In the last few days, I’ve started working on a clarinet and piano piece in which I’m experimenting with some harmonies and phrase structures I’ve avoided in the past.
Meanwhile, a good chunk of my time this summer has gone into the second and fourth movements of my fourth string quartet (I’ll get to the third movement once I have the second and fourth worked out). I began this piece back in 2002; it’s one of a set of six quartets I’ve been working on since 1998, each of which zooms in on a specific aspect of Classical form with a complexity of viewpoints that would have been impossible 200 years ago.
The first quartet – Jests and Tenderness – focused on the Classical scherzo, digging beneath the surface of humor and unearthing a core of rage and despair.
The second quartet – Flight – concerned itself with the sensation and mechanics of flying, by turns rapturous, comical, innocent and menacing, in an array of six fugues that vary in faithfulness to the Classical model. (For example, the subject of the first fugue is a texture, rather than a line.)
In Air, the third quartet, I used 18th-century aria form to study the way we breathe and the way we respond to and affect the air around us. (This piece may be premiered in November in Sofia, Bulgaria, although that performance is not set yet. It will definitely get its American premiere here at the NC School of the Arts next January.)
Now this fourth quartet. The title is Rounds: it’s based on the Classical rondo, but with explorations of everything that roundness can imply – canonical rounds, circles within circles, cyclic themes, smoothed timbres, etc. In keeping with the rondo concept, it is also the most light-hearted of the six quartets, with dance club music exerting a substantial presence in the second movement.
Why would I put so many years into a project like this? Partly in order to challenge myself, to make a creative investment that goes beyond simply capturing the sounds that careen around my head. There’s a great joy in just letting music flow (which I’m doing in the clarinet/piano duo), but there’s also a deep satisfaction in spending years working through the ramifications of a single idea. Hopefully, when I’ve come out the other end, I will arrive at a deeper comprehension of design, tradition – and life itself.
But the reason I’m investing all of this time and effort into finding contemporary relevance in old ideas is because I feel like the world I live in has enough people going for novelty. Nothing wrong with new things – I’m rather fond of them myself. But a balanced boat has both bow and stern. I see so many people chasing after the latest headlines with little awareness or memory of where we’ve been. Many others engage the past simply for its sentimental value, rather than for greater awareness and perspective on the present.
I assume that a great piece of music is going to keep my interest as a listener. With this cycle of quartets, I’m looking to keep my interest as a thinker. I am trying to make an honest, open-eyed assessment of who we are, part of which involves having a deeper understanding of who we’ve been. I can’t guarantee what I will end up with, but I have my sneaking suspicions.
Some people won’t hear the music for the concepts, believing without listening that there can be no value to writing sonatas and fugues in the 21st century. But there will be others who will give me credit for doing what I have to do, regardless of fashion. Either way, I’m very curious to have the whole set completed – at this pace, probably another five years or so. When finished, hopefully there will be a double benefit: six terrific pieces, and a better composer.
Of course, I can’t help being reminded of the old joke about the composition student who complained, “I’ve been working on this passage for months, and I just can’t get it to sound spontaneous!”