So here it is:
First of all, let me thank all of you for taking part in this festival, and for inviting me to take part in this festival. To me, an event like this is an affirmation of the power and relevance of art, the power and relevance of the music of our time, and the power and relevance of gathering together like this, for peaceful purposes, to think, to speak, and to listen.
I have been asked, on this occasion, to talk about my music. Talking about my music is a little awkward for me, for a number of reasons. First, going on at length about myself feels pointlessly egotistical, like a closed circuit, looping back on itself. Second, my music is both the most public and the most private part of my existence: the music itself is public, of course, but what I think of it feels very deeply private. Third, I have an irrational fear that talking about what I do will somehow have a negative impact on the actual doing – I am the type of person who would rather drive the car than look under the hood. Fourth, it is misleading to tie musical ideas into neat little packages, because everything I say involves a decision not to say ten other things that are equally pertinent. And finally, music, like love, is just a very challenging topic to verbalize: there is a narrow margin between anaesthetizing the subject with jargon and drowning it in gushy platitudes.
Nonetheless, the nature of this occasion calls for me to overcome these inner objections and to try to share some insights into what makes my music hum. And hopefully a little time spent examining the engine together won’t do you or me any permanent damage.
Although I like to think that my music covers a lot of ground, all artists have themes and issues that recur throughout their work. In my case, there are three of these recurrent themes I’ll be sharing with you today. First, I have long had a fascination with the musicality of spoken text. Second, I’m very curious about my musical heritage, about finding connections between the European art music tradition and the world I live in here and now. And finally, I am a big fan of musical humor, something I know many composers shy away from.
I am going to play excerpts from five of my works for you this morning, five pieces that illustrate these three concerns.
We’ll start with my interest in connecting with my Classical heritage. Let me first make it clear that I don’t in any way regard this heritage as somehow superior to any other heritage – it just happens to be what I know, what I grew up with, what I’ve studied, and what interests me more than any other.
First I will play some excerpts from a piece called Amadeus ex machina which will be performed here tomorrow night by the orchestra – I’m looking forward to dropping in on a rehearsal a little later today. Amadeus ex machina is a whimsical re-imagining of Mozart’s 40th symphony from the perspective of a sophisticated – but somewhat disoriented – machine. Themes are mixed and matched in odd combinations, key centers are skewed in unexpected directions, and Mozart’s entire composition is condensed into a ten-minute soundbyte. The resulting work can be experienced in a number of ways – as a study of contemporary society’s relationship with its cultural heritage, as a commentary on the interaction of art and technology, or simply as an affectionate spoof of one of the greatest compositions in the Classical canon.
The title comes from the deus ex machina – literally, “god from a machine.” The deus ex machina was a theatrical device in ancient Greece whereby a god was lowered to the stage in a crane to resolve seemingly hopeless plot complications. Likewise, in this piece, as hopelessly tangled as the materials appear to become, everything turns out just fine in the end.
To illustrate how the piece works, let me first play the opening of Mozart’s 40th.
From this opening, I lifted two things: the first two notes of the main theme [sing] and the fast repeated notes [sing]. You’ll hear those two ideas form the basis for the opening of my piece. I’ll play the first minute of Amadeus ex machina.
So, those two gestures — the fast repeated notes and the two-note motif – are adapted and distorted into something that sounds a bit more contemporary.
Likewise, here is the beginning of the last movement Mozart’s 40th.
Now I’ll play the last three minutes of Amadeus ex machina,and you will hear [sing the two motifs] along with the first theme of the first movement providing pretty much all of the material.
Now, why would I take an old piece and distort it this way? Because it brings me face-to-face with who I am, and where I’ve come from. Grappling with material that’s over two hundred years old makes me keenly aware of the meaning of historical time, of the things that have changed, and the things that haven’t. It’s a postmodern impulse, and it always makes me think of Charles Newman’s definition of postmodernism: He called it “the violent adjacency of pure expressivity and pure accessibility.”
As I said, Amadeus ex machina will be performed by the orchestra here on tomorrow night’s concert. Another piece of mine on this festival that has ties to Classical tradition is Furies and Muses, a quintet for bassoon and strings. Each of the four movements is based on a Classical form: Sonata, Aria, Scherzo and Rondo. Which gives me an opportunity to speak a bit about how I approach traditional forms.
Some traditional forms are very straightforward, and can be adapted to a contemporary language quite readily. The scherzo movement of Furies and Muses is a good example. As many of you know, scherzos are traditionally in ABA, or ternary, form. In this piece, the A section is in a fast and furious — almost cartoonish — triple meter. The B section is a mock-heroic duet for cello and bassoon. I’ll play the entire movement, which is just under five minutes long.
