Archive for June, 2009

I like to get together with players face to face and improvise sounds. For example, even though I’ve written two string quartets, I know that when I write my third I’ll schedule a session with players so that I can hear and feel the string sounds afresh. Fine players often show me qualities of the instrument and playing techniques that I couldn’t come up with on my own, because they work with the instruments and live with them, day in, day out.
After that, when I take pencil and paper, the physical sounds will still be ringing through me. I’ll sketch maybe 100 pages or so, depending on the piece. I try not to censor anything I write. I look at what I’ve put down on paper and let myself feel how the sounds flow – their energy and their direction. When I feel the sounds in this way I want to work on them to make them more beautiful, or clearer or stronger or more dynamic or dramatic – in other words, I want them to flow as much as possible. It’s incredibly fun to do this.

– Lois V Vierk

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Back to my fifth quartet, after a two-month hiatus. While I was focused on other things, the back of my mind was squinching up in discomfort over the final movement of quartet no. 5. Got to get rid of that squinch — it was having a nasty impact on my hairstyle. Here was the problem:
The fifth quartet is obsessed with that most obsessive of forms, Variation. The first movement is a straightforward theme and variations. The second movement is a chaconne, or variations on a harmonic progression. The third movement is a passacaglia, or variations over a repeated 8-note figure.

The fourth and final movement, like the first, is a theme and variations. The version I left off with two months ago was good, but a little too well-behaved, I’m afraid. I’ve come to realize that this movement needs to both reflect and transcend the theme it is based on. To do that, I need to push the pedal down more on the fantasy side of fantasy-variations. This was the movement, after all, that immediately precedes the predawn twilight. Logic needs to take a back seat to something wilder.

Something wilder – I’ve been listening all this week to crwth music. It seems that the fantastical predawn is going to transform my Welsh tune into a haunted hybrid.

And so, inadvertently, this movement is providing a link to the as-yet-unwritten sixth quartet, which is going to be obsessed with fantasy. It will be the last quartet of this cycle, and it has always worried me the most, because from the beginning (1998) I have had a less clear notion of how number 6 was going to play out. Maybe the new direction my fifth quartet is taking will point the way.

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While I was buried in recording sessions last week, representatives for a festival I’ll be attending in September were furiously trying to get in touch with me. We finally caught up with one another and worked out some logistics. Afterwards, I told my manager, Jeffrey James, if he ever needs to find me he should check my blog – that’s a good indicator of what I’m up to. “So your blog is your personal GPS, eh?” he replied.

I like that. Here I am, wherever I am.

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Happy to be home again, as always. I love traveling, but one of the best parts is getting back home, getting back to the familiar routines, the comfortable environs, and most of all the people who still love me even when I am a pain in the ass.
At this point, having participated in a bunch of professional recording sessions, I’m feeling like an old veteran. I’ve learned a thing or two about the process, and what better purpose could this blog serve than to share what I’ve learned? So here is my cardinal rule for composers in recording sessions:

Take responsibility for the tempos.

I’ve always liked to believe that there is a generous bandwidth of tempos in which my music can communicate successfully. That may or may not be true, but there are few things more annoying than ending up with a recording that sounds a hair too fast or a hair too slow. Don’t let them play more than two notes in the recording session at the wrong tempo — stop them immediately – because a take in the wrong tempo is unusable, regardless of how beautiful it may be in every other way. Conversely, if a take is in the right tempo, even if it has other problems, the recording engineer may be able to use some of it.

And that reminds me of the most excruciating performance of a piece of mine I’ve ever experienced – or almost experienced. I was a guest at a new music festival put on at a well-regarded university I had never been to before. I arrived for the dress rehearsal, which took place immediately before the performance. As I walked through the backstage area, I could hear the musicians rehearsing, but because of the labyrinthic design of the school I couldn’t find them.

They were playing my piece at exactly half tempo.

In a frenzied state, I ran up and down the hallways, opening every door, trying to figure out where they were. Then I heard them stop. The performance began a few minutes later.

I couldn’t bring myself to go into the concert hall. I left the building as quickly as I could, headed to the closest bar and got myself good and drunk.

