Archive for October, 2010

One of the great mysteries of chamber music to the nonmusician is How the Hell Do They All Play Different Stuff and Stay Together?  No conductor, no click track, no drum set – but they speed up, slow down and jump to unrelated tempos in complete agreement, without hesitation.

The simple answer: rehearsal.

The more complex answer has to do with a synergy of senses: watching, listening, feeling – even breathing as one.

And then there are the “tricks.”  There’s an extended passage in my fifth string quartet in which each measure is two seconds long.  I was amazed at how cleanly the Emerson Quartet found the tempo of this passage in the first rehearsal.  Last week, they let me in on the secret: “Stars and Stripes Forever,” said cellist David Finckel.  “It’s exactly the same tempo.”  They all imagine a few bars of JP Sousa’s tune, then play my passage in perfect tempo.

So here it is, the Dream-Prelude from the third movement of my quartet.  Listen, and hum “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and you’ll hear how the pros make it work.

quartet 5 excerpt

And here’s a shot of Emerson rehearsing my quartet in the Kimmel Center hours before the performance:

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Every composer has to find hisorher own artistic path.

There are well-worn paths to follow: the orchestral track, opera, etc.  Then there are trails that need some blazing before they will lead anywhere.

I was a guest composer at two outstanding music schools last week: SUNY Stony Brook and Curtis.  On the surface, the two environments were very different.  But scratch underneath, and the same curiosities, the same passions were at work.

At Stony Brook, I was greeted by a cup of green tea and a couple of students discussing the merits of Arnold Schoenberg.  I was happy to see the familiar face of Phil Salathe, a doctoral student I worked with this past summer at Wintergreen.  We gathered in a library conference room, sitting around a large table with an impressive array of technological tools at hand.  Professors Sheila Silver and Perry Goldstein made me feel very welcome, and the dozen or so students had lovely insights and comments.  Much to my relief, I handled the Power Point and track cuing without any serious disasters.

The next day, at Curtis, Dean Mangan himself, a former theory student of mine, ushered me to the seminar room.  There I was met by David Ludwig, who made sure I was appropriately settled before rushing off to teach a Bartók class.  He explained that the faculty (Richard Danielpour and Jennifer Higdon) preferred to let the students meet with guests on their own, so as not to intrude on the interaction.  Turned out I was the first in a marathon of seminars: two hours of me, followed by two hours of Danielpour, then two hours of Lalo Schifrin, all in the space of less than a day.  I asked the students when they had time to compose, and they laughed – old story: we never have as much time as we’d like.

In both classes, I brought up the issue of artistic responsibility.  It seemed to have been something all of the students had given some thought to, which was very encouraging.  I hope I gave them some worthwhile things to think about, in addition to a couple of practical tips.  Our music says a lot, sometimes more than we realize, about the world we inhabit and the world we imagine.  We can’t simply focus on how we say things – we have to care about what we say.

Aligning career path with artistic sensibilities is one of many challenges all composers face.  On the one hand, you have to be ready to walk through the doors that are open to you.  At the same time, you also have to have the inner fire necessary to kick down a door or two that nobody else has noticed.

No way to know where any of the students in these two classes will end up.  From the questions and comments I heard, though, they are off to a good start — and getting the right kind of guidance.

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I had the privilege of playing a peripheral role in a lovely event last night.  SUNY Stony Brook had a surprise 75th birthday party for Gilbert Kalish, who has been a professor at SB for 40 years.

Kalish is an icon in contemporary music circles, championing a plethora of composers who were giants in the field during his youth.  Many of them have gone dramatically out of fashion nowadays, but when their time for a positive reassessment comes, their causes will be aided by the hundreds of superb performances and recordings Kalish made of their work.

I heard Kalish perform a few times many years ago.  On this occasion he was playing Brahms’s F Minor Quartet with the Emerson.  It was a superb rendering of this crowning work of 19th-century chamber literature.  At the conclusion of the performance, Phil Setzer grabbed a microphone and announced that the school was establishing a Gilbert Kalish scholarship in honor of the occasion.

A number of surprise guests followed.  Wu Han came onstage to say that Kalish was “simply the best” and to announce the release of “a very expensive” CD of Kalish’s performances at Music@Menlo, the proceeds of which would go to the scholarship fund.  Tributes were read from colleagues who could not be in attendance, including Joel Krosnick, Dawn Upshaw and Leon Fleisher (whose quote of Bette Davis – “growing old is not for sissies” – brought down the house.)

Kalish was clearly touched, and blowing out quite a few candles, spoke movingly in gratitude for what he called the greatest possible gift – the scholarship that would allow further generations to pursue their studies.

