there. I find the telescoped pacing of the vocal line attractive, and the coda, at 1/6th the length of the introduction, seems to balance beautifully. Again, musical time and clock time have an interesting relationship – they aren’t completely oblivious to one another, but they don’t follow anything close to the same rules.

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Every mother is unique, yet every mother is the same.

Every mother is a perfectly ordinary woman, yet every mother is a remarkable creature.

Today my mother is eighty-eight years old. I took her for granted for many years (which seems to be a sadly frequent fate for mothers) but each year makes me more astonished at what she has accomplished, and what she continues to accomplish.

My father died of a brain tumor in his forty-fourth year, leaving my mother with eight children, age 2 to 18. I was the two-year-old, and I don’t have any memories of that time, but I can imagine it must have been difficult. At some point it became apparent that my father had left us with some good investments that kept us from living in a financial straitjacket. But even though she didn’t have to work, my mother still had to raise all of us without any help, and raise us in an era – the 1960s and 70s — that didn’t resemble her childhood in the least.

The thing that strikes me most from my youth is the number of different worlds my mother exposed us to – we were always taking trips to the planetarium, the stock exchange, the opera, the theater, historic sites, a two-week drive across the country – as if she were lighting up all these experiences, like little brushfires, to see which ones would spark our imaginations. She also exposed me to the range of social causes that became increasingly important to her over time, including weekly visits to the sick and dying, which frightened me as a child, but left me with a powerful sense of the durability and fragility of life, and of justice.

And my mother never hesitated to load us into the car to head to a nearby ridge in the hopes of catching a particularly stunning sunset. If she timed it right, she would gaze and exclaim repeatedly as gleaming golds and oranges settled into dusky pinks and purples.

The older I get, the more I find myself asking how in the world she ever did it. How, for example, did she survive almost twenty years under the same roof with multiple teenagers?

There are many answers, but one of the most important is her sense of humor. My mother has always been the favorite butt of her own jokes, endlessly amused by telling stories of her gaffes, taking pleasure in missteps she would never enjoy at anyone else’s expense. That humor, and humility through humor, has been a constant inspiration.

Now, at eighty-eight, she still makes regular visits to the hospital down the street to give comfort to the sick and dying, taking her diminished sight and hearing, as well as her decreasing mobility, in stride.

I’ve heard that the greatest gift a parent can give a child is to age gracefully. If that’s the case, there is no birthday gift I could offer that is more precious than the one I’m receiving each day.

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This summer is the tenth anniversary of the premiere of my Furies and Muses, a piece that really marked a turning point in my output. As part of a residency with the 1997 Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival, I was commissioned to write a piece for the festival musicians. I wanted to write for the Cassatt String Quartet, a resident group I admired, but I didn’t particularly feel like writing just for quartet, so I decided to write for quartet plus one wind. I chose bassoon for two reasons: first, it seemed like the least hackneyed wind partner for chamber strings, and second, because the Cassatt Quartet members told me the festival bassoonist, Jeffrey Keesecker, was very good.

Now Jeff has organized a tenth anniversary performance at the International Double Society Conference in Ithaca this Friday night. Joining him will be the festival string quartet, comprised of Susan Waterbury, Jennifer Reuning Meyers, Melissa Stucky and Heidi Hoffman.

When I accepted the commission, I decided at the outset to steer clear of composing yet another contemporary work that inscrutably meandered from one gesture to another, choosing instead to explore Classical forms, to see if I could find some contemporary relevance in centuries-old concepts of balance and development. I had attempted this on a small scale a couple of times, but Furies and Muses was my first crack at large-scale, four-movement, Classical structure.

I was working on the suspicion that the conventional wisdom regarding Classical forms – that they were outdated and irrelevant – was worth reexamining. I had a belief that one of the central goals of Classical form – the presentation and treatment of conflict – still had cultural relevance.

The first movement of Furies and Muses is a sonata form in which the conflict between the two themes, rather than being resolved in the end, is exacerbated. The diverging paths of the two themes – one increasingly aggressive, the other increasingly passive – led to an extended coda that had nothing to do with the sonata form proper: it’s a long, rhythmic pedal canon on C#. In effect, it is a retreat from conflict, rather than a resolution.