What did I learn? At half tempo, not only is every moment in the piece in the wrong place — every wrong note lasts twice as long.

But that was a long time ago. Back to more pleasant, recent experiences.

This past week’s recording sessions reminded me that composers and performers listen differently, and though I’ve done a fair amount of performing, I definitely don’t listen the way a real performer does. I’m pretty good at spending hours imagining sounds, imagining note combinations, twisting and turning them in different directions. But I don’t have nearly the stamina for listening to actual music that performers have. By the end of an eight-hour recording session, I’m pretty numb, but the performers are still listening critically, still trying to get every note in tune and in place, even though they’ve been working much harder than I have.
One more reminder of how grateful I am that there are people who have different interests and skill sets from mine.

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Caught Da Capo Chamber Players Monday night in Merkin Hall. The program was called Direct Current and featured pieces that blend electronic sound and acoustic instruments. Very different atmosphere from the Bang on a Can marathon the day before – much smaller audience, but everyone was there to listen. Which do I prefer? I’m glad to have both. Keeps my ears on their toes.
The following morning, Merkin was packed for a tribute to the late George Perle. I never knew Perle personally, and I’ve had only had passing acquaintance with his music, which occupies a tonal landscape that had little attraction for me in my student days. I could only stay for the first half, but the highlights were frequent and very high. Particularly potent: Leon Fleisher ascending to the stage from the audience to play Brahms’s arrangement for left hand of the Bach Chaconne in D Minor. It’s a version I’ve enjoyed picking at with two hands, but apart from the superior technical facility Fleisher brought to bear, the sound he was getting from the instrument was just spectacular.

Of the three spoken tributes I heard, Paul Lansky’s memories of an undergraduate theory class at Queens taught by the young Perle were the most amusing and touching.

And the discovery of the program was Perle’s Six Celebratory Inventions, performed by pianist Michael Brown. Clever, understated, witty – top-drawer stuff.

Aside from that, it was bracing to look around the audience and see a roll-call of new music’s old guard. They’ve been kicked around a lot for the last thirty years, so I was happy to see them having a well-deserved moment to share with one another. And I was thankful that the remarkable man George Perle seems to have been made it possible for me to see them gathered.

I was sorry, though, that I had to miss the Daedalus Quartet performance, which came last. But I made up for it by rehearsing with them, along with Benjamin Hochman, yesterday afternoon. I got soaked walking in a downpour from the A-train to the rehearsal, but their preparation and enthusiasm quickly made me feel all warm and cozy. Tomorrow we’ll head to the Academy to record, before I catch a late-night flight back to North Carolina.

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Six hours of rehearsal down. Four hours of recording tomorrow, four more hours on Tuesday. I managed to sneak down to the Winter Garden for the Bang on a Can Marathon, just long enough to catch Brad Lubman conducting Signal in Michael Gordon’s hour-long Trance. The experience wasn’t much to tweet home about, though – there’s far more going on in that piece than the Winter Garden could report. But there were a lot of enthusiastic listeners, scattered among the cell-phone users and baby strollers.

Zipped out when the tabla player began. Sad to say, I’ve pretty much burned out on tabla playing. Partly because I was a little too enthusiastic about it ten years ago. Besides, it was time for me to get back to the hotel so I could Sing in the Can.

I tried to get into the Guggenheim to hear Nico Muhly’s new scent opera, but arrived a tad late – sold out. So I can’t speak for the opera, but my attempt to witness it really stank.

Meanwhile, I have neglected to credit the remarkable musicians I’m working with right now. Time to make amends:

Lauren Flanigan, soprano
Stephen Williamson, clarinet
Taimur Sullivan, tenor saxophone
Arnaud Sussmann, violin
Richard O’Neill, viola
Clancy Newman, cello
Melvin Chen, piano
Ransom Wilson, conductor

It’s a monster roster, and Ransom sets just the right tone in rehearsal, giving guidance where needed, allowing everyone enough room to let their musicianship fly. This afternoon we’ll gather at the Academy and nail this piece down, bar by bar.

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