Archive for March, 2010

I’m often amazed by the diverse range of comments I get on this blog, but one that came yesterday deserves its own post:

“It is frequently difficult to find relevant and great reading issues in the net at the moment, and good thing is for sure that I was able to stagger on my way here in your website. To tell you candidly, not simply was I pleased and loosed by your composition, I was efficiently able to gain quiet a total of perceptivities from the study that you babbled about.”

Much obliged.

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We’ve been experiencing technical difficulties here at S21 for the past week as we shift to a new webhost, resulting in bizarre diacriticals and dropped RSS feeds.  Hang with us; it will all be scrubbed clean soon.

My interview with Noizepunk and Das Crooner is up; you can hear it here.  One hour and fifteen minutes with some funny guys who happen to write music.

And me.

Meanwhile, I’m making my Woodstock debut tonight, only 41 years late, which is pretty au courant in my case.  Esopus Musicalia is performing Devotion at Woodstock Artist Association and Museum – if you are in the vicinity, please let me know how it went.  I can’t be there, because I’m flying southwest today to catch up with a lot of familiar faces.

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Back home, happy with the recording sessions.  Now Judy Sherman will put together her favorite edits and send the results to me and to the quartet.  The five of us will each send back our complaints and wish-lists, then she’ll see how well she can accommodate everyone’s desires — one of her many strengths.  My initial guess is that this next stage in the process will take about five months.  Then we go to the following stage, and how long that will take is anyone’s guess.

I’m getting used to people asking me after a premiere where they can get a recording of the piece they just heard.  I used to find this question stupefying – we just played the piece for the first time and you want a recording already?  Do you have any idea what an enormous process that is?  Unless, of course, you take shortcuts, which I’m not inclined to take, since I’ve learned that the quality of your recordings has a huge impact on how your music is perceived, and that it is crucial for everyone involved to feel good about the results.

But I’m understanding the question better and better.  In the last few years, the speed at which things become available – objects, images, ideas – has increased dramatically.  Oddly enough, though, we aren’t as impressed with how quickly our wishes are fulfilled as we are surprised at how long it can still take to get most things.   As speedy as our technology has become, it still hasn’t outstripped what we imagine should be possible.  And not just what we imagine, what we increasingly insist on.

I’m probably as guilty of this as anyone.

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In NYC this week recording two more quartets with Daedalus – numbers 2 (2002) and 3 (2005).  Last night we rehearsed for a few hours; today we’ll make number 2 stick to the microphones.

When we finish this evening, I’ll head over to Gene Pritsker’s home for an interview with noizepunk & das crooner.  Looking forward mightily.

My compositional life is completely tied to the past right now with a little future and no present.  By which I mean that I’m thinking vaguely about possible future projects, haven’t actually written any music in about six weeks, and I’ve been working round the clock on recording, editing, writing and talking about older works.

It’s a strange place for me to find myself after years of being in the middle of composing one piece after another.

Speaking of finding yourself, if you happen find yourself in Durham, NC this Saturday night with a hundred dollars to plunk down, be sure to attend the gala concert of the Mallarmé Chamber Players and you’ll be able to catch a performance of Bacchus Chaconne by Eric Pritchard and Suzanne Rousso.

Or, if you are in LA Sunday afternoon, you can hear Danielle Belén play Façade with pianist Jennie Jung on her Colburn faculty recital — and it will cost you exactly $100 less.

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My eyes have always been an asset, in that I’ve always had atrocious eyesight, which enables me to avoid seeing impediments that might make me hesitate where hesitation is pointless.

When I travel, which I’m doing a lot this month, I have a long checklist of vision-enhancements to make sure I’ve packed.

  • Glasses – dorky, but effective.
  • Contacts – much better, but they make my eyes green and gummy after a few hours.
  • Reading glasses – for use with contacts for – you guessed it -  reading.
  • Clip-ons – for use with glasses, to screen from the sun.
  • Sunglasses – for use with contacts, to screen from the sun.
  • Contact lens solution – for clearing out the green gum.
  • Contact lens case – for storing the gumfree lenses.
  • Cleaning cloth – for wiping the glasses that somehow seem to get fifty fingerprints an hour on them.
  • Glasses case – for storing the glasses when I’m wearing the contacts.
  • Sunglasses case – for storing the sunglasses when I’m indoors.
  • Clip-ons case – for storing the clip-ons when I’m indoors.

Despite the checklist, I always seem to leave something at home.  As I sit here awaiting my next departure flight, I’m going through the list once more, wondering what I have forgotten to pack.

Wait –  I think I left out the socks!

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Significant time as an airborne organism last week enabled me to breeze through John Adams’s very enjoyable Hallelujah Junction, one of the few books I’ve read that completely eschews any explanation of its title (explanations can, of course, be inferred).