For the second movement, an aria, I thought I would try composing a sempre rubato, a piece in which the tempo constantly fluctuated. Almost every measure contains an accelerando and a ritardando, while the overall tempo gradually speeds up over the course of the piece. I think the musicians must have thought I was nuts when they first saw the music, but once they got the hang of it, it really came off well. I’ve written about this movement before – you can find a detailed description, as well as a recording, here.

I wrote the third movement, which is a scherzo, in one weekend, while sick in bed. It was a three-day weekend – I wasn’t well enough to go into work on Monday, which bought me a little more time to compose. The piece has a delirious quality to it — a testament to the mind-altering capacities of flu medicine. You can hear the entire movement here.

The piece ends with a rondo, about which I was the most concerned. Of all the classical forms, rondo and variation are the two that I’ve found least frequently successful. I think this rondo ended up carrying more weight than it should have – a problem I’ve also experienced in some of Brahms’s final movements. It’s not bad, but it taught me a lot about formal balance – especially the challenges posed by overweight finales.

What taught me the most, though, were the nearly ideal rehearsal and performance circumstances. Over the course of two weeks, the Cassatt Quartet and Keesecker rehearsed daily, for hours, buffing every measure until the whole piece really shone. They spent an entire afternoon on intonation, figuring out the best way to tune every sixteenth note. There were three performances at the festival, followed by a fourth performance here seven months later – which gave me an opportunity to take all the lessons I learned in rehearsal and revise the piece, making sure I gave every moment as much consideration as the performers had.

The attention paid off: I’m never completely satisfied with any of my works, but Furies and Muses, at almost 30 minutes, comes pretty close to pleasing me.

And this interest in Classical form has paid off as well – turns out I was onto something. The following year I embarked on the Invisible Cities String Quartet Cycle, which has taken me to artistic destinations I never would have encountered otherwise.

At the time – late 90s – I didn’t really guess that questions of how we deal with conflict would take on such pivotal importance culturally – I was interested in these issues for personal reasons. But here we are, ten years later, faced with a world in which these questions couldn’t be more pressing.

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Due to a quirk in scheduling, our school year begins and ends much later than most. Last weekend we had our 2007 Commencement.Our Commencement Speaker was Danny Elfman.

Elfman is, as anyone who hasn’t been hiding from Hollywood for the last twenty years knows, pretty much the most popular film composer of our day. His scores for director Tim Burton – Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish et al – have something of a cult following. Other works, for Dick Tracy, Mission: Impossible, Good Will Hunting, Men in Black, Chicago, Spiderman, as well as his theme music for The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives, have sealed his reputation as the most sought-after composer in the film business.

Our Chancellor, conductor John Mauceri, is an old friend and advocate of Elfman’s – he conducted the premiere of Elfman’s Serenada Schizophrana with the American Composers Orchestra at Carnegie Hall a couple years back, and premiered his Overeager Overture with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra last fall. When Mauceri told Elfman that the North Carolina School of the Arts wanted to confer an honorary doctorate on him, Elfman happily accepted. It was only much later that he learned that he would have to make a commencement speech.

How could he not know that a speech would be required from the honorary doctorate recipient? Turns out ours was the first graduation ceremony Elfman ever attended.

Despite his protests to the contrary, Elfman is an excellent speaker. A sphinx-like economy of facial expression and gesture focuses attention on a generous vocal range. And he managed to say a lot of appropriate things without ever dipping into cliché.

He told the story of following his dream, not in order to encourage the graduates to follow their dreams, which they are obviously already doing, but in order to illustrate how many twists and turns that journey can take – to the extent that, in his case, the dream he followed ended up being different from what he had initially thought it would be. He described bouncing around the globe in his teens and twenties, trying to learn the violin, performing in an avant-garde acting troupe, starting a rock band. He said he had come very close to saying no when Tim Burton first asked him to score a film, because he didn’t think it was what he most wanted to do. Now he finds that all of his varied experiences play into his work. “There are no dead-ends in your life,” he said, “until you’re dead.”

