Archive for November, 2008

Ten thousand flowers in spring,
the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer,
snow in winter.

If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

Wu Men (Hui-k’ai)

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We had jazz trombonist Ray Anderson here this week. I had heard a lot about him, so it was great to finally meet him. Very sweet man, very gifted musician.
In three days, he did a jazz workshop, a concert, two master classes and a few lessons. As Ron Rudkin, our jazz director said, Ray “was so dynamic on stage as a performer and soloist with the band that the whole crowd was fired up throughout his set – so much so that the audience demanded an encore, “St. Louis Blues,” which he then followed with a completely unplanned New Orleans march with the band playing a song he had taught them in a workshop “– literally marching around the hall to the great delight of all in attendance. Mr. Anderson possesses a singularly transcendent spirit, which was in evidence to all the student musicians on the stage, as well as everyone in the audience.”One standout moment among many: in the jazz workshop, he asked for three volunteers. He then told them to make up the absolutely worst music they could possibly produce, until he gave them a cutoff. The three students proceeded to emit ungodly squarks and woofs from their instruments. When he cut them off, Ray asked, “how did that feel?” “Liberating,” one of the students replied, and Ray proceeded to expound on the inner critic we all have telling us all the things we’re not supposed to do, and how good it is to banish that critic from time to time and just let things happen.

Good lesson for performers; good lesson for composers.

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I’m in complete-disarray mode working on my fifth string quartet these days. The piece is going to be a set of variations on the Welsh tune “All Through the Night.” I say variations, but it’s kind of a mega-variation concept. Here is the form, as it’s playing out so far:

Twilight
Variations
Dream interlude
Chaconne
Dream interlude
Passacaglia
Dream interlude
Variations
Twilight

There are two crazy things about composing this piece. First of all, the theme is really simple. Not only is it tonally limited, the form is about as dully repetitive as you can get: AABA. (for comparison, another “simple” tune, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” has a form that is all over the place: ABACDEFGHIHJKLKMNONM – how does any kid ever memorize that tune?) Measuring out how much to vary those repetitions within each variation is giving me lots to chew on.

The other crazy thing about composing this piece is the process I’ve taken. I started by drafting variations at random – just every idea I had about the theme. Then I started assembling the ideas into workable groupings. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much material before I even began “composing” before. Usually I have, at most, a handful of ideas. Now I’ve got a huge pile of music paper I’m trying to organize into a coherent whole – and a pretty substantial discard pile is mounting up.

Traditionally, in a theme and variations, you state the theme first. For the last hundred years, though, it has become unusual to state the theme clearly first, if ever. Part of me likes the idea of doing the obvious thing – but there is no obvious thing in this case – every possible approach is a cliché. I love being boxed in by clichés: I’m forced to do something obvious, and I have to try to do it better than it’s ever been done before.

Some composers strain to avoid cliché — in a situation like this, I welcome cliché, because it takes that much more skill and imagination to make the music fresh.

Another issue I’m dealing with is clarity vs. interest. I don’t get my kicks out of burying a theme where nobody can find it, in the hopes that some theory professor I’ve never met suddenly has a eureka moment in a distant ivory tower. I want any interested listener to be able to pick out the theme at any given moment. But there is a danger – how am I going to keep 25 minutes of one theme from getting tedious or too obvious? I’m hoping my Dream Interludes will provide some respite, but I’m also aware of the problem of going away from an idea, then returning to it. The return has to feel like something new, or you’re just spinning the listener in circles.

These are the challenges I’m facing – and one of my favorite things about composing is being faced with challenges I don’t quite know how I’m going to overcome.

For the first few weeks of working on this piece, I stayed away from sketching the initial “Twilight” section, worrying that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it. Then, the other night, I just plunged into it, and a few hours later I had something better than I had imagined possible.

So far so good – the piece is definitely smarter than I am.

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I lived the first eighteen years of my life in New Jersey. Then I lived in Connecticut for four years, followed by six years in New York.

At the age of 28, I moved to North Carolina. I felt like I had moved to a foreign country. I wanted edgy, and all I saw was warm and fuzzy. After living in Brooklyn, Winston-Salem seemed impossibly tame.

After I had been here for a few months, I went to a post-concert reception at a friend’s apartment. I was doing my best to fit in, sipping the wine and taking little stabs at conversation.

I happened to glance out the window for a moment – then I did a major double-take.

Across the street, in a second-story window, there was a naked man with a hacksaw, patiently sawing the limbs off of a dozen-or-so mannequins.

“Hmm,” I thought, returning to the party. “I may have underestimated this place.”

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I’ve just finished reading my advance copy* of Robert Carl’s forthcoming book “Terry Riley’s In C.

Carl set himself the task of approaching this pivotal 1960s work from every possible angle. To that end, he has divided his study into five sections:

  • Terry Riley’s Life and Art Before In C
  • The Premiere
  • Analysis
  • The Columbia Recording, a “Second Premiere”
  • Legacy
There is also an appendix, analyzing fourteen recordings of the piece made between 1970 and 2007.

The book has a lot to recommend it. Carl brings his many areas of expertise to bear – scholarly research, theoretical analysis, composerly musings – to capture the essence of In C in its many manifestations. But his most valuable contribution, to my mind, comes from his interviews with people involved in the 1964 premiere and the 1968 recording. The list of interviewees is a walk down a certain kind of 1960s Hall of Fame: Terry Riley (of course), Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Ramon Sender, Anna Halprin, Bill McGinnis, Anthony Martin, Morton Subotnick, David Behrman, Stuart Dempster, Katrina Krimsky, David Rosenboom, Jan Williams, and more. Their recollections summon up the youthful joy of connecting with something truly new. As Carl notes in his Introduction, “I have been made far more optimistic about the future – both my own and in general – by contact with such an energetic and frisky group of septuagenarians.”

And I can particularly recommend the book as a delightful way to pass the time if you happen to find yourself standing in line for several hours waiting to vote. Something about the timelessness of experiencing In C itself, I suppose. The piece is, as Bang on a Can bassist Robert Black says, “a huge gift to the world.”

*Oxford University Press asked me to write a blurb for the book jacket – I believe the book is due out in early 2009.

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I’ve finally finished drafting my fourth string quartet. As with the first three quartets, I’m zooming in on a particular formal concept, teasing out a host of ramifications from a single source.

Here’s how it’s going to work:

Taking Blaise Pascal’s reference to an “infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” as a starting point, String Quartet No. 4: The Infinite Sphere will tap the potentials of Classical circular forms and techniques – in particular the rondo form and canonical rounds. The result will be a six-movement rondo structure (ABACBA) in which all of the surface details reflect the wheels-within-wheels form:

Round: Ascent
Rondo: Vivace
Round: Descent
Rondo: Presto
Rondo: Vivace
Round: The Infinite Sphere

Each round will feature an accelerating circle of fifths, gradually spinning out of control. The rondos will intertwine contemporary and traditional dance rhythms. In keeping with the spirit of the Classical rondo, The Infinite Sphere is exuberant, joyous, life-affirming.

Now that the first draft is done, it’s time to turn my attention to my fifth quartet. Hopefully I’ll have a first draft of number 5 done by the end of November – then it’s second-draft time for The Infinite Sphere.

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