Archive for April, 2010

We’ve got our annual Big Bash coming up this weekend – a concert of new scores summarizing the year’s work for our student composers.   From solo piano to chamber opera, with electronics, string quartets and jazz songs in between, we’ve got a lot of bases covered.  Here’s the big list:

Horizons (2009) – Jesse Blair (b. 1981)

Benjamin Garner, piano

Splinters (2010) for trombone quartet and electronics – Lucas Hausrath (b. 1987)

Adam Dippre, Tim Boyer (bass), Cameron MacManus, Ron Nash, trombones

2010 – No. 1 (2010) – Michael Ahrens (b. 1972)

Tina Culver, violin; Elizabeth Lyle, violin; Sean Mulligan, viola; Moriah Lee, cello

String Quartet (2009) – Tom Brennan (b. 1982)

Terris Roberts, violin; Kevin Murphy, violin; Elizabeth Moore, viola; Yebon Go, cello

Sehnsucht (2009) – Leo Hurley (b. 1990)

Tina Culver, violin; Elizabeth Lyle, violin; Sean Mulligan, viola; Moriah Lee, cello; Christina Brooke, cello


Scene from Othello (2010) – Ryan Dodge (b. 1993)

Othello – Nathan Milholin; Desdemona – Alison Chickering; Bryan Garcia-Rolon, flute; Kelsey Maiorano, oboe; Kania Mills, clarinet; Juliana Mesa, contrabassoon; Jonathan Carroll, horn; Brian Garland, trumpet; Adam Dippre, trombone; Benjamin Garner, piano; Alicia Willard, percussion; Alan Pierce, violin; William Estes, violin; Laura Anderson, viola; Natalie Parker, cello; John McKeever, double bass; Konstantin Dobroykov, conductor

To Myself (2010) – Jeremy Phillips (b. 1990)

John Patrick Arwood-Slate, baritone; Charles Shafer, violin; Kyung Yoo, violin; Elias Latto, viola; Oliver Weston, cello; Hsin-I Huang, piano

January Still (2010) – Ted Oliver (b. 1989)

Charles Shafer, violin; Kyung Yoo, violin; Elias Latto, viola; Oliver Weston, cello; Hsin-I Huang, piano

Periwinkle (2010) – Alicia Willard (b. 1988)

Stephanie McAllister, mezzo; Benjamin Garner, piano

A lot of dedicated performers have their work cut out for them as we funnel down the final few days of preparation.  I’m helping out where I can, mostly with pom-poms, a bullhorn and loads of appreciation.

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One more performance of my fifth quartet this spring: this Sunday, April 25th, at 6 pm the Emerson Quartet will play in Baird Auditorium of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.  There’s also a slow piece by Samuel Barber and some quartet by a guy named Ludwig.  I’m a big fan of both of them, but it’s pretty safe to assume that neither of them thinks much of me.

Though I’ve already said much about this piece, I’ll take this last opportunity to say a bit more, and then I’ll move onto other topics, at least until next fall.

The last movement of this variation-obsessed quartet is a Fantasy Variations.  What is the definition of Fantasy Variations?  There really isn’t one, as far as I’m concerned.  Fantasy Variations, in my book – or better yet, on my blog – means whatever the composer wants it to mean.

In contrast to the segmented approach of the first movement’s Theme and Variations, the second movement’s slinky Chaconne and the third movement’s ABA Passacaglia, this last movement is through-composed, more continuous and, well, more fantastical.  The All Through the Night melody is present throughout, but only barely.  More prominent is a somewhat grisly version of the Brahms lullaby, which begins the movement and resurfaces in various guises over the course of the next ten minutes.  The real organizational principle, though, is not a musical object – such as a melodic theme – but more of an emotional/intuitive/narrative concept.  I took the last line of the song – “I my loving vigil keeping all through the night” – and fashioned variations on the notion of a parent sitting beside a crib in the dark, slipping in and out of the madness to which we are all prone when close to exhaustion, deprived of visual stimuli, and fearing the worst for our loved ones.

