In 1903, the US Army gave Samuel Pierpont Langley an enormous sum of money to build a steam-powered aerodrome. Huge crowds of onlookers and reporters gathered at the launching site: a tall scaffold mounted on a houseboat. The engine gradually built up tremendous power, creating an increasingly deafening sound — before the aerodrome dropped off its perch and fell straight down into the Potomac River.
I’m reminded of this story because I just received the first edits from my recording sessions with the Daedalus String Quartet. The fourth movement of my second quartet, from 2002, is called “Langley,” in honor of this auspicious event. Like the other five movements in this quartet, it is a fugue. I’ve attached the sound file here, in case you are wondering how this composer would go about making a fugue sound like a colossal screwup.
And if you are wondering why a composer in the early 21st century is writing fugues, well, you’ve come to the right place because I’m going to tell you.
There’s a lot of music out there of all stripes that I find appealing and I’m very glad it exists. Just because I like/love/admire/respect a certain type of music, though, doesn’t mean I should try to emulate it. My music reflects my deeply held beliefs and desires. As long as I’m a living composer and I’m writing the music I want to hear, I’m fulfilling my obligation as an artist, which is to share a vision that balances the world I perceive and the world I imagine.
There are several threads of inquiry in my music, but one of them is an interest in how we resolve musical conflict. Conflict is a part of my everyday existence, from geopolitical events in the news to choosing a pair of socks in the morning. Sometimes I resolve these conflicts through negotiation, sometimes I put them off through denial, sometimes I plow through them, sometimes I deflect them with humor. And sometimes I have to just learn to live with them.
Traditional forms like fugue get a lot of their impetus from the way that conflict is channeled and resolved. When I use one of these forms I look for ways to understand conflict and work toward resolution using some of the means at the disposal of a 21st-century composer. Along the way, I gain a deeper understanding of relationships in general, of cause and effect, of the limits of existing responsibly in an imperfect world.
So when I hear someone say that these traditional forms are irrelevant to contemporary life, I shrug, because it seems to me that they are as relevant as you make them. Again, I don’t think everyone should be doing what I’m doing – that would be ridiculous. But I think a world in which nobody was doing what I’m doing would be a poorer one.
I had a lot of fun writing the fugues in this quartet, especially when I realized that a fugue subject needn’t be a monophonic line. Using sequences of chords or just sounds as my subjects opened up all kinds of wonderful contrapuntal possibilities.
Incidentally, a few days after Langley’s fiasco, the Wright brothers made their first successful flight on the North Carolina coast — and nobody noticed. A century later, it’s comforting to know that the mismanagement of government funds and the obtuseness of the media are not inventions of our own time.
And the amazing Emerson Quartet played No. 5 in Seattle last night. I was very sorry not to be there. Haven’t heard anything about how it went yet, so I guess it’s safe to assume no tomatoes were thrown. And here’s the very nice review from last Saturday’s US premiere.