14 August 2018

Recollecting Castelo dos anjos

I’ve written my own self-help book.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

The plunge into this pit I had avoided by the merest of accidents, I knew that surprise, or entrapment into torment, formed an important part of these dungeon deaths.  Having failed to fall, it was no part of the demon plan to hurl me into the abyss;  and thus (there being no alternative) a different and milder destruction awaited me.  Milder!  I half smiled in my agony as I thought of such application of the term.
– Edgard Allan Poe, “The Pit and the Pendulum”

One is often surprised at the juvenilities which grown people indulge in at sea, and the interest they take in them, and the consuming enjoyment they get out of them.  This is on long voyages only.  The mind gradually becomes inert, dull, blunted;  it loses its accustomed interest in intellectual things;  nothing but horse-play can rouse it, nothing but wild and foolish grotesqueries can entertain it.  On short voyages it makes no such exposure of itself;  it hasn’t time to slump down to this sorrowful level.
– Mark Twain, Following the Equator

Eleven years ago today (before this blog came into existence, that is) I was finishing the proofing of Castelo dos anjos for Tapestry.  The ladies of Tapestry had sent me a number of texts, I suppose the idea was that I should choose one, but I liked all of them, and immediately formed the idea of writing a long-ish through-composed cantata.

[1.] “Lá no céu está um castelo — The accompaniment is a kind of rhythm game of interlocking patterns;  the percussion and the voices cycle at different rates.  Additionally, there are some ‘breathing’ departures from the mechanical repetition in the percussion;  and though the canonical relation of the two lower voices is fairly strict, the pattern which begins by fairly regular repetition gradually ‘blossoms’ a bit in counterpoint to the solo.  The florid writing for the soprano here is not literal folk music, but (I hope) something of a ‘lens’ upon folk music.  I wanted to take musical advantage of the fact that the texts of both [1.] and [2.] closed with doxologies;  so for the Glórias here I changed musical gears, not only in the ‘Picardy third’ shift to the major from the Phrygian mode, but in something of a sonic homage to the ritornello-like Lyke-Wake Dirge of Stravinsky’s Cantata.  The doxologies also serve as a break for the percussionist to change instruments.

[2.] “Noite de Natal (a)” — As [1.] started out as a kind of ‘dancing ritual’, with this setting I wanted something brilliant and lively.  The combination of the rapid tempo and the nimble meter changes make this a practicing challenge (I have a knack, it seems, for writing music which resists sight-reading), but I hope there is a musical reward which compensates the labor.  The doxology is a loose inversion of that from [1.]  It ends on a half-cadence in a new key, which waits until m. 188 to take tonal effect.

[3.] Intermezzo — I wrote this so that the percussionist has the responsibility of setting the new tempi at mm. 148, 167 & 188.  The overall effect of the changing tempi is a kind of accelerando, and yet (paradoxically, because of the reorientation of the pulse) to set up [4.] which is the slowest tempo of the piece.

[4.] “Noite de Natal (b)” — Overall an A-B-A' shape;  the A material is a strophic ballad with gradual variation (mostly in the accompaniment).  The opening A consists of three strophes;  the accompaniment at first continues the clapping from the Intermezzo, then the two accompanying voices join essentially as sustaining tones with momentary ornament . . . loosely in rhythmical canon, and with a gradual ‘accelerando’ suggested by gradually briefer note durations.  One of the first ideas I had for the overall piece was tied to the lines where the gallos and pajaritos are singing;  I’ve always known that I should want twittery music for those lines.  On the surface it feels like a change to a quicker tempo, but of course the 16th-note pulse is constant.  Since so much of the piece heretofore has centered on the same pitch as a home, the birds here also serve as a kind of pivot, in inviting us to different keys.  With the return to the A ballad, the bongos return as well;  one strophe is a solo, the next a duet, and the bongos increase in rhythmic intensity. To contrast with the doxologies which served as tempo transitions and ‘breaths’ after [1.] and [2.], tempo remains constant between [4.] and [5.], though the impassioned bongo solo ‘masks’ that continuity somewhat.

