Archive for October, 2008

The guy’s a hundred. You have to hand it to him.

Okay, he won’t be a hundred until December, but he’s close enough that it counts.

He may be the most revered and reviled composer living now.

I’m certainly a big fan of his music. Just this weekend I heard, for the first time, a live performance of his Holiday Overture, an early work that proved, if anyone cared to know, that Carter could push an audience’s buttons as well as anyone.

So this is a good time for me to tell of my first three encounters with EC when he was but a strapping, young lad in his seventies.

ENCOUNTER ONE: Elliott was a guest composer at the Hartt School of Music, where I was working on being as worthy of the name “sophomore” as possible.

As part of his residency, he had lunch with the composition students in the cafeteria one day. To my surprise, the Great One got his tray of food and sat across from me at a little two-person table.

After an awkward moment of chomping, I cleared my throat, and stabbed at something appropriate to say. “So, Mr. Carter, can you tell me what you are working on these days?”


I waited for an uncomfortable minute, then ventured, “Is that a bad question?”

He stood up, took his tray, and moved to another table.

ENCOUNTER TWO: The next day, Carter was interviewed on the school radio station, and I was chosen, as University Scholar (that’s another story), to pitch him a question.

Eager to show the breadth, or at least the depths, of my erudition, I brought up the pivotal time around 1950, when it seemed he was turning his attention to new ideas. I asked him what prodded him to this change of direction.

He dismissed my question as foolish, saying his music had always been concerned with the same things.

ENCOUNTER THREE: Two years later, when I auditioned for grad school, I had the honor and pleasure of being interviewed by Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti. And that’s also another story.

The music I put before them had much of what one might expect to find from a composition student c. 1981. But there was one piece that was aggressively odd: it harmonized a twelve-tone bass line with a succession of major triads whose roots formed a whole-tone scale, under a melody that included improvisation. As kooky as that may seem, it actually sounded quite lovely.

When they got to that piece, they asked me to explain what was going on. I told them that a friend of mine had killed herself, jumping off a building, and I could only think to respond by trying to make something beautiful out of elements that made no sense together.

Carter said, and I paraphrase (give me a break, it was 27 years ago), “Well, we all have difficult things in our lives, but the music must remain steadfast.”

These three encounters taught me that different people have to write different music. I had thought, up until then, that evolution in music reigned supreme, that it had to gradually develop along a logical path, and each of us was charged with contributing to that development. I studied each new score in earnest detail, noting each innovation and extrapolating where each idea could take me, if I followed its lead.

In my early encounters with Elliott, I learned that there are composers I admire, but whose relationship to the world and to composing is different from mine. No matter how much I may respect their work, it would be wrong for me to emulate their approach. My music has to come from the subjective person I am, not from some objectification of how music history works.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not blaming Elliott for being the way he is (or was thirty years ago) – that would be pointless, like blaming the wind for blowing, or a vacuum for sucking. And I’m sure there are countless individuals out there who can attest to his warmth and nurturing character, as opposed to his penchant for making a certain worshipful young composer feel like a smacked ass.

He was just a very clear demonstration, at a pivotal moment in my life, of a way I didn’t want to be – and a way I could choose not to be. And from that realization came the understanding that I wasn’t going to build my music on anybody else’s shoulders. I was going to have to start by planting my own feet firmly in the ground beneath me.

Thank you, Elliott, and many happy returns.

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Aleck Karis was our guest in Composition Seminar a couple of weeks ago. Aleck has made a name for himself as a pianist unfazed by the thorniest of contemporary scores – as the pianist for Speculum Musicae, he’s long been associated with music of Davidovsky, Carter and Cage.
Now teaching at UCSD, Karis was in town to play a program of music by Davidovsky and two of his pupils, Edward Jacobs and Michael Rothkopf.

His topic in Seminar was contemporary piano technique. He began with an historical overview, addressing fundamental developments in piano technique from Cristofori through Debussy. Then he launched into a catalogue of extended techniques. He brought copies for everyone of a wonderful chart he had devised, showing exactly which harmonics and muted tones are possible on the piano strings.

