Archive for October, 2009

“It’s like I don’t know what I’m doing but I know how to do it, and it’s very strange.” Tuymans, Luc 3

– Luc Tuymans

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If you are in the central Piedmont this evening, stop by to hear clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein perform my Three Inventions, a piece from another eon, aka my student days.  Alan Kay did the premiere, way back when.  Alexander, member of Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and 2009 Avery Fischer Career Grant winner, is performing it on his debut recital as our newest faculty member.  Full story here.

Three Inventions is a set of studies for solo clarinet:

  • Changes (Prelude)
  • Lines (Sarabande)
  • Points (Fugue)

Changes (Prelude) is one of several pieces I wrote in the mid-80s that explored the intersection between minimalism and change-ringing.  A pattern of pitches is repeated over and over, with one note substituted on each repetition.  The last note of each recurrence of the pattern gets an explosive accent to signal a new beginning – and to give the music an off-kilter rhythmic charge (there is no meter, just sixteenths, eighths and dotted-eighths in constantly shifting combinations).

Lines (Sarabande) takes advantage of the clarinet’s ability to shift registers without breaks in the sound.  A gradually expanding chromatic scale is splintered into different octaves to create several interweaving lines.  The whole thing is in a slow, triple-meter, with emphasis on the second beat – the traditional pulse of the sarabande.

The last invention is a four-voice fugue.  The subject is a series of staccato jabs – the “points” of the title.  The spaces between these points are filled with three, independently introduced countersubjects, in classic fugal manner.  Everything you would expect from a fugue is here – inversion, augmentation, stretto, etc. — but all played by a single instrument.

I’m tempted to say that the fact that I’m able to write about this music in purely technical terms – something I would never do with pieces I’ve written in the last twenty years or so — is indicative of a shift in cultural emphasis from the mid-80s to now.  But I think it’s safer to say that the shift is a personal one, whatever may have been happening culturally.  As a student, I thought of my music primarily in technical terms.  Later, the technical means took a back seat to other artistic interests.

Oh, and a disclaimer: no multiphonics or other extended techniques were harmed in the making of this composition.

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A funny recollection just came back to me, something I hadn’t thought about in years.

I was a grad student, in my early twenties, when Jacob Druckman was Composer in Residence with the New York Philharmonic.  I spoke with him briefly after a NY Phil concert, mentioning that Vincent Persichetti had told me to give him a copy of my orchestra piece.

His eyes widened.  “By all means, get it to me right away,” he said.  “I’m organizing some reading sessions, and Vincent’s recommendation is gold to me.”

Those words made me very happy, and dreamy, for a few days.  Then I came back to earth.  My orchestra piece had some very nice things, but there were also some serious problems with it.  I knew I had learned a lot from writing it, but I was capable of much better.  The next one might deserve time with the Philharmonic, but this one didn’t.

So I never sent him the piece.

I laugh when I think of this now, because I know I was thinking that other opportunities would come up.  As it happened, my next opportunity to write a piece for full orchestra came twelve years later.  I waited another seven years after that for the next opportunity.  And that’s been it up until now.

Meanwhile, my life has been filled with chamber orchestra and chamber music.

Do I have regrets?  Well, yes and no.  No doubt, if Druckman had organized a session for my piece, I would have learned gobs of stuff at a very early age about what a first-rate orchestra is capable of doing.  And, I suppose, I would have had a substantial career boost, as did the young composers whose pieces Druckman chose that year.

But I’ve always been in this biz for the long haul.  I suspected then that the compositional language I was developing, based in offsetting symmetrical and asymmetrical harmonies, was a dead end.  And indeed, it was – I was able to use it for another four or five years, but then found I had exhausted its possibilities.

As my life has played out thus far, I’ve been able to gradually clarify my goals and master the elements of my compositional language in order to say what I need to say, and continue developing as an artist.

It’s possible, if my career had been fast-tracked when I was in my mid-20s, I would have still been able to do these things.

But I’ve seen evidence to suggest otherwise.

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Got a contract the other day for a composer residency I’ll be doing next spring.  Along with the obligatory signatures and W-2 form, this one asked me to provide proof of liability insurance.

Liability insurance?

That’s for people whose work has the potential to put other people in danger, right?

I have nothing against believing that music has special powers, but how could my compositions put anyone at risk?

Of course, the side of me that panics in the face of insignificant threats is quickly imagining lawsuits over torn bow hairs, cracked reeds and split embouchures.  What happens if the conductor pokes someone in the eye with his baton?  Is that my bad?

The thought makes my fretful pects clench off the flow of oxygen to my brain.

Then the side of me that takes pride in meaningless accomplishments pats my back for having the courage to pursue such a treacherous profession.

Oxygen flows, and I’m free to consider other pointless concerns.

