Archive for October, 2011

“Costly mistakes” is a term I used to hear much more frequently in the past.  Not that it has disappeared from use, but it doesn’t seem nearly so prevalent as it once was.

I’ve been working on a new piece for which I can’t use notation software: the whole thing is going to have to be written out by hand.  Drafting the score has made me more aware of how easy it has become to pay less than complete attention to what we are doing in so many of our daily tasks, because so many of our mistakes are instantly correctible.  I type these words at lightning speed, with my mind flying ahead of my fingers, knowing that any typos are easily undone.  In the same way, I enter music in Finale very quickly and with little fuss, knowing that any mistake I made will be caught later and quickly adjusted.

How different it is to be writing a score by hand!   If you leave out a measure and don’t discover your mistake until ten pages later, those last ten pages are going in the recycling.  Hours of work gone to waste.

To guard against these little tragedies, one has to exercise a focus-on-task mentality that is a little more severe than normal.  Which brings me to my wondering: in giving us an unprecedented ability to correct our mistakes, our technology seems to allow us greater freedom to let our minds wander, which is a good thing, but it has also gotten us out of the habit of concentrating, which is not so hot.

Or, to put it another way: we used to have to waste an awful lot of brain power on measly little tasks, but we were more accustomed to concentrating on every measly little task, which meant that our powers of concentration were well rehearsed.  As a result, the ability to concentrate was more readily available to us.

Mistakes are less costly now, and precision is far more dear.

me with my ultra-fast wireless device

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The premiere of Sparkling in the Dark is next week, and I’m busy touching up the electronics.  Those of you who were reading my blog early this past July know that Sparkling in the Dark is my first foray into electronic music in thirty years.  Now two performances are looming, on November 3rd and 8th, and I’m finding myself in exhilaratingly unfamiliar territory, as if I were about to walk into my first orchestra rehearsal.  Knowing, as I do, what a minefield a first orchestra rehearsal can be, I’m stepping gingerly, wondering where fatal missteps might be grinning in anticipation.

Here’s the big question mark as I head down the home stretch: the two performances are going to take place in two very different spaces – the premiere will be in a bar, and the second performance will be in a concert hall.  The acoustic of the first space is rather dry, and the second one is pretty generous.  I’ve considered making two different versions of the electronics to compensate for the difference, but I don’t trust my instincts (why should I when I haven’t done this before?), and I won’t have enough time in the bar before the performance to make any changes.

Another fun thing: I’m deaf in my left ear, so I don’t experience sound in three dimensions.  For the entire history of music up until a few years ago, it would have been easy for me to have a composition career without ever thinking about sound location, but current technology makes dimensionality something one chooses to either face or ignore.  I’m choosing to face it (with my face turned to one side, of course), and I’m giving the music a 3-D profile.  In order to do this, I have to use my imagination — which I enjoy using — and the knowledge I have from years of research into this alien topic.

So I tweak, and I fidget, and I make fussy little adjustments.  Remarkably, I think it is turning out rather well.  More as the dates approach.

Meanwhile, in case you hadn’t heard, ACME is playing the Sequenza21 concert tomorrow night at Joe’s Pub in New York. I didn’t submit anything for it, because I was on a previous S21 concert and it seemed appropriate and collegial to let others have a turn.  I can’t be there, but you should go if you can: lots of good stuff on tap.  Tell ‘em I sent you.

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Italy has long been on the list of countries I’ve wanted to visit before I die. Just got this announcement of an upcoming performance:

esecuzione in Italia

Caro Lawrence, il tuo pezzo lo eseguiremo qui:

25 Febbraio 2012 Campobasso
26 Febbraio 2012 Sulmona

Gaetano Di Bacco

Wanted to get there before I die, but now I hope I can get out of there alive!

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I first became immersed in the writings of Italo Calvino in the late 1980s, a few years after his death.  They connected immediately in my mind to the Beckett stories I had pored over so assiduously as a student, but the sumptuous prose and elaborate labyrinths of form and meaning gave Calvino’s books a good deal more warmth.  He made despair a many-splendored thing; in his hands, the heaviest material leapt off the pages as on the wings of Pegasus.

