Archive for January, 2010

I’ve written a lot of music to my own texts, and a bunch of it is uranuscoming out on CD this week.  Some of the texts are very sweet; some of them are completely demented.   But my wildest imagination couldn’t have invented the sweetly demented title my four-year-old son came up with the other day.

He told me he wanted to write “Love Songs From Uranus.”

I don’t even want to think about how that would sound.

And speaking of unfathomables, for those of you who live in the Philadelphia area: the Daedalus Quartet will give the Philadelphia premiere of my String Quartet No. 4: The Infinite Sphere this Sunday in UPenn’s Irvine Auditorium.  The Infinite Sphere will serve as a prelude to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.   I understand there’s some Beethoven in the vicinity as well, and the price of admission is an unhefty $0.  Should be a juicy show.

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I’ve been in a pretty nice place for the last 2 years, writing nine straight major works on commission.  And now as I’m completing the last of them, I’m looking forward to a period of no deadlines.  But I know that a bit of depression is inevitable when I get to the finish line.

It’s great to get commissions – what’s not to like about having someone ask you for music, getting paid to compose, and having someone else organize the premiere?  No complaints here.

But it’s also nice to have a chance to collect thoughts and strike out on my own.  Hopefully the post-commission blues won’t take me down too long, before my inner motivations take over.

Hopefully also there will be other commissions in my future.  We’re in a period of low risk-taking, and commissioning new music is hardly a safe investment.  But there are still many individuals and foundations with the passion and vision to recognize the value of new art to our civilization.  I hope it’s not too quixotic to believe they will be able to regroup and recover the means and the spirit to jump back into the fray.

Obviously, many of them have more important priorities at the moment – which is as it should be.

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Working on piano/vocal scores for Cool Night and Genealogie these days, and I can honestly say there is no compositional task I find more frustrating. Can’t ever find a happy medium between leaving out my favorite parts and tangling the fingers in too many notes.   I could use a fairy godmother about now, someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Here is the way to do it.”  Or, better yet, “Here, let me do it for you.”

Unfortunately, I know that the latter offer, as nice as it would be to hear, would get me nowhere, because I could never be satisfied with the way someone else did the job.  I am cursed to keep trying to get it right, despite overwhelming evidence that I never will.

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My music has been the beneficiary of a lot of graciousness and good will this week, with the premiere of my fourth quartet. A number of intelligent and curious people have had some very insightful things to say about what I do.

One estimable critic wrote that my works “explore and re-validate traditional forms,” which makes sense, given what I’ve said about my music, but it’s not quite true.   The fact that his statement pretty accurately reflects what I’ve written in the past makes me realize I need to clarify the way I’ve articulated my goals.

The truth is, none of these old forms need validation: they are proven artistic commodities.  The reason I have been exploring them — and one could even say obsessively exploring them — is because I like one of the side effects that happens when a composer uses traditional forms.

Composing in Classical forms inevitably begs comparison with masterworks of the past.  These comparisons can be flattering or unflattering – I couldn’t really care less which.  Either way, the comparisons throw our work in stark relief in ways that I think are beneficial for our self-awareness.  And I’m talking cultural – not personal — self-awareness.  For instance, there are some ways in which these traditional forms fit current expressive goals quite comfortably, but there are other ways in which they break down under the weight of contemporary experience — they can’t support everything we need to say.  In that crevice – between comfort and inadequacy – we are shown exactly who we are, with no place to hide.

And I love that.

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Struggled big-time with the title for Part One of my Schumann Trilogy.  Started with Fantasiestücke, but it sounded too derivative.  Switched to Fantasy, but it sounded too bland.  Moved on to Fractured Fantasy, but that was too clumsy.  Back to Fantasiestücke, because I was beginning to get desperate.

Then, about two weeks ago, I hit on Figments and Fragments, which seemed about right.  The piece finds a connection between Schumann’s early groupings of character pieces and his final madness.  It’s not a literal connection, as in one-caused-the-other, of course.  It’s a poetic connection, as in poetic license.  As in, there is an attractive parallel between Schumann’s early love for these fragmentary structures and the final disintegration of his mind.