Aleck also talked about the basic principles of idiomatic piano writing, which I think was particularly helpful to many of our students with limited keyboard proficiency. In this, as in all of his explanations, he was very clear, and very attuned to the needs of his audience, which consisted of about thirty composers and pianists.

Finally, he played the second movement of Birtwistle’s Harrison’s Clocks, a piece that demands fleet fingers and mind-numbing concentration, which Karis appears to have in abundant supply.

seminar photos by Steve Davis

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I’m a bit behind schedule on several pieces right now. I had hoped to have my fourth string quartet sketched by the end of September, but the last movement is proving elusive. For October I was going to focus on initial sketches for my fifth quartet, but I haven’t gotten started on that yet.

Fortunately, neither of those pieces has to be in the performers’ hands until July, so I’m not worried yet.

Meanwhile, I’ve just finished up a long-considered transcription of Sonata: Motion for violin and piano – the piece was originally for flute and piano. The first movement switched instruments rather easily. The second movement needed a complete revision to fit the violin. The third movement got extensive work too, because I was never satisfied with the piano part.

The transcription needed to be finished right away, for reasons I’ll get to in a later post.

This week, work on my quartets had to wait while I wrote a four-minute piece for violin and piano, based on an aria from my opera Buffa.

And I haven’t given any thought to my Schumann Trilogy in about a year. I need to get back to it before too long, though, because it’s a monster. But it isn’t due until January 2010, so, as with the quartets, I’m not too concerned yet.

All of these pieces have me in an unaccustomed, though not uncomfortable, position. I’m used to figuring out what I want to work on, setting a timetable, and beating that timetable rather handily. With these pieces, though, I’ve been given deadlines and set my timetables accordingly (eg, first draft in September) — but I’ve fallen behind from the outset.

Right now I’m not worried. But if I’m still behind my timetables as spring begins, you’ll see me dripping gobs of perspiration all over this pristine blog.

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I have a sister who is sixteen years older than I am. Anyone who has had a sibling that much older knows how imposing such a figure can be in a child’s life. To me, growing up, my sister was beautiful, brilliant and powerful. I don’t remember when, in my youth, I first realized something was not quite right with her.

At various times over the years, my sister has disowned me. By disowned, I mean that she has ceased communication. I’m about five years deep into the latest freeze-out, and I confess it is a bit of a relief not to have to deal with her – she is not an easy person to communicate with under the best of circumstances.

The exact nature of her illness is a bit of a mystery, but she certainly has a deep well of loathing, which manifests itself in a narrow and stringent form of Catholicism. Thus the freeze-outs, when she decides someone has done something to punch a ticket to eternal damnation, something that threatens to contaminate her if she has any contact.

In much of her interaction with the world, she maintains a child-like, glued-on cheerfulness, which can suddenly peel off into a startling rage.

Today she turns sixty-five, and I shudder when I realize I haven’t seen her since she was in her fifties. Emaciated from a punishing diet and denial of any physical pleasures, she was a sad ghost of her youthful self then. I can’t imagine what she looks like now.

I think about her often, because the difficulty I have comprehending her is tied inextricably with the difficulty I have understanding myself – which, of course, fuels the music I write. I wonder if I should try to be more proactive in resuming communication, as frustrating as it can be, for the sake of maintaining a connection that somehow helps define who I am.

But in some ways it’s easier to bundle up and wait out the freeze.

Happy birthday, big sis.

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In my last post, I wrote of the strange set of circumstances that led me to my seat in the Ailey Citigroup Theater on the night of October 4th.Now I can write about the event itself.The last time I saw Dawn Upshaw was in L’amour de loin at Santa Fe Opera. At the time, I thought the libretto was magnificent, the music was less than beguiling, and her performance was an extraordinary demonstration of commitment and finesse.

In Saturday night’s interview, her special gifts were quickly apparent. Most opera singers I’ve known are larger than life – they are onstage, performing, 24/7. In contrast, Dawn Upshaw is always exactly the same size as life itself, onstage and off. No hyperbole, no playing to the audience – just being real in the moment.

Perhaps more importantly, she has a great actor’s knack for imagining all the elements of a moment in precise detail. After we watched a video of her angel aria from Saint-François d’Assise, she commented on the sensation of the plywood she was resting her hands on in the beginning of that scene, and how the memory of that physical connection brought her back to all the feelings she’d had about the scene: her fear of failure, concern that the aria wasn’t quite right for her voice, etc.

