Archive for February, 2010

p to rescueWhat a great year you’ve had, kid.  Love the way you go straight to the unanswerables (“Mommy, where is nothing?”) and insist on them until you get a satisfying answer.

happy birthday, my little guy.


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Congrats to my student Leo Hurley, whose Mirror, Mirror Overture won the third annual Winston-Salem Symphony Young Composers Competition.  It will be premiered (3 performances) next week.  Leo is a very gifted, hard-working college junior with a bright future.

Coincidentally, next week our school orchestra is having recording sessions of student compositions, so Leo will get a fourth hearing of his piece with two orchestras all in one week – an edifying experience for any composer.  Altogether, our orchestra will spend two days recording works by four students — Leo, Tom Brennan, Lucas Hausrath and Jeremy Phillips.

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Three weeks ago, I noted that I was finishing up my ninth straight commission and wondered what the post-commission depression would feel like.  Funny, instead of depression, I’ve been feeling pretty elated so far.  I’ve actually taken three weeks off from composing – the most in twenty years – and I’m enjoying it immensely.  It’s nice to wrap my mind around other things that deserve my attention.

During the day, that is.  I’ve had a bunch of restless nights this month, with very vivid music that keeps my mind from shutting down into sleep.  Music for all manner of ensembles, from little solo pieces to immense orchestral works.  It’s the kind of experience that gives me moments of pleasure, but longer stretches of discomfort, as it becomes apparent that I am in for another whirl of tossing and turning in the dark.

I think my mind is grappling with the sudden immensity of options.  For twenty years, I’ve been going to bed at night knowing what kind of compositional work I’d be doing the following day.  Now it could be anything, or nothing.  As I try to drift off, more musical gestures float by – some very vague, some remarkably clear – than I could possibly get to the following day, month or year.

Oddly enough, when daytime comes, I feel pretty good about not working on anything.  We’ll see how long that lasts.

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brokeheartThe artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him — being knocked in the face, and thrown flat, and given cancer, and all kinds of other things short of senile dementia — I hope to be nearly crucified.

–  John Berryman

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One of the complaints that keeps cropping up about contemporary composers regards compositional range, ie, a composer having a catalogue of works that cover such diverse sound-worlds it is difficult to ascribe them all to a single voice.  Some credit this phenomenon to the immense range of music today’s composers have been exposed to; others say it’s simply a sign of second-rate artists who lack a defining, coherent vision.

Doubtless there is truth in both of these views, but I’d like to add a third possibility.

Children display varying degrees of physical similarity with their parents.  Sometimes it’s the shape of the chin, sometimes the tint of complexion, sometimes relative height and body mass.

Children also inherit characteristics of the mind: intelligence, creativity, even neuroses.  These latter inheritances may not be as obvious as physical traits on first encounter, but they are frequently more profound than surface details like hair or eye color.

In the same way, a composer’s works can carry a certain family resemblance, recognizable melodic licks or chord progressions that show up in just about every piece.

But compositions can also resemble one another in the way they think, as opposed to the way they sound.  In other words, a composer could follow the same process in creating two different compositions, and the results might not sound similar on the surface, but undercurrents could be nearly identical.  Depending on the nature of these undercurrents, it’s possible that this kind of genetic connection could be much stronger than, say, a predilection for bass clarinet runs, or a fascination with arpeggios.

It’s much more challenging for listeners to grasp similarities of mindset, as opposed to similarities of appearance.  Just as with children, physical appearances are much easier to identify; character traits take more time.

Another reason I’m glad I’m not a music critic.

And here’s a wave to my friends in San Antonio, where the Cassatt Quartet will perform  Blossom tomorrow.

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Spent six hours recording with Daedalus Quartet on Tuesday, then 2.5 hours rehearsing with Emerson Quartet on Wednesday.  Don’t know how I got to be so lucky.

The consensus at the recording session was that I’m not bipolar, because two poles aren’t enough to account for the stuff I write.  Stymied again in my quest to start with an accurate diagnosis.

