Greetings from Germany, my host country for the next two-plus days. I’m here in Cologne for the premiere of my fifth quartet, and this is as good a time as any for me to write about the piece.
But first I have to ask – what’s with those people who jostle to be first to board a plane that’s not taking off for another 40 minutes? Isn’t eight hours enough time to get familiar with a seat you will never see again, a seat that certainly won’t respect you in the morning?
Okay, got that off my chest. Back to the music.
There are a number of threads of inquiry in my music over the last thirty years. Some of them I’ve been consciously aware of as the years plod on, some I’ve only realized in retrospect. One path I’ve been both conscious of and surprised by is my engagement with the heritage of Western Classical music. I’m sensitive to the fact that this isn’t a popular avenue for the composers to follow these days, but follow it I have, for reasons I find both compelling and perpetually puzzling.
The personal end of this journey is a natural outgrowth of my youth: from infancy I was surrounded by the sound of older siblings practicing the piano, playing an unpredictable stream of canonical works and appropriately cheesy, adolescent fare.
Looking out my window, I see the imperious Köln Dom, and I’m reminded that a younger me couldn’t have come this close to Bonn without visiting Beethoven’s birthplace. At this point, though, I’ve seen enough birthplaces to realize that they are often less than illuminating. Similarly, although my youth would tell you a lot about my music, I can’t say the hospital I was born in has left much of a mark.
On my music, that is.
So offer to take me to Bonn c. 1780 and I will jump, but visiting in 2010 doesn’t tempt me.
In any case, I’m working in the Western Classical tradition for more than nostalgia, or the comfort of the familiar. More than any other music I know, I love the way the Western Classical tradition has tackled the problem of conflict and resolution. Many composers prefer to avoid any whiff of this paradigm, and I admire some of their results, but for me, the resolution of conflict is one of the essential problems of existence. I experience conflicts, large and small, internally, socially, politically on a daily, even moment-by-moment, basis. It feels urgently necessary that my music take part in exploring the possibility of resolution. Composing music that faces this conundrum head-on is my flask of five-hour energy.
Speaking of which, I hope I can find some, because airport security confiscated the four flasks I packed. Not cool to fall asleep halfway through the premiere of one’s piece.
If I haven’t made it clear by now, I’ll say it outright: I’m writing the kind of music I write not because I think it is inherently superior to other kinds of music, but because it is the music I relate to – viscerally and intellectually – most closely.
Following this particular thread has led me to compose a cycle of six string quartets, each of which takes on a traditional form in extravagant fashion. (Mind you, I’m not trying to capture the sound of the past, I’m using traditional principles of organization to understand the sounds of the present.) Each one has covered the ground I set out to cover, and yet each one has revealed things to me I never could have anticipated.
The fifth quartet may be the most ambitious of the lot. Its four movements are all variations on a single theme, the Welsh melody All Through the Night. The first movement is a Theme and Variations, the second a Chaconne (variations on a harmonic progression), the third a Passacaglia (variations on a repeated figure) and the fourth a set of Fantasy Variations, or variations on an extramusical idea.
In addition to the variation principle, the more-than-thirty-minute piece traverses through the night, with an introduction and coda that evoke the shimmering, elusive quality of light just after sunset and before dawn, loose inversions of one another.
The first movement, Theme and Variations, is clearly laid out folowing Classical expectations, with one exception: the theme itself, in its initial presentation, is elongated, the sixteen-bar melody stretched out to almost three minutes of tranquil music. As I told the musicians, the danger in this passage is to do too much with it, to overplay. Instead, it needs to be beautiful the way a starry night is beautiful, not by calling attention to itself, but just by being vast, immediate, and yet impenetrable. This, by the way, was the toughest passage to write. I was questioning my sanity beginning an enormous piece with so little action.
But then, sanity is never the goal.
When the theme concludes, the fun begins. There are twelve variations, one in each key following a pattern set up by the Twilight introduction. Of the twelve, nine are playful, whimsical, at times turning the serenity of the theme into subject matter for slapstick. The other variations – the fourth, the eleventh and the twelfth – connect the theme to the era of its roots. The fourth is in a twisted French Overture style, the eleventh is a lament and the twelfth is a simple, four-voice canon in fifths.