So the Fantasy Variations have poetic (as opposed to technical) titles like Shadows, Zephyrs, Absence, Howling, etc.  There is a strong narrative line, but we’re not in the world of 19th-century narrative – the kind that starts with “I am born” and continues through a chronological series of adventures – this is rather a narrative that jump-cuts back and forth between past and present, carving a clear emotional arc while progressing in a seemingly illogical sequence.

In other words, the last movement takes us through the night, but without any comforting – or maddening, as the case may be – references to clock time.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how frequently reviews of the piece have referred to its complexity, because I don’t think the complexity that listeners are experiencing is a matter of surface detail, although I suppose there is plenty of surface detail to go around.  Rather, there is a complex artistic progression from the four-square first movement to the loosey-goosey last – a progression that can’t really be described in words.  I suppose one could objectify it as innocence-to-maturity, as long as one understands that innocence and sophistication are not mutually exclusive.  In other words, sophistication can be adopted as a mask for innocence – as it certainly is in the first movement.

But here I just said this couldn’t be put into words, and yet I’m fumbling foolishly for a way to do just that.  Sometimes a fella just can’t help himself.

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I’ve been engaged in a fascinating dialogue with a listener who heard my fifth quartet played in Seattle last week. Our email correspondence was made all the more intriguing by the fact that he “disliked the piece immensely.”

Negative criticism is just as valuable as positive if you are in a frame of mind that can turn it to good use.  My listener’s reaction was initially based on the perception that “weak material” – ie the All Through the Night tune – couldn’t support the narrative weight I put on it.

I countered his point by citing some of the many great variations from the literature that are based on nondescript material, asserting that the purpose of the form is to make much from little.  My critic acknowledged my point, but maintained that the trochaic nature of this particular melody was too limiting.  At that point, it became clear that he was bothered more by my decision to write a set of variations than by the melody I chose to vary.  In his words, “Why not just write some good quartets that might incidentally employ formal means such as these, but without making of them a centerpiece?”

I’ve written frequently in this space about my interest in traditional forms, so there is no need to go off on that topic yet again.  It’s a concern of mine that no listener is required to share, and I’m pretty sure the music can be enjoyed without giving a hoot about the form.  Instead, I’m happy to tip my cap to a listener with strong predilections, and accept his reactions as a sign of respect for my work.  After all, if my music had made no impact, he could have just dismissed me without remark.

Our discussion, though, allowed me to put some of my thoughts about the theme into writing, so I’ll take advantage of the opportunity to share them here:

It took me eight years, once I had decided to write a quartet of variations, to decide on an appropriate theme.  I had three criteria: 1] the theme should be a famous one, 2] it should be very simple, and 3] it should have some personal resonance.

I wanted a famous theme because its familiarity would allow the audience to hear exactly what I was doing.  In the first movement, I wanted to create a set of variations that would be crystal clear, as opposed to variations that disguise the theme within inscrutable textures (that was the job of the inner two movements, and most of the fourth).  Also, a famous melody allowed me to drop it completely out of sight, as it were, for close to 20 minutes before it emerges, in fragments, at the end of the fourth movement.

I’ve alluded above to the reasons I wanted a simple theme [simple themes tend to have more potential for growth -- in this way, music is very much unlike economics: the less you have, the more you can do].  All Through the Night couldn’t be simpler: it has an AABA form, and the last three notes of the A are the retrograde of the first three.  In fact, those three notes are the thread that weaves through the fabric of the entire composition, so the organizing material is even simpler than the All Through the Night melody in its entirety.  Having such a repetitive theme afforded me another luxury in the first movement: since the A phrase is heard three times in this melody, I was able to do 36 different things with it over the course of twelve variations.

