Archive for July, 2008

Thanks, Jerry, for the Front-Page Cheerio.

Kyle Gann has written another one of his excellent assessments of the contemporary music landscape. This time the topic is complexity vs. simplicity.

He covers a lot of ground in 4700 words, but he still leaves a few little peninsulas for the rest of us to explore. Here’s one for me, and I’ll start with a few sweeping generalizations:

In the early-20th century, with the emancipation of the dissonance, the notion arose that all twelve tones should be equal, as opposed to the monarchist tyranny of the tonic.

In the mid-20th century, the next logical step was taken: all sounds should be treated equally. Any sound that occurred during a performance should be cherished, as opposed to the composer-as-dictator determining exactly which sounds belonged in the piece and which ones didn’t.

In the 1970s, when I was in school, another logical step had taken place, although I don’t believe anyone would have described it this way. People had begun to argue for the equality of all ideas – in other words, no one moment in a piece of music was supposed to attract attention to itself as being more important than any other moment.

“Doesn’t that violin passage stand out a bit?” a teacher would ask, and the sheepish student would dutifully crack the whip and pull the violin back into the pack of busy-ness from which it had momentarily emerged.

The underlying concept, although again I don’t believe it was ever expressed this way, was that the perfect piece should keep everything – notes, sounds, gestures – on a single, equal playing field, not showing favoritism to anything lest it be heard as somehow superior to its surroundings. It was a vague, unarticulated kind of political correctness. Unfortunately, it led to a lot of undistinguished composing, in which any moment could be mistaken for any other moment. I remember hearing professors criticize individual notes for sounding like leading tones; I remember hearing them criticize octave doublings. The underlying message was Don’t Emphasize Anything.

Elliott Carter wanted to create a new kind of concerto, in which the soloist was treated as part of the orchestra, rather than standing apart in a featured role. His efforts were emblematic of the time.

Roger Sessions, when asked about minimalism, quipped, “Well, of course, the absolute minimum is zero,” and in that witticism lay the crux of a generation’s thinking: their gazes were fixed firmly on the absolutes.

Comments No Comments »

Picking up where I left off in my last post about my Lincoln piece, the second movement uses a wonderful letter that I think of as being in Abe’s stand-up comedian mode. It’s dated April 1st, and it spins a yarn – part tall-tale, but based in fact – about a failed attempt at courtship. Lincoln seems to be having fun at the expense of the woman’s unfortunate appearance, but in the end he makes it clear that the joke is on him:
In the autumn of 1836 a married lady of my acquaintance proposed to me that I wed her sister. I accepted the proposal, feeling confoundedly well pleased with the project. I had seen the said sister some three years before, thought her intelligent and agreeable, and saw no good objection to plodding through life hand-in-hand with her.

In a few days we had an interview, and, although I had seen her before, she did not look as my imagination had pictured her. I knew she was oversize, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff. I knew she was called an “old maid,” and I didn’t doubt at least half of that description, but now, when I beheld her, I could not for my life avoid thinking of my mother; and this, not from withered features, — for her skin was too full of fat to permit of its contracting into wrinkles – but from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind of notion that ran in my head that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy and reached her present bulk in less than thirty-five or forty years; and, in short, I was not at all pleased with her. But what could I do? I had told her sister that I would take her for better or for worse. “Well,” thought I, “I have said it, and, be the consequences what they may, it shall not be my fault if I fail to do it.” At once I determined to consider her my wife, and this done, all my powers of discovery were put to work in search of perfections in her which would balance her defects. I tried to imagine her handsome, which, but for her unfortunate corpulency, was actually true. I also tried to convince myself that the mind was much more to be valued than the person, and in this she was not inferior to any with whom I had been acquainted.

All this while, although I was fixed “firm as the surge-repelling rock” in my resolution, I found I was continually repenting the rashness which had led me to make it. I now spent my time in planning how I might get along in life after my contemplated change of circumstances should have taken place, and how I might procrastinate the evil day for a time.

After I had delayed the matter as long as I thought I could, I concluded I might as well bring it to a consummation without further delay, and so I mustered my resolution and made the proposal to her direct; but, shocking to relate, she answered, No. At first I supposed she did it through an affectation of modesty, which I thought but ill became her under the peculiar circumstances of the case, but on my renewal of the charge I found she repelled it with greater firmness than before. I tried it again and again, but with the same success, or rather with the same want of success.

I finally was forced to give it up, at which I very unexpectedly found myself mortified almost beyond endurance. My vanity was deeply wounded by the reflection that I had so long been too stupid to discover her intentions, and also that she, whom I had taught myself to believe nobody else would have, had actually rejected me with all my fancied greatness. And, to cap the whole, I then for the first time began to suspect that I was really a little in love with her.

Others have been made fools of by the girls, but this can never in truth be said of me. I most emphatically, in this instance, made a fool of myself.

I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying, and for this reason – I can never be satisfied with any one who would be blockhead enough to have me.

Letter to Mrs. O. H. Browning, Springfield, Illinois. April 1, 1838

The concluding punch line was famously stolen by Groucho Marx a century later.

For those who may be interested in such things, I’ve set this letter as a scherzo that is inverted halfway through, as the tables are turned on the narrator.

Comments No Comments »

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote of a competition I had wonthat was supposed to be kept secret. Well, now the cat is out of the bag.The Ravinia Festival announced its first composer competition last fall. In honor of Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial, coming up in 2009, they asked composers to submit piano trios inspired by Lincoln’s words. I’ve always loved combining spoken text with music, so I wrote them a piece using two of Lincoln’s letters and excerpts from two speeches.