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One of my favorite champions is flying into town tomorrow.  Unfortunately,m_35df3b768115bacb2520cec092135a8a I don’t expect there to be any Dillon on her itinerary – just scads of Vivaldi.  But it will be a pleasure to see and hear her again.  Story here.

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In 1998, juiced about my newfound ability to create large, satisfying forms, I wrote a piano trio in four movements.  The piece had, I think, three performances.  After the third, I had to admit I had overstepped – the piece had lots of great material, but it was too long to remain coherent.

When I was in Chicago last month, Marta Aznavoorian, pianist for the Lincoln Trio, asked me if I had any piano trios.  I ruefully described the piece from 98, explaining that I loved the material, but it went on longer than it should have.

She laughed and said, “Cut the slow movement,” explaining that that’s what pianists are always supposed to say.

I took the comment in the light-hearted spirit it was offered.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that cutting the slow movement would solve everything that was wrong in the piece.

When I got back home, I cut the slow movement, tweaked a few passages in other movements, and voilà, Dirges and Dances, a very nicely balanced piano trio, emerged.

One of the great benefits of having this sabbatical is my ability to take a second look at some of my older works, despite the fact that I am simultaneously writing three new orchestra pieces and a work for contemporary ensemble.

(Okay, maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, but hey, I like giving my jaw the exercise.)

In any case, as anyone who has written a piano trio can tell you, it’s a problematic ensemble.  When all three instruments are playing, pretty much anything the violin does, outside of clichéd accompanimental patterns, becomes foreground.  How do you make sure the three instruments are equal participants?

In a way, it would be best to treat the piano trio the way it was originally intended: a piece for piano with violin and cello accompaniment.  Maybe I’ll take that up in my next sabbatical.

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Like many composers (but by no means all, or even a majority), I am essentially a rationalist.  I love putting musical elements together in patterns that tickle the brain with their layered recurrences, subtleties, clarity, elusiveness, forthrightness, etc.

I’ve learned over the years that my rationalist predilections are strong enough that I’m best off ignoring them.  When I focus on other thought processes – emotional, intuitive – my music ends up having a good deal more warmth, while not sacrificing any of the structural rigor that seems to come naturally from my rational side.  In other words, if I pretty much put the craft on autopilot while I focus on describing the view and passing out the fruit juice, we’ll all end up landing safely – and enjoy the ride that much more.

These thoughts come to mind as I wade through the thicket of finding the right notes and rhythms for my latest work.  I’m constantly reminding myself to write exactly what I want to hear, patterns and formulas be damned.

Which leads to another thought: conventional wisdom says that many composers in the mid 20th-century were overly focused on finding a Holy Grail for pitch organization at the expense of other artistic elements.

By the end of the century, I think these Crusaders had largely shifted their attention to rhythmic and metric patterns, without sacrificing the desire to tame the unpredictable through formula.

Some fine music has come from these excursions, and I’ve written some myself, but it’s not where I am now.  Now I just want to make sure I’m writing what I want to hear.  Seems to me if everyone did that we’d have a much clearer understanding of who we are, collectively speaking.

But, of course, if everyone did that, I’d probably want to do something else.

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Wonderful feeling when embarking on a new piece takes you deeper than you expected in a direction about which you had only a few vague notions.

I’m immersed in my Schumann Trilogy, and now the memoirs of Eugenie Schumann, his youngest daughter, have fallen into my hands.  Naturally, the detailed stories she tells of studying music with her mother and Brahms are interesting enough, but the tales that affect me the most are the ones that give insights into the life of a little girl in mid-nineteenth-century Europe.   Here is how she describes being dropped off for three years at a boarding school at the age of eleven — her first time away from her family — so her mother could go on tour:

Was it not natural that my tears should be flowing?  That on this first day they should be flowing from early morning till late at night?  In the evening I was standing in the garden alone, the tears still streaming from my eyes.  [The headmistress] came towards me and said, “Do you know the fifth commandment?  If so, let me hear it.”  Obediently I stammered through the few words.  “Do you know that you are breaking this commandment?  It is for your good that your mother has sent you here, and now you keep on crying.  Do you see how wicked that is?”  My tears ceased as if by magic, but at the same time the doors of my heart were locked against this unfeeling woman, and were never opened again in the course of nearly three years I spent under her roof.

Or this letter from the youngest son Felix, writing home from conservatory, where he was studying violin:

When I see how the artists here work from morning till night, that art is to them merely a means of making money, I feel quite sad at the thought, “What has become of your ideals?”  I feel how fortunate I am in going to my work fresh in mind and heart, and I will preserve this good fortune even at the cost of remaining a poor musician.”

Right now, I’m seriously considering a shift in emphasis in the second piece of my trilogy from the Schumann marriage to the fate of their seven children.  I may be close to cracking the shell that will bring this piece to life.

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