Archive for September, 2007

I heard a piece the other day that was sincere but dishonest.

Does anybody know what I mean by that? I run into these pieces from time to time. They are the ones in which I can hear the composer thinking, “here I’ll show them how soulful I am, then I’ll give them an exciting outburst of loud crashes and bangs, and I’ll finish up with this wham-bang that will bring them to their feet with a rousing cheer.”

Why do I call that sincere but dishonest? Because I really believe that many of these composers have no idea how calculating and dishonest their music sounds. They sincerely believe, in their heart of hearts, that they are composing meaningful works of art. The problem isn’t that they are being dishonest with us, it’s that they are being dishonest with themselves. They aren’t in touch with who they really are, just with what they want us to think of them.

Of course, there have been many insincere dishonest works throughout the ages, and some of them are truly great pieces – for example, when a composer churns out something to pay the bills, or to satisfy the king’s ego, or to stay out of prison. It’s amazing how many absolutely brilliant works have been created under circumstances in which the composer was covering up true feelings.

But hiding how you really feel is different from not knowing who you are.

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I’ve noticed that my posts of late have been long on verbiage and short on imagery, so here’s a photo from my son’s collection for today’s post. Remember, when danger threatens, call a composer.

Well, maybe not me.

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In the mid-80s, I wrote several pieces that featured interwoven rhythmic patterns: polyrhythms, polymeters, and inequal phrase lengths. I called these pieces Tapestries, to reflect their design: the threads intersected at odd moments to create an overall pattern that was far more interesting than the individual strands.
The pieces were somewhat difficult to play, though not outlandishly so. Each performer had a pretty simple part; the difficulty lay in matching them up with one another. One could say that each performer had to be a bit antisocial: each part required sticking to ones pattern and ignoring what was going on in the other parts. The listening experience was very similar to viewing a tapestry in which individual strands emerge at various points to provide telling sparks of color that contribute to the overall image. There was a nice surface complexity resulting from pleasingly simple mathematical relationships.

In time, I found myself unhappy with the dullness of each individual strand of my Tapestry pieces – the combination of 7 against 6 against 5 against 4 can sound fascinating, but when each line is a steady stream of notes, or a simple, repeated figure, you are, in effect, creating a attractive babble in which each voice is saying next to nothing. While I can acknowledge a certain cultural resonance in that result, I couldn’t see myself pursuing it very far.

In the early 90s, I became interested in a different kind of rhythmic complexity: the complexity of spoken language. We learn the rhythm of our native language as toddlers, expand our rhythmic repertoire throughout childhood, experiment with other rhythms in adolescence, and refine our personal spoken rhythmic mix in adulthood. As a result, each of us speaks in a set of patterns we all can recognize, yet each one of us has a unique fingerprint, if you will, in the way we speak the language.

And what a fingerprint! Steve Reich pointed out some of the possibilities in works like It’s Gonna Rain and Different Trains, but he made his points through repetition, which doesn’t interest me so much, just as I don’t get very excited about anybody who says the same thing over and over again in any other context.

I’m more interested in exploring what spoken rhythms communicate, what our personal patterns say that our words leave unsaid. I think this is particularly pertinent in America, as opposed to Europe, because Americans tend to use rhythm, as opposed to pitch, to emphasize their points when they speak.

What we don’t do is speak in a steady stream of eighth-notes. Instead, we play off of the pulse in ways that are far too complex to track with conventionally notated rhythms and meters. And yet, I believe there is an underlying pulse over which our words provide multiple layers of syncopation.

This interest in spoken text has translated into my instrumental pieces. I’ve written a number of works that play with the idea of an implied pulse, sometimes establishing a regular, lyrical beat, sometimes throwing the beat through all kinds of nasty convolutions. But no matter how complex the result, I avoid using mathematical formulas – the sevens against sixes against fives against fours – that I used to rely on. Instead, I work with intuitive timing relationships, because they are more connected to a world I don’t understand and want to know more about, a world I experience every moment, yet can’t quite grasp. For example, I might ask for an accelerando that begins gradually, then picks up slightly, tapers off, then suddenly speeds up enormously – something seasoned musicians can do fairly easily, with a little rehearsal, but not something I can notate with an arithmetic formula.

In any event, the temporal push-and-pull I’m after is always in service of what I am trying to say in a given phrase, or a given passage, just as the rhythmic inflections I use in conversation are never random, they always are connected — sometimes in ways I hardly realize — to what I am really thinking.

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I used to think that composers should be original, should invent things that nobody else had thought of before.

Over time I’ve come to realize that there is a kind of genius to taking things that already exist and making them your own.

Isn’t it amazing, to take a simple example: arpeggios have been around for centuries.

But any composer who uses them now will almost certainly be accused of stealing from Philip Glass.

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About twenty years ago, a friend of mine who is now a well-known conductor asked me to write a concerto for a young cellist who now plays in the NY Philharmonic to premiere with the orchestra he conducted in New York. I jumped at the suggestion and began working immediately. Over the ensuing months, this cello concerto overtook my life – I was thinking about it, and nothing else, day and night. It grew and grew, containing everything I knew, everything I wished I knew, everything I would never know about music.

