This summer is the tenth anniversary of the premiere of my Furies and Muses, a piece that really marked a turning point in my output. As part of a residency with the 1997 Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival, I was commissioned to write a piece for the festival musicians. I wanted to write for the Cassatt String Quartet, a resident group I admired, but I didn’t particularly feel like writing just for quartet, so I decided to write for quartet plus one wind. I chose bassoon for two reasons: first, it seemed like the least hackneyed wind partner for chamber strings, and second, because the Cassatt Quartet members told me the festival bassoonist, Jeffrey Keesecker, was very good.

Now Jeff has organized a tenth anniversary performance at the International Double Society Conference in Ithaca this Friday night. Joining him will be the festival string quartet, comprised of Susan Waterbury, Jennifer Reuning Meyers, Melissa Stucky and Heidi Hoffman.

When I accepted the commission, I decided at the outset to steer clear of composing yet another contemporary work that inscrutably meandered from one gesture to another, choosing instead to explore Classical forms, to see if I could find some contemporary relevance in centuries-old concepts of balance and development. I had attempted this on a small scale a couple of times, but Furies and Muses was my first crack at large-scale, four-movement, Classical structure.

I was working on the suspicion that the conventional wisdom regarding Classical forms – that they were outdated and irrelevant – was worth reexamining. I had a belief that one of the central goals of Classical form – the presentation and treatment of conflict – still had cultural relevance.

The first movement of Furies and Muses is a sonata form in which the conflict between the two themes, rather than being resolved in the end, is exacerbated. The diverging paths of the two themes – one increasingly aggressive, the other increasingly passive – led to an extended coda that had nothing to do with the sonata form proper: it’s a long, rhythmic pedal canon on C#. In effect, it is a retreat from conflict, rather than a resolution.

For the second movement, an aria, I thought I would try composing a sempre rubato, a piece in which the tempo constantly fluctuated. Almost every measure contains an accelerando and a ritardando, while the overall tempo gradually speeds up over the course of the piece. I think the musicians must have thought I was nuts when they first saw the music, but once they got the hang of it, it really came off well. I’ve written about this movement before – you can find a detailed description, as well as a recording, here.

I wrote the third movement, which is a scherzo, in one weekend, while sick in bed. It was a three-day weekend – I wasn’t well enough to go into work on Monday, which bought me a little more time to compose. The piece has a delirious quality to it — a testament to the mind-altering capacities of flu medicine. You can hear the entire movement here.

The piece ends with a rondo, about which I was the most concerned. Of all the classical forms, rondo and variation are the two that I’ve found least frequently successful. I think this rondo ended up carrying more weight than it should have – a problem I’ve also experienced in some of Brahms’s final movements. It’s not bad, but it taught me a lot about formal balance – especially the challenges posed by overweight finales.

What taught me the most, though, were the nearly ideal rehearsal and performance circumstances. Over the course of two weeks, the Cassatt Quartet and Keesecker rehearsed daily, for hours, buffing every measure until the whole piece really shone. They spent an entire afternoon on intonation, figuring out the best way to tune every sixteenth note. There were three performances at the festival, followed by a fourth performance here seven months later – which gave me an opportunity to take all the lessons I learned in rehearsal and revise the piece, making sure I gave every moment as much consideration as the performers had.

The attention paid off: I’m never completely satisfied with any of my works, but Furies and Muses, at almost 30 minutes, comes pretty close to pleasing me.

And this interest in Classical form has paid off as well – turns out I was onto something. The following year I embarked on the Invisible Cities String Quartet Cycle, which has taken me to artistic destinations I never would have encountered otherwise.

At the time – late 90s – I didn’t really guess that questions of how we deal with conflict would take on such pivotal importance culturally – I was interested in these issues for personal reasons. But here we are, ten years later, faced with a world in which these questions couldn’t be more pressing.

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