Archive for April, 2009

As I noted last Sunday, I’ve been painstakingly re-entering an entire score for an enormous piece I composed back in 1993. I’ve got about a week of work to go.

This piece was one of the first I wrote that incorporated spoken text. In fact, it may have been the very first, but I’m not going to bother looking that one up to make sure, because firstness is never all that interesting to me, even within my own work.

In the intervening years, I’ve written a number of pieces with spoken text. For the most part, they’ve been very successful. Some of them use spoken text in ways that disrupt normal concert-going expectations, and some of them simply use the text to tell an accompanied story. Measuring their success is a somewhat different exercise in each case.

But there are some poor souls out there who simply can’t abide spoken text with their music. Somehow their brains shut down when presented with these two different forms of expression. I feel badly for these people, because the experience can be a very rich one for those of us who don’t have those insurmountable boundaries.

It’s difficult for me to imagine, but I wonder sometimes if it’s similar to my reaction to spatial music. With only one ear, I find music that relies on particular spatial arrangements kind of dull, because I can’t organize what I’m hearing into specific locations, which seems to be a crucial part of the experience. Maybe that’s what happens to people whose brains can’t process spoken text along with music – maybe the results just sound a little boring.

But I guess I’ll never know, because (when it’s done well) I find the blend of music and spoken word one of the more intense experiences I can have.

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The ridiculously gifted Tim Fain was in residence here last week. Classes, lessons and coachings, culminating in a performance of Richard Danielpour’s Violin Concerto with our orchestra.
Richard and I were classmates a quarter century ago. His music wasn’t to my taste then, but there was no denying his ambition and talent. Over the intervening years, I’ve heard a few of his pieces. Some of them I found less than interesting, but others have been quite wonderful. This concerto, which is ten years old, definitely leans more to the latter.

One of the things that struck me as I was listening was the perfectly calibrated orchestration. This was a kind of orchestral mastery – not in any use of ingenious combinations or special tricks, but just the result of writing for orchestra often, hearing the results under optimal conditions, and shaping a clearly recognizable, personal voice despite the use of massive forces. He knew what he wanted and knew how to get it, and that’s more unusual than one would think.

Orchestration aside, Richard has always had a gift for expressive clarity. There’s no mistaking what he wants to say. That’s not so common as one would like – I’ve heard many pieces that try to say too much, or that undercut themselves with cross-purposes.

Not a problem for Danielpour. And that’s what I admire most about his work.

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I have a piece I wrote 17 years ago – a thirty-three minute song cycle for soprano and six instruments – that’s getting recorded in June. About a month ago, I realized I no longer had copies of the parts, so I contacted my publisher to ask for theirs, because I had a sneaking suspicion that the only remaining parts were from a different draft of the piece than the one I wanted to record. In other words, the piece was premiered in 1993, then revised, followed by a number of subsequent performances, each with slight adjustments – so several versions have existed.

As I feared, when the parts arrived, they didn’t match the score I had. In fact, they didn’t match any score of the piece that I could find. I no longer had an electronic copy, because the software it was notated with had morphed out of existence.

So for the past month I’ve been re-entering this piece — all one-thousand-and-twelve measures of it, note by note – into my computer so I will have a score and parts that match. It’s a mind-bending and mind-numbing experience.

Age-old problem: I’m coming across passages that I want to rewrite, with the wisdom I’ve accrued over the years. But I don’t think I will. It’s not that I feel that the original is sacred, I just truly don’t have time – rehearsals start in a month. It kills me, though, because once it’s recorded, that’s it. Since I’ll be involved in the recording, the result will be viewed as authentic, so it’s now or never. What to do?

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I’ve just had a nice bit of news – I’ve learned that I’ve been awarded a sabbatical for next fall to work on my Schumann Trilogy. That means no teaching from June through December. I’ll miss the teaching, because my students mean a lot to me, but after 22 years it’s probably a good idea for me to shift gears a bit.
This Schumann Trilogy will be a major undertaking. As the title implies, it’s going to be three pieces – not movements, but stand-alone pieces – on three aspects of one of the Romantic period’s most intriguing figures.

Fantasiestück is an orchestral fantasy on the enigmatic figure of Robert Schumann – a brilliantly gifted composer and writer who ascended to the pinnacle of the music world, only to end his days in an insane asylum.

