Archive for September, 2009

My niece, an AP reporter based in L.A., has a five-minute interview with Gustavo Dudamel, the new Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, tomorrow.  If you were in her shoes, what would you ask him?

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‘I never knew words could be so confusing,” Milo said to Tock as he bent down to scratch the dog’s ear.

Only when you use a lot to say a little,’ answered Tock.

- Norton Juster


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I reported here a few months ago that my CD of violin music wouldn’t be released by Naxos until 2011.  I’ve just had the good news that it will be out next spring in digital format, with the disk following a year later.

So now I’m busy finalizing the liner notes.  These pieces from the last twenty-five years are like specters come to haunt me anew.  Wish I had the confidence to ask someone else to write about them for me.  Unfortunately, although I know a good many writers who are more gifted than I am, I’m a bit of a control-freak when it comes to how my music is presented.  So I’m furiously punching away at the laptop keys, hoping the sheer force I put into each keystroke will knock some helpful insights from my calcified cranium.

Seems like they are just jarring loose some kidney stones so far.

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UNCSA School of Music

UNCSA School of Music

Today is the first day of classes here.  My students are returning to school to start the fall term, while I sit in my studio carefully shepherding new compositions over the hillside.  After forty-six straight Septembers of life in the academic lane, I’m officially starting my sabbatical now – although it effectively began in July.

It’s wonderful to be focused entirely on my own creative work, but I’m going to miss the weekly lessons, watching the fitful progress of these very creative people who come to me for whatever guidance I can provide.  So here’s a new year’s wish going out to Alicia, James, Jeremy, Jesse, Leo, Lucas, Michael, Ryan, Ted and Tom:  have a peaceful and productive autumn – I can’t wait to see what you’ve come up with when I return in January.

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Concert Dance, Inc.

Back from Chicago, and what a great trip – wish I could have stayed longer.  To be honest, when I found out that my piece was going to be choreographed, I thought, “well, that’s a bad idea.”  Dance and music make natural partners, but a huge portion of The Better Angels of Our Nature involves spoken text.  Language is, well, literal, and dance that gets too literal has a hard time taking flight.

But I was proven wrong.  Venetia Stifler’s choreography was a gorgeous mix of the specific and the abstract. The mass of crumpled bodies over which one dancer rose, eagle-like, at the conclusion of the first movement was a perfect complement to the text, in which Lincoln courageously rose above the petty maneuverings of contemporary politics to uphold the value of integrity.

Welz Kauffman’s voice has a special presence perfectly suited to these majestic words, and he has a standup’s impeccable timing.  Afterwards, he suggested some preliminary plans to take the performance on tour, which I hope will come to pass.

And what a pleasure to spend time with these excellent dancers.  I have great admiration for people who can move with all of the fluidity and specificity of water poured from a pitcher, especially as I feel like my own moves more closely resemble ice cubes dropped on linoleum.

Speaking of shortcomings, there are a few bars at the beginning of the piece that would benefit from a quick rewrite.  Think I’ll stop blogging and get on that right now.

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I’m off tomorrow to spend nineteen hours in Chicago.  The Ravinia Festival has commissioned Venetia Stifler to choreograph my The Better Angels of Our Nature – performances tomorrow and Friday at Bennett Gordon Hall.  The Lincoln Trio will play the music for what must be the 1000th time this year, and Welz Kauffman will speak the words of our sixteenth president.  I’ll be there for the first performance – and my first time hearing the piece, by the way.

So if your prevailings are blowing in that direction, come say hello.

And in the fiction-becomes-fact department, a number of publications, including the Chicago Tribune, have referred to me as an “Indiana composer.”  Honestly, folks, I’ve visited the Hoosier state a few times, but I don’t think I’ve ever been there for more than three days at a time.

I suppose, though, if they print it in a newspaper, it must be true.  Maybe I need to start studying up on some of those old Wabash songs.

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schumannTwo years ago, when I first agreed to compose the Schumann Trilogy, I had a lot of unrelated ideas flitting through my mind about Schumann and his music.  Now that I’m diving into the elbow-grease pit of composition, my thoughts have clarified a good deal.

Here are the things I love about Robert Schumann, in no particular order:

  • Metrical highjinks.  No other composer from before the 20th century did more to disrupt rhythmic expectations.  Every major work — and most of the minor ones – has some passage or passages where the pulse becomes unmoored from the barline.  Syncopation, polyrhythm, polymeter, shifting meters, hemiola – they are all there in abundance.  And when I say hemiola, I’m not talking about the cadential switcheroo one finds in every Bach courante.  When Schumann does hemiola, it can last anywhere from several bars to several minutes.  And it’s not just a trick with RS, as Harald Krebs’s studies have shown.  He composes a kind of metrical consonance and dissonance that keeps the listener leaning.
  • Literary skills.  Schumann wasn’t one of the great writers of 19th-century literature, but he was an effective and imaginative essayist.  That aptitude can be felt in his music, both in his sensitive handling of poetry and in his general sensibility toward form and musical process.
  • Miniatures.  After Beethoven, many composers displayed an interest in perfecting the musical aphorism, writing brief character pieces that attempted to convey vivid ideas in a few, well-chosen strokes.  Everybody was doing it, it seems, but nobody was better than Schumann at building large forms from a sequence, or cycle, of miniatures.
  • Endings.  I can’t think of another composer before Schumann who made such frequent use of the big finish followed by the quiet coda.  He has so many pieces that build up to a bang, then trail off in a whimper.  Or, perhaps more accurately, a shout followed by a moment of introspection.
  • Arpeggios.  Anyone can write a good arpeggio that starts from the bass and ascends; Schumann was a master of writing arpeggios that start from the soprano and descend to the bass – an effect that, in his hands, fosters both metrical and harmonic ambiguity.
  • Rational and intuitive pitch patterns.  Schumann could spin fantastic webs of notes with the best of them, from rapid filigree to battering storms.  Then, unlike some, he could turn around and write the loveliest, most unassuming melodies.
  • Career path.  Schumann went from being in the vanguard of the 1830s to the rear guard by the end of the 1840s.  His trajectory from radical to bourgeois isn’t a straight line, but it’s clear enough to notice.  It makes sense in his case, as tens of thousands were tortured and killed in the revolutions of 1848 – a situation that clearly frightened him.  And then there was the self-aggrandizing radicalism — and rising popularity — of Wagner, which disgusted him.

At this point, it’s fair to ask if there is anything I don’t like about Robert Schumann.  Well, yes, there are a few things.  Right now I’m focused on the many positives, though.  Maybe when I’m coming to the finish line in this project I’ll take a closer peek at the negatives.

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I’ve got the first edit of the recording we made in June of Appendage.  Lauren Flanigan was amazing to work with – I can’t wait to share the results with everyone.  Here’s a brief (about five minutes) taste of from part four  – listen to the way she switches effortlessly between spoken and sung text.

appendage 4

Appendage is a 32-minute song cycle from 1992-93.  Much more about it here.

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