I’m actually surprised at how well this movement has turned out. I’ve always had a problem with theme-and-variation form. It’s difficult to strike the right balance between a stop-and-start series of vignettes and an overly continuous form that renders the theme unrecognizable.
Answering that challenge, and creating a coherent tonal world that can encompass both a diatonic theme and distant chromatic wanderings was wonderfully absorbing. I never tire of stretching my skills and imagination with these kinds of projects.
Here’s the layout of the first movement:
Theme (All Through the Night)
11. Strong – Fragile
The twilight passage uses a tonal scheme that combines octotonic trills with vague quartal sonorities. The theme, as noted above, is in a spacious, attenuated C major. It ends with broken-off half-cadence. Variation 1 is as short as the theme is long: it lasts about 7 seconds, and it ends with a perfect-authentic cadence, like crashing into a brick wall at full-speed.
For the second variation, the cello, which has a raunchy version of the theme, is marked “bari sax.” I suppose I could have come up with a more technically orthodox way to express the sound I was after, but David Finckel seems to understand exactly what I’m looking for.
And this is a good time to bring up a bit of info that helps explain a good deal of the character of this piece. I’ve known David for 35 years, ever since I attended the summer music camp his parents ran in Vermont as a teenager. Although this wasn’t part of my thinking when I embarked on the piece, I kept having images of Vermont woodlands come to mind while I was composing. Also, I kept thinking of David’s father, Edwin Finckel, who was my first composition teacher. He was a wonderful musician and I learned a lot from him. He was also one of the funniest men I’ve ever known, with a droll delivery that made even the most casual comments seem hysterical – we campers loved to sit around and cackle at some of his best lines. I think a lot of his character has influenced this piece, especially the first movement – again, 8 of the twelve variations are marked “Playful.”
Where the first variation runs into its cadence full speed, the second variation has a bar of rest, as though it forgot where it was going. The third variation gives the theme to the violins and viola in triple- and quadruple-stops. Instead of just stopping at the end, it has a 3-bar transition to the fourth variation, which ends with a true half-cadence followed by a two-bar, accelerating transition leading to the fifth variation. The fifth variation then accelerates into the sixth variation, which has a perfect authentic cadence followed by a distinctly wrong note — #4. The seventh variation obsesses on that wrong note, and ends with a rallentando transition into the eighth variation. Variation eight ends with a mock-cadenza in the first violin over a cheesy VII-I cadence (that’s right, a major triad on the leading tone).
The ninth variation cadences with a chromatic twist. Variation ten transitions into eleven, which is the only variation that’s not in a single key (more on that later). Number eleven concludes with a deflected cadence and a transition to the final variation, which concludes somewhat abruptly in the relative minor.
Why have I listed all of these cadences? To me, this was the key to finding the right balance between the grocery-list approach to variation form and a more satisfying formal flow – varying the conclusions of sections. As I wrote a few feet up the screen, I’m interested in exploring the ways conflict can be resolved, or not resolved. The conflicts I encounter in my life can sometimes find workable resolutions; other times I have to simply blunder through them, making the best of a bad situation. Still other times I come up with a resolution that creates another conflict. In fact, there are countless possible approaches to resolving conflict, and each can spawn a variety of outcomes. Again, that’s a critical reason I’m engaged in this artistic pursuit – art feeds life and vice versa.
Tonally, I was dealing with a diatonic, major-key theme, which creates its own limitations. Having an atonal (or actually polyatonal – see above) introduction enabled me to stretch the tonality of the theme over the course of the variations, so that only the theme itself and the final variation are diatonic. As I wrote two paragraphs ago, the eleventh variation is not in a single key. Instead, I went in the other direction from chromatic inflection: I built the entire variation using only major chords. In a way, the eleventh variation celebrates the majorness of the theme at the expense of its tonal center – the first phrase begins on a D Major chord, winds its way through five other major triads before concluding on a C# major chord.
A side-note: in one way, this piece reflects a marriage of the two foremost aspects of my musicianship. I’m Germanic on my mother’s side, and half-Welsh on my father’s side. Taking a Welsh melody and subjecting it to central-European development feels like I’m reuniting two souls within my own. And how is that American? Well, for that I can point to art critic Peter Schejldahl’s observation that American art is a marriage of the vulgar and the sublime.
Es is genug. Time to go explore this city. More later.