I was there because I had a very fine performance of my fifth quartet on the program, but I almost had a more powerful impact on the evening.  After the dress rehearsal, about an hour before the concert, I decided to take a stroll through the bowels of the Staller Center.  One of my many talents is an ability to get lost pretty much anywhere.  Trying to find my way back to something familiar, I pushed open a door that clearly should have remained closed.  A deafening alarm went off, and everyone was cleared from the building.  I found an exit, and stood outside for a while, innocently standing among the many displaced students and staffers who were wondering what had happened.

Always good to have a composer around to add a little spice to an evening.

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While I am no critic of classical music, I do know when I am in the presence of greatness. Tonight my wife and I had the pleasure of hearing a performance by the Emerson String Quartet. As they performed a new composition commissioned by them by Lawrence Dillon, String Quartet No. 5: Through the Night (2009), with its wistful and ethereal passages, I wandered off in thought of markets and how themes can travel back and forth between instruments, sometimes juxtaposed, sometimes counterpoint, sometimes feeding off each other into rising tension, sometimes coalescing together into a single powerful movement or crescendo and capitulation.

- Chris Tucker, Daily Speculations

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Today I’ll give a seminar at SUNY Stony Brook, tomorrow at Curtis.  Nice to get these gigs where I get to meet a bunch of young composers.

Sometimes when I visit another school the students have zillions of questions and comments for me, and we spark off into a great discussion.  Sometimes, though, everyone clams up, and awkward, well-meaning smiles are all we can manage.  I’ve seen that happen with guest composers who come to speak with my students also, and I can’t really say why things go smoothly or not.   Usually it just takes one good question, even just one good word, and the whole class takes flight.

If I find an answer, I’ll be sure to create an app for it, because it would definitely come in handy.

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We’ve all heard tons of song cycles for Appalachian folk singer and piano, right?  And almost all of them were perfectly suited for operatic tenor and piano, right?

Okay, I stand corrected.  Most of us have never heard such a piece.  But I have, as of last Friday, when I attended a Composition Seminar given by Kenneth Frazelle.  The subject was Songs in the Rearview Mirror, a piece that exists in both of these versions.  The one for Appalachian singer was written for Laurelyn Dossett; the tenor version was written for Anthony Dean Griffey.  Ms. Dossett is a founding member of the Polecats, featured on Prairie Home Companion.  Mr. Griffey is best known for his searing portrayal of Peter Grimes at the Met and his premiere of Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire with San Francisco Opera.

The piece was commissioned by the Reynolda House Museum of American Art to celebrate a retrospective on photographer William Christenberry last spring.  Christenberry has created a body of work featuring decaying buildings in Hale County, Alabama.  Series of photographs spanning decades show these buildings in various stages of neglect, gradually turning inward on themselves.

To prepare for the piece, Frazelle took a road trip to Alabama with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – James Agee and Walker Evans’s book about Depression-era Hale County – as a companion.  The journey, coupled with Christenberry’s photography and Agee’s prose, conjured up some ghosts from Frazelle’s childhood growing up in rural North Carolina.  The result is a set of ten songs that jump from visions of decaying buildings to ruminations on poverty to harrowing accounts of child abuse.

By flickering back and forth in time, Frazelle, who wrote the texts himself, creates an artistic counterpart to experiencing life in the rear view mirror, vivid details flying past and scrutinized as they fade away.

This perspective suits itself perfectly to Frazelle’s approach to piano writing.  He has an uncanny sensitivity to the resonance of the piano, the way overlapping decays caress one another, joining hands in their journey to oblivion.

The texts range from the cheerful doggerel of the fourth song, “Kudzu” to the scorching rawness of the eighth song “In the Night.”  The music is at times elegiac, as in the country waltz that buoys “Green Warehouse,” or the ruminative sonorities behind “Unmarked Grave.”  At other times, though, it evokes familiar idioms, through the prism of the aforementioned layers of decay.

Griffey has performed the piece at the Kennedy Center and has plans to sing it at various venues around the country over the course of this season.  I’d love to hear his interpretation.  Frazelle played us a recording of the premiere featuring Laurelyn Dossett, who has learned the entire 50-minute work by ear and performs it from memory – an extraordinary feat.  Her delicate, vulnerable performance, given shape by a folk singer’s raw vocalizing and expertise with the intimacy of a microphone, is a very special experience.

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Next week, the Emerson Quartet will give the fourth and fifth performances of my fifth string quartet. The third performance took place in April, which gave me the luxury of having close to six months to make some adjustments.  Have I mentioned how much I love revising?  Of course I have.  I’ll grab every opportunity I can get to make sure every moment in a piece sparkles, and every sparkle illuminates the overall design.  Who cares if I leave a messy chronology behind for musicologists?  Those kinds of concerns are a waste of brain cells.  All I care about is the composition – it has to be as good as I can make it.