Hopefully, although I’ve told you that these first two pieces are examples of my interest in traditional Western music, you will have recognized by this point that they also demonstrate my love for musical humor. In fact, this dual interest – traditional form and levity – reflects my genetic heritage in ways that I find both reassuring and slightly spooky. My mother’s side of the family is German; my father’s side came from Ireland. Although it’s a bit simplistic, it’s not inaccurate to say that these two sides have merged in my music. The German genes believe in rigorous form, while the Irish side believes in not taking itself too seriously. Which is not to say that my father lacked structure or that my mother has no sense of humor. In fact, I suspect those are among the qualities that attracted them to one another in the first place.
As long as we’re on the subject of my gene pool, this is as good time for me to tell you how I got into composing in the first place. I started piano lessons when I was six. I immediately fell in love with my teacher. She was an older woman – I think she was 23. I remember my first lesson: she put my fingers on the keys and showed me where the notes were on the staff. I had no choice: I had to go home and write her a love song. The following week, when I gave it to her, she was delighted. I didn’t have the nerve to tell her how I felt about her, so instead, for the rest of the year, I showed up each week with a new piece.
Unfortunately, my courtship technique didn’t work – after a year of lessons, she married some other guy and moved away. But I was stuck – I couldn’t shake the habit, and I’ve been writing music ever since.
Getting back to my approach to form: again, ternary form is pretty straightforward, as that last scherzo demonstrates. Sonata form, however, is a bit more complex. For me, ternary form is architecture, but sonata form is more akin to drama. In a Classical sonata, conflict is presented, developed, then resolved. I’ve been experimenting, over the years, with sonata forms in which conflict plays out in various ways: instead of simply being resolved, it may lead to further conflict, if that is the nature of the material. In my first string quartet, from 1998, the first movement presents a conflict between a parody of heavy metal and a parody of neoclassicism. Here is the first theme, which is the parody of heavy metal.
That loud and rather monotonous theme is pitted against a second theme that awkwardly strives to achieve the textures of Neoclassicism:
Over the course of the movement, the conflict between these two themes is developed, but rather than being resolved at the end, the heavy metal theme wins out, pounding the neoclassicism down to a bare whimper. So we have a sonata form in which the first theme destroys the second. I didn’t plan for this to happen, I simply created the two characters and let them interact with one another in a way that respected the integrity of each character, each idea. And this is what I mean by approaching sonata form dramatically, rather than architecturally: musical ideas are treated not as building blocks, but as living individuals, and the form is a result of their interaction over time. I find the sonata form principle particularly interesting in this regard, because it gives us the opportunity to examine how we deal with conflict. How do we deal with conflict? What could be more important? What could be more important in these times than to constantly reconsider and refine how we handle conflict?
As I said at the outset, the third recurring strand in my work is an interest in combining music with spoken text. I love the quirky, syncopated rhythms of American English, whether it is sung or spoken. Over the years, I’ve developed several ways of integrating music and spoken text, sometimes using a complex system of cross-cuing, so that it becomes difficult for the listener to discern who is following whom. Here are the first five minutes of Wright Flight, a piece for three actors, projected images and orchestra that tells the story of the first flight at Kitty Hawk by the Wright brothers. After an orchestral introduction, you will hear the voice of the narrator, one of the witnesses of the first flight. Then you will hear the words of Wilbur and Orville themselves — who, of course, ride onto the stage on a tandem bicycle. You’ll have to imagine the projections: they are all photographs taken over a hundred years ago, mostly by the Wright brothers themselves. Here is the opening of Wright Flight:
Over the course of some 30 minutes, this piece uses original letters and diaries of the Wright brothers to build up to the moment of that historic flight, and then to trace the aftermath. The orchestra mostly follows the spoken text, although there are some orchestral cues for the actors as well.
The text functions in a traditional way: to tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end. The last work I will play for you this morning approaches spoken text in a somewhat more unusual way. The piece is called Appendage, and it’s something of a song cycle in six consecutive sections. In the excerpt I will play, the text is fragmentary, constantly shape-shifting, some of it spoken, some of it sung.
This is a passage of about five minutes, from the middle of Appendage:
In the beginning of Appendage, all you get are incoherent fragments, mostly spoken: gradually over the course of some thirty minutes, these fragments cohere, with sung lines becoming more and more prevalent. The piece concludes with a completely sung, plaintive lullaby for a lost child. The excerpt you just heard comes from about halfway through the piece.
Again, I love the interaction between music and spoken text. Each of them has an immediacy that the other lacks, and the poetic potentials of the spoken word and music complement one another on a number of levels.
So those are a few of the ongoing concerns that underlie my music — spoken text, humor and our Classical legacy. Again, I find it very challenging to talk about these things. I’m reminded of composer Ned Rorem’s words on this subject: “Speech is man’s most confused and egocentric expression; his most orderly and magnanimous utterance is music.”
Nonetheless, I hope that spending this time under the hood with me has been at least a little illuminating. I am happy to answer any questions you may have, after which I’ll be getting back behind the wheel at the next available opportunity.