Archive for December, 2012

Deeply immersed in a lengthy work these days, and loving it.  The challenges of extended compositions satisfy like nothing else.  Every session of composing takes a substantial amount of time just to get started; one can’t simply pick up where one left off and make meaningful progress.  Details pile up on details, and keeping them all straight while retaining a clear sense of the work’s core tests the composer’s endurance, concentration and clarity of vision.

Efforts like this bring me deeper into a sense of who I am, while simultaneously letting me lose myself in another world.  For a few hours a day, I feel pleasantly delirious.

I’ve had so many things to absorb this fall, more than I can communicate coherently.  A few things stand out.  The premiere of David Lang’s Love Fail trusted its silences and Medievalism with inspiring confidence.  Having dug into Gabriel Kahane’s work in preparation for our meeting last week, I was not surprised to find him engaging, thoughtful and direct, and left with the puzzle of how many of his major works – Crane Palimpsest, February House, a work in progress about the WPA — engage with what I assume is his grandparents’ or even great-grandparents’ generation.

And this brings up an intriguing question.  In both Lang and Kahane, I am hearing evidence of a reactionary cultural trend that is all the more intriguing because it is coming from such insightful and observant artists.  It’s an interesting place to be, a stark contrast to where this culture was twelve years into the last century, when artists were blasting the sacred structures of their art forms from their very foundations.  And I use the word “reactionary” advisedly – this is not the same conservatism we have seen cropping up with regularity over the decades, but truly a reaction to what seems an overwhelming cultural momentum, when the truths of yesterday are quickly swallowed up by the news of today and the predictions for tomorrow.

Lest anyone is reading this as a lament, either pro or con, let me assure you it is neither praise nor condemnation: great art can be radical, great art can also be reactionary.  It can even be moderate, believe it or not (and I should also add, as people often misread things they find online, I am not talking about politics, but culture).  No, I’m not interested in predetermined “right” paths, I’m just curious about how these things unfold, what artists tell us about our world, the world we experience and the world we imagine.

After close to three decades of teaching composition, I find myself with a fascinating studio of young composers this year presenting me with fresh challenges I’ve never faced before.  I love that.  The work they bring me each week surprises me no end, and it’s startling to realize that none of them resembles another of them, and none of them are doing work that resembles the music I was writing as a student in any way.

And, in case you are wondering, I am fully aware that this post is rambling in a manner that is perhaps not characteristic of my blogging over the years.  As I said at the top, I am greatly enjoying the depths I am finding in my extended work these days. Concision is not where my mind is right now.  It is time to think of the holiday, and this holiday will bring me in touch with, I believe, thirty relatives, though there may be more than I am recalling.  And the end of the holiday will bring me even deeper into my current work, which is a place I can’t wait to discover.

Seasons greetings to you all.

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We’re in the thick of our Intensive Arts session right now: two weeks when classes are suspended so we can focus on creative projects.  Tonight a bash of new music for saxophone, including my Sparkling in the Dark.  On Monday we’ll have an improv session – 65 musicians going who knows where for 90 minutes.  Tuesday night is the percussion ensemble show.  On Wednesday we’ll spend two hours looking at everything the clarinet has done over the last hundred or so years, with clarinetto primo Oskar Espina-Ruiz as our guide.  And every day has Dance-a-Day sessions, wherein composers and choreographers are matched up for two hours to create a new collaborative work each day.

We’re also taking this time to immerse ourselves in the music of Gabriel Kahane.  This past week, students gave presentations on two of his major works to date: his piano sonata and his epic orchestral song cycle Crane Palimpsest.  Kahane’s particular blend of pop and classical influences sparked thoughtful and avid discussion.  I posed the question of “what is taboo in this music?” to which one student responded that this is a composer who just goes for whatever interests him rather than avoiding things that might seem inappropriate.

On Tuesday we’ll have Kahane Skyped in for some face-time with composers and other interested musicians.  Looking forward.

And here’s a big hay-low to the courageous doctoral students at Florida State who are tackling Furies and Muses, my 30-minute work for bassoon and strings, tonight.

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Woke up at 4 am with a series of phrases looping through my mind.  Not just repeating, but looping, the last note of the final phrase leading directly into the first note of the first.  Over and over, spooling through half-crazed, dream-inflected imagery as I bumbled back into and out of sleep over the next three hours.

When it was finally time to surrender to the light of morning, I pulled myself out of bed and went through the curtain-raising rituals that open each day: ablutions, breakfast, herding the kids off to school.  Through it all, said loop spun continuously, despite my best efforts to banish it, replace it with other thoughts.

A bit of coffee zapped my brain and clarified what I was hearing.  It was a passage from an extensive piece I’ve been working on.  I realized, with horror, that the word “street” occurred twice in the course of the looping passage, a correspondence I hadn’t noticed, though I work very carefully to marshal the effects of those kinds of repetitions when they occur.  In other words, the text of this piece is full of deliberate repetitions, so I was blasted to discover one I hadn’t noticed before.  Here is the line of text, intentionally puerile, because I was trying to capture an adolescent mind’s first attempts at poetic expression:

Through dusty streets and brambled pathways,
Through snowflake days and streetlamp nights,

As I said, the music for those lines was looping relentlessly through my mind for four hours.  It was as if the piece was doing its damnedest to make me notice the problem and fix it.  Which I did, of course, feverishly making excuses for the oversight – the piece has well over 2000 words of text, these two lines came into this particular confluence late in the game, the repetition is a bit veiled by the compound word “streetlamp.”

After it was fixed, the loop faded away.

Yet another example of some of the craziness one endures in the process of composition.

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