Archive for June, 2011

The novel is whatever novelists are doing at a given time.  If we’re not doing the big social novel fifteen years from now, it’ll probably mean our sensibilities have changed in ways that make such work less compelling to us – we won’t stop because the market dried up.  The writer leads, he doesn’t follow.  The dynamic lives in the writer’s mind, not in the size of the audience.  And if the social novel lives, but only barely, surviving in the cracks and ruts of the culture, maybe it will be taken more seriously, as an endangered spectacle.  A reduced context but a more intense one.

Writing is a form of personal freedom.  It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us.  In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.

-     Don DeLillo, in a letter to Jonathan Franzen

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I lived on Park Place in Brooklyn half-a-lifetime ago in a small, sixth-floor studio.  Memory serves its own masters, and those six years are gauzed over in my mind as an uncomplicated time, a time of focus and energy, though I know I have more compositional focus and energy now.  After all, I was working three jobs* at the time and racing through grad school as quickly as I could: composing was a luxury.

Reagan was presiding, but because I have a tendency toward obliviousness I had little sense of how powerfully the conservative geist was impacting my little world.  Here’s what I knew: I had mastered the radical music trends of the day, and suddenly I was hearing my more traditionalist peers wielding artistic tools I couldn’t match, much less surpass.  They were saying things with their music that needed to be said, things that were just as valid for our times as the things I was saying, and it bothered me that I wasn’t capable of saying those things.  I went back to square one and started working on my compositional toolbox, relearning basic harmony, counterpoint, scoring and form, reimagining these tools as elements of my world-view.  The process took years, is going on still.

One of the challenges I had to come to terms with was a viable approach to writing for voice, an approach that took into account the things I loved from the Classical tradition while remaining true to the way I experience language – which often has little to do with traditional vocal technique.  Another process that is ongoing.

All of this is posing as a tidy prolegomenom to this Thursday night, when I’ll be at Galapagos to hear Lauren Flanigan perform with Ransom Wilson’s new music ensemble Le Train Bleu.  The piece, from 1993, is Appendage, one of my first to explore a kind of hybrid approach to vocal writing.  The soprano begins with mostly spoken text, morphing more and more frequently over the course of thirty minutes into singing, finishing with a fully-sung lullabye.

Appendage is also a stylistic hybrid, part minimalist and part expressionist.  Those two ists shouldn’t sit comfortably in the same room with one another, but sitting comfortably isn’t always what I do (though I love to do it when the occasion beckons).

If you can come, please do: I’ll be glad to see you.  The other pieces on the program, by Martin Bresnick, John Halle and Randall Woolf aren’t to be missed, either.  But if you can’t make it, you can hear Lauren Flanigan sing Appendage here.

As for me, I’m looking forward to walking the streets of the southernmost borough again, sampling that lovely blend of the familiar and unfamiliar that comes ever more frequently with the passing years.

*for the record, the three jobs were: teaching theory at Juilliard, fundraising for the Metropolitan Opera and selling shoes in a defunct department store whose name I don’t recall.  And no, it wasn’t enough to make ends meet.  And yes, I sometimes wonder if I missed my calling by not pursuing the life of a shoe salesman.

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Is there a name for people who have a hard time accepting kindness from strangers?  What would the opposite of Blanche DuBois be?

I’ve been that guy on many occasions, and I’ve been the rebuffed stranger once or twice as well.

When I first moved into my present abode, a guy I’ll call Dave (because that’s his name) made several attempts at neighborly congeniality.  I made him feel like an ass for his trouble.  What was going through my head?  Something like, “you don’t know me, back off, don’t make yourself so vulnerable, for all you know, I could be a jerk.”  Which, as it turned out, I was.

Eight years have passed since those initial interactions, during which Dave and I have exchanged maybe a dozen words.  We see each other from time to time, trading guarded waves.  It’s a shame: he’s proven that he’s a perfectly nice guy.

He just had the misfortune of trying to befriend Mrs. Grey.

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Although I normally like to have three pieces to work on at any given moment, right now I just have two.  One is for soprano sax, bassoon and electronics called Sparkling in the Dark.  I’m coming down the home stretch, with maybe 10-20 percent of the work on it left to do and a mid-August deadline.  More about that later.

The other piece is one I’ve just begun, also with a mid-August deadline.  It’s for six violins.

These two pieces present very different compositional challenges.  Whenever one works with electronics, one is faced with the question of what not to do, since the possibilities are endless.  By contrast, working with a single instrument, albeit by the half-dozen, implies a very narrow color palette.

Both challenges spur me, but I have to admit I enjoy the challenge of working with limited timbres more.  In fact, I’ve spent the past four weeks on just four measures of the six-violin piece, trying out all different combinations, each one bringing me a shade closer to the texture I’m imagining.  The violin, in the hands of a capable player, has an enormous range of expression.  Multiply by six, and the possibilities are enough to make you lose your way.

I’ll put these four measures behind me at some point.  I have a pretty clear idea of where the piece wants to go.  Once it starts going there, maybe a title will occur – I hate slapping those on at the very end.

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“I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”

- Henry David Thoreau

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