Fascinating to read about how the confluence of enormous talent, intelligence, perseverance, high aspirations, luck, great personal skills and an almost-insane disdain for impassable obstacles can produce such an extraordinary creative path.

Interesting also to note the number of instrumental compositions in Adams’s oeuvre that draw on his personal narrative – My Father Knew Charles Ives, Chamber Symphony, Dharma at Big Sur et al  — while so many of his vocal works draw on heritages very distant from his own.  If I were to have a conversation with him, and if I were a much more impertinent man than I am, I would want to ask him about that.  Not in a critical way, but out of genuine curiosity.  It’s possible that Adams has sought but never found a literary partner who transplanted a middle-class New England upbringing to California soil.  But all the signs point to the conclusion that he has never particularly wanted to find one.

My genuine curiosity is, of course, partly selfish, because I have a similar question for myself.  Surely it wouldn’t be that difficult for me to find a writer/collaborator whose background has significant overlap with my own.  But I’ve never felt the desire to seek one out.  Why is that?  Seems to me that Mr. Adams, who has thought through so many things so thoroughly, might have a helpful answer, coming from someone who has traveled down that road a few years ahead of me.

And again, I don’t see it as a criticism.  Adams has sought out writers from very different backgrounds from his own, and has enriched himself and us through the resulting collaborations.  But I also know that there is a difference in the way we express cultures we grow up in and cultures we study, regardless of how sincere and detailed our studies may be.  His instrumental 9780312428617works have been forged in the smithy of his soul; most of the vocal works have been chiseled with borrowed tools.

I’d like to ask him about that.  But maybe I’d be better off asking Bruce Craigmore or Marcel Proost.

Then there is Doctor Atomic.  The protagonist is a creative, brilliant, ambitious, middle-aged white guy.

Kind of like Doctor Adams, come to think of it.

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American composers have to be very careful about using influences from other cultures.

I can’t speak for composers from other countries, but it sure seems like American composers are very susceptible to outside influence.  That’s not a good thing or a bad thing, just an opportunity and a responsibility.

Writing music that is influenced by third-world cultures is particularly tricky.  If it’s not done with great artistry, intelligence and sensitivity, it can result in the worst kind of colonial appropriation.

Music that is steeped in European influence, as my string quartets are, runs the risk of seeming both superficial and arrogant.  Superficial when it dons respectable clothing to cover a lack of depth, arrogant when it presumes to improve on the work of established masters.

And American composers tend to have an inferiority complex when it comes to European culture.  We expect Europeans to look down on us.  To an extent, they do.  But because of our political and economic position, they also see us as blindly powerful in ways they can easily come to resent.  When we barge into world affairs with the attitude that we can do things better, we provoke an understandable protectionism in our hosts.

These thoughts and others had me prepared for a chilly reception to the premiere of my fifth quartet at the Kölner Philharmonie. Add to that the fact that the Cologne audience is more sophisticated and forward-looking than many of its neighbors when it comes to new music, Cologne having been stomping grounds for Stockhausen, Zimmermann, Kagel et al.

Imagine my surprise when, following the double bar, the audience demanded five curtain calls – they kept clapping and cheering until I came onstage for a solo bow.  Just goes to show you can’t assume anything about an audience.

If you want to hear my fifth quartet, you have three options next month:

April 10 – Winston-Salem NC
April 14 – Seattle WA
April 25 – Washington DC

There will be a few more performances TBA next fall.


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Had a few confusing conversations just outside the Museum Ludwig today.

After striding purposefully into the entrance, I found myself wandering aimlessly around the lobby for a few moments, then very suddenly I was back outside.

“What happened?” I asked whoever would listen.  Turns out I was the only one listening, so I answered myself, “I was afraid.”

“Afraid of what?”

“Afraid of confronting unfamiliar art and being unable to contextualize what I see.”

There are few things that annoy me more than fear of the unknown.  “Are you serious?”  I asked, exasperated.  “You’ve been confronting unfamiliar art all your life!”

“Yes,” I answered.  “And all that experience has taught me the wisdom of fear.”

“Fair enough.  Try again.”  And I went back into the ticket counter, only to find myself outside once more a few moments later.  Turns out they wouldn’t take my credit card, so I had to go find a geldautomat.

“Now I know what I was afraid of,” I told myself as I crossed the street to the railroad station.  “I was afraid of feeling like an idiot.”

“Are you serious?” I asked, exasperated.  “You’ve been feeling like an idiot your whole life!”

“Yes,” I answered.  “And all that experience has taught me the fear of wisdom.”

Fortunately, I was able to find some cash, make a third entrance, and spend the next few hours conversing with art, which is ever so much more satisfying than the loopy conversations I have with myself.

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Greetings from Germany, my host country for the next two-plus days.  I’m here in Cologne for the premiere of my fifth quartet, and this is as good a time as any for me to write about the piece.