That same connection of sensation to emotion is what makes her performances special. She experiences the present in a very powerful and genuine way, and translates her experience into visceral communication.

Unlike many singers of her stature, Dawn has made a special commitment to contemporary music. She spoke of a fantasy she has of being a singer-songwriter, in the folk music sense of the term, which may go a long way toward explaining her relationship with the composers of her time.

Ross’s interview style is as relaxed and unrehearsed as his writing is precise and profound. He kept things moving through an evening of reminiscences and sound bytes, including excerpts from Golijov’s Ayre, Saariaho’s L’amour de loin and Debussy’s Mandoline. There was also a tender (and sometimes painfully revealing), behind-the-scenes video of Upshaw’s working relationship with Peter Sellars.

(By the way, it’s not often that you get to hear a soprano repeatedly fumble every attempt to hand her an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Alex tried, but Dawn was not rising to the challenge.)

It’s always curious to compare the expectations set by different locations. If this same event had taken place here in Winston-Salem, there would have been twice as many people in the audience, sitting on the edges of their seats, with enthusiastic ovations at the conclusion. Not the case in the Ailey Theater. The small auditorium was half-full, the audience politely appreciative.

I introduced myself to Alex afterwards. He was cordial. Then I think he said, “I’ll be right back — my parents are on the elevator.” But I’m not sure — he may have said, “My pants are on the elevator.”

And then he was off with a smile and a wave.

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When I started grad school, I signed up for a course in Music Criticism, figuring it would be to my advantage to broaden myself as much as possible while young. The course was taught by a venerable man, recently retired from one of the major New York papers. I believe he had been quite influential in his day but, sadly, I no longer recall his name.After two weeks, I withdrew from the class. In my youthful narrow-mindedness (which has been replaced by a more paunchy form of narrow-mindedness), I decided that the way music critics listen and think about music was not the way I wanted to listen and think about music.

So it was with mixed emotions that I found myself sitting in the Ailey Citigroup Theater, clutching a Press Pass, listening to Alex Ross interview Dawn Upshaw in the New Yorker Festival last week. Definitely a How the Hell Did I Get Here moment.

How did I get there? On September 17th, I got an email, which I assumed was a mass email, from the PR department of New Yorker magazine, offering me a Press Pass to two events in the New Yorker Festival: the New Yorker Dance Party, hosted by Sasha Frere-Jones and featuring Ghislain Poirier, and an interview with Tom Morello emceed by James Surowiecki.

I was blissed out to discover my ignorance of these celebrated personages. I wrote back declining, and half-jokingly asked if they had press tickets to the Ross-Upshaw interview. Over week went by; I heard nothing. I assumed my question had vanished into the ether.

On the Monday before the festival, I got another note saying my ticket confirmation would be emailed the following day, and could I please provide my address for the press packet. I ignored the message, assuming it was another anonymous mass email, because it contained no response to my question.

The next day, I got an email confirming that a ticket would be held for me at the Dawn and Alex show. Puzzled and curious, I sent my mailing address, requesting the Press Packet.

Friday night, I still hadn’t received a press packet, so I wrote to the PR people expressing my regrets that I would not be able to attend. The reply came back immediately: “You still can! Because it is ticketed you don’t need one.”

Twelve hours later, after hurried airplane and hotel reservations and my usual fitful night’s sleep, I found myself on board a flight to La Guardia.

I’m not an impulsive traveler. When I leave the house, I usually have a well-considered plan. Even trips to the grocery store are often scheduled a week in advance. But this odd opportunity to witness a couple of geniuses going tête to tête, come at me out of the blue, was too much to resist. After all, Ross and Upshaw are two people whose work has kicked my butt repeatedly, in the nicest possible way, over the years. My interest was seriously piqued.

So that’s the preamble, or rather pre-ramble, to my coverage of this event. Stay tuned: more soon.

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“Remember that there is only one important time and it is Now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person with whom you are, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future. The most important pursuit is making that person, the one standing at you side, happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

- Leo Tolstoy, The Three Questions

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