Finally, I wanted a theme that had personal resonance because I needed a reason why my variations wouldn’t have been written by any other composer.  The All Through the Night melody, familiar to me from childhood, gave me an opportunity to explore some of my deepest existential fears in the fourth movement.  The details of those explorations are of no interest to anyone but me, but the grappling involved is something we all share, and something music has a remarkable ability to illuminate.

There’s a nice review of the Seattle performance here.  And this discussion provides an appropriate time to mention that I spent three summers in my mid-teens at a music camp called Point Counterpoint.  Nestled in a serene Vermont forest, PCP hugged a beach on Lake Dunmore, provided intense musical activity from daybreak to nightfall, and stimulated my imagination in ways I’m still trying to grasp.

Back in those days, the camp was owned and operated by the Finckel family.  Now it soldiers on under other management, but it appears to be having the same impact on young folk now that it had back then.

The composition of this fifth quartet seemed to conjure up ghosts from those three adolescent summers, a time when I discovered romance with a small r, avant-garde music with a capital X (for Xenakis), and a lifelong passion for weaving disparate elements into sturdy little webs of sound.

So here’s to Edwin and Helen Finckel, and all their compliments and admonishments – I’m still hearing them, much to my astonishment, from both fans and detractors.

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In 1903, the US Army gave Samuel Pierpont Langley an enormous sum of money to build a steam-powered aerodrome. Huge crowds of onlookers and reporters gathered at the launching site: a tall scaffold mounted on a houseboat. The engine gradually built up tremendous power, creating an increasingly deafening sound — before the aerodrome dropped off its perch and fell straight down into the Potomac River.

I’m reminded of this story because I just received the first edits from my recording sessions with the Daedalus String Quartet.  The fourth movement of my second quartet, from 2002, is called “Langley,” in honor of this auspicious event.  Like the other five movements in this quartet, it is a fugue.  I’ve attached the sound file here, in case you are wondering how this composer would go about making a fugue sound like a colossal screwup.

And if you are wondering why a composer in the early 21st century is writing fugues, well, you’ve come to the right place because I’m going to tell you.

There’s a lot of music out there of all stripes that I find appealing and I’m very glad it exists.  Just because I like/love/admire/respect a certain type of music, though, doesn’t mean I should try to emulate it.  My music reflects my deeply held beliefs and desires.  As long as I’m a living composer and I’m writing the music I want to hear, I’m fulfilling my obligation as an artist, which is to share a vision that balances the world I perceive and the world I imagine.

There are several threads of inquiry in my music, but one of them is an interest in how we resolve musical conflict.  Conflict is a part of my everyday existence, from geopolitical events in the news to choosing a pair of socks in the morning.  Sometimes I resolve these conflicts through negotiation, sometimes I put them off through denial, sometimes I plow through them, sometimes I deflect them with humor.  And sometimes I have to just learn to live with them.

Traditional forms like fugue get a lot of their impetus from the way that conflict is channeled and resolved.  When I use one of these forms I look for ways to understand conflict and work toward resolution using some of the means at the disposal of a 21st-century composer.  Along the way, I gain a deeper understanding of relationships in general, of cause and effect, of the limits of existing responsibly in an imperfect world.

So when I hear someone say that these traditional forms are irrelevant to contemporary life, I shrug, because it seems to me that they are as relevant as you make them.  Again, I don’t think everyone should be doing what I’m doing – that would be ridiculous.  But I think a world in which nobody was doing what I’m doing would be a poorer one.

I had a lot of fun writing the fugues in this quartet, especially when I realized that a fugue subject needn’t be a monophonic line.  Using sequences of chords or just sounds as my subjects opened up all kinds of wonderful contrapuntal possibilities.

Incidentally, a few days after Langley’s fiasco, the Wright brothers made their first successful flight on the North Carolina coast — and nobody noticed.  A century later, it’s comforting to know that the mismanagement of government funds and the obtuseness of the media are not inventions of our own time.

