21 June 2018

Painting the Music

Two years ago today saw the first performance of Sound + Sight, the performance piece featuring artists Irina Pisarenko and Maria Bablyak creating two pieces of art before the audience’s eyes.  The composer received input from the artists, requesting certain musical characteristics/elements, and I checked in at wide-ish intervals, the idea being somewhere in between Does it seem that the music is doing what you expect? and Where the music deviates from what you perhaps expected, does it nevertheless feel comfortable?

The construction of the fixed media was a particular pleasure.  Still I vividly recall the impression, when I had finished “cooking” the fixed media, that it seemed complete on its own.  But I took that feeling as indicating, not that that the addition of the live instruments was anything superfluous, but that all the components enjoyed complete integrity.

20 June 2018

At the time, a kind of breakthrough

Two works that I composed ten years ago, may prove to be the most seminal accomplishments in my catalogue.

While there are several pieces I wrote before, in which my pride is scarce less, and which were arguably the last steps leading there – Out in the Sun, the Studies in Impermanence, Castelo dos anjos – in hindsight, I cannot help thinking that the Opp. 91 & 92, The Mousetrap and the Passion according to St John, represent a genuine watershed in compositional confidence and achievement for me.  They are both large-scale works (time-wise, at least – of course, The Mousetrap is scored for only two single-line instruments) and quite demanding (not insanely difficult) for the performers.  I had the great good fortune, thanks to the dedicated endurance of Peter Lekx for The Mousetrap, and of Ed Broms and the choir of Boston’s Cathedral Church of St Paul for the Passion, to have both pieces performed, on the occasions for which I had labored to compose them.

More than once in this blog, Gentle Reader, I have noted how many pieces I have written – and not ostensibly “for the shelf,” but with actual performers, with an actual group, in mind – which still await performance.  So the fact that two consecutive opus numbers, each of them the most ambitious endeavor on my part in their respective genres at the time, both “came to full term,” as it were;  and the additional fact that the performances confirmed for the composer the rightness of the scores – the boost to my musical core was at once immediate, and incalculably far-reaching.

I had made glancing, coy references to popular music on isolated occasion before (“42nd Street” in Hurricane Relief, “I Got Rhythm” in Out in the Sun, e.g.) but in The Mousetrap it became something of a sober obsession, to borrow extraneous musical citations, but to make them organic within my own work.  Perhaps it was something of an exorcism;  I don’t know that I have never done it again, since, but this proved a kind of unburdening.

In the case of the Passion, once I had well established my own psalm-tone (and perhaps had the listener wondering, or fearing, if the whole piece would play out that starkly) I parceled the text out into specific modules, constructing the grand whole out of building blocks, driving at last to the through-composed finale.  I might say that even the glaring mistake of the Passion, I managed to convert into a triumph.  When I traveled south to a friend’s house, as a kind of composing retreat to concentrate on finishing the piece, my copy of the text was incomplete, and I was missing the final few verses.  Back in Boston, when I realized that I was not yet as finished as I had permitted myself to think, the final Burial music came to me practically immediately.

I think back ten years, and I see that the pride I can now take in the Viola Sonata, the First Symphony, and the Clarinet Sonata, has its root in what I learnt from the experience of The Mousetrap, and of the Passion.

19 June 2018

The musical day, 17 June 2018


11:00 Handbell Choir rehearsal.  First time reading the parts I marked up for the Behnke.  Of the four ringers, two are "subs."  We also had our flutist, to whom I had gotten a part only the day before.  With such a rehearsal, you know that things will not start out perfect, nor do you demand that we reach perfection by the rehearsal's end.  This anthem is on for Sunday the 24th, so it's Do or Die.  We're Doing.

12:15 JSB, Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, BWV 125 on the drive back to Woburn.

ca. 14:15 A nap.

17:40 Holmboe, String Quartet № 13 on the drive to Somerville.

18:10 Enter Clarendon Hill Presbyterian Church.

18:30 Carol launches the pre-concert warm-up/touch-up with Seven-Line Supplication.  We have basically 5 mins per number.  For Hariyu, I target two passages, and then yield, figuring that some other item on the program will want an extra minute, at a juncture when time is a precious commodity.  For Green Is the Color of Its Flame, time insufficient to run the lot.  There's a request to run "my" Allargando.  Everything on the program feels good.

ca. 19:30 Triad withdraw to the (notably cooler) basement.  I close my eyes, relax.  Do not actually sleep, of course.

19:55 We line up.

20:05 Concert.  For Hariyu, I add a new bit of "choreography," in stepping aside the stand and crouching for the piano, 6/8 passage; performance sharp, energetic.  The Agnus Dei goes especially mellifluously;  highly satisfactory.  For Green Is the Color of its Flame, my challenge is, especially, to respect the pianist's activity (i.e., that I not rush);  performance warm, solid, optimistic in that peculiarly Thoreau way.  The entire concert went very, very well.

