Archive for November, 2009

Here’s a mouthful of text to set to music:

“No one on whom the sun of her eyes has shone, who has been wrapped in the warmth of her heart, has lived a life in shadow, but feels deep gratitude towards Providence which revealed itself in divine mother love, thereby implanting in us a belief in love immortal and eternal.”

That’s the final sentence of Eugenie Schumann’s Memoirs, and the source of the concluding passage in my Genealogie.  When setting it to music, my first step was to make a few slight adjustments in order to clean up the rhythm:

“No one on whom the sun of her eyes has shone, who’s been wrapped in the warmth of her heart, has lived a life in shadow, but feels deep gratitude to Providence which revealed itself in divine mother love, thereby planting in us a belief in love eternal, immortal.”

What I’ve done was both very simple and absolutely essential: I’ve pared a very long sentence down to phrases that pace more effectively to my ear.  To get there, a few small steps:

  • “Who has” changed to “who’s” – 2 syllables condensed into 1.
  • “towards” changed to “to” – again, 2 syllables to 1.
  • “implanting” changed to “planting” – this time, 3 syllables condensed to 2.
  • Deleted the word “a” – not necessary, one less syllable.
  • “immortal and eternal” changed to “eternal, immortal” – two things happening here: “and” is replace by a comma, which deletes a syllable, and the order is switched.  For reasons I can’t quite explain, I don’t feel comfortable ending a piece with the word “eternal.”   I suppose it feels a bit hackneyed.  “Immortal” is every bit as extravagant but somehow doesn’t seem quite so overdone.

Having made these adjustments (which, by the way, have no impact on the meaning of the sentence – I’m not averse to changing meaning when necessary, but it wasn’t necessary in this case) my next step is to create musical segments that convey the meanings in graspable packages.  Prose morphs into poetry, each of the line breaks indicated by a breath of a few beats in the musical line (and here’s an apology for the way WordPress skips lines in verse – takes up far too much space on the screen, but nothing can be done about it, as far as I can tell):

No one on whom the sun of her eyes has shone,

Who’s been wrapped in the warmth of her heart,

Has lived a live in shadow,

But feels deep gratitude

To Providence

Which revealed itself

In divine mother love,

Thereby planting in us


In love eternal,


Next, the harmonic rhythm places another level of emphasis on certain moments in the text.  Here I’ve marked in [TS] for each tonal shift:

No one on whom the sun of her eyes has shone,

Who’s been wrapped [TS] in the warmth of her heart,

[TS] Has lived a live in shadow,

But [TS] feels [TS] deep [TS] gratitude [TS]

To [TS] Providence [TS]

Which re- [TS]vealed itself

[TS] In divine mother [TS] love,

[TS] Thereby [TS] planting in us

[TS] Belief

In love e- [TS]ternal,


Notice only one shift in the final phrase “Belief in love eternal, immortal.”  Four out of those five words are among the most lavish in the English lexicon: no need to gild the lily.  There’s a fine line between expressing fine sentiment and wallowing.  Notice also the shift on every word in “feels deep gratitude to Providence.”  Why?  That line feels like it would be difficult to follow if sung too quickly, so I’ve spread it out over several measures, giving each word time (and a separate harmonic world) to register.

I’ve laid out these steps as if I were following an instruction manual, but in practice all of this happens in a very unstudied manner.  I set the lines in a way that appeals to me; in retrospect I can pick out the discrete steps.  The moment-to-moment process is intuitive, and who is to say how much of it comes from experience, study, or natural inclination?   I’ve long ago given up on the idea that I might be able to accurately gauge the relative weight of the many inputs leading to creative output.  All I can do is report something about the results of various stages, and hope there is some value in that exercise.  Of course, I haven’t even touched on shifts in scoring, texture, counterpoint, etc.  How inadequate language is to the task of conveying musical composition!  And yet, I keep trying to capture something, while the steps are fresh in my mind.