And the amazing Emerson Quartet played No. 5 in Seattle last night.  I was very sorry not to be there.  Haven’t heard anything about how it went yet, so I guess it’s safe to assume no tomatoes were thrown.  And here’s the very nice review from last Saturday’s US premiere.

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A lot of good stuff from the last few days for me to mull over, but for now here is David Finckel’s interview on public radio about the Emerson String Quartet’s performance here last night, including his impression of my fifth quartet:

And if you are in Seattle Wednesday night, be sure to catch the quartet’s preconcert talk at 7:05 in Meany Hall, followed by a performance at 8:00 of American Masters – Ives, Barber, Dvorák and me.

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I’ve heard so many horror stories over the years about composers who were mistreated by the academic institutions they served.  It seems like the composers who have good relationships with their universities are few and far between.

So I’m feeling very fortunate to have been pretty nicely taken care of by the University of North Carolina School of the Arts for these many years.  And this Saturday night they are celebrating my fiftieth birthday in a big way.

How big?  Well, for starters, they are bringing the Emerson Quartet here to give the US premiere of my fifth quartet – the concert’s been sold out for some time.  But that’s not all.  The school has also organized a symposium about my music featuring members of the Emerson Quartet along with guest moderator Welz Kauffman – and invited a few dozen top supporters of the school to attend.

(Want to know the coolest thing about having a piece played by Emerson? Not only are these guys are at the top of the game individually, they’ve been together as a quartet for more than 30 years.  There is no substitute for that kind of musical intimacy. Watching them work together is just amazing.)

It’s a whole lot more than I expected when I first arrived here 23 years ago.  I figured I had a living wage and some musical stimulation, and that was about it.  When I was first hired, I was put in charge of the theory program, the contemporary ensemble and Medieval studies (go figure).  Now I’m Composer in Residence, with one counterpoint class and a studio full of talented, hard-working composition majors.

Along the way, I’ve taught bunches of classes and seminars on every conceivable topic, served as Assistant Dean and Interim Dean, and organized a veritable tonnage of concerts featuring new music and old.  But now the job is almost exclusively about composing, which suits me very nicely at this point in my life.

Winston-Salem is a small city, but there is far more support and enthusiasm for the arts than I could have imagined when I interviewed here in 1987.  When I think of all the places I could have landed back then, I’m really pretty astonished at my good luck.  Faculty and students give my music enthusiastic performances on a regular basis.  Community members follow my activities and even commission new work from time to time.   It’s really an ideal situation.

Academic institutions, like people, aren’t all that predictable, and it could easily be that UNCSA will unceremoniously boot me out of here in ten or twenty years – or even next week.  But for the time being I certainly can’t complain.

And Google informs me that this is the 500th blog post on an infinite number of curves – another thing to feel grateful for, on so many levels.

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Many wise and wonderful things have been written about emotion in music, and many more foolish and trivial things.  Most of what can be said falls into the shallow side, so I’ve always tried to say as little as possible.  But there’s one aspect of the topic I’ve seen precious little written about, so allow me to venture out on the brink – and if I fall, let’s just hope part of me falls into the deep end.

One can insist that isolated passages of music sound happy or sad, and others may agree or disagree.  What interests me more are the passages that ease us from one emotion to another – passages in which the emotional tone seems to shift from light to dark, or vice versa.  Sometimes these shifts are brief, ephemeral; sometimes they carry us off to another realm for keeps.  Either way, their potency lies in their direct appeal to our understanding of the relativity of all emotion.  “Happy” and “Sad” don’t exist without comparison to one another, and to other states as well.  Music that carries us from one state to another – however near, however distant – reinforces our awareness of these interdependencies.

So however I may shy away from definitive descriptions of emotional content in music, I think it’s important to acknowledge the moments when emotional relativity is pulled into the foreground – regardless of what labels we may fix to the departure and arrival points.

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