[5.] “Rosaflorida — To reflect the similarity of the texts, I wanted Rosaflorida to be both a clear echo of Lá no céu está um castelo,” and yet, to make itself distinct, too.  The bongo pattern is a literal return (in fact, if anything more relentlessly exact in its repetition than the bongos of [1.]).  Generally, where Lá no céu está um castelo carries itself as tightly regulated ostinati contrasting with quasi-improvisatory solo, Rosaflorida instead creates an impression of a denser mesh of more communal improvisation among the three voices (notwithstanding that the mezzo and alto are again in relatively strict canon).  In the soprano line, the literal gestural borrowings from Lá no céu está um castelo sneak in with (I think) a little subtlety, and the ‘chemistry’ between the solo and the accompaniment is a bit like a new creation with similar elements.  The contrapuntal coda, I hope, appears as a logical ‘destination’ plotted from the doxologies which close [1.] and [2.]

In a kind of ‘global reflection’ of the Phrygian mode which dominates [1.] and [5.], the general progression of keys in the piece – A in [1.], G in [2.], F at the start of [4.] but moving to E (which then sets up a return to A for [5.]) – is a descending tetrachord suggesting the Phrygian mode.

At least twice, I have thought of adapting/modifying the piece for other performers.  I may yet do so for Triad, though it would not be until the 2019-20 season.

13 August 2018

Such choirs as dreams are made of

And now commenced the horrid din, the desperate struggle, the maddening ferocity, the frantic desperation, the confusion, and self-abandonment of war.
– Washington Irving, Knickerbocker’s History of New York

We quote from “The Tea-Pot” of yesterday the subjoined paragraph:  “Oh, yes!  Oh, we perceive!  Oh, no doubt!  Oh, my!  Oh, goodness!  Oh, tempora!  Oh, Moses!”  Why, the fellow is all O!  That accounts for his reasoning in a circle, and explains why there is neither beginning nor end to him, nor to anything he says.  We really do not believe the vagabond can write a word that hasn’t an O in it.  Wonder if this O-ing is a habit of his?  By-the-by, he came away from Down-East in a great hurry.  Wonder if he O’s as much there as he does here?  “O!  it is pitiful.”
– Edgar Allan Poe, “X-ing a Paragrab”

Occasionally, I dream of music, of composing music.  That is, I do not dream that I have my pencil poised over MS. paper in my 3-ring binder, but I see a score unfolding, and my thoughts of music affect what appears on the score in my dream.

Most of the time, when I awake and recall the music I just dreamt of, it is not particularly worth recording here, in the real musical world.  I think last night may be one of the exceptions.

Not that it will make a great piece, mind you–that, I do not expect.  Really it is a simple harmonic arc, nothing dramatically novel about it, at all, at all.  Simple material for an easy SATB choral piece, really.  As I lay in non-urgent wakefulness afterwards, I thought of what text to use, and how it should be deployed, which will make the piece a mildly aleatoric endeavor.

Well, we shall see if, two weeks from now, I remember.  Because the plain fact is, that with the Florida travel at the end of this week, and the necessary preparations leading thereunto, I am very doubtful that I should have any chance to attend to this fanciful dream-piece soon.

The pianist/organist in DC whose virtual acquaintance I made not long ago sent a nice message about the Three Short Organ Pieces she bought from Lux Nova.  The message reminded me that I meant to send her the Opp. 4 & 11 piano solo pieces (from the Little Towns, Low Countries re-jiggernaut).  So now, I have.

(I think there is no reason at all why the pieces should not reside both in their Opp. 4 & 11 suites, and in a grand Little T., Low C. series.)

Day after tomorrow, there may be news.

12 August 2018


Some new titles for future use (some of them, old posts which a body forgets):

  • Steely Élites
  • Three Senior Moments in Five Minutes
  • The Fourth Thing I Forgot Yesterday

Listening this morning to “Papa’s” String Quartets Op. 9 № 4 in d minor, and Op. 17 № 6 in D Major, played by the Festetics Quartet.

Driving home on the Mass Pike yesterday, there were stretches when the sky opened up, and the downpour was of such fury that visibility suffered greatly.  Could not stop (which I might have done if I were on, say, Pleasant Street), but happily the motorists ahead of and behind me slowed down, too, and we all continued to maintain safe distances.  Stayed alert, and luckily no accident befell me.

This is the week when the Rapido! contest announces the decisions.

Something like four weeks late, the ACO decision was announced, Friday, or Saturday, I do not know.  We composers whose work was not selected did not receive the courtesy of an email message.  Rather than any complaint at this, it seems of a piece with the degraded professionalism of the endeavor.  The word that comes September from another call, will be courteous, but (I expect) not any more encouraging.

As ever, I need to forge my own encouragement at the furnace of my work.