But first I have to ask – what’s with those people who jostle to be first to board a plane that’s not taking off for another 40 minutes?  Isn’t eight hours enough time to get familiar with a seat you will never see again, a seat that certainly won’t respect you in the morning?

Okay, got that off my chest.  Back to the music.

There are a number of threads of inquiry in my music over the last thirty years.  Some of them I’ve been consciously aware of as the years plod on, some I’ve only realized in retrospect.  One path I’ve been both conscious of and surprised by is my engagement with the heritage of Western Classical music.  I’m sensitive to the fact that this isn’t a popular avenue for the composers to follow these days, but follow it I have, for reasons I find both compelling and perpetually puzzling.

The personal end of this journey is a natural outgrowth of my youth: from infancy I was surrounded by the sound of older siblings practicing the piano, playing an unpredictable stream of canonical works and appropriately cheesy, adolescent fare.

Looking out my window, I see the imperious Köln Dom, and I’m reminded that a younger me couldn’t have come this close to Bonn without visiting Beethoven’s birthplace.  At this point, though, I’ve seen enough birthplaces to realize that they are often less than illuminating.  Similarly, although my youth would tell you a lot about my music, I can’t say the hospital I was born in has left much of a mark.

On my music, that is.

So offer to take me to Bonn c. 1780 and I will jump, but visiting in 2010 doesn’t tempt me.

In any case, I’m working in the Western Classical tradition for more than nostalgia, or the comfort of the familiar.  More than any other music I know, I love the way the Western Classical tradition has tackled the problem of conflict and resolution.  Many composers prefer to avoid any whiff of this paradigm, and I admire some of their results, but for me, the resolution of conflict is one of the essential problems of existence.  I experience conflicts, large and small, internally, socially, politically on a daily, even moment-by-moment, basis.  It feels urgently necessary that my music take part in exploring the possibility of resolution.  Composing music that faces this conundrum head-on is my flask of five-hour energy.

Speaking of which, I hope I can find some, because airport security confiscated the four flasks I packed.  Not cool to fall asleep halfway through the premiere of one’s piece.

If I haven’t made it clear by now, I’ll say it outright: I’m writing the kind of music I write not because I think it is inherently superior to other kinds of music, but because it is the music I relate to – viscerally and intellectually – most closely.

Following this particular thread has led me to compose a cycle of six string quartets, each of which takes on a traditional form in extravagant fashion.  (Mind you, I’m not trying to capture the sound of the past, I’m using traditional principles of organization to understand the sounds of the present.)  Each one has covered the ground I set out to cover, and yet each one has revealed things to me I never could have anticipated.

The fifth quartet may be the most ambitious of the lot.  Its four movements are all variations on a single theme, the Welsh melody All Through the Night.  The first movement is a Theme and Variations, the second a Chaconne (variations on a harmonic progression), the third a Passacaglia (variations on a repeated figure) and the fourth a set of Fantasy Variations, or variations on an extramusical idea.

In addition to the variation principle, the more-than-thirty-minute piece traverses through the night, with an introduction and coda that evoke the shimmering, elusive quality of light just after sunset and before dawn, loose inversions of one another.

The first movement, Theme and Variations, is clearly laid out folowing Classical expectations, with one exception: the theme itself, in its initial presentation, is elongated, the sixteen-bar melody stretched out to almost three minutes of tranquil music.  As I told the musicians, the danger in this passage is to do too much with it, to overplay.  Instead, it needs to be beautiful the way a starry night is beautiful, not by calling attention to itself, but just by being vast, immediate, and yet impenetrable.  This, by the way, was the toughest passage to write.  I was questioning my sanity beginning an enormous piece with so little action.

But then, sanity is never the goal.

When the theme concludes, the fun begins.  There are twelve variations, one in each key following a pattern set up by the Twilight introduction.  Of the twelve, nine are playful, whimsical, at times turning the serenity of the theme into subject matter for slapstick.  The other variations – the fourth, the eleventh and the twelfth – connect the theme to the era of its roots.  The fourth is in a twisted French Overture style, the eleventh is a lament and the twelfth is a simple, four-voice canon in fifths.

I’m actually surprised at how well this movement has turned out.  I’ve always had a problem with theme-and-variation form.  It’s difficult to strike the right balance between a stop-and-start series of vignettes and an overly continuous form that renders the theme unrecognizable.

Answering that challenge, and creating a coherent tonal world that can encompass both a diatonic theme and distant chromatic wanderings was wonderfully absorbing.  I never tire of stretching my skills and imagination with these kinds of projects.