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A recording of my vocal works is coming out on the ALBANY label in a couple of months.  Last summer, when the details were being negotiated, ALBANY asked me for an image for the cover.  I was in the middle of about umpteen thousand different projects, so I sent them the first picture I came across.  It happened to be the photo you can find to the left of this column: me sitting in front of a computer screen filled with music.

ALBANY’s designers made a perfectly lovely cover out of this image:

albany cover take one

But when they sent me the proof, I realized I had made a mistake.

Appendage and Other Stories is a disk of real-life stories and far-ranging fantasies, performed by outstanding actors, singers, and instrumentalists.  But you’d never guess that from this photo.  It looks like I’m a guy who sits in front of his computer, dreams up complicated pitch/sound patterns and realizes them as pristine MIDI confections.   Nothing wrong with being that guy, but that’s not where this disk is coming from.

So I put the brakes on the release and got together with a photographer friend.  We came up with this:

crumpled manuscript

A crumpled sheet of manuscript on the strings of a piano is much more in keeping with the spirit of the works inside.  Much as I’d like to just sit in my room and twiddle notes together, I understand that a lot of nonmusical things affect the way we experience music.

Now we’ll see what the ALBANY designers do with this photo.

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Just to put two more cents into a health care system that already costs more than anyone can afford – a former member of a well-regarded orchestra from the northeast recently described to me the backstage conversations about what to do in case of a serious illness.  New orchestra members who had pitiful salaries and no health insurance were advised to get into car wrecks, because then their illnesses would be covered – by their automobile policies.

If it ain’t fixed, break it.

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I’ve just had the lovely news that a song cycle I wrote back in 1998 is getting a belated premiere at the New England Conservatory in March.  Tenor Christopher Smith, an intrepid soul if there ever was one, will give the first performance of my Dog Songs, an affectionate parody of Romantic song cycles.

(You may think I am using the adjective “intrepid” facetiously, until I tell you that Christopher has started his own opera company this season.  If that’s not fearless, I don’t know what is.)

Some people are cat people; some people are dog people.  In keeping with a general preference for inclusiveness, I’m a bit of both.  This piece was a chance to use my intimate acquaintance over many years with a number of four-legged friends to poke some good-natured fun at a hoary tradition.  A dog takes us through his day – waking up, going to the vet, musing on the nature of life, and finding romance in the great outdoors.  Typical of the cycle’s blend of parody, profundity and profanity is this text from the third song:


When you rub my back,

I forget where we are.

When you rub my head,

I forget what I do.

When you rub my throat,

I forget who I am,

if I am anything.

Oh, then you stop,

and I come back,

and I remember.

And then I wonder

where I’ve been,

And then I wonder

why I’m here,

And then I wonder

who I am,

if I am anything.

And I look up and wonder

Who are you?

And where did you come from?

And what do you want from me?

And how did I get here?

Was I made in your image?

Did you find me in the road?

Did you buy me from a breeder?

Will you bury me one day

and buy another?

When I think about these things I feel so small.

But then you reach down and rub my neck again,

and I forget.

Not all of the cycle is thusly text-laden.  In the first song, “Morning,” the tenor takes four minutes to sing a single sentence:

Oh, it’s so hard to get out of bed.

As the saying goes, write what you know.

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Concert etiquette demands that we sit still during a performance.  Our presence, as listeners, should never intrude on anyone else’s experience of the music.  Banish the bums who shift about in their seats, who bob their heads back and forth, who swing their legs incessantly.

In my younger days, I prided myself on the meditative focus I could summon for every concert experience.  I would sit in a relaxed state of contemplation, nary a muscle trembling, all ear and mind.

And I was happy.

A few years ago, though, I discovered something so elementary it should never have come as a surprise: I discovered that moving in tempo with the music made me listen even more closely.

What kind of movement?  Anything will do – a fingertip, a toe, a tongue tapping against the teeth.  It can be completely indiscernible to anyone else: a little private, rhythmic interaction with the performers.  When I get some muscular action involved, my whole being connects with the musical experience in a way that can’t be surpassed.

