20 August 2017

Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto & me

Reading in Haydn Seek today:

We have seen in the past how Haydn’s concertos, in particular, have been rescued from total oblivion because one copy survived. The two cello concertos and then the horn concerto both lived this dream. And to them, we can add this trumpet concerto to the list of the fortunate. One, and only one, handwritten (by Haydn) copy exists in the Gesellschaft Musikfreunde in Vienna. Photocopies of it allowed for the first performance in England in modern times to occur. This was by Ernest Hall, in a BBC broadcast, presumably with an iteration of the BBC Orchestra. This broadcast of 30 March 1932, as part of a programme celebrating the bicentenary of Haydn’s birth, was the single beginning of a whole new appreciation of Haydn and his music.

To draw a line:  The renascence of general interest in Haydn owes something—owes much—to this inter-War broadcast of a concerto, a concerto with more-than-average interest for a concerto of its epoch, owing to the historical curiosity of the instrument (“...Christoph Friedrich Nessmann developed a version of the keyed trumpet in the 1790’s that he dubbed the Inventionstrompete” per Mike McCaffrey’s outstanding blog)—and this Concerto comes down to us via a single extant copy in the composer’s hand.  That the restored reputation of one of the greatest composers in Western history should (viewed from one angle) depend upon so slender a thread as a single manuscript is breathtaking, and even vertiginous.

Of the concerto’s second movement, Doctor McCaffrey writes:

... the feature of a modulatory passage from Ab major to Cb major in which the trumpet is a full participant had to be mind-blowing for the audience. These parts are only playable on a chromatic trumpet. But I am not so much of a technician as the writer above [Aaron Moore]; I am rather more enamored of the virtual musical poetry which Haydn wrote here. And I grew up in the heyday of Swing and Jazz trumpeting, so chromaticism on a trumpet is no big surprise to me. I can only imagine what concert-goers who had only ever heard fanfares and the like must have thought and felt about this emulation of a voice singing a song.

The Trumpet Concerto was my first Haydn experience:  we played a band transcription when I was in high school.  In fact, at that tender age I knew hardly any Mozart or Beethoven — I cannot say with absolute surety, but I should be surprised if the first LvB I heard was not courtesy of Chas M. Schulz’s Schroeder;  so playing these notes of “Papa’s” in an ensemble, as a young man, was really my entrée to the soundworld of the Classical Era.

The soloist, Steve Falker, was in the class one year ahead of mine, and was then, certainly—possibly is still, if we could put the question to the test—the best trumpet-player I knew/have known.   Our band director, the late Ray Heller, was a trumpeter himself, and had been an army bandsman;  and indeed, Steve’s facility with the instrument set itself in my ear as a benchmark of what one may expect from the instrument—to the undeniable discomfiture of more than one trumpeter I have met in the years since.  The combination of playing Haydn’s exquisite music, and with a wonderfully superior musician, was for me a musical watershed.  Which will explain why I must recuse myself from any pretense of impartiality about the Trumpet Concerto.

The additional holistic angle to the timing of the Haydn Seek post is, a week-ish ago I wrote to Steve to tell him about a piece I am presently working on, a jazzy adaptation of the JS Bach Wachet auf! Chorale Prelude for brass quintet, and he wrote back that he does play in a quintet which will be glad to read it.

To return to 
“Papa,” and related to Doctor McCaffrey’s note in his blog post:  at that tender age, I didn’t know from Theory (no really good reason why it had dropped out of our high school curriculum at that day), and it was the sheer poetry and the ebullience of the music that made an immediate and enduring impact upon me. And if (as consensus considers) the delay between composition and first performance of the Concerto was a result of Weidinger needing to tame the beast in order to serve the piece, there is no doubt that the superb beauties of the piece were a motivation to practicing into its technical and musical challenges;  and the project seems to have cemented rather than tried the friendship between the trumpeter and the composer.

19 August 2017

Saturday Morning Jukebox

String Quartet Op.9 № 2 in Eb (Hob. III/20)
Festetics Quartet

String Quartet Op.9 № 2 in Eb (Hob. III/20)
London Quartet

Call it an honest disagreement over the interpretation of Moderato . . . the Londoners play the first movement with measurably more breadth than the Festetics (whom I do not find in a rush there).

As the man said, it’s all good.

String Quartet Op.54 № 1 in G (Hob. III/58)
Amadeus Quartet

String Quartet Op.50 № 1 in Bb (Hob. III/44)
Buchberger Quartet

Trio for flute, cello & fortepiano in G (Hob. XV/15)
La Gaia Scienza

String Trio № 1, Op.34
(a first listen!)
Trio Zimmermann

String Trio, Op.45
Trio Zimmermann

Ave verum corpus, K.618
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Overture to Così fan tutte, K.588
Berlin Radio Symphony

Sacred Concerto № 24, I will lift mine eyes unto the hills
Russian State Capella
Valeriy Polyansky

String Quartet Op.130 in Bb
Emerson String Quartet

From the vault


My Muse bids me work up the Passion setting.

I didn’t plan it, but then, you may plan, and your Muse does just as she lists.

Having got the proofing of the Castelo dos Anjos score, and the percussion part, entirely in the can, there is the elation of the Job Done at last.