Rehearsal in David Finckel’s Upper West Side apartment the next morning was a delight, despite the construction — or musique concrète, as Eugene Drucker put it — outside the window.  Two of the guys had just returned from their Grammy acceptance speech (1:57 of the way in), so they had another trophy to drop on a shelf that appeared to have about eight of them already.

I did a double chicken on the passage I had cut last Saturday, putting it back in.  Am I sure it was the right decision?  Of course I am.  I think.

Some pieces of mine have pretty stable tempos; some have wheelbarrows full of metronome markings.  My fifth quartet falls into the latter category.  Happy to discover that only three of the tempo markings were off, and only one was completely horrible.  My relationship with metronomes is very similar to my relationship with printers – can’t live without them, grateful they exist, and always on the brink of wishing them a speedy and eternal damnation.

In any case, the quartet was very gracious about focusing on aspects of the piece I could give feedback on, not that I would mind in the least listening to them work on the stuff I can’t help them with.  What a blast to hear a new work gradually take shape with such a fantastic group.


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Waking up in a midtown hotel and ordering room service because I can’t stumble out of a door in the morning without a hearty breakfast.  Today we record my fourth quartet.  Daedalus has performed the piece three times — Washington, Winston-Salem, Philadelphia – I’ve made a few editorial adjustments – including the elimination of 12 measures – and now we’re ready to sit in a studio all day and into the night if necessary to see if Judy Sherman can make this thing stick to an astonishingly long series of digits.

Speaking of cuts.  Tomorrow I’ll have my first rehearsal of my fifth quartet with Emerson.  Saturday I looked at the piece for the first time since September, and decided one passage in the last movement had to go.  I cut two minutes, wrote a five-bar transition, and emailed PDFs of the changes to the quartet.  Eugene Drucker emailed back asking if I was sure I wanted to make the cut because he had found the passage persuasive, which left me second-guessing myself.  Or I guess third-guessing, at this point.

So somehow between now and tomorrow morning — during today’s recording session? — I’m going to have to make an executive decision.  It would be much easier to not be neurotic, but oh well.  Better plan on ordering room service again tomorrow.

Here’s the issue.  The passage in question is fine as far as it goes, but it’s very different from the rest of the piece.  In the context of the 30-minute composition, that will make it a focal point of sorts for the listener.  That’s a good thing, in some cases, but in this case I’m afraid that perceiving this passage as a focal point will throw the rest of the piece out of kilter.  And yet, as Eugene has pointed out, the passage in question is pretty stimulating, so it’s a shame to let it go.

As a friend of mine used to say, these kinds of edits are like cutting off fingers.

Tomorrow afternoon, I fly back to NC for dress rehearsals of Genealogie, The Chamber Version.  The orchestral version won’t be premiered until next fall, so this is a bit of a sneak preview.  Ransom Wilson will conduct the nu ensemble, with actor Steven LaCosse, soprano Elizabeth Rose, mezzo Janine Hawley and tenor Glenn Siebert.

Genealogie weaves texts from Robert and Clara Schumann’s Marriage Diary with Eugenie Schumann’s Memoirs and a 1921 New York Times article by critic Richard Aldrich about the Schumann children.  The tone of the music reflects the character of the main protagonist, Robert and Clara’s youngest daughter Eugenie, with whom I was really taken.  Though a German woman living at the height of Expressionism, she tells the hard story of her family without a trace of self-pity.

The music for Genealogie has a lot of chug-chug minimalism, which I don’t think I’ve used before – or at least I don’t recall a piece of mine that has it – which helps distance the narrative from a woe-is-me tone.   Over the chug-chug, the melodic lines have a Schumannesque (Robert, that is) lyricism.  Metrically, I’ve created an odd mix, what I imagine Schumann might have done with the Cubist-influenced meters of the early 20th century (Eugenie’s Memoirs were composed around the same time as the Times article – 1920-24).

The entire piece – about sixteen minutes long — uses a single harmony – a minor-seventh chord, which is a sound I experience as the height of self-effacing mildness – in hundreds of permutations.

And here is my breakfast.  Later.

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