Archive for February, 2008

All art hovers between experience and imagination.

Each artwork must find its own balance between the familiar and the unexpected, between who we are and what we aspire to be. There is no formula for this balance – indeed, the balance can and does vary from work to work within the same artist’s oeuvre.

I was reminded of that maxim when a friend recently complained to me of a new piece that he thought was too “European-sounding.”

The only way, I believe, a piece can be too “anything-sounding” is if that “anything” does not exist in the universe or in the subconscious.

Europe is most definitely in the universe, and its impact on the imaginations of many of the world’s artists, for good and for bad, is undeniable. Repressing that influence is a choice that many artworks may make with impunity, but an outright rejection of the truth of that influence for any artist who has felt it, either through the soles of the feet or the synapses of the mind, is unseemly, unnecessary, and just plain counterproductive.

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Spent a few chunks of time with Menahem Pressler last weekend – what a wonderful man and musician. He was here playing a recital and giving a master class for our piano students. I had almost forgotten that I first met him when I was a kid. The Beaux Arts Trio came to town to give a concert, and I was somehow picked to turn pages. I remember they rehearsed a Haydn trio before the concert. When they finished, I asked which repeats they’d be taking. Pressler laughed and said they were just reading through it together – they weren’t planning to perform it that night. Then he asked me what I played, and when I told him I was working on a Beethoven sonata, he asked which one, and of course I didn’t know the answer – I didn’t know how many there were or anything about opus numbers, etc. It’s not easy to look cool and be ignorant at the same time, but that was my default pose in those days, and I suppose I’ve had many years of practice since to refine it.

Last weekend, when Pressler found out that I was a composer, he regaled me with wonderful stories about his work with Kurtag, who he knew as a chamber coach before he knew him as a composer:

I saw him with a young quartet coaching Death and the Maiden. He spent two-and-a-half hours on the first 15 measures. When my trio commissioned a piece from him, he wrote a four-and-a-half minute composition. He then coached us twice on the piece – three-and-a-half hours each time! I loved it. We had an opportunity to commission him again, and our cellist said he’d need three bottles of whiskey just to get through the coachings.

Pressler’s recital on Saturday night was centered around Classical works written by composers at the ends of their lives, and it was easy to see that he is, at 83, assessing his own past and future. Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor, K. 511, Beethoven’s Sonata in Ab Major, Op. 110 and Schubert’s posthumous Sonata in Bb Major all present issues of scale and expression that would intimidate pianists ¼ his age. A packed house of young and old was suspended in edge-of-seat listening. Add a colorful rendition of Debussy’s Estampes and two encores, and you have a very generous night of substantial music-making, played on as high a level as one could wish.

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Check out the Santa Fe New Music Festival this Wednesday night – in addition to Piotr Szewczyk’s performance of ViolinFutura (coming soon to a planet near you), Piotr will be premiering my Fifteen Minutes, a set of 16 brief works I wrote for him under the mistaken impression that I was giving him what he asked for. As it turned out, I gave him everything except what he asked for. When I found out my error, I sent him Mister Blister by way of an apology. Mister Blister has become a fixture in the ViolinFutura show, and now Piotr has decided to take on the entire Fifteen Minutes set, which is quite wonderful of him, and ambitious, too – Fifteen Minutes is crazy virtuosic, and just plain crazy besides – there’s a movement with kazoo, there’s a rather rude use of a familiar Chopin tune, there’s a movement with a kitchen sink in it — well maybe that last is a slight exaggeration, but it’s certainly one of the strangest pieces I’ve written. Anyway, Piotr emailed me an mp3 of the music for my feedback last week and I had just a few comments — it’s going to be a great performance. I’m very sorry to be missing it.

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Yesterday morning I was driving to work when I got an idea for an avenue to pursue in the piece I’m working on. I whipped out my cell phone, tooling down the highway (legal here), and called my office, leaving a message on my voicemail.

“hello Lawrence, this is Lawrence — you know that passage that begins with the bassoon solo?…”

When I got to my office fifteen minutes later, I checked my messages, and found the idea, which I had already forgotten (which gives you some sense of what a haunted house my mind is – I lose ideas in these drafty corridors all the time), and I swiftly scribbled it down on a pad of paper.

Then I emailed myself, describing what I had written down in front of me.

When I got home last night, I checked my email, and there was the idea, fresh as the jangled angles of the morning sunlight. I began threading it into the piece I’ve been working on.

The 12-hour journey that idea took – car to phone to voicemail to notepad to email to score — I couldn’t have conceived of such a thing twenty years ago. I wonder how archaic it will seem in another twenty years.