And the arrival of the Stravinsky box has maddened my ears like wine; these recordings are sounding so good, my enthusiasm for Igor Fyodorovich (which has never been inactive, mind you) has been restored to a pitch I have not experienced since my heady student days when each new Stravinsky score was a delightful discovery.

Of course, my Passion will not be especially Stravinskyan . . . but, howsoever that might be . . . .

As I laid my head on the pillow, musical ideas for the Passion setting came to me. And my sleep last night was unusually restful, so that I was awake at around 4:30, and couldn’t go back to sleep (didn’t feel in great need to, either) for all the musical thoughts of the Passion.

Ed Broms sent a “pre-season” message out to the St Paul’s choir this past weekend, and among the highlights he alerted the choir to, he mentioned my Passion setting (yes, if anyone asks you if it is nice to have a music director who has such respect for your compositional work, you tell him that the adjective “nice” doesn’t begin to cover it). When Ed mentioned that I would be writing this, at one of the last choir rehearsals last season, the choir responded very warmly.

Anyway, this message of Ed’s this past weekend ‘remindered’ me; and, I don’t know, the combination of having wrapped up Castelo, of having my musical mind open to the next fit of inspiration, and not least the earnest welcome from Ed and the choir—I’m just ready to write it.

Since composers such as Arvo Pärt and Ivan Moody have already creatively addressed a “back to the pristine beauty of traditional Orthodox chant” sensibility in their lovely Passion settings, I feel I want to do something a bit otherwise (not otherwise than lovely, I don’t mean). On the opposite end of the spectrum (maybe), the Bach Passions feel from our perspective (perhaps) a bit less like liturgical devotion and a bit more like concert monument (I do not mean by this simplification to cast aspersion on Bach, who was certainly devout, and who wrote the music as devotional). So my feeling is (and I think this is conditioned not only by the need to suit the St Paul’s performing forces, but musically) to use a discreet instrumental accompaniment; this is also probably something of a seed planted by Liszt’s Via Crucis. There will be plenty of unaccompanied singing, and probably the instruments will never all play at the same time, but I am using viola, Baroque cello, organ and drum; possibly also some medieval harp; this will make use of instrumentalists of the choir, and yet will leave a manageable mixed choir to sing.

And so:  10 years ago, not only was my Passion not yet composed—I was still planning on an accompanied setting.

10 years; so much has happened.

Although the first performance at St Paul’s was so well received (that Good Friday of 2008), no repeat performance on Tremont Street was to be.  However, there were the two exquisite performances given my Sine Nomine under the committed direction of Paul Cienniwa.

The Passion was the first large-scale Henningwork (considering the Evening Service in D as a kind of ‘anthology’ of smaller-scale pieces, although all composed together and to the purpose;  and setting aside White Nights which remains incomplete even at presentthough not for long).  And such a success, that from it all my subsequent musical boldness may be said to spring.

Many pieces which I wrote before the Op.92 remain (I believe) as good as I have ever written.  But the Passion is clearly (in the arguably obsolete sense from the old craftsmen, as the work which first demonstrates mastery) the Henning masterpiece.

17 August 2017

When Cutting Loose Is Letting Go

I spent two weeks in Costa Rica where I attended a continuing education class for yoga teachers. Here the daily practice of letting go physically, mentally and emotionally set me up for the months ahead. Slowing down, breathing and meditating are tools that I have used daily as I moved through the unknown.

In this blog post, Karen DeGregorio relates her experience of leaving one job (after 30 years of work) and not knowing just what the next step might be. Of stepping aside from the apparent logic of immediately lining up the next job. Doubts about paying the rent, apprehension over how that Gap would “look” on her CV.

Much less personally urgent, is the need to find a new organist for Holy Trinity Church. The most immediate parallel to Karen’s story is, the church were cautious about releasing the present organist, because we do not yet know where the new organist will come from. That caution, arguably, made the church more tolerant than the situation warranted, of recent conditions.

But it was necessary to let go, even if the net is not in sight.

The new choir season—which is always an adventure—will feel even a bit more adventurous still. But we shall find whom we need to find. Yielding to any feeling of urgency would be an error: A failed search is preferable to an unsuitable appointment.

We have subs lined up for the months of September & October while the search proceeds. And while the future is in part unknown, it is nothing fearful.

15 August 2017

From SpongeBob Scarlatti, Dear Lord, deliver us

Yes, Virginia, there is nothing wrong with Art which supposes an audience who grow into its appreciation. “Targeting the young”? Whatever for? As if Moby-Dick would be all right, if only it were more like The Cat in the Hat.

13 August 2017

Pagination Adventures, Some More

Eleven years ago, when it was my privilege to serve as Interim Choir Director at the Cathedral Church of St Paul in Boston, I composed a fresh Evening Service in D.  We were to sing it during Lent, so the choral music is unaccompanied, and there were interludes played by a pair of trombones (tenor and bass).  The Canticles for this service may be my first Latin settings (I had set the Evensong Canticles in English before).

All in all, it is probably not practical ever to publish the Op.87 as a complete set:  it is hypothetical in the extreme to suppose that any church would (again) make use of it as designed.  So I have been concentrating on the Canticles.