21:15 Après-concert.  The host of the venue warmly congratulated [Triad as represented by] me on "an excellent concert";  he's worked with us/me several times over the years, so we did indeed manage to make an especially strong impression.  A couple of members spoke me encouraging remarks viz. my conducting, for which I am grateful;  I can certainly stand to do better, as with any performance.  One singer paid me the great compliment of saying that in this performance, the final cadence on pacem was especially affecting.  Another asked me how I felt about the tempo, if it was "what [I] had in mind" for the Agnus Dei;  I explained that I wrote the piece with the idea that, depending on the size of the choir, and on the performance space, the tempo would be malleable – that I did not have a single, "correct" tempo which was the necessary ideal.  I assured her that the composer was entirely satisfied with the evening's performance.

21:45 Holmboe, String Quartet № 13 on the drive home.

18 June 2018

From the Archive :: June 2008

18 June 2008

In rehearsing The Mousetrap, Pete and I have found that it runs a bit longer than I’d expected earlier on. And it’s a lunchtime recital, and quite a few fellow workers here at the office will turn out . . . so we can’t have the concert running long.  Regrettably, then, I’ll strike Blue Shamrock from today’s program, and figure on including it in a program later in the year.

20 June 2008

Now it can be told: I had a blast on Wednesday.  Pete is such a damned good player!  The performance of The Mousetrap, notwithstanding its distance from Strict Perfection, amply justified my speculation in writing such a behemoth of a chamber

I hadn’t thought about it in a while;  yet when I was asked the inevitable question, yesterday, about what tie-in the title has with the piece, my former thoughts had settled into something approaching coherence.

The title comes from Hamlet.  The play-within-the-play is The Murder of Gonzago, and yet when Claudius asks, Hamlet tells him the name is The Mousetrap.  Generally, in the background of the composition, were thoughts of how Shakespeare on one level, drew frankly from existing dramatic sources, but created something of excellence which is all his own;  and on another level, has a distinct dramatic event which is an organic piece of the whole.  Part of my thinking in the piece was, a new (for myself) approach to including ‘found objects’, and also variation in representing the object.

Now, I started writing a piece for Pete and me to play together almost exactly a year ago.  Originally it was going to be a relatively brief piece . . . and sparse and atmospheric.  But there wasn’t the time to wrap up composition and get even an easy piece rehearsed in time for the recital, so I set the MS. down.

By the time I took it back up, I had decided on a somewhat grander plan.  Part of this may simply have been, that in my mind, it was a slow-sustained piece for a long time now, and compositionally I wanted to write a burst of activity to contrast.  Even in the early stages of the composition, I had included an ‘organic quotation’, though something pretty obscure and with sentimental value here at home, to make Maria and Irina smile . . . an allusion (though not, in The Mousetrap, in waltz-time) to a waltz used in the Gary Cooper / Audrey Hepburn movie Love in the Afternoon, called “Fascination.”  Soon I was not only broadening the compositional scope, but making a game of composing an environment whose ‘orbit’ might capture various bits from the literature.  Part of what was going on, too, was likely the fact that in writing for viola, I had in mind Shostakovich’s references elsewhere in both the Viola Sonata and the Fifteenth Symphony.  And my own fascination (!) with enlarging the piece was partly a matter of building on the Studies in Impermanence . . . thinking that, having managed a block of 20 minutes with a solo wind instrument, it must after all be an even easier accomplishment with two instruments.

Imperfections of execution notwithstanding, response to the piece was warm, from listeners with a variety of musical background.  A friend of mine has served as a recording engineer intern at Symphony Hall this past season (and she is going to go back to school for more studies this fall).  She very graciously fetched in her gear and recorded the recital; she sounds confident in the quality of the resulting production.  Before I actually get my own hands on the recording, she is going to clean up such things as, the rumble of the Red Line trains regularly passing underneath the Cathedral . . . .

17 June 2018

The Mousetrap of Yore

Ten years ago today, violist Peter Lekx & I were rehearsing The Mousetrap for a 18 June 2008 performance.

My notes from 17 June 2008 include the notation:
Just for the record, Pete is still calling me “evil.”
Few enough have earned the right to sling that adjective at me . . . .

16 June 2018

Back where it began

Here am I, at the Ear Buds place again.  The dream of a young man in the woods, listening.

Working Wherever

And today, at The Composer’s Movable Workplace:

For the second consecutive time (so, yes, it has the appearance of being made a habit) I brought my laptop with me, to work on a task for the HTUMC Music Program while I waited for an oil change.

As befitteth a composer, the timing was perfect:  I had reached the final double-bar of the flute part which I was attaching to Dr John A Behnke’s Now All the Vault of Heaven Resounds just as the announcement came over the intercom inviting me back to the Service Area.

Tomorrow morning, we rehearse the handbells;  and we put it all together Sunday the 24th.