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I’ve begun working on an orchestra piece, slated for a premiere in Italy this summer, called Memory Palace. More about the title and structure later, which are actually quite interesting and challenging. Right now I have to report on an odd tidbit, at least very odd for me: although the music starts off with a wild flurry of activity, thirty-one measures go by – more than a minute – before there is anything that could traditionally be called a dissonance. Easily a couple thousand notes fly by, but each of them is a member of one of many discrete triads, although at that speed they seem to blur into one another.
And here I can note that special feeling as one embarks on yet another large work – an exhilaration that lurches from ecstasy to madness, sometimes in the same heartbeat. The opening figures of Memory Palace are always in the forefront of my mind, making even the simplest conversation difficult.

“hey how ya doing?”

“dadalee-dadala-didididli-daI’m doing okaydadale-dadala how about you?”

I get funny looks from everyone except for my two-year-old, who, unfortunately for him, has no reason to think my communication skills are less than stellar.

There is also, jittering under every activity of the day, the relentless urge to Get Back To Work on the piece, which can make me unsettling company. I know others sense that I’m not really with them; whatever they are saying to me is like distracting background music. The sounds in my head are much more present than anything in front of my eyes — at times like these it’s all I can do to push what I’m hearing down below see level.

It’s a delirious feeling – what I live for, and yet there is hardly anything else that causes me so much discomfort. And the oddest part is knowing that the thing I cannot get out of my mind is something nobody else has heard. In a way, that’s the underlying reason for having to keep working on it – to get it out of my head and into someone else’s, so I can regain a modicum of normalcy in my life.

That is, until the next delirium overtakes me.

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Last spring, the Winston-Salem Symphony contacted me to ask if any of my students had a five-minute piece that could be performed on the symphony’s educational programs. They needed something upbeat for an audience of fifth graders.

I suggested they sponsor a competition. They liked the idea. It took us until November to work out all the details, then our student composers got to work. They had two months to write the piece, produce the score and print out the parts. The deadline was last week.

Participation in this competition was strictly voluntary. The students who decided to write pieces had a pretty hairy January, finalizing details, proofreading parts, etc. For some of them it was their first time writing for orchestra, so the process was a bit overwhelming.

I’m very impressed with the results, which I’ve passed onto the Symphony this week. We had a surprising variety of styles, all fulfilling the original “five minutes, upbeat” prescription.

One of these pieces will be chosen for a premiere next month. In addition, all of the submissions will be recorded by our student orchestra in a couple of weeks.

Throughout the process, I’ve made a point of focusing my students on the educational purpose of this project. That means 1. the only “losers” in this competition will be the students who don’t learn something from it, and 2. this is a project that emphasizes composition as a discipline, as opposed to projects that emphasize composition as an imaginative flight of fancy.

With the second point, I’ve even followed up the project by counseling students to work on something completely impractical, now that they’ve finished this exercise in practicality.

As with all of my teaching, the emphasis is on tools, not rules. In other words, I’m not about telling them what they should do. Instead, I’m trying to make sure they have the tools to do whatever they wish. Sometimes that means they have to do things that they don’t really want to do at that moment. It’s a pretty safe bet, though, that what one wants to do when one is twenty won’t be the same as what one wants to do when one is forty, sixty, eighty or a hundred. Now is the time to learn how, because learning gets tougher with age.

But, truthfully, learning never really stops — I learned something important from this process as well. We have a requirement for our undergrads: as juniors they have to write a piece for orchestra. My students have never had good results with this requirement, by which I mean they’ve almost always been disappointed by the pieces they’ve written. I’ve come to realize that, by requiring one orchestra piece, we were implicitly putting too much emphasis on that piece – in other words, students had a tendency to try to put everything they had learned to that point into the one piece. The results were usually more chaotic than inspired.

This competition, on the other hand, required them to think inside of a very compact box, and they were able to focus on doing a single task as well as they could, instead of trying to do everything they could think of to get an earthshaking result.

Maybe from now on we should require them to write two orchestra pieces – one that is anything they want it to be, and one that has very specific parameters. How much might they learn from that exercise?

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Just got the 2007 royalty statement from Albany Records for this 2002 disk of my chamber music. To my surprise, they are showing I had 1.5 times as many CD sales as digital downloads last year. I would have guessed we were past that tipping point by now – by which I mean I would have thought digital downloads would be outstripping CD sales. No conclusion to draw, just a presentation of information.

By the way, since I know the world is waiting with baited* breath for my next release, I am currently working on two new recordings: another disk of chamber music and a disk of vocal pieces. Takes me a long time to get these out: I am hopelessly hypercritical when it comes to recordings of my music.

So I guess the wormy scent on those tongues will linger a while longer.

(all right, I know, it’s supposed to be spelled “bated,” and mean something else entirely. But this way always seems much more fun)

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