The octavo of the Magnificat is a puzzler.  I doubt, if we keep the staves at 6mm., that we can keep it to 4pp.  It fits to 4pp. readily with the staves at 5.5mm.

There is no rush to find a solution to the puzzle.

The performance of the Evening Service in D in its entirety may remain a once-in-a-lifetime endeavor (rather an odd thought, really).

henningmusick: Less had been more

henningmusick: Less had been more

So five years ago today, I was griping about the spectacle at the closing ceremony of the London Summer Olympics.  Happy to report that I do not visually remember most of it;  so the reminder is amusing rather than sick-making.

That London had so much to celebrate then, however, I rejoice.  It is sobering to reflect how little London (or the US) has to celebrate, this year.

12 August 2017

Early and Uncharacteristic

I just find it amusing that you came from somewhere.
Marcella in Grosse Pointe Blank

Thursday and Friday, I listened to a string quartet written in 1905 by Anton Webern (two different recordings, in fact:  the La Salle Quartet, and the Quatuor Diotima) and—at long last, we might say—the Symphony in Eb, Op.1 by Stravinsky.  The obligatory half-joke:  the quartet is the longest piece I’ve ever heard by Webern, at 12 minutes (even the Passacaglia runs under 11).  In large part (not that this should be in the least surprising) it is rapturously Wagnerian in tone, even while exposing the young composer’s predilection for short, tight motifs.  But then, that is the interest of these early works is it not?  The mix of elements proper to the composer himself, which will wax stronger as his craft matures, and the reflection of the musical environment in which he is schooled.

The Stravinsky Opus 1 is a piece in which I had never found myself interested before.  The theme here, perhaps, is that these early pieces are of necessity curiosities, but not therefore mere curiosities.  From the time of my earliest fascination with Stravinsky—a musical fascination which has endured alway—my ears have been practically insatiable for items of his catalogue unknown to me, how obscure soever, provided the piece was after a certain point.  Still, the early Symphony is included in the Big Stravinsky Box, so it has always been available, and there is no especial reason to shun it.

Call it yet another demonstration of the difference between thinking (let alone reading) about something, and experiencing it.  In a world where orchestras occasionally program the first three Tchaikovsky symphonies, “even though” they’re “not as good” as the Fourth through Sixth (not that there’s anything wrong with that) I ask myself whether there is any reason for the orchestras not to (infrequently) program the Stravinsky Op.1, which is arguably at least as good as the early Tchaikovsky symphonies.

It was really a refreshing surprise to hear the start of the Allegro moderato, and feel that it was no great distance from a piece which Sibelius might have written about the same era.  To be sure, there are many passages of the Symphony whose character is in line with the Rimsky-Korsakovian/proto-Stravinsky style which reaches full assurance in L’oiseau de feu.  I found the Largo especially gratifying, as (to echo the remark made of the Brahms First) a kind of “Tchaikovsky Seventh.”

10 August 2017

The Barber Befriended?

“Strange! that you should not have suspected years ago—centuries, ages, eons, ago!—for you have existed, companionless, through all the eternities. Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane—like all dreams...”
— Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger 
“A comedy about killing people? Like, that is just so awful.”
— Lana Todd in Why Begins With W

Word just in from an old, old schoolmate—and we may have found a home for a brass quartet or two, and even for the soon-to-be-completed quintet, Sleepyheads, Wake Up!

Il barbiere ladro has struck up a fresh friendship;  pending the return of the other party (the party of the second part) from the west coast.

Thanks to the ongoing championship of Ensemble Aubade, my Oxygen Footprint will float among the Green Mountains a week from Sunday, in Weston, Vermont.  And the composer will be in attendance!

Methought this would be the summer of being able to get together with some pianist, any pianist, to read the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano.  The summer is not yet concluded, but faith, it is looking none too promising.  Its day will come.  But, not this month.

E-mail confirmation has come in that my submission of Quijote and the Scarecrow has been received.  And a decision should be made by 1 September.  One hopes, though the breath be not held.

And my arrangement of Precious Lord will be sung in Delray Beach, Florida on 22 October.

09 August 2017

Arrangements, arrangements

In response to a general call, I arranged some three choral works for brass quartet (variously configured).  Since then, I have learnt that what is wanted is more technically challenging music;  and there is time to consider new and specific work.  After White Nights has been finished.

True to my fleeting mention here, I prepared the arrangement of Kurosawa’s Scarecrow for string quartet.

And I have adapted Nun of the Above for my great friend Peter H. Bloom.

08 August 2017

A few thoughts

Always, a composer first; an adopter/user of method second (if at all).

My own reasons, and not those of any other, whether of the well-established, or utterly obscure.

In my timeline, I am an active participant, but of it I am hardly the controller. I stand ready to answer for my participation;  but for the timeline itself, I shan’t apologize.

The quality of the work is what matters. Circumstances which do not socially favor nor materially promote my work, are out of my control.  My composition, I can control.  Doing good work, is the best answer.

