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.