As time went on, my friend grew increasingly vague about the premiere performance. I was ignorant enough to trust that things would work out somehow, and kept fleshing out my ideas.

I don’t know how long this went on, but I believe it was a little over a year, by which point my studio had become overrun with hundreds of pages of score, sketch, illegible scribble. I had reams of paper taped to the walls with arrows and circles, improvisations and calculations – and thousands of shiny little black notes.

Then my friend called to tell me that the performance was a no-go. I was stunned. Suddenly all that work was for nothing. Just like that, after taking over my life, the piece, not yet quite alive, died a quiet death.

And then came the depression. I had completely drained my mind of any other consideration for over a year. Once the concerto was gone, there was nothing left to think about. I had no idea what to do next, and no reason to think that what I did next mattered. For a long time, I did nothing.

Of course, now I can hardly believe my naiveté: I would never put that much work into anything for which the outcome wasn’t more clearly spelled out. It’s one thing to know that a piece you are working on has no performance planned, and quite another to be working toward a major performance concept, only to have it cancelled. But I was just out of school at the time and blissfully unaware of how difficult it is to make things happen in this profession.

Eventually, though, I had to dig myself out of the despondent hole I had dug. I strongly believed, and still do, that my happiness is my own responsibility, and nobody else’s. I had to compose in order to be at peace, so I had to change the way I approached composition, in order to protect myself from the kind of depression I had sunk into.

What did I do? I established a composing rhythm, which I’ve written about before, of working on three pieces at once: a piece I’ve just begun, a piece I’m in the middle of and a piece I’m finishing. I’ve been in that rhythm, with a few syncopations, for the better part of twenty years now, and it has served me well. Instead of finishing a piece and wondering what is next, I’m always in the middle of something, always maintaining creative momentum. And instead of putting everything I am into one piece, I can be more specific about what each piece means, which is better for the piece and for me.

I bring this up now because I’ve fallen out of that rhythm: I’ve finished four pieces in the last two weeks. My rhythm had to be adjusted, because all four pieces are slated for premieres in the next two months. I was just focusing on getting them done – there was no time to consider what would come next.

And now I’m in-between pieces, a place I haven’t been in a long time.

But I feel very peaceful about it — after twenty years of uninterrupted output it’s actually nice to take some time to feel a little lost, a little uncertain about the future. I guess the possibilities aren’t so vast as they were when I was in my twenties: I have a much better idea of the kinds of things I need to do artistically, so being lost for a bit isn’t as overwhelming as it once would have been.

And the cello concerto? It’s long gone. I had to destroy it, to at least symbolically rid myself of the malaise I had fallen into. It carried too much of my old sensibility, my old process.

The other day I was reading a thousand-year-old Taoist story to my toddler son. It reminded me why I don’t mourn the cello concerto’s passing. Here’s the story, in an adaptation by Jon J. Muth:

There was once an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years.

One day, his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.

“Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it two other wild horses.

“Such good luck,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the farmer.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off, and broke his leg.

Again, the neighbors came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Such bad luck,” they said.

“Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after that, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army to fight in a war. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by.

“Such good luck!” cried the neighbors.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.

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One of the pieces I’ve just finished is Entrance, a work for narrator and chamber ensemble I had wanted to write for ten years. Yesterday I put the parts to Entrance into envelopes to mail off to the performers. Then I slipped the hard-copy originals into a folder to put into the massive file drawer that holds all of my works.

What did I find already filed under “E”? A piece called Entrance, from 1997. Here I thought I had just been thinking about the piece for ten years, when the truth was I WROTE THE PIECE TEN YEARS AGO. As with a number of my works, I filed it away and forgot it. All I remembered was writing the text and thinking I should get around to setting it to music someday.

The new version is much better than the old one. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

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Over on NewMusicBox, Carl Stone has proposed four nice categories for music lists:

  • pieces that you love and respect
  • pieces that you respect but don’t love
  • pieces that you love but don’t respect
  • pieces that you neither love nor respect

I’m teaching a course on 20th-century string quartets this year, so my lists are very narrowly focused – 1900-1975 string quartets:

  • Love and respect: Ravel, Webern Six Bagatelles, Bartok first and fourth, Shostakovich eighth, Carter second, Scelsi fourth
  • Respect but don’t love: Schoenberg second, Berg Lyric Suite, Bartok third, Crumb Black Angels, Dutilleux Ainsi le nuit
  • Love but don’t respect: I don’t really understand this category. What is love without respect?*
  • Neither love nor respect: Schoenberg first, Bartok second, Barber op. 11, Carter third

Of course, the categories I put these pieces in have shifted over the years, and I expect them to shift further. And then there are the vast majority of quartets I don’t know where to place.

*Well, I suppose that all of my quartets could fall into this category – simply because I love them unconditionally while feeling their faults keenly. On the other had, only one of my quartets is from the 20th century, so they don’t count.

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