The quality of the work is what matters. If I am pleased with the volume of work I have created, it is because that volume has served my own purpose, in refining my craft.  Never have I been obliged to create anything to the demands of another person or body to my artistic detriment;  where another person or body has been a participant in the process, the project has been consonant with my musical inclinations and interests.

Said Samuel Johnson, No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.  He lived in a different era, a different culture—we might almost say, a different world.  If I had written only when I was to be paid to write, my body of work would be scant indeed.  It would, in fact, be less than the present bucket of paid-for pieces, because I should have written too seldom to have learnt to write, and I should have been out of the path of most of even those ducats which have found their way to me.

Always, a composer first; an employee second (if at all).

06 August 2017

Readying for the Press

The work this morning was (most appropriately) the Mass, Op.106. The need to get the Lux Nova Press edition of the Gloria ready for purchase and use by Triad is the driver. My default format choice is apt to be Letter, because that is what I print on. But we need it to fit on octavo size, and the staff size should be 6mm . . . and to fit some of the systems with brief passages for solo voice, I had reduced the staff size of the Gloria to 5.5mm. The final guiding factor is, the fewer the sheets we can fit onto, the better (keeping cost of production, and cost to the customer, down). My initial go at bringing both page and staff size into compliance succeeded only in fitting the Gloria onto six sheets (23pp. of score).

The especially good news, though, is that given these guidelines, I have this morning puttered with the layout of all the numbers of the Mass. Not surprisingly, the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei all fit handsomely onto two sheets each. The conversion of the Credo required quite a bit of management, mostly because of the variety of textures . . . like the Gloria (and I do not much see how this can be helped) it fits onto six sheets.

05 August 2017

henningmusick: Still at work on the turkey (T-giving ’15)

henningmusick: Still at work on the turkey: I’ve told my buddy Jonathan of the Midtown Brass that I was working on a new arrangement for them (I don’t think I told him yet that this is the jazzed-up Wachet auf!).  And in the back of my mind was the thought, Do I continue work on that, now?  I am unsure I can get it done in time for it to be useful for their Christmas events (it’s a piece they will want to practice, and from here through year’s-end, chances are they do not have much practice time.

So, a little digging in ye olde blog, and lo! I learn that I started this in November of 2015.  So I ought instead to have considered how unsure I had been that I could get it done for Christmas, period.

I have resumed work today, and my sense is that I do not want to rush this at all.  Chip away, some work (not necessarily little work, but no great effort) each day . . . I think this will be the right way both to maintain a sensitivity to “old Bach,” and yet to show respect for the source-material also, in getting my irreverent jazz-ish arrangement just where I want it.

The November 2015 start to the score was, in fact, a scant 8 measures.  But, 8 mighty tasty measures, I still think.  Today the score runs to m.32, so a 300% gain;  and I am going to consider myself pleased with that degree of progress (I did toss out / recompose some of today’s material as part of The Work).  And in fact, I am entirely happy with these 32 measures.

More tomorrow.

Next sally in the Trek survey

“Return of the Archons”:  I’m not sure I understand why O’Neil and McCoy had to be taken to a special location in order to be “absorbed,” while Sulu appeared to have been “absorbed” right out there on the street, and just before he was transported back to the Enterprise.  Nor am I certain how, when one of the first bits of exposition about the society is a “Festival” which involves looting and lasciviousness, Landru can later claim that he has created a society with no evil and none of “the ancient vices.”   Those cavils notwithstanding, great fun to watch.  An early anti-A.I. pamphlet, we might say.

“Space Seed”:  I probably watched The Wrath of Khan the season that it was released, yet it is only now that I’ve watched the “prequel.”  Overall, sets up the great feature film well.  My general caveat (which seems so far to apply to the series as a whole) is:  while it is almost always at least good, even when at its best, it tends to suffer from being a creature of its era.  Of course, it were unfair to consider this a “fatal flaw.”  But I suppose that one naturally considers this a disappointment in the genre of science-fiction, wherein the audience is invited to reflect on how much better things are in the future.  All that to say that, it is philosophically disappointing to find Khan praising the (arguably mutinous) Enterprise crewman as “a superior female,” when (begging your pardon) all she seems to have been is, devoted to him.  Not the evaluation of a “superior intellect.”

“A Taste of Armageddon”: I was certain that I had seen the actor who played Anan 7 before, and lo! I had, indeed: it was David Opatoshu, who played Mr Jacobi in Torn Curtain. And now I see that he has played in The Twilight Zone, so I will consider feeling embarrassed that I do not remember his face therefrom.  Of the population on the wargames planet, there is only one woman who has lines, she is mostly decorative, and she ceases to be a player entirely once Kirk places her under house arrest.

“This Side of Paradise”: Particularly good, I thought, though one could only wish that there were addictive/parasitic conditions which could be fixed simply by a snit of violent emotion. The Girl Who Always Loved Mr Spock was a fun element. One could argue that the storyline is a bit of a re-tread of “The Naked Time”; or, even, Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a happy resolution.

“The Devil in the Dark”: This is one of the shows I had actually seen before, but only in b&w, and never (as I learnt yesterday) from the very beginning. So some of the most interesting aspects of the screenplay were new to me last night, such as Kirk going 180°, from shutting down Spock’s reservations about killing the last of the species, to talking Spock down from firing upon the Horta as Kirk and the alien were in confrontation.  This show’s quarrel:  The first 2-3 victims are overcome by something that looms as tall as they.  But then when we see “the monster,” it’s the love-child of Pizza the Hutt with a roomba.  Jests aside, great episode.