Unfortunately, I’ve also learned that nothing works better than a slight bob of the head.  I rarely indulge myself in these miniscule cranial wags, but when I do, I find I’m so tightly focused on the music that I don’t miss a thing.

It’s possible that some of my fellow audience members find it annoying when my head starts swinging on its tiny pendulum.

But boy, am I happy.

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Well, that took me by surprise.

A month ago, I blogged about the possibility of a major shift in emphasis in my Schumann Trilogy. And now I’m on the other end.

When I first accepted this commission (notice I use the passive “accepted,” as though it hadn’t all been my idea in the first place, as though I hadn’t lifted a finger to make this happen, as though I just sit in an armchair waiting for my phone to sing) to compose a piece for Robert Schumann’s bicentennial almost three years ago, I figured it would be easier to write three pieces than one, which I still think is true as a general rule.  A friend mentioned the Marriage Diary, a journal Robert and Clara kept for their first four years together.  Having read quotes from the diary, I put that down as one of the three pieces I would write, figuring I could either adapt some passages from the diary or make something up that would be even better.

I didn’t get around to actually reading the Schumann Marriage Diary until about a year ago.  Fascinating stuff, but painfully uninteresting from a compositional point of view.  The piece would have needed a ridiculous number of footnotes to be coherent.  And the only ideas I came up with for a fictionalized diary fell too comfortably into cliché.  But I figured I would eventually come up with something workable, so I turned my attention to more pressing pieces.

Fall 2009 (deadline: January 2010) rolled around and I still didn’t have a lead on where to take this piece.  I wasn’t quite in a panic yet, but I was well beyond my comfort zone.  Searching for something I could hang a composition on, I ordered a copy of Eugenie Schumann’s Memoirs, written in the early 1920s.  Eugenie was the Schumanns’ seventh child.

Some people like stories with hefty plot lines; some prefer stories with what I call the “gee whiz” factor – magic, or technology, or exoticism — something out of the ordinary.  I tend to like character stories – stories that take me inside of someone else’s head.

Eugenie’s book gave me a powerful sense of her character – clear-sighted, yet challenged by self-doubt – and I found it and her very appealing.

Then I found a 1921 NY Times article about the Schumann children, written by Times critic Richard Aldrich.  The article was both touching and condescending.  It begins:

Two unmarried daughters of Robert and Clara Schumann, Marie and Eugenie, now old ladies, are living in Switzerland in poverty, due in large measure to the results of the war.  Friends in England have discovered their plight and wish to help them and hope that American friends will join in doing so.  It will need only a comparatively few five-dollar bills to put these aged daughters of two great artists beyond want for the short remainder of their lives.

And there I had my piece, the third part of the trilogy.  I wove together spoken excerpts from this article with sung excerpts from the Marriage Diary and passages from Eugenie’s Memoirs.  The result was Genealogie – a rather weak play on Eugenie’s name, I suppose, but a good title for this piece.

From the Marriage Diary, I took an exchange that I found appealingly clumsy in its youthful profession of devotion:

ROBERT: Ich bin es wahrhaftig Dein Dich herzlich liebender Mann Robert, und Du?

[I am truly your sincerely loving husband Robert, and you?]

CLARA: Auch ich, Dein Dir von ganzer Seele ergebenes Weib Clara.

[I, too, your wife, Clara, who is devoted to you with her entire soul.]

This exchange recurs at several points throughout Genealogie, gradually splintering into ever less coherent shards.  Meanwhile, the Times article relates the mostly sad fates of the Schumann children, while Eugenie describes each one in loving detail.  The final third of the piece is an aria adapted from Eugenie’s epilogue, which (in Marie Busch’s translation and my condensation) starts like this:

I will reckon up the sum of my experiences and balance light and shade as they fell on my path.  Many were the hopeful auguries at our birth, yet life for us children has not been easy.  In saying this I don’t refer to the hard decrees of fate.  I am thinking of us as children of parents of genius.  Our lives, bound up with theirs, involved certain suppositions from the outset.  Although none of us daughters had eminent musical gifts, it was taken for granted that we would choose music as a profession.  So far as I was concerned my own musical achievements have satisfied me so little that they have been a lifelong martyrdom.