A week from today, I shall be in Florida, hearing Mei Mei Luo & Paul Cienniwa perform Plotting.  It is a great gift that they are reviving the piece, that I have been made welcome to share my thoughts about the piece with the audience before the concert, and that there will be a “Meet the Composer” reception afterwards.

09 August 2018

The downside of solitude

But, though I love solitude and am never in want of subjects to amuse my fancy, yet solitude too much indulged in must necessarily have an unhappy effect upon the mind, which, when left to seek for resources wholly within itself will, unavoidably, in hours of gloom and despondency, brood over corroding thoughts that prey upon the spirits, and sometimes terminate in confirmed misanthropy–especially with those who, from constitution, or early misfortunes, are inclined to melancholy, and to view human nature in its dark shades.
– Washington Irving, “The Little White Lady”

Six years ago on this blog.  “Sometimes I surprise even myself.”

Although I have (merely as a possibility, not as a genuine hope) wondered if the delay in the ACO announcement might mean that Ear Buds is still in some kind of running . . . I had a lovely catch-up phone call with an old friend yesterday, a fellow composer, whose thesis is, the decision has been made, and the delay is a discourtesy to all the composers whose work has not been selected.  (This is the 25th day of Non-Information.)  He is probably right, but I shan’t spend any time in grievance over such a discourtesy.

This morning, reading the text more closely for the Rapido! contest, they advise that a decision will be announced “by August 15,” which holds out the chance that word may be sent earlier.  Honestly, simply on time will be nice, and will compare favorably to peers.  Chances are good that they will be truer to their stated intention, since the four regional chamber ensembles will need to prepare the music for recitals in the fall.

(Then again–unless those dates, too, are fungible–the orchestra for the ACO call is expected to read the selected piece in September.  I.e., less than six weeks from today.)

By mere chance, my thoughts this morning returned to both Jazz for Nostalgic Squirrels and Thoreau in Concord Jail.  The former deserves, probably, an improved performance, although I do not have any especial strategy for arranging a fresh performance.

As soon as I typed that, though . . . .

07 August 2018

My L'histoire du soldat Tale

There was a time when I wanted to reform television.  Now I accept it for what it is.  So long as I don’t write beneath myself or pander my work, I’m not doing anyone a disservice.
– Rod Serling (1970)

Throw some bread to the ducks instead–
It’s easier that way.
– Phil Collins/Genesis (1979)

You may not be able to do anything about the environment; your work, is entirely your affair.  Even if the environment be implacable, do your best work–and throw it in their teeth.  No one worth his salt will praise you for doing shoddy work, because it is what the environment ‘required.’
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

There is nothing like studying your own score, to give you an intelligent idea of what you ought to tell an audience.  I think I am going to just study for another day, before actually setting to write my notes for the pre-concert lecture, down Florida way.  Which is in 12 days.

A very nice message came in from Mei Mei, saying that the final toccata section reminded her of Stravinsky, and asking if she is right.

You are right.  When I was at the College of Wooster, I played the soldier in a “black box theatre” staging of L'histoire, and the Scene by a Brook violin lick made a powerful impression.

Very fond memories, as my clarinet teacher, Nancy Garlick, violinist Robt Hamilton and pianist Brian Dykstra played the trio version of the music for the production, which was a cooperative venture among the French, Theatre and Music Departments.

How I even got involved was a peculiar concatenation of circumstances.  Although I had gone to Wooster planning to pursue a B.Mus., there was one quarter when I thought I might opt instead for the Music Ed. degree, which had a science requirement.  To fulfill that req., I elected to enroll in Fred Cropp’s already-legendary Intro to Geology course, whose enrolment was large enough that, instead of being held in whatever building where the Geology Dept resided, the class would be held in a large lecture room in the basement of the new building of the Theatre Dept.  It was an eight o’clock class, if I remember aright;  so to make certain that I knew just where to find the class at that uncertain hour of the day, I went to find the room.  As I clambered down the stairs, I ran upon people holding some kind of reading.  The material was in French, and my Junior High and High School instructors had bequeathed me an outsized confidence in my French;  so I thought, Why not?

I wound up cast as the Soldier.  That apparently chance acquaintance with Theatre Dept personnel led at some point to participation in one (or two?) of William Butler Yeats’s Plays for Dancers, and ultimately to my being groomed to audition for the rôle of Salieri in the campus production of Amadeus.

So, as I say – many very fond memories.

06 August 2018

In this weekend's horserace, it's Koechlin by three lengths

When I was down in double-yuh D.C.,
Certain folks were not glad to see me;
I was just tryin' to get out the vote,
But some little weasel musta dropped 'em a note.
It said, "Check out the politics practiced by this oaf,
And if they ain't just right, feed him confinement loaf."