All in all, even as I have an occasional cavil, I consider the series a success (“I believe it has given general satisfaction,” says Jeeves) and I enjoy it entirely.

04 August 2017

The bird at my back. Not. (One hopes.)

The sound of one wing flapping:  it is not necessarily someone giving you the bird behind your back.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

Over the years, I have built something of a fleet of pieces created with specific performers in mind (and, at times, written upon request), but which for a variety of reasons were not performed at the time.  (One reason in some cases is, that I wrote a piece harder than the situation warranted, or welcomed;  I want to be fair, and disclose that the composer may be to some degree ‘at fault’, at least at times)  A significant part of the fleet have never yet been out of the garage.

As I reflect upon this state of musical affairs, and reflect upon What It All Might Mean, Gentle Reader, I think often of (for instance) the Prokofiev Second Symphony.  Its fate was very different from that of the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony, which the composer (we might say) pulled from the stands of the Leningrad Philharmonic, and then kept sealed tight in a strongbox, because its content was such that a public performance would only have sunk Shostakovich into hottest water with Moscow.  No, the Prokofiev Second was performed, and in Paris, where presumably the audience was disposed to be favorable.  The composer remarked that [neither he nor the audience understood the piece], and wrote to his friend Myaskovsky, [“I have made the music complex to such an extent that when I listen to it myself I do not fathom its essence, so what can I ask of others?”]  He would disclose that the experience of the Second Symphony left him [doubting his abilities as a composer for the first time in his life];  and at the end of his life a projected revision of the Symphony was on a to-do list, and already assigned a new opus number.

It pains me to say this about one of history’s great composer’s, but he was (in my firm opinion) dead wrong:  the Symphony is masterly.

(Of course, practically any of the great composers might be dead wrong now and again;  it does not alter their artistic greatness.)

The very first I heard the Symphony, I’ll admit that it puzzled me.  In hindsight, I consider this in part a matter of suggestion, the negative evaluation of at least one musicologist (apparently “confirmed” by the composer’s own doubts–see “Dead Wrong,” above), and in part the recording which I first heard, which is now not among the recordings of the work which I should recommend.

Well, there was (I think, clearly) a point at which Prokofiev believed in the piece, substantially and possibly completely.  But apparently, that point was prior to the performance.  Afterwards, his belief in the piece (and indeed, in himself as an artist) was shaken.  I’ll go out on a limb and speculate that it was not a great performance – not so much because the composer himself wondered as a result if he had not (in Rod Serling’s rich phrase) given birth to a turd – but because of the piece’s complexity.  I should be very surprised if Koussevitsky had ample rehearsal time to do the score justice.

So, when mulling on the music of mine which has sat unperformed, I think about the Prokofiev Second – a piece which (apart from a disastrous première performance) was never performed in the composer’s lifetime, and to which he took a musically unfounded, but (understandably, emotionally) severe objection.

While each piece must be considered on its own, I do occasionally visit the garage, and turn the ignition, just to see if I still like the hum of the engine.  (There: I think I’ve teased that simile quite enough.)  I believed in the piece when I first wrote it;  do I believe in it still?  Does it “need something”?

This week is not the first time I have revisited Counting Sheep (or, The Dreamy Abacus of Don Quijote).  I went through it completely, prepared morally to give it a thorough overhaul, while preparing a new Sibelius file of the score.  Apart from recasting the changing meters of the balletto quasi flamenco passage (–not because there was anything orthographically wrong with the notation, but because it was the rare instance of my having found a notational solution in Finale, which I have not been able to duplicate exactly in Sibelius–) I found no substantial alterations to be made for artistic reasons.  I revisited it again, in preparing an alternate scoring (for “Pierrot-plus” ensemble).  And this week, I am visiting again with this alternate instrumentation, as I prepare to submit it to a call for scores.  I like it.  It is a piece challenging for the players (but to a team of professionals, I am doubtful that the piece would be any serious obstacle) but, I think, rather an affable piece for the audience.  I do not believe that the MIDI does the piece proper justice – well, MIDI does no piece proper justice.  Let me say instead, that the sound of the MIDI is much more of a hindrance, than it is for several other pieces of mine.

No knowing when the piece will at last enjoy its première.  But in the particular hand of poker with the musical Fates, the composer stands pat.

Mr. Serling’s “Turd” Simile:  A Side-Bar

The experience of my own nearest the shock of the d minor symphony disaster for Sergei Sergeyevich, must have been a choir rehearsal many years ago, the first time the choir rehearsed (read, really) my unaccompanied setting of the Advent Responsory “I look from afar.”  I did not recognize my own piece.  Truly.

It got better.

03 August 2017

Sheep & Scarecrow

You cannot collect the rejection slips, unless you send in your work.Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

About this time last year (though undocumented in the blog, hélas) a new music ensemble, domiciled nearby (and a Henningmusick connection with one member) called for scores. Not very surprisingly, they were overwhelmed with submissions (including three scores of mine, hereinafter detailed).