The results were announced at a press conference on Thursday. So far they have a bunch of performances lined up, with the likelihood of more being added now that the news is public.

All of this explanatory preamble is so I can get to the fun part of this post: The first movement of my piece uses text from a letter that Lincoln wrote in 1836. In it, he chastises a friend for announcing publicly that he had information about Lincoln that he would not divulge because it would destroy the state legislator’s prospects for re-election. It’s a remarkable document, especially in light of the many politicians who equate loyalty with patriotism. Here is the letter:

Dear Colonel, I am told that during my absence last week you passed through this place, and stated publicly that you were in possession of facts which, if known to the public, would entirely destroy my prospects for re-election. Furthermore, you stated that, as a favor to me, you would not divulge these facts.

No one has needed favors more than I, and few have been less unwilling to accept them. But in this case a favor to me would be an injustice to the public. Therefore, I must beg your pardon for declining your offer. That I once had the confidence of the people is sufficiently evident. If I have since done anything that would forfeit that confidence, he that knows of that thing and conceals it is a traitor to his country’s interest.

I find myself unable to form any conjecture of what facts, real or supposed, you spoke; but my opinion of your veracity will not permit me to doubt that you at least believed what you said. I am flattered by the concern you have expressed for my well-being. But I do hope that, on more mature reflection, you will view the public interest as a paramount consideration, and therefore determine to let the worst come. I here assure you that the candid statement of facts on your part, however low it may sink me, shall never break the tie of personal friendship between us.

Letter to Colonel Robert Allen, June 21, 1836

Comments No Comments »

I have, as I suppose many composers have, a frighteningly profound relationship with the tools of my trade. Piano, pencil, music paper, laptop, keyboard. I can spend a ridiculous amount of time with these tools, while not really being aware of them, in the way my eyelashes come in handy several times a minute without ever drawing attention to themselves.

They are that good at their job.

But they aren’t enough. I have to, on a regular basis, get away from the tools in order to do what I do.

Yesterday, on my morning walk, I was playing through a work-in-progress in my head. (How important is it to be able to recall an entire piece you are working on? I find it enormously helpful. But it’s tricky – as you work on the piece, it changes, so what exactly are you remembering?) It became crystal clear to me, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had I been in my studio, how to solve a problem that had arisen in the piece.

The cool breeze of a summer morning lifted the mystery away, as if it were no more than a damp mist.

Of course, my pace quickened, which probably would make my doctor happy — I couldn’t wait to get back to my tools to try out the new solution.

Comments No Comments »

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the orchestral competition I’m judging this summer. When I first got the list of ten finalists (no composers’ names) one of the titles immediately stuck out to me – in a bad way. “I sure hope this isn’t the best piece,” I thought, “because I can’t stand the title.” The title was one that composition students always fix on as sounding distinct and exciting – it’s like the tam-tam crash you can expect to hear in every student’s first orchestra piece. Almost all young composers seem to have a need to get that first tam-tam crash out of their systems, and a significant number seem to need to use this particular title as a moniker for their tam-tam explosions.

Well, I’ve spent a month with these ten pieces, and you’ll never guess which one I like the best.

I wonder if it would be kosher to write to the composer (if I ever find out who it is) and suggest another title.

Comments No Comments »

When an actor is able to convince us that she is a 19th century shepherdess, and not a 21st century film star, we admire her focus and artistry. She gazes into the distance, and we imagine the bucolic scene that unfolds before her eyes – not the banks of lights, cameras and hushed technicians spread before her, take after take, until the director is satisfied with her performance.

When a novelist creates a character that lived 200 years ago, inhabiting his thoughts in a way that transports us off into a different time and place, we admire his mastery of a distant vernacular, and his ability to make every word count toward his subterfuge. We don’t accuse the novelist of hiding his true thoughts behind a different persona – that’s his job.

I’ve just completed a six-minute allegro for strings that could have been written in the 1820s. I did it for the same reason I write every piece I write: I felt like doing it. I was writing what I wanted to hear, but hadn’t heard before.

Unfortunately, unlike in drama or literature, when a composer inhabits the past, it’s considered cowardly. All my training and experience has taught me to avoid writing in older styles – never imitate, only steal. But the truth is, I wasn’t imitating or stealing in this piece, I was just using the conventions of an earlier era to say what I wanted to say.

The whole time I was writing the piece, I kept thinking Dillon What Are You Doing? And the answer was simple: I was really enjoying composing, which is always one of the great pleasures of my existence. I don’t claim that this piece is revelatory in any way – just that it’s beautiful, and I love it, and I had a wonderful time writing it.

So what does this have to do with sincerity? It gets to the heart of what I believe is an artist’s core responsibility: to create the work that you want to experience. Sincerity is not necessarily writing in the style that automatically makes you sound contemporary. Forget about historical imperatives: it’s your job to create the imperatives through your work, not to make your work fit into a pre-existent narrative. Others may come along and say such-and-such a piece fits into its time, or is ahead of its time, or behind its time, or stands outside of any logical relationship to time, as the case may be. All of those results are acceptable, and worthy.

What matters more to me, though, than how a piece fits into a given era is how much I love the way it sounds, the way it moves, and the way it thinks.

Comments No Comments »

Today is the first day of the last year of my first half-century – aka my 49th birthday. The more birthdays you have under your belt — or hanging over your belt, as the case may be — the more they seem to come with a little Oops message, as in Congratulations, now you are too old to do X.

On a related note, I’m planning a semi-centennial concert of my music in 09-10. That’s definitely something I’m not too old to do — although I will be if I wait any longer.

Comments No Comments »