I spent the second half of June buffing up the piece, keeping careful track of every little change.  Then I printed up a new set of scores and parts, and created four cheat sheets listing all the adjustments.  I mailed the rather unwieldy package to Eugene Drucker in early July.

Every chamber ensemble has its own personality, and every musician handles the materials of performance a little bit differently.  Lawrence Dutton, the violist, is replacing his old part with the new one I sent.  The violinists – Drucker and Philip Setzer – incorporated the changes into their old parts, so they wouldn’t have to recopy all the rehearsal markings they put into the new part.  (these markings include fingerings, bowings, cues, etc – the result of a multitude of decisions made by the performers as they learn a new piece).  Philip cut and pasted some of the new part into the old. Last I heard, David Finckel hadn’t yet decided which part to use.  That’s not too surprising: with all the things he is doing, it’s amazing he has time to get dressed in the morning.

Come to think of it, I may have a time-saving suggestion for him:  David, it might be a good idea to start sleeping and showering in your tux.

Be that as it may, the list of changes I sent them in July looked like this:

LIST OF REVISIONS (aside from adjustments we made in rehearsal (metronome markings, etc.) which also have been added to the score and parts):

I. Theme and Variations

  • Mm 5, 7, 9, 11, 14, 16, 18, 21 – 16ths added to Vn II
  • Mm 30 is now 5/4, with a B added in Vla.
  • 173-4 – new stuff in Vns

II. Chaconne

  • no changes

III. Passacaglia

  • Mm 72-79 transition CUT
  • What was 114-118 (now 106-9) is changed in the Vns, with added Vla

IV. Fantasy Variations

  • 42-69 (Shadows) expressive shaping and articulation
  • 71-90 (Pastorale) revisions in Vc
  • 77 not in 4/4; Vns revised
  • 127&135 new notes in vla and vc
  • 138 vn slurring change
  • 144 revised in all parts
  • 157-8 changed to 4/8
  • 170&177 new notes in vla and vc
  • 180 vn slurring change; Eb removed from vc.
  • 195-7 Vc octaves reversed
  • 226, 228, 230 – 16ths added to Vc

Performers who have worked with me frequently are used to these kinds of picayune adjustments.  Nothing too major, but just enough to warrant a new printing.  I don’t know if the Emerson guys have this happen to them on a regular basis.  I can imagine them next week circling me in a collective throat throttle.  I appreciate how precious their rehearsal time is, so having to set aside time to learn completely new music they hadn’t planned on can’t be too thrilling.

But the truth is I’ve worked with them enough to know they’ve seen it all, and I’m sure they will be more than gracious.  Honestly, I’ve not had a more satisfying collaboration with an ensemble, and I’ve had many great ones.   I’m looking forward to sitting pretty once again, smiling as another of my crazy little compositions gets the hell played out of it.

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What do insects and paper airplanes have to do with chamber music?  Probably a lot more than I realize, since it seems like music has something to do with just about everything.  But as of this week, they are more intimately connected than ever before.

Bridge Records has just released Insects and Paper Airplanes, an album comprised of three of my string quartets and a piano quartet.  The performers are the incomparable Daedalus String Quartet and pianist Benjamin Hochman.

How new is it?  So new, I haven’t even received my copy yet.  But you can get yours just about anywhere your fingers can tap into a web connection.

The title Insects and Paper Airplanes comes from the second movement of String Quartet No. 2: Flight. Like the other five movements in my second quartet, it’s a fugue.  Like the other five movements in my second quartet, it’s about flight.  Like the fourth movement in my second quartet, it’s a scherzo, and that’s where the title comes in.  Insects is a scherzo and Paper Airplanes is a contrasting trio section.  Insects features fast buzzing music and Paper Airplanes is all doomed, harebrained swoops.

So, a fugue-scherzo-flying thingy about bugs and toys.  That about sums up the second movement of my second quartet.

And it says a lot about the nature of the music contained on this disk.  Insects and paper airplanes belong together the way fugues and scherzos belong together, the way the past and the present belong together, the way vastly different cultures belong together – because, to quote the guy I’ve been hanging out with for a number of years, “there are no two points so distant from one another that they cannot be connected by a single straight line – or an infinite number of curves.”

The question is not whether they belong together – they are together whether they belong or not.   The real questions are: how can we help them thrive in one another’s presence? And how do we keep them from destroying one another?

These are questions worth devoting a lifetime to.

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Postmodernism, as it flourished in my salad days, had many characteristics, but the most telling was the employment of a new kind of dissonance: the dissonance of incongruent styles.  Postmodern music reveled in sequences of unrelated ideas, jolting the listener from any sense of meaningful continuity.  Following the single-mindedness of much post-tonal and minimalist music, it was a breath of fresh air.