Most revealingly, he said,

In my first 10 years as a film composer I was up against so much criticism, slander and abuse from my industry, it was astounding. Mean-spirited rumors were commonplace and abundant.

And I can tell you this, the frustration and anger I felt toward my detractors and those who took shots at me from high safe places became my greatest fuel.

I know this sounds really sick. And it is. But the point is that adversity, and the need to prove yourself and to show what you’re capable of can be a tremendous motivating factor. If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself overflowing with frustration like I was — use it. Own it. Don’t waste it. It’s not just fuel, it’s rocket fuel! And when your weapon is your talent, revenge is sweet!”

In a Q&A; session the night before commencement, Elfman discussed his process of composing a film score, comparing it to solving a mathematical equation. He also lamented the current Hollywood scene, in which he says he is lucky if 30% of what he writes actually ends up in the film for which it was intended. Right now he is working on a film about Abu Ghraib, for which he will be paid one dollar – not a typical Hollywood project.

But the best quote, in my book, came from the commencement itself: “If you end up in the commercial arts, like I did, you may find yourselves up against an all too common beast: the combination of limited imaginations attached to egos larger than anything you thought possible.”

Not just in the commercial fields, Dr. Elfman.

l to r: Philip Glass, Bridget Fonda (Elfman’s wife), Elfman
at the Palm Springs International Film Festival

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Thursday night, Piotr Szewczyk will be playing my Mister Blister at the Spoleto Festival as part of his Violin Futura project. He’ll also play a selection from my Fifteen Minutes as an encore. Fifteen Minutes is a series of one-minute compositions loosely spun off the subject of fame. Here are the movements:
  • Grand Entrance
  • Distractions
  • Runaway
  • Jump Back
  • Sway
  • Memory
  • Contained
  • Foolery
  • Round
  • Gripped
  • Clubbed
  • Dissonance
  • Self Absorption
  • Carried Away
  • Listening
  • Minute March

Minute March is a take-off, literally, on Chopin’s Minute Waltz: I took one beat off of every measure to turn it from a ¾ waltz into a 2/4 march. It’s a cute stunt piece. The rest of the pieces are all bagatelles as well, although none come from pre-existent works.

Piotr tells me he is leaning toward playing either Foolery or Clubbed. I’m sorry I won’t be able to be there, but I’m nixing professional travel this summer in order to focus on bunch of creative projects, which I’m sure I’ll be blogging about as the hot months continue.

You can watch the entire Violin Futura performance on YouTube here. The other composers in this project are Mason Bates, Patrick Castillo, Carson Cooman, Moritz Eggert, Aaron Einbond, Mark Grey, Jeff Harrington, Daniel Kellogg, John Kennedy, Marc Mellits, Hiro Morozumi, Ethan Wickman, Nathan Williamson.

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In his last quartets and sonatas, Beethoven made many unprecedented choices in form and vocabulary, choices that broke dramatically with convention, yet somehow made perfect sense. These innovations had two profound impacts on subsequent generations: first, they enlarged the scope of resources later composers could access to their own ends. Second, Beethoven’s innovations set a new standard of originality for composers to be measured against.
The new resources Beethoven uncovered in his late period have not been exhausted to this day, although I’m sure that some would argue otherwise. But it is his legacy of originality that has had an even more profound effect, both positive and negative. The negative effect can most often be found in young composers who quickly absorb the lesson that their music will be judged for its unconventionality, to which they naturally respond by casting about for original ideas.
Unfortunately, this quest for originality doesn’t get far before running aground on the shoals of Been Done Before. It’s a discouraging place for a young composer to founder; if it happens repeatedly, it often leads to discouragement and depression.
The antidote? Remember: Beethoven never dispensed with a convention he didn’t first master. For every Grosse Fuge, for every Hammerklavier, for every Heiliger Dankgesang there are scores of simple binary dances, minuets, variations, fugatos, etc. that fulfill and ultimately transcend their inherited traditions.

True innovation presupposes mastery, and mastery, by definition, takes time. The secret is simple: find the things you love most in music and devote your life to them.

The biggest fish swim in the deepest waters.

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