Archive for August, 2009

Alex Ross says he is working on a new book of essays, though I won’t believe it until he sets up a blog under the book’s title.

I’m hoping he’ll one day try his hand at fiction.  I could see him writing a fantastical 21st-century riposte to Mann’s Doktor Faustus.  Just imagine: a critic strikes a bargain with the devil – for every great new piece unveiled, the devil is required to remove one plague from human existence.  One by one, they are stricken from the ledger: acne, cancer, committee meetings, electric bills, mosquitoes, Hummers, wars, as the intrepid critic plays one terrific new piece after another for the increasingly despondent devil.  In the end, the devil gives the critic his due, joining the heavenly chorus in praise of new music.

And I’d love to see the title of his new blog.  The Lament of Mephistopheles?  Doctor Nachmann Meets His Match?  Zeitblom’s Atonement?

I’m sure he can come up with something better.

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I had a good forehead-smacking moment working on my Schumann Trilogy.

The first piece in the trilogy is called Fantasie.  I was struggling with one of the transitions when I gave myself the aforementioned pink hairporch.  “This piece is an homage to Schumann,” I thought, “to hell with the transitions!”

Many of Schumann’s early piano works are famously transitionless.  Papillons, Carnaval and other collections are comprised of brief character pieces – miniatures — strung together, with abrupt contrasts the norm.    The result, for me, is profoundly disorienting: to listen to some of these works is to enter into a pleasant kind of delirium.

So now I am starting over (have I ever mentioned how much I love starting a piece, then starting over?), with the Fantasiestücke model in mind.  We’ll see where it leads – there are all kinds of interesting possibilities.

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I frequently encounter arguments online over commonly accepted ideas about music — are they hard-wired into our DNA or shaped by our culture?  It’s an interesting question, but when it’s used to argue for or against a certain kind of music, as in, “Music is a cultural construct, therefore, objectively speaking, anything is as good as anything else,” or, its near opposite, “Tonality is a result of natural forces, therefore any music that doesn’t use it is inferior,” I tune out.

Natural forces, cultural constructs — whatever the source, the bottom line is the same for me.  I have ideas I want to convey, and I’m going to use the most effective means I can find to convey them.  That’s why I use commonly accepted words (cultural constructs) when I write this blog. It’s fine to argue that “xvvbrr sjjiu tg hqwww” is just as meaningful, and even more interesting, (it’s certainly more original), than any of the other sentences on this page.  I won’t disagree.  But it’s not really fair to berate a culture that finds original sequences of letters less interesting or meaningful than familiar ones.

Conversely, I’m happy to travel any nontraditional avenues that get me to my goal.  If  “xvvbrr sjjiu tg hqwww” says exactly what I want to say, I’ll use it, cultural constructs be damned.

Come to think of it, I’ve now managed to use that sentence twice in this blog post, and I believe it helped make my intention perfectly clear.  Maybe I’ll try it as a title, too.

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I’ve finished my fifth quartet.

As of two weeks ago, I had started from scratch on the fourth movement.  The compositional distance I had to travel in order to produce that redraft showed me exactly what I needed to do to fix the problem I was having with the original fourth movement – I  just needed to insert about a minute of music leading up to the passage that was bothering me. Once that minute was inserted, what followed made perfect sense. So the solution to the problem was much less radical than I had feared.

The complete redraft was tossed, although some ideas from it continue to tickle in the back of my mind, for future use.

Once I was satisfied with the errant passage, though, I discovered a problem with the beginning of the first movement and the end of the last.  Both passages are titled Twilight.  I realized that they had a little too much emotional presence (despite the fact that they are both sempre ppp), as opposed to having the right atmospheric presence to balance the rest of the composition.

When you are working on a piece that’s over 30 minutes long, the best balance for each moment is often not apparent until the piece is just about finished.

Atmosphere doesn’t come naturally to me. Which is to say I’m perfectly capable of pulling off a piece with plenty of it – atmosphere that is – but it takes a certain amount of conscious effort, as opposed to other things I can do more intuitively.  This quartet definitely needed a particular atmospheric frame in order to function properly.  Given that need, the contours of the lines in these two passages were a little more intense than ideal.  They needed to be simplified so that they would cohere more, as opposed to standing out too much from one another.

And now, a few brush strokes later, Twilight, and the rest of the quartet, is as it should be.  Soon it will be off in the mail — premiere in March 2010.

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color dorian grayPDVD_017A few weeks ago, I wrote about the possibility that my position might be restructured in the wake of budget cuts.  As it turned out, my position has been restructured in a way that makes it exactly what I need it to be at this point in my life: I’ve rid myself of 99% of the numbing administrative work I had been doing, and the school has decided to increase its emphasis on the composition department I run because, frankly, the composition department has been doing extremely well since I started running it in 2000.

I am now just Composer in Residence at the school – no more Assistant Dean, no more theory teaching, no more conducting.

So how come I’m not ecstatic about this turn of events?

While I’ve been put in a position that suits me perfectly, seven adjuncts and two staff members, some of whom I count as close friends, have been let go.

That’s not the way I wanted this to happen.

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Is new music just old music recycled?

What makes water surprised?

When new trains grow into old trains, do they grow steam stacks?

When people bloom, do the blooms on the people hurt?

Do you know where hotels are born?

Does water float?

Why do Easter eggs have to dye?

Happy fourth birthday, big guy. I know I still have a lot to look forward to, but I want to stop for a moment to thank you for some of my favorite questions from the past year.

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As I noted earlier, I took the second half of July off from working on my fifth quartet to start sketching my Schumann Trilogy. In 12 days, I made a good draft of the third piece, a few healthy sketches of the first piece, and batted my head hopelessly against the second. More on that later.

Now I’m back on the home stretch of the fifth quartet. This is when I try to find the weakest passage in the piece and see if I can improve it, on the assumption that a chain is only as strong as its least durable link.

In the case of the fifth quartet, the weakest passage is very obvious to me: it’s a little more than halfway through the last movement. I wanted this passage to be an abrupt detour from the path of the piece, but I’m not convinced I’ve got it right. So, with five weeks to go before score and parts have to be delivered, I’m completely tearing down the last movement and rethinking it from the ground up.

And that’s a scary place to be – but a place I’ve been often enough before.

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