The seven sections of Figments and Fragments are continuous, as follows:

  • Emergence
  • Playful
  • Companions
  • Demonic March
  • Regret
  • Giddiness
  • Disintegration

Regret and Giddiness quote Schumann in a way that is instantly recognizable.  The other pieces have more of a conceptual connection to his work.

Over the course of Figments and Fragments, the cracks between the character pieces gradually grow in length and intensity, culminating in the last and longest piece, Disintegration.

The actual composing of Figments and Fragments took place late August through September, with some major reworking in December.  Funny, though the details changed drastically and frequently, the basic conception was pretty much there from the start.  That’s not always the case – sometimes it takes me a long time to find what a piece wants to do.

In this case, it just took a long time to figure out what it wanted to call itself.

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Flying into Philadelphia snow for a rehearsal with Daedalus Quartet and my mind is not on Task.  Task is my fourth quartet, as in studying the score and remembering exactly how I want everything to sound (I finished it 8 months ago, or five pieces ago – funny how these things fly out of my mind), as well as trying to imagine what questions the players might ask so I can give them brilliant-sounding answers.  Shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Instead of Task, my mind is on Cool Night.  Cool Night, as in Part Two of my Schumann Trilogy.  All three pieces in the trilogy are due at the end of this month, and I’m deep in the process of proofing parts.  In other words, after three years of work, I can finally smell the finish line.

As that enticing scent gets closer, two things happen: first, a tipping point in the number of details I’m trying to keep straight has been passed, causing my head to do a gradually accelerating, 360-degree rotation on my neck.  Believe me, it’s not an attractive sight.  If I take too much time away from working on the piece, that sickening spin means I’m likely to lose track of some of aforementioned details, making serious screwups likely.

Second, the smell of near-completion arouses an overwhelming emotional force in the pit of my stomach, which turns my hip joints into jelly and sends my eyelids aflutter, making it difficult for me to take heed of mundane things like traffic lights and burning bushes.

So if you happen see a zombie-like apparition stumbling through the streets of Philadelphia, eyes glazed, arms stretched out limply before him, growling, “must finish piece, must finish piece”  — well, that’d be me.

On the other hand, Task:

“an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

That’s the Pascal quote that graces the title page of my fourth quartet, subtitled The Infinite Sphere.  It’s a poetic paradox that suggested a composition of dizzily overlapping circles, with centers liberally sprinkled throughout.  The challenge was to combine chaotic beauty and coherent form – the coherence of a sphere, the chaos of infinity.

My solution: a large rondo form made up of small rondo forms alternating with rounds.  The two movements play out as follows:

String Quartet No. 4: The Infinite Sphere (2009)

I. ROUND: The Infinite Sphere
RONDO: Spinning Dizzy
ROUND: Nocturne
RONDO: Circular Fugue

II.  ROUND: Devotion
RONDO: Spinning Reckless
ROUND: The Infinite Sphere

That’s the formal conceit.  The musical materials make use of all kinds of circular gestures, and I could write about them ad nauseum, but what’s more interesting to me is the fact that The Infinite Sphere has to be one of my most joyous, exuberant works to date.  Some of its high spirits can be attributed to the form itself: traditional rondos don’t tend to deal in existential angst.  Part of it, though, comes from a challenge I set myself – writing a twenty-minute piece that has a positive emotional tone is not the easiest thing to do.  I hasten to add that we’re not talking yippee-yippee-yippee for twenty minutes – that would be obnoxious.  Two of the rounds have a dynamic range of pp to mp, focusing on a very quiet, transcending joy.

And now it’s time to stow this device so my intrepid pilot can bring us safely into the fluffy flakes.

***********************

Eight hours later, and I’m on the plane back home.  We’ve been assured that it is now safe to operate portable electronic devices.  I’m glad they make the distinction, although I’m also glad I didn’t see anyone getting on the plane with an electronic device that wasn’t portable.