At the end of the 1990s, when I turned my hand to writing string quartets, the words from the end of Calvino’s Invisible Cities came to me as a wellspring of purpose.  Having described, over the course of the book, Kublai Khan’s empire in fantastical, alternately uplifting and disturbing detail, Marco Polo lays out the choices one has for proceeding into the future.  His advice got me started on a cycle of quartets, making each one a concentrated essay on an independent topic; taken together they would describe a vast, variegated landscape.

But in the twelve years I spent composing the first five quartets of this cycle, Calvino stayed untouched on my bookshelf.  I wanted to avoid referencing his words and ideas; I wanted the music to come from my own observations and limitations, rather than dealing in second-handedness.  Calvino lit the spark, but I’ve been stoking the flames.

Now that I’m in the initial stages of drafting the sixth and final quartet, Calvino has climbed down from my shelf once more.  Reading and analyzing Invisible Cities again for the first time in fifteen years, I am even more entranced and befuddled by the seeming circumlocutions that always turn out to be as precise and succinct as possible, given the subject matter.  In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Calvino discusses five literary values: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity (a sixth, consistency, was planned, but his death intervened).   In order to follow the speedy, dramatic shifts of perspective that result from his application of those principles, I’ve found that I’m best off reading the words aloud, and making hand gestures to illustrate the words as I say them, in a kind of sign language improvised by a person who doesn’t speak sign language.  I will state the obvious: this kind of reading is best done alone, because the resulting convolutions would appear insane to any observer.  Reading this way, though, helps me take in the full weight (or full lightness) of each word, retaining a shadow of its value while the succeeding words speed off in the opposite direction.

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Ever walk past something a hundred times without having it register, then one day it catches just the right light and you are blown away by how lovely it is?

That kind of thing happens pretty frequently to me, because I go through life in a state of complete obliviousness 90% of the time, followed by periods of complete wonderment.

On Saturday, Salem College celebrated composer Margaret Sandresky’s 90th birthday with a symposium and a concert.  I’ve known Margaret for about twenty years, and I think I realized from time to time that she was or had been a composer, but I never gave her much thought.  Or, to be more precise, when I thought of her, I thought of her as a very pleasant person who often had astute things to say about my music at concert intermissions.

Turns out she’s the fourth of five generations of professional women musicians, a truly extraordinary feat in more ways than I can count. She got her Master’s at Eastman in the 1940s, studying with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers, and followed it up with studies in Frankfurt under the tutelage of Kurt Hessenberg.  She taught at Oberlin and UT Austin before coming to Salem College, the oldest college for women in the country.

When I saw there was a concert devoted to her works scheduled by a school that’s a stone’s throw from my own, curiosity and collegiality teamed up to get me in the door.

In the afternoon, Margaret was the centerpiece of a composers symposium alongside her daughter Eleonor Sandresky, Kenneth Frazelle and Charles Fussell.   The topic was an age-old standard, Whither Music, or What Should We Expect from the 21st-century Composer?  On the surface, posing this question to a composer in her tenth decade might seem a bit odd, but Margaret caught this audience member’s attention right away with her opening remarks about technology.  “We have to remember,” she cautioned, “that music and science have gone hand-in-hand for thousands of years.”  She cited Pythagoras and Plato in her insistence that there is nothing new – and nothing to fear — about the partnership of art and technology.

The evening concert featured nine of Sandresky’s works, all composed since she was in her 50s, and most composed in the last twenty years – the time I’ve known her.  They were all lovingly crafted, mostly post-tonal creations.  My favorites were an organ mass on the l’homme armé melody that felt like a 20th-century conjuring of the spirit of Dufay, and a pair of piano pieces, beautifully played by the composer’s gifted and resourceful daughter Eleonor.  But all of the music was delightful, and made me wish I had been paying closer attention sooner.

Margaret Vardell Sandresky, half a lifetime ago and now.

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