Archive for August, 2010

Composers listen.

Even when we don’t want to hear, we hear.  And everything we hear ends up in our music, either directly or reactively.

Now I’ll back off of the grand generalization to say I really don’t know what composers do, I only know what I do.  In my case, it seems like everything I hear sits in my brain waiting to re-emerge in a composition.  I frequently hear things as pure sonic outline – ie, sounds for their own sake — even when there is specific information being conveyed, eg people telling me how they spent their weekend, and I nod as I break down what they are saying into patterns of pitch and rhythm.

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I’m off to Salt Lake City in a couple of weeks for the premiere of Cool Night, performed by the University of Utah Philharmonia, Robert Baldwin, Music Director, with vocal soloists Geoffrey Friedley, Julie Wright-Costa, Kirsten Gunlogson and Mary Ann Dresher.  There is also an actor involved, though I don’t yet know his name.

Cool Night is an audacious piece.  It imagines Florestan and Eusebius, Robert Schumann’s fictional alter egos, in a verbal joust over the composer’s deathbed, and culminates in a setting of Heinrich Heine’s Der Tod das ist die Kühle Nacht – for which I’ve written my own second stanza.  Florestan is performed by a combination of tenor and actor – almost as if he were two persons within himself, arguing with one another – and Eusebius is a trio of soprano, mezzo and alto – although the tenor sings with them from time to time to make a quartet.  In other words, though this was never my intention, I’ve made this piece pretty difficult for the listener to follow as narrative, which is unusual for me: I usually like to make my line of argument as clear as possible.  Sometimes, though, clarity is not what is seems.

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In 1886, Barbara Klosheim Beaumont – my grandmother – was born, a few months after her parents had completed an arduous voyage across the Atlantic seeking opportunities in the New World, a voyage through which they lost their only son.  Barbara died in 1986, a few months short of her hundredth birthday, and the consensus of those who knew her well was that her hard life – twice widowed by age 44, raising a family on her own during the Depression, attending both her sons’ funerals – didn’t make her the most cheerful person.  I remember, as a very young child, frequent entreaties to hush, hush when she was in the house.  As a teen, visiting her in a nursing home, I watched and listened as her mind gradually disintegrated.  By the end, only my mother claimed to understand what she was saying, and the rest of us were tempted to question my mother’s sanity for making that claim.

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In Cool Night, Florestan and Eusebius have to come to grips with their creator’s demise, then struggle to understand their existence and find a way to continue in his absence.  The listener is given the option of taking their dialogue at face value, though it also makes sense to hear it as a far-ranging hallucination that takes place entirely within Robert Schumann’s mind.  An excerpt of the text:

F: When the dance concludes, I will remove my mask and reveal who I really am.

E: Who you are!  You will remove one mask and find another.

F: That may be so, that may be so. But the mask will come off, and then another, and another.

E: You have more masks than time.

F: Yes, I have more masks than time.  But they will come off, not to reveal, but to revel in the removal.  I will be verb, not noun.  I will be action.  I will be masks removing, one by one.

E: You will be masks removing.  You will be me.

F: You?  No, we are not the same.  I am verb, you are noun.

E: I am noun, you are verb.  But we are the same.  We shed the chrysalis, only to find another.

F: And another.

E: And another.  Together, we are half as much.

F: Yes, together, we are half as much.  And yet, apart, we are nothing.  We hear nothing in the cool night.

While working on Cool Night, it took me a long time to come up with the right sound world for Eusebius.  As I said above, his lines are sung by a trio of soprano, mezzo and alto.  I chose that approach to emphasize the more ephemeral, otherworldly nature of his character.  But the vocal trio somehow wasn’t enough.  I also wanted the character to sound deranged, in a tender, helpless way.  I kept singing the words “Cool night,” which is a recurrent phrase in the piece, over and over again, trying them different ways.  Then one day I sang them in a stammering ululation, “Coo-loo-loo-loo-loo-lool Ni-ni-ni-ni-ni-ni-night,” and I had my answer.  The result sounded sweetly crazed.  I applied that same undulating vocalization throughout the piece, almost every time Eusebius sings, and it fit beautifully into the world I was trying to create.

A few months later, I had a sudden realization that the sound I was creating for Eusebius was already familiar to me as the melancholy babbling my grandmother was reduced to in her final years.  How clearly the sound comes back to me, from close to four decades past, as she would tremble helplessly in her chair and make mournful attempts at communication, repeating the same syllable over and over again in a quivering voice.

Which brings me back to where I began this post.  As an adolescent, my grandmother’s senile speech was agonizing to listen to; I shrank away inside, even while I tried to make a show of standing firm.

But the composer in me was storing away that sonic information, reimagining it as a thing of beauty, waiting for the right opportunity to put it to use.

So maybe my mother wasn’t so far off when she told us she could understand what my grandmother was saying.  All depends on how you are listening.