Rehearsal was great.  Judy Sherman once compared working with the Daedalus Quartet to driving a Rolls Royce, and the comparison is apt.  The ride couldn’t have been smoother.  The handling was a dream – anything I asked for I got instantly, and better than I imagined.

Now is when I get to say that if you have any desire to hear The Infinite Sphere, you are in luck: there are four performances scheduled so far.

  • January 15:  Wolf Trap, Washington
  • January 16: UNC School of the Arts, Winston-Salem
  • January 31: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
  • May 16: Howland Chamber Series, New York

Or you could just wait for the recording to come out on Bridge, which will happen as soon as we jump through about a kazillion more hoops than you would imagine possible.

And now I’m going to stow this blog to open up a folder on my laptop that is exuding a seductive stench with my name on it.

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Any composer’s work can be appreciated both for its connections to historical antecedents and for the way it reflects a distinct artistic voice.   Some music leans more heavily to the former, some to the latter.

In talking about my music, I tend to focus on connections to my forebears.  I could just as easily emphasize things that are specific to our time, but I don’t for a number of reasons, not all of which are particularly rational or practical.

For one thing, I tend to assume that the contemporary elements in my music are so obvious they don’t need a highlighter.  The truth is, although they are obvious to me, I know that they aren’t necessarily obvious to listeners.  In that sense, I do my listeners a disservice by portraying my work in a way that doesn’t necessarily reflect the way it is heard.

No desire to do my listeners a disservice, but I seldom feel comfortable portraying myself as an innovator.  I just think too much attention is paid to innovation at the expense of other artistic values.  The Who Did It First approach to listening, to me, is an easy way to look at art.  It’s a statistical, as opposed to an esthetic, perspective. I suppose if I were a music critic, charged with ingesting and describing gobs of music, I would be more interested in Who Did It First because, after all, it is a handy shortcut for making distinctions.

I don’t envy critics their jobs – I’ve toyed with music criticism a few times and I’m terrible at it.  So if innovation is their currency of choice, I have no qualms with that.  You gotta do what you gotta do.

And I gotta stay mum about innovations, because I just don’t find them as interesting as other facets of my work.

All of this comes to mind because I’ve got a couple of interviews coming up today and tomorrow.  We’ll see how they turn out.  Won’t know until I open my mouth.

Hopefully they will get the answers they are looking for.

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Today is the fifth anniversary of an infinite number of curves.  Grab a piece of fruit to chomp on; I’m taking a look back at the last 12 months.

JANUARY

Is winter The Best Season? One killer quartet, why not three?

FEBRUARY

From Blossom to Houston and LA visiting Shepherd and ColburnShe got my blessing.  Sure, there’s Jane Fonda, but the real attraction was at Mannes. Meanwhile, the Lincoln Trio was taking no prisoners in the state of Illinois, hitting every conceivable venue across the state in pursuit of their Better Angels.  Can you hear it, Mr. Prez?

MARCH

Musing on the great city.  Beyond musing, when it comes to The Infinite Sphere.

APRIL

Time to brag in triplicate about the accomplishments of others, work hours Through the Night, dig my way out of a fine editorial mess, and wonder about my inability to stop talking through the music.

MAY

Finding a cure for shingles, nailing down a flailing Appendage, and remembering the forgotten.

JUNE

Sessions, sessions, sessions, a marathon, a perle, and what the hell is a crwth?

JULY

An auspicious, or suspicious, 350th anniversary, a Voice remembered, hirsute, how to make a Cool Night, the biz.

AUGUST

Things are either better or worse than they seem, and how long is it from Cool Night to Twilights?

SEPTEMBER

How to describe the love of a good manRavinia calls; I sit and watch.  Not going there.

OCTOBER

The youngest daughter unlocks the door, an old friend resurfaces — oops, there’s another one –  and talk about pointless fears.

NOVEMBER

It’s in the genes, say arf, messing with my image, and WORD.

DECEMBER

After the nightmare, I’m back!  Wait, not yet.

And now, having failed to remove “phone tag” from the contemporary lexicon, I’m ready to ring in the new.

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