After a while, though, the jolt, like any esthetic jolt, had less and less of an impact.  By the time we got to the end of the XX century, these juxtapositions felt merely like life as we lived it — no more jarring than the daily, surreal shifts of international banking or political polls.

At that point, some of us abandoned the idea of using irrational juxtapositions for their shock value.  The challenge, rather, was in finding a way to give these disconnections some kind of formal coherence.  After all, if this is merely how life is, then we needed to stop complaining and build something beautiful from it.

Over the course of the 1990s, I felt a growing urge to work with bigger canvases, formally speaking.  I could have gone the path of some minimalists, stretching small ideas out into mind-bending proportions, but that would have been a rejection of the truth I had found in postmodern art.

(We all have to find our own truths, and the minimalist truth – no less true in an objective sense – wasn’t the one that moved me.)

After a little bit of experimentation, I became convinced that stylistic dissonance could be used as a basis for large forms, in the same way that harmonic dissonance was used to build large forms in the late 18th century.

And here is an excellent place for you to scoff at a foolish sounding idea.  I did so myself at first.  But then I realized that until harmonic dissonance was used to build large forms, there was no reason to believe it would work.  There is nothing inherent in the V-I resolution to suggest it could provide the impetus to design a coherent, ten-to-twenty-minute composition.  But Classical composers tuned themselves so precisely to the implications of these harmonies, experimented so thoroughly with ways to play out these forms, they were able to find a manner of proceeding that has served as a model for composers ever since.

So, could stylistic dissonance have the same potential?  Could composers dig into these cognitive clashes and find ways to create large forms?  The answer came to me through the works of Mozart, who was playing with stylistic conflicts quite a long time before postmodernism existed.  Just take a look at the first theme from the last movement of the C Major Symphony, K. 551, where four bars of dry academic fugal material is followed by four bars of opera buffa:

And if that wasn’t enough to cue the thumb to the nose, later in the same movement this silly little flourish is given a full fugal treatment usually reserved for only the loftiest of themes:

But the Jupiter Symphony Finale is justly celebrated for contrapuntal dexterity in the guise of fun and games.  I was more interested in Mozart’s use of contrasting styles in his formal organization.  And examples abound.  Take the first page of the K. 332 Piano Sonata:

For the first 12 bars, we get an accompanied aria.  Cadence, then we’re in hunting-horn land.  At least that’s what we hear in the left hand – the right hand plays little tinkly music box flourishes up top.  Music boxes on a hunt?  Talk about making something beautiful out of clashing materials.  WAM sticks with this mashup for a full 10 measures – nothing but I and V — before we’re suddenly thrown into a Sturm und Drang chromatic hell.

Forty measures, four vastly different musics.  At this historical distance, it all sounds like Mozart to our ears.  I suspect it sounded just this side of deliriously insane at the time.  But the stylistic madness is kept in check by a brilliant sense of timing, the balances that gradually emerge over the course of the movement.

With this and other examples in mind, I embarked on a sustained effort to use postmodern techniques in the service of formal coherence.  The Classicists kept their wildest forays focused through a network of clear-cut phrasing and a hierarchical tonal language.  That didn’t feel like the right approach for our times.  Rather, in many of my works, I’ve balanced incongruous stylistic jumps with an obsessive focus on specific formal principles.  Example: in my fourth string quartet (The Infinite Sphere), an unrelenting approach to circular design – wheels within wheels within wheels – allows me to bounce through widely varying styles and vocabularies without (figuratively speaking) the wheels flying off.

My approach to form has never been architectural, or at least not primarily architectural, but more like free narrative: characters are developed and interact in ways that I feel are convincing.   Narrative, compared to any visual counterpart, seems like a more appropriate parallel for the way music occupies time.  The mistake, for me, is when we, as composers, proceed in a plot-driven manner – this follows this follows this – as opposed to listening closely to the material and letting it occupy the temporal space it requires.

I treat my musical ideas the way I treat human beings – not as puppets in a puppet show – they have lives, needs, aspirations of their own, and my job is to help them realize their potential.

I follow no rules, as such, in these compositions.  Principles, yes.  Techniques, yes.  But the bottom line, as I’ve alluded to above, is to become so intimately acquainted with the material that I can let it speak for itself.

Although it often seems as if I’m letting the material become so intimately acquainted with me that it feels comfortable using my brain cells.


A few weeks ago, a reader suggested I post an excerpt from a piece I was working on in which the hands of the pianist were playing in two very different styles.  I said at the time that I was having trouble posting musical examples, but as the Mozart samples above indicate, I’ve solved the issue.  So here are 8 bars of the piece I was describing.

Quick and dirty facts: Clarinet and piano.  Tempo is 108.  As I said before, each hand is relatively easy; I’m just having a tough time getting them to work together in my hands.  I’m sure any real pianist would have no problem.  In any case, the top staff is metronomic, the bottom staff is languorous.

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