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Why do artists put themselves, their peculiar balances of experience and imagination, before the public, and risk the pain that comes with incomprehension or indifference? The pain is very real; it’s not something one gets used to easily.  Indifference, of course, is the rule – there is so much out there for the world to experience, how much attention can a single work hope for – so one does eventually get used to it on some level, or else one couldn’t possibly continue.  But the ache never really goes away.

So what is the compensation, the reason for pressing on?  I have so many reasons, I hardly know where to start.  Some of them are enormous, brimming with far-reaching relevance.  But most are minor impeti, scarcely enough to tickle the hairs on my forearm when taken singly.

I’m usually upbeat.  My self-confidence spends most of the time spinning around with the ceiling fan.  Every once in awhile, though, it goes smush-faced into the floorboards.

Sometimes, when I find myself eyeball-to-wood-grain, a kind word from afar can do wonders to lift my mood.  Got one of those this week, when Fanfare magazine went online with its review of my latest album, Appendage and Other Stories.  The review begins like this:

I think music should be fun, moving, mysterious, beautiful, funny, and frightening. I don’t expect it to be all of those things on the same CD, however. Nevertheless, this CD is all of those things and more, and even though I had never heard of Lawrence Dillon until this disc came in the mail, I now must number myself among his fans.

Years of navel-gazing vindicated with a couple of sentences.

Here’s the whole review.  I don’t know who Raymond Tuttle is, but it certainly lifts the spirits – not to mention the flattened visage — to be heard.

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photo by richard avedon

“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity.  I have erased this line.”

- Oscar Levant

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There are several points in the course of working on a piece when I think I know what the material is about. Typically I have this feeling when I’m beginning a piece, when I’ve finished it and several times between.

But it’s usually an illusion.  I almost never understand exactly what a composition is doing until long after it’s been completed, if then.  There are always a few twists and turns that pop up along the way to confound me.

When I say that the sensation of understanding a piece I’m working on is an illusion, though, I don’t mean to convey any frustration.  Quite the opposite: there are few things more enjoyable that being thrown for a loop by a piece of music you thought you had a good grasp on.

Also, the illusion of understanding is actually very useful.  I can move forward through a piece with some measure of confidence when I think I know where I am going.  Even if I am just fooling myself, that confidence is crucial to making headway.

I’ve started composing again, after a six-month hiatus.  I can’t believe I actually stopped composing for 6 months, after 20 years of having several pieces going at once.  And, in fact, I did do a bit of revision over those six months – I just didn’t have any new, unperformed work emerging on my desk, which was a very unfamiliar feeling.

Getting back to composing has been equally disorienting.  On the one hand, I’m finding it exceedingly easy – I know exactly what I want to do next at any given point.  On the other hand, I have this creeping anxiety that it couldn’t really be this easy – I must have forgotten some crucial step in the process that is going to make this piece fall flat on its ear.

And that’s where the illusion of knowing where I am going comes in handy.  As long as I think I know what I’m doing, I can do it.  When I stop to reflect on how uncertain I am, everything grinds to a halt.

I blame the six-month break on Eugene Drucker.  Back in January, he told me he was taking a few days off from playing the violin.  He’s such a great violinist, I thought maybe I should try taking a few days off from composing.

Next thing I knew, it was July.

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Up early this morning, haven’t eaten in 30 hours. I’m heading into a clinic to get my first colonoscopy.  To those who have already had one: ha-ha, now I’m getting one, too.  To those who have not yet had one:  ha-ha, your turn will come.

And here is the punch line: the person who will perform this profound procedure is a fellow by the name of Dr. Netherland.  If this were a work of fiction, I’d call that a rather obvious abuse of poetic license.

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I started this blog in January 2005, five-and-a-half years ago.  I thought it would give me an opportunity to understand myself better and to focus my artistic aspirations.  Better understanding has certainly happened, but more importantly, through this blog I’ve become acquainted with an enormous number of people interested in new music — composers, performers, listeners – whose thoughts have had a sometimes unexpected impact on me and my work.  In other words, while I thought the blog would primarily help me focus my inner self, it has opened up more external connections than I had imagined possible.

Five years ago today, my first child was born.  You would think that having a child would connect you more extensively with the world around you, and that has certainly happened.  But paradoxically, through him, I’ve become much better acquainted with myself – just as I had hoped would happen through the blog.

A blog, a child.  The outside world, the inner.

A lot can happen in five years.

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Had a nice, nocturnal hike through Nags Head Woods, an ecological preserve on the Outer Banks.  Tracking footprints in the dark through sand dunes and marshland.  Strange to see enormous oaks, hickories, and beech trees, some hundreds of years old, growing in the sand.

Also interesting, in light of our current economic climate, was the story behind Nags Head Woods’s designation as a National Natural Landmark in 1974.  Seems the whole area was slated for the same bulldozing, asphalting and condo-spawning that has overtaken so much of our loveliest terrain.  Then the economy tanked and the developers withdrew, leaving the opportunity for preservationists to move in.

Sometimes when there is no money to be had, those of us with other things on our minds than making money can reap a handsome profit.  So says Nags Head, anyway.

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