The Marriage Diary
For the first four years of their married life, Robert and Clara Schumann kept a marriage diary. They wrote notes to one another, commented on visitors and concerts, and kept a running dialogue on the delights and challenges of married life. The Schumanns’ marriage holds particular interest for couples in the twenty-first century, as Robert and Clara coped with many of the same issues familiar to two-income families today. My Marriage Diary takes its cue from this infamous book in the form of a dialogue for mezzo, tenor and orchestra.

Florestan and Eusebius
While still in his twenties, Robert Schumann became an influential music critic. In his writings, he invented several characters, through whom he expressed differing perspectives on various issues of the day. Chief among these fictional figures were Florestan and Eusebius. Florestan was impetuous, passionate, and forward-looking; Eusebius was quiet, introspective – a dreamer.

My Florestan and Eusebius imagines these two characters beside Schumann’s deathbed, trying to make sense of their creator’s madness and decline. It concludes with a setting of a haunting elegy by Heinrich Heine, one of Schumann’s favorite poets.

The part of Florestan will be performed by a combination of tenor and actor. The part of Eusebius will be sung by a trio of soprano, mezzo and alto.

I find Schumann fascinating — the combination of musical and literary gifts, the obsessive focus on genres, the gradual shift from youthful radical to cautious family man. And, of course, the strange symptoms of his final years.

The three pieces have to be completed in January, so this sabbatical will provide a welcome chance to focus.

So now my next task is figuring out who will cover the duties I’ll be missing come September.

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What an amazing week I’ve had. My wife took the kids for eight days to visit her parents while I stayed home and buried myself in my fifth string quartet. Felt so good just to lose myself in the music, from daybreak to past midnight.

I first drafted this piece back in 2002, got a commission for it last summer, began more pointed scribblings in the fall, spent ten days in January doing nothing else, set it aside for three months, then returned to obsess on it this past week. Ten days ago, the piece had mounds of problems that I didn’t know how I would resolve. Now I have over a half-hour of music that is just tweaks away from being finished. I’ll pretty much set it aside until June (two other big projects to finish in the meantime), then I’ll polish off the myriad editing tasks in time for the September deadline. The premiere will be in Cologne next March.

String Quartet No. 5: Through the Night takes on variation technique in a big way. I have written a few theme-and-variation movements and a few chaconnes over the years, but nothing on this scale. Taking the lovely and seemingly simplistic Welsh melody All Through the Night as my theme (in more ways than one), I’ve come up with the following four-movement scenario:

  • Twilight – Theme and Variations (12:00)
  • Dream – Chaconne (5:00)
  • Dream – Passacaglia (2:45)
  • Theme and Variations – Twilight (10:30)

The first movement takes a Classical approach to its theme and twelve variations, with clear-cut divisions between each one. The fourth movement is more along the lines of fantasy-variations, with outlines blurred and the seven variations morphing one into the next.

These two movements aren’t played off of one another in a postmodern juxtaposition. Instead, they present two different perspectives on the same material, from the clarity of early evening to the fantastical mind-wanderings of pre-dawn.

The chaconne takes a quirky harmonization of the melody through twelve variations in a moderate-tempo, triple-meter dance. The passacaglia prestos the first eight notes of the third phrase of the melody into a whirling scherzo – 51 variations in less than three minutes.

The piece is framed by two “Twilight” passages in which time is suspended while the theme dissolves in and out of a musical gloaming.

Finally, two dream-preludes introduce the inner movements. Each one is unrelated to the theme (though they are related to one another). Each of the movements that follow is permeated – one might even say infected — by the ambience of its dream-prelude.

This piece really plays to my strengths as a composer, with its combination of a clear-cut, almost restrictive structure and a central image – watching over a sleeping child through the wee hours – that has a powerful, visceral meaning for me. I’ve tapped into some wonderful ideas, musically speaking, and presented them in a polished but unpredictable flow.

And now my family has returned, so it’s back to my usual regimen of composing a couple hours a day.

And doing the occasional all-nighter on sentry duty.

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Composers tend to get very moldy and introverted and difficult and paranoid, and I fall right into that type after two or three months of working alone.

- John Adams

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Time for me to brag on all of the accolades my students have been racking up lately:

College sophomore Leo Hurley’s Zydeco for saxophone quartet just won an ASCAP Morton Gould Award.

High school junior Ryan Dodge has just been accepted into Tanglewood’s Young Artists Composition Program.

And grad student Michael Ahrens had his Tharkanian March – a blend of African rhythms and fantastical timbral shifts — premiered by the Winston-Salem Symphony – they even gave it three performances, which is really a treat for any composer.

Making me proud.

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