Here’s the layout of the first movement:

Theme (All Through the Night)
1-3. Playful
4. Majestic
5-7. Playful
8. Raucous
9-10. Playful
11. Strong – Fragile
12. Serene

The twilight passage uses a tonal scheme that combines octotonic trills with vague quartal sonorities.  The theme, as noted above, is in a spacious, attenuated C major.  It ends with broken-off half-cadence.  Variation 1 is as short as the theme is long: it lasts about 7 seconds, and it ends with a perfect-authentic cadence, like crashing into a brick wall at full-speed.

For the second variation, the cello, which has a raunchy version of the theme, is marked “bari sax.”  I suppose I could have come up with a more technically orthodox way to express the sound I was after, but David Finckel seems to understand exactly what I’m looking for.

And this is a good time to bring up a bit of info that helps explain a good deal of the character of this piece.  I’ve known David for 35 years, ever since I attended the summer music camp his parents ran in Vermont as a teenager.  Although this wasn’t part of my thinking when I embarked on the piece, I kept having images of Vermont woodlands come to mind while I was composing.  Also, I kept thinking of David’s father, Edwin Finckel, who was my first composition teacher.  He was a wonderful musician and I learned a lot from him.  He was also one of the funniest men I’ve ever known, with a droll delivery that made even the most casual comments seem hysterical – we campers loved to sit around and cackle at some of his best lines.  I think a lot of his character has influenced this piece, especially the first movement – again, 8 of the twelve variations are marked “Playful.”

Where the first variation runs into its cadence full speed, the second variation has a bar of rest, as though it forgot where it was going.  The third variation gives the theme to the violins and viola in triple- and quadruple-stops.  Instead of just stopping at the end, it has a 3-bar transition to the fourth variation, which ends with a true half-cadence followed by a two-bar, accelerating transition leading to the fifth variation.  The fifth variation then accelerates into the sixth variation, which has a perfect authentic cadence followed by a distinctly wrong note — #4.  The seventh variation obsesses on that wrong note, and ends with a rallentando transition into the eighth variation.  Variation eight ends with a mock-cadenza in the first violin over a cheesy VII-I cadence (that’s right, a major triad on the leading tone).

The ninth variation cadences with a chromatic twist.  Variation ten transitions into eleven, which is the only variation that’s not in a single key (more on that later).  Number eleven concludes with a deflected cadence and a transition to the final variation, which concludes somewhat abruptly in the relative minor.

Why have I listed all of these cadences?  To me, this was the key to finding the right balance between the grocery-list approach to variation form and a more satisfying formal flow – varying the conclusions of sections.  As I wrote a few feet up the screen, I’m interested in exploring the ways conflict can be resolved, or not resolved.  The conflicts I encounter in my life can sometimes find workable resolutions; other times I have to simply blunder through them, making the best of a bad situation.  Still other times I come up with a resolution that creates another conflict.  In fact, there are countless possible approaches to resolving conflict, and each can spawn a variety of outcomes.  Again, that’s a critical reason I’m engaged in this artistic pursuit – art feeds life and vice versa.

Tonally, I was dealing with a diatonic, major-key theme, which creates its own limitations.  Having an atonal (or actually polyatonal – see above) introduction enabled me to stretch the tonality of the theme over the course of the variations, so that only the theme itself and the final variation are diatonic.  As I wrote two paragraphs ago, the eleventh variation is not in a single key.  Instead, I went in the other direction from chromatic inflection: I built the entire variation using only major chords.  In a way, the eleventh variation celebrates the majorness of the theme at the expense of its tonal center – the first phrase begins on a D Major chord, winds its way through five other major triads before concluding on a C# major chord.

A side-note: in one way, this piece reflects a marriage of the two foremost aspects of my musicianship.  I’m Germanic on my mother’s side, and half-Welsh on my father’s side.  Taking a Welsh melody and subjecting it to central-European development feels like I’m reuniting two souls within my own.  And how is that American?  Well, for that I can point to art critic Peter Schejldahl’s observation that American art is a marriage of the vulgar and the sublime.

Es is genug.  Time to go explore this city.  More later.

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My new disk Appendage and Other Stories has arrived – see widget on the right column — reminding me that I had the lovely privilege of working with not-one-but-three superb violists: Sheila Browne, who teaches at NYU and UNCSA; Hsin-Yun Huang, who teaches at Juilliard and Mannes; and Richard O’Neill, who divides his time between UCLA and Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.  Seems only appropriate that violists should hold down multiple jobs.

The viola is much maligned, but in the hands of players like these, it’s a sublimely flexible instrument.  Sheila’s playing in Entrance emphasizes the viola’s ability to blend, to be a mellow member of a soothing, nearly homogenous ensemble.  Hsin-Yun’s performance of Still Point is a model of introspective lyricism.  And Richard, in Appendage, shows off the brash and aggressive side of the instrument.

Three rock-solid players in the middle of three different ensembles – and their partners aren’t so shabby, either.

Next up: I take off for Cologne today for the premiere of Through the Night with the Emerson String Quartet.  More on that later.

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