I’ve been engaged in a fascinating dialogue with a listener who heard my fifth quartet played in Seattle last week. Our email correspondence was made all the more intriguing by the fact that he “disliked the piece immensely.”
Negative criticism is just as valuable as positive if you are in a frame of mind that can turn it to good use. My listener’s reaction was initially based on the perception that “weak material” – ie the All Through the Night tune – couldn’t support the narrative weight I put on it.
I countered his point by citing some of the many great variations from the literature that are based on nondescript material, asserting that the purpose of the form is to make much from little. My critic acknowledged my point, but maintained that the trochaic nature of this particular melody was too limiting. At that point, it became clear that he was bothered more by my decision to write a set of variations than by the melody I chose to vary. In his words, “Why not just write some good quartets that might incidentally employ formal means such as these, but without making of them a centerpiece?”
I’ve written frequently in this space about my interest in traditional forms, so there is no need to go off on that topic yet again. It’s a concern of mine that no listener is required to share, and I’m pretty sure the music can be enjoyed without giving a hoot about the form. Instead, I’m happy to tip my cap to a listener with strong predilections, and accept his reactions as a sign of respect for my work. After all, if my music had made no impact, he could have just dismissed me without remark.
Our discussion, though, allowed me to put some of my thoughts about the theme into writing, so I’ll take advantage of the opportunity to share them here:
It took me eight years, once I had decided to write a quartet of variations, to decide on an appropriate theme. I had three criteria: 1] the theme should be a famous one, 2] it should be very simple, and 3] it should have some personal resonance.
I wanted a famous theme because its familiarity would allow the audience to hear exactly what I was doing. In the first movement, I wanted to create a set of variations that would be crystal clear, as opposed to variations that disguise the theme within inscrutable textures (that was the job of the inner two movements, and most of the fourth). Also, a famous melody allowed me to drop it completely out of sight, as it were, for close to 20 minutes before it emerges, in fragments, at the end of the fourth movement.
I’ve alluded above to the reasons I wanted a simple theme [simple themes tend to have more potential for growth -- in this way, music is very much unlike economics: the less you have, the more you can do]. All Through the Night couldn’t be simpler: it has an AABA form, and the last three notes of the A are the retrograde of the first three. In fact, those three notes are the thread that weaves through the fabric of the entire composition, so the organizing material is even simpler than the All Through the Night melody in its entirety. Having such a repetitive theme afforded me another luxury in the first movement: since the A phrase is heard three times in this melody, I was able to do 36 different things with it over the course of twelve variations.
Finally, I wanted a theme that had personal resonance because I needed a reason why my variations wouldn’t have been written by any other composer. The All Through the Night melody, familiar to me from childhood, gave me an opportunity to explore some of my deepest existential fears in the fourth movement. The details of those explorations are of no interest to anyone but me, but the grappling involved is something we all share, and something music has a remarkable ability to illuminate.
There’s a nice review of the Seattle performance here. And this discussion provides an appropriate time to mention that I spent three summers in my mid-teens at a music camp called Point Counterpoint. Nestled in a serene Vermont forest, PCP hugged a beach on Lake Dunmore, provided intense musical activity from daybreak to nightfall, and stimulated my imagination in ways I’m still trying to grasp.
Back in those days, the camp was owned and operated by the Finckel family. Now it soldiers on under other management, but it appears to be having the same impact on young folk now that it had back then.
The composition of this fifth quartet seemed to conjure up ghosts from those three adolescent summers, a time when I discovered romance with a small r, avant-garde music with a capital X (for Xenakis), and a lifelong passion for weaving disparate elements into sturdy little webs of sound.
So here’s to Edwin and Helen Finckel, and all their compliments and admonishments – I’m still hearing them, much to my astonishment, from both fans and detractors.