– Frank Zappa (1988)

The golden and silver fish haunted the river, out of the bosom of which issued, little by little, a murmur that swelled, at length, into a lulling melody more divine than that of the harp of Æolus–sweeter than all save the voice of Eleonora.
– Edgar Allan Poe, "Eleanora"

Silence was now commanded by Master Simon;  but it was difficult to be enforced, in such a motley assemblage.  There was a continuous snarling and yelping of dogs, and, as fast as it was quelled in one corner, it broke out in another.  The poor gipsy curs, who, like errant thieves, could not hold up their heads in an honest house, were worried and insulted by the gentlemen dogs of the establishment, without offering to make resistance . . . .
– Washington Irving, "The Culprit"

I have to be honest:  If I don't get my way, the system is rigged.
Porridger's Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

In listening to a few musical works absolutely new to me over the weekend, the magnificent take-away was undoubtedly La Méditation de Purun Bhagat, Op.159 by Charles Koechlin, an utterly enchanting 16-minute tone-poem, in every way the artistic match of Les Heures persanes, Op.65 and Vers la voûte étoilée, Op. 129.  I can see already that I have much more sonic joy to discover in this composer's œuvre.

To be filed under New – yet, not all that new, really:  the eighth and final disc in the Pierre Hantaï box is an all-Telemann affair, the CD misleadingly titled Essercizii Musici, since only some (and an apparent minority) of the pieces are in fact from that collection.  I may have noted earlier in this blog that the booklet includes quite an airy-fairy "imaginary interview with Telemann," which I think must make even Telemann enthusiasts cringe a bit.  All of it is (as I know to expect from this box) beautifully played, and much of the music is strikingly good.  If a "but" belongs here ... at about 40 minutes' worth of listening, I reach the "crawling up walls" stage.  I reserved tracks 16 through 28 for listening the following day, sure that I would then enjoy them just fine.  But right then, half-way through the disc – my ears needed relief.

Back in Completely New to Me land, I gave Boulez's Le Visage nuptial a spin.  This less-than-simple composer, far-less-than-easy character hardly invites a simple thumb's-up or -down.  So . . . I liked it, yet there were stretches when (in an almost Boulezian refusal to give the composer an even break) my face nearly formed into something like a smirk.  For much of it, I was feeling that I should give Zappa much better credit for the orchestral numbers in 200 Motels.  And in the titular movement, I applauded Boulez fully for his shrewd plundering of Les noces.  I shall indeed go back to the piece and should, gradually, be able to listen to it more nearly on its own terms.  But, again, all that said, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

And not at all new, but I listened (again) to the revised Prokofiev Fourth Symphony (Op.112) from the Kitajenko set on Capriccio.  This performance/recording may prove equal to the Ozawa in my esteem.  While I do not feel that there is anything about the original Fourth Symphony which required any "improvement," this expansion acquits itself tidily.  I want, almost out of habit, to append the thought that I'm glad a three-movement, revised Second never happened ... but even if it had, we should still have the original, as well, right?  For the first time in my life, I find myself regretting that we don't also have a revised Second Symphony.

A 'virtual friend' asks:  Just out of curiosity what would you like from a revised second? Would you have it toned down or fired up even more?

Given the context (the composer's health . . . the fire gone out from his belly, perhaps . . . a workaholic musician whose energy was at the last worn down by The System) I expect that what we should have got, would have been a toned-down Second—which, I suppose I am only now discovering, is nevertheless an artifact in which I should take keen interest.  Would I wish a Second that was yet more stern?  Perhaps, like the Fourth, what I might have liked is an expansion, pretty much keeping character.

In other non-news, still haven't heard anything from the ACO call.  Will we hear from Rapido! before a decision is reached in the ACO call?  Will there be a delay in the Rapido! Announcement?  For the answers to these and other thrilling questions, tune in next week . . . .

04 August 2018

Making the best of what's still around

Think of a number.

The number I ask you to imagine is, the total number of times you might expect the writer of a pop song to rhyme (in the same song, mind you) “years” with . . . “years.”  That’s right:  the cheat of rhyming a word with itself.  (And we’re not Puritans—an occasional, coy cheat is not merely permitted in the arts, it can be part of the artistry.)

So:  have you thought of your number?  Take that figure, and add to it 3 or 4.

And now, see if this matches your result:

No matter how slight the defect, it shook my sensibilities.