Pursuing music as a “lifelong martyrdom” seems like a case of tragic regret — but then she flips it around:

Yet, on the other hand, the constant occupation with music has enriched and deepened my life as nothing else could have done.  Only my attempts enabled me to enter into the nature of my parents’ art and to make it my own. I was content to love and admire; and truly, it was the great privilege of my life that I could give love and admiration to those who were nearest to me.

Then after admonishing the world for misunderstanding her, and thanking the world for treating her so well regardless, she concludes with this ode to motherhood:

I could say that light and shade had been equally distributed on the path of our lives, if not for one great light that with its brightness gilded even the clouds.  This was the light shed by my mother’s personality. No one on whom the sun of her eyes has shone, who has been wrapped in the warmth of her heart, has lived a life in shadow, but feels deep gratitude to Providence which revealed itself in divine mother love, thereby planting in us belief in love eternal and immortal.

Thus a rich, thoughtful human being, a far cry from the helpless old lady referenced at the outset in the newspaper article, emerges over the course of the piece.  Eugenie, incidentally, lived just about her entire adult life with her lover, the soprano Marie Fillunger, whom she referred to as “my better half.”  They are buried next to one another in Gsteig.

The music for Genealogie was clear to me from the outset.  Or rather, I should say I knew exactly how I wanted the piece to sound, but I was mystified as to why it should sound that way.  I only realized when it was almost done that I was bringing together musical worlds reflected in the texts: combining a 19th century lyricism with a 1920s approach to harmony and meter, unified by an early 21st – century sensibility regarding overall expression, form and scoring.  If I had consciously tried to put all those things together, it would have turned into a hopeless mishmash, but, again, this was the sound I heard for the piece from the outset – I was only able to identify its components in retrospect.  And that’s why the Luc Tuyman’s quote I posted last week – “It’s like I don’t know what I’m doing but I know how to do it, and it’s very strange.” – had such relevance for me.

Genealogie also ended up passing what I considered an important test – how to make a meaningful artistic experience for the listener who knows nothing about Robert Schumann, or, perhaps more importantly, didn’t care to know anything about Schumann.  Coping with parental standards and expectations is a common, not to say universal, experience, and the Schumann children had the unusual challenge, especially for their time, of having a father and mother who were both at the top of their field, a field their children, or at least their daughters, were obliged to follow.

Eugenie’s gift for expressing these challenges allows us to peer into her thoughts and make our own connections.  I’m so glad I got this chance to get to know her.


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I crave solitude.  I’m generally a pleasant person, but if I don’t get my time alone I can be a tad testy.  I was reminded of this last week, when, due to a variety of circumstances, I went three days without any time to myself.  By the third day, I felt like a cat trying to swim the ocean – I was dazed and mortified, and anyone who had the misfortune of being in my vicinity was likely to get a hiss, a spit and a swipe of the claws.

Fortunately, the way my life is structured, those times at sea don’t happen more often than I can manage.  Most days I can get at least a few hours to mull in my own cider.

Right up there with solitude is silence.  Silence, of course, is not an absolute, it’s just the absence of sounds that engage my attention.  Have to have it.  Can’t really get too much of it.  When I go too long without silence, the Jekyll on my back turns to Hyde.

Obviously, I need solitude and silence for my work, but it’s also something deeper.  This is more about keeping my sanity, which happens to be, to my everlasting good fortune, directly connected to success in my work.  If I weren’t composing, I’d probably be a very unhappy monk.

So I sit here in silence and solitude, and I wonder, can people really have use for such a thing as background music?  For me, music is never background.  If it’s on, I have to listen, or at least it has to take precedence over any independent train of thought.




Silence, please.

Then there are those lovely people who somehow manage to have a television running 24/7 in every room.  In my house, that would be a quick ticket to Bedlam.

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