Archive for March, 2011

Awhile back, I heard a well-regarded poet read her words so woefully on the PBS ‘News Hour’ that I truly could not follow the thread of meaning — the delivery was wooden, and so very artifical.   In response, I wrote this:

The Music in Language
           by Judith Lang Zaimont
           [ (c) copyright 2009 ]

He squawks, he shrieks,
he pounds the tonic accents with such force
      that I, as listener,
      shiver from the assault of passion.

She, a renowned poet,
delivers in so mundane a monotone
       that meaning is lost in waves
       of falling intonation, arbitrarily
       marking the end of every line
               — her delivery, so leached of contrast
                   that all I, a listener,
                   can glean
                  is what she telegraphs:
       This writer’s great detachment from the stuff of words.

Why, over and over
                do we, as listeners,
                suffer a newscaster’s dreary delivery
                in one of just two modes,
                         polar opposites
                        “perky” or “solemn” ? –
No shades of variant meaning
no middle ground.

Why do we, as passengers,
                puzzle through flight attendants’
                irksome unreasoned stress on all
                the small, connective, throwaway words?
Why not stress “life jacket”, “seat belts” ?
They’re important phrases
                whose high freight of meaning
                demands stress at highest pitch.

Actors know.
Actors know the secret of the music in language.

Pacing – let’s have a sliver of silence
               before the keyword –
               a half-beat of nothing.
Color — from shout to whispered syllable
              (perhaps a whisper delayed).
Tempo — a stutter, a torrent, a mechanistic drone.
Add in Pitch to shed needle spots
              right where meaning demands it .
These devices grant message to our delivery.

Music is in all these – and through music
              thus
              meaning.

Yes, we compose our thoughts.
Why not, then ,
              like great maestros channeling a tonal army,
              why not compose our saying of them?

Comments Comments Off

Composers In Mysteries

Step past those tormented, fictional Wagner aspirants in bible-length novels — and for today let’s also set aside Thomas Mann. I’m a mystery nut, and I relish the present-day novels of Sara Paretsky, a mystery master who threads music into almost everything she writes. And in more than one of her books, the composers themselves show up.

Paretsky’s protagonist is V. I. Warshawski (Victoria Iphigenia – Vic for short), a Chicago PI who’s obstinate, cunning, intuitive, a quick thinker, and a general pain in the neck to many of her associates but who sticks with it, thinking through every case even as she hares around the state until the mystery in solved, no matter the bruises or bullet wounds that come her way. The daughter of a singer (mom) and a police detective, Vic keeps a piano in her apartment and often breaks into snatches of aria. (She’s also an expert basketball player and very accurate with a handgun.) Two of Vic’s close friends, both doctors, are Holocaust survivors who support Chicago’s symphony and chamber music scene, so Vic gets to a concert from time to time.

In one Paretsky short story, a composer of the distant past turns out to be an ancestor of Vic’s. And in the layered novel I’m now reading, Body Work, one character is a bassist in both jazz and early music groups, so lyrics by the trobairitz Maria de Ventadorn turn up.

But the most memorable composer appearance is in an earlier Paretsky book where one of the doctor’s sons (a cellist) comes to town with his girlfriend, Israeli composer and piano prodigy Or Nevitzky, whose new chamber piece is premiered and described in detail. — I have to believe Nevitzky stands in for Shulamit Ran, whose bio is virtually the same as the fictional character’s, and who has long been associated with music in Chicago.

It means a lot to come across a composer – someone who does what I do: who worries away at the problem at hand, never letting go until the solution is clear – in a genre book where the genre connotes “action”. Composers often don’t move when we do our thing; we can sit quiet and in place for hour after hour. And we might never be as tormented, as picturesque, as Holmes with his cocaine and dolorous violin, when we’re thinking things out. But we do hang in there until the solution is clear — just like Vic.

Comments Comments Off

Another of Smooke’s 2/22/11 NMBx comments just made me laugh. “Most people’s tastes ossify by the time they reach maturity, and throughout their adult life they seek comfort through repeated encounters with the art of their youth.”

Very Not-So. Born-in-the-bone composers possess a big bump of curiosity about music — about all the arts, about life — which gets scratched regularly, and often. The “non-Pergolesi”s among us know that our individual artistic voices mature over time — that we come into our own just about when a professional baseball player’s career is winding down.

We continue actively to meet music in score and in sound. We constantly evaluate, re-assess, incorporate a new approach or perspective when it works with what we’re all about. We welcome fresh approaches (that aren’t gimmicks), and have no fear to step out, step forward. In short, no calcification!

[ What about academia, you ask? Well… maybe. But I suspect a large part of the slow-to-change, “I-teach-as-I-was-taught” groove comes from the fact that source materials -- anthologies, music history and appreciation texts – just plain do not keep up. But there are fuddy-duddies out there, unhappily. ]

I’m so sure that the next-biggest-thing will be the product of a mature music creator that the annual prize I endow (through IAWM) is specifically for a composer over 30 whose music has not yet been published or performed in a principal venue.

There’s wisdom – seasoned, at that – to discover your position within the continuum that runs from “Time is of the essence” to “All things come to the one who waits.”

~ One happy proponent of ‘hearing it all, all the time’ is Frank Oteri . He often writes in NMBx about his philosophy of openness to all the music out there, as on March 1st: “I’ve attempted to eschew self-selection and try to approach everything with completely open eyes, ears, and heart.”

Comments Comments Off

Music Maker JLZ 26

A recent NewMusicBox column was titled “Changing Tastes” ( Feb. 22, 2011). In it David Smooke discusses, with some wonder, the fact that his musical tastes have changed over ten years.

I certainly agree with one of his observations : “The works that really get my brain buzzing [now] don’t always work in one hearing…. Their elusive logic excites me.” What’s most meaningful here is an underlying acceptance that we’ll want to hear the piece more than once.

This chimes with what Leo Kraft has said many times — that what we get from a first hearing basically is that something in the music calls us back to want to hear it again. The music might delight, irritate, mystify or confuse in a way we find intriguing, but overall it has to have an impact, inviting us back to hear it again.   What music shouldn’t ever do is be so boring, so transparent — or signal so constantly about what we’re about to hear that we know too well what will come next — that it leaves us afterward saying “So what?” That’s death for art.

We have no control over the life circumstances of the people listening to our music. We can’t prescribe how folks take in — process, comprehend – what we put forth. All we can do is remain true to the internal prompts that keep our music vital: that it be fresh in concept and intriguing in its clothing out, that it warrant its length ( short or long), and that it offer something to savor through repeat hearings (and in multiple performances).

[ Recently I heard from a performer who was readying a Naxos disc of my music for next year, that the reason he chose one of these pieces was because it mystified yet interested him when he heard someone else play it – he just had to put it through the rehearsal-performance crucible himself in order to find out what makes it tick. ]

Yes, our age demands lots of product. And some of it is intended to have a shelf-life as brief as a quart of milk’s. But if the intention behind what we do is to make something more durable, then we’ve got to do precisely that – honestly.

============
From Richard Nilsen’s Feb. 27th AZ Republic review of an Arizona MusicFest concert ( Arutunian trumpet concerto, M. Bates “Desert Transport”, Rachmaninoff Symphony #2). His says of one work: “Completely competent, even magnificent in its craftsmanship, but we’ve heard this music before in other contexts. Is that enough to make it musically satisfying?”
But of the Rach: “It was music to break your heart…. When it’s over you come away knowing you’ve been through an experience… of deep, profound emotion.   Competence cannot do that.”

Comments Comments Off