It was very difficult to choose only 16 pieces from 896 submitted (<2%) with a constellation of logistics and curatorial decisions in play, so please do not think this reflects poorly upon the quality of your creative work.

Of course, when the volume is as great as that (just shy of 900, for Mercy’s sake) a ‘rejection’ is nothing personal—success becomes a kind of lottery. Still, let me consider how I might possibly improve mine own chances.

The three pieces I submitted were:  ...illa existimans quia hortulanus esset...., (very nearly) what everyone was expecting, and Things Like Bliss.  Of these, the first two are duos, and if one priority was to involve as many of the group as possible, these would naturally be set aside. The last is a quartet, but perhaps it just didnt grab them. I own the piece entirely, and stand ready to perform it as soon and as often as circumstances permit;  there is no denying that its gentle, pastoral character will not stand out as “colorful” from among a pack of 900 scores.

The present plan, then, is to prepare a scoring suited to this ensemble of Counting Sheep (or, The Dreamy Abacus of Don Quijote); and, I have already adapted Kurosawas Scarecrow for string quartet (though I want also to apply tremolo to some select passages).

So, we shall see.  These two scores address my speculation as to why last years submissions were not selected;  but obviously, its all a spin of the wheel.

Of course, I could “Threnodize” the scores—give them new titles with electrofyin sociopolitical relevance, and see if that dressing increases their chances out there in The Jungle.

Wont do that this year. But if my work is passed over again, I vow to do exactly that next year.  Purely as an experiment, you understand.

02 August 2017

Picnic at Packanack

We cannot soak in the same jacuzzi twice.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

First, there was the piece I wrote for my handbell choir:  Pavane (Memories of Packanack Lake).  Then there was the remix of excerpts from rehearsal takes of the Pavane, to which I added (treated) vocalizations and my blue plastic recorder.  Then I decided that I wanted to add a gloss in the form of four phrases (and a final cadence) played by a live quartet:  Kurosawa’s Scarecrow (Memories of Packanack Lake).  The k a rl h e nn i ng Ensemble will perform this on our October program at King’s Chapel.

Sunday (I believe it was) I composed phrases 1 & 2.

Monday was true to its nature, and when I returned home late in the afternoon, the experience of the workday fell a good deal short of the descriptor invigorating.  In fact, the rocking motion of the bus as it lurched along I-93 lulled me to sleep.  Once at home, I was more than half-inclined to just laze through the evening, but then I thought, I can manage one of the remaining phrases . . . and so I did.

Tuesday evening, I wrapped up phrase 4 and the final cadence, began the process of populating the parts with cues.

Earlier today, I had the idea of an alternate scoring (string quartet), and I have just finished that adaptation.

01 August 2017

henningmusick: Progress

henningmusick: Progress: Last night, Fair Warning reached more-or-less completion, a fiery-eyed tiger of a piece which I am a little astonished to feel that it is music I have written. There are many things I am pleased with, and that wee astonishment is one of them.

Seven years ago today, the news from my writing-desk was the Viola Sonata, which would be so passionately performed by Dana Huyge and Carolyn Ray in the jolly town of Rochester.  The Reader will pardon me, I hope, for ruminating a bit.

Thumbnail background:  When a mere slip of a boy, I played the clarinet in high school bands, and was introduced to (among other musical wonders) exciting modernist band works by Peter Mennin, William SchumanPaul Hindemith.  The Symphony in Bb by the last was especially a seminal experience, and my dreams of composing music of my own may well date from that experience.

While in St Petersburg, I got to know and love Russian Orthodox men’s choir liturgical music, which at once reinvigorated and enriched a love of choral music dating back (also) to my high school days.

When I arrived in the Boston area, the opportunities which first arose for Henning composition, my first few Massachusetts years, were for the most part modest (in both scale and musical technique) occasional pieces for use in church.  This body of work (with the rare exception of a genuine turkey) I am perfectly content to own, musically.  If, however, I should meet an orchestra conductor, or the director of a chamber group dedicated to new music, and introduce myself as a composer, when I reported that my recent work was of the kind that it was, the other person mentally dismissed me as “a church musician” – of itself, a worthy occupation (whether the other party understands so or not), but an evaluative decision which rendered me a nonentity in their ears.

Opportunities to write music for large ensemble came to me only rarely:  there was The Wind, the Sky, & the Wheeling Stars for the Quincy Symphony (written at an invitation from Yoichi Udagawa, in late 1999), and I Sang to the Sky, and Day Broke for orchestral winds & harp, written for the Clemson University Orchestra (after I responded to a call for such works from Andrew Levin in 2000).  Given that one’s craft improves by writing more and more, my craft was not going to be served well if I wrote large-ensemble works only when specific opportunities arose – and this was the Primary Idea behind the genesis of the ballet, White Nights.

And now, Gentle Reader, you may well be thinking, Hell of a thumbnail! and I apologize.  Between the music for use in church services (which could not in most senses be adventurous) and the large-ensemble music written either for an occasion (Quincy and Clemson) or on spec (the ballet), I had done quite a patch of composing in (to use the adjective in a thoroughly positive sense) an ingratiating style.  When Dana approached me for a Viola Sonata, however, I knew how free the rein was which I had, and I knew the musical uses to which I might put it.

So at long last, this post is in effect to thank Dana for the opportunity to write a major chamber work, of an elementally vigorous nature.  It is a musical success upon which I have built since.

31 July 2017

Approaching Night the Third

The thing about having started a large-scale project in 2003, and its necessarily changing in many details (and somewhat in scope) during its early gestation, and the project being of interest to not much of anyone other than the composer, so that there is no external demand for (to put it curtly) efficiency and speed of production, so that after getting a chunk of the work done, you leave the project on the shelf (if an electronic folder on your hard drive is a “shelf”), and returning to work after a loooooong interval . . . you take or leave the old scraps of ideas on a case-by-case basis.

Witness the breakdown of Night the Third in the I-forget-just-when-I-drew-it-up outline:

Probably out of a default inclination to give it ‘weight’ roughly equal to the second, we see Night the Third divided into four Scenes, running a combined duration of 20 minutes.  It is so long since my thinking ran this wise, that (again) it is only the testimony of the document which reminds me of the fact.  I abandoned this sketch for a number of reasons:

  1. There are not four Scenes – it is one Scene, and this outline mistakes a change in tone or principal character for a scene-change.
  2. Each change in tone has here been amplified into a full, discrete ‘aria’ . . . why is that a problem here?
  3. Unlike the dramatic opportunities afforded by the flashbacks of Night the Second, in this Scene we have only Nastenka and the Dreamer.  These two dancers already have a full evening’s work, as it is;  dragging this Night out to 20 minutes will make the composer liable to accusations of abuse.
Reducing the Scene to a single through-composed number, playing out a series of contrasting moods and running less than seven minutes, is good for the dancers, good for the audience.

(And, incidentally, good for the composer.)

30 July 2017

For October, a Scarecrow

Today saw excellent progress on the wind quartet “glosses” upon that remix &c. I made of my handbell choir piece, Memories of Packanack Lake. The “combined” work will be called Kurosawa’s Scarecrow (Memories of Packanack Lake). I’ve composed two of the four phrases, which will come in at spontaneous intervals. Probably I shall compose a final cadence, as well. The overall idea is that the two elements are definite/fixed (the fixed media, and the live quartet phrases) but that the way they combine is indefinite, improvisatory.

29 July 2017

henningmusick: Intermezzo makeover

henningmusick: Intermezzo makeover

This morning saw the successful execution of this “to-do” list. My on-the-fly-ish modifications at [J] struck me, at the last, as unsuitably over-engineered. Judicious application of the Less Is More principle carried me into the solution's waiting musical arms.  Intermezzo II is substantially as I “finished” it in 2006 (which predates the launch of this blog);  all the changes are organic, yet transformative;  the piece is recognizable, but also recognizably improved.

Night the Second is now complete!

There is time now to rest from White Nights, as I need to apply myself to the wind parts for Memories of Packanack Lake.

28 July 2017

Three tasks

Nothing creeps by so slowly as the week when you are waiting for something you need. Nothing flits by so rapidly as the week when you are trying to accomplish something.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)
Last night, a good, productive meeting of the Triad Repertory Committee;  we have a tentative program for our November concerts.

Although not finished just yet, I've tinkered further with a few of the “problem spots” in Intermezzo II. Chances are good that we shall finish in the morning.

And I've prepared three arrangements for brass quartet, three different scorings: 2 tp & 2 tn; 2 tp, hn, tn; and tp/hn/tn/ta.

27 July 2017

Wagner on the Charles

“Start smaller:  Carpe meridiem.”
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

It is all too seldom that I spend a pleasant summer’s evening on the banks of the Charles.  So last night’s concert at the Hatch Shell by the Mercury Orchestra was a welcome occasion.  The lion’s share of the program was a kind of concert suite ‘condensation’ of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.  I have what is very likely an excellent recording of the full opera, but I have not yet sat down to a proper listen.  Back in my school days, the Rutherford Community Band (IIRC) played a band transcription, not of the Prelude per se, but of a medley of the best-known tunes which might serve as a “poor man’s Overture”;  so I’ve mostly been positively inclined to the work.  The performance last night was thus enlightening – we might almost say, in hindsight, that it was just the experience I have been waiting for, as any opportunity to hear the music live is almost invariably a plus, for me – as well as thoroughly enjoyable.  During the Preislied there was the additional counterpoint of a siren screaming, as an ambulance hurried along Storrow Drive;  and my heart deeply sympathized with my fellow musicians.  Up in heaven, John Cage was smiling.

This morning’s shuffle in the car while I drove in to work:

  1. Fats Waller, “Hand Me Down My Walking-Cane”
  2. Jethro Tull, “Weathercock”
  3. Dvořák, Symphony #9 „Z nového světa” mvt iii. Molto vivace

26 July 2017

Intermezzo makeover

So the question arose: was I going to need to “clean up” the rest of the Intermezzo, in a similarly heavy-handed manner?

No matter. I’ll do whatever is necessary

For all the second-guessing and repairs on the string choir opening, when the woodwinds have an “answering fugato” later, I felt that the quintuplets are just right.

I made very slight local adjustments here and there as I brought the new Sibelius file up to date; I have found the Ur-text largely satisfactory withal.

My notes on Sunday’s draught of Intermezzo II:
  1. mm.15-18 are exactly what the original showed.  I feel strongly that I need to do something here.
  2. mm.19-27 – Apart from the suspended cymbal stroke (m.21), this is literal from 2006.  I rather think something is needed here, too.
  3. mm.28-34 are a slight elaboration upon the original.  I think it works fine.
  4. mm.35-45 – Some minor additions (the piccolo & flute 2 lines, most notably).  I really like this.
  5. [ D ] I feel that the seam requires some touch-up;  otherwise, I am 80% sure I pretty much like it as is.
  6. [ E ] through [ G ] the picc is a new addition (so, yes:  previously this was all straight timpani cadenza – which was quite possibly insane).
  7. [ G ] through [ H ] is literal from 2006, and I like it just fine.
  8. [ H ] through [ J ] – The only new touch is the English horn; I think all this good.
  9. [ J ] – Once this gets going, it’s just what I wish. mm. 114-115 are a recent modification; but I feel that the seam needs some further work.

25 July 2017

henningmusick: Reserving the right to shake things up

henningmusick: Reserving the right to shake things up:

Mind you, when I wrote on Wednesday that the question of the text is completely settled, I might have written instead, I have a text I like, so there is no pressure.
Leafing through Leaves of Grass yesterday, I found a favorite passage in Song of Myself which might serve just as well, or even better. Or perhaps (since Whitman's lines can be wilful in their variable lengths, not that I consider that at all a bad thing, as a reader) I may toss a salad of suitable ingredients, from the two passages I have this week been perusing.
Meanwhile, Lee has come through with a complete verse rendering of The Mysterious Fruit, will give that a close read today. As I am not sure when the Song of the Open Road project may actually materialize, I am reassigning Op.123 to The Mysterious Fruit.

Thus, three years ago today marks the official start of work on The Mysterious Fruit (although it wound up as the Op.124).

24 July 2017

The ongoing Star Trek survey

As was the case with the Twilight Zone and Monty Python, I did not much watch Star Trek as I was growing up, but I was aware of it mostly through the enthusiasm of certain schoolmates.  Between what I was told, and the occasional excerpt which I did see (did I see the entire episode with the Horta? I am not certain that I did), I knew the characters, was inclined (by virtue of resonant enthusiasm) to feel benevolently about them, but – I wasn’t emotionally invested in the show.

I was not a Fan.  Nor do I think it really possible at this point to determine whether the Snobbery Divide came from my side (which I doubt, for that time) or from the genuine Fans, of whose club I could not be an initiate.

It is possible that I watched the first Star Trek movie, but it made no impression greater than as a kind of 2001 Lite.  I do not remember anything in particular about it, now.

I certainly watched The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock on the big screen, back at the time of their release, and I liked them very much, right off.

Since then, the two or three times when I watched an episode from the show (generally on a b&w small screen) I was mostly aware of quarrels to pick.  My fondness for the recent movies notwithstanding, I had become something of a Star Trek skeptic.  (This is mere reportage, not defense.)

My roommate in Buffalo was a fan of the new show (the Next Generation).  Worth pointing out for the record that, not while I was a student, nor anytime since, have I ever been a regular viewer of any TV show as it has initially rolled out.  I knew students who were as diligent as I and more, but who were dedicatees of one show or another (The Simpsons were a regular ritual at the house in Rochester, which was large enough that I could pursue my own activities undisturbed in another room).  So I did not join Tim in his devotion to the new Star Trek, but I did indeed enjoy the occasional episode (or part thereof) which we watched together.

This is not Star Trek Confessions;  I am only marshalling all the pertinent facts.

(Well, all right, I’ll skip ahead a bit.)

At last (50 years after their original airdate) I am watching my way through the first season of Star Trek.  And, even though I have enjoyed the occasional quibble, after the eighth or ninth episode, I found myself converted into fandom.  I am even verging upon . . . bingewatching.  But only when I have downed tools for composing.

There are spoilers hereon out.  Because, like myself, maybe there are some for whom the viewing is fresh, and I have appreciated watching them without already knowing how they play out.

“Miri”:  I had watched this one on DVD not long ago.  Made an even better impression this second time.  In general, I may not be crazy about the occasional flirtsipoo Captain-&-Yeoman subplot, but I suppose that is an artifact from the era.

“Dagger of the Mind”:  Especially strong, I think, and the strength is underpinned by guest James Gregory.  The “mind meld” is an effective plot device here.

“The Corbonite Maneuver”:  I had actually seen this once on a time, but I had forgotten just how it plays out (apart from a suspicion that the alien as first viewed was, well, obviously a dummy, even by production values of the time).  Very good;  short of great, perhaps, because I am doubtful of the artistic satisfaction of the “Oh, I was only pulling your chain” conclusion.

“The Menagerie”:  Very strange to say that I had never seen this before, even though I remember repeatedly in the past seeing the invalid Capt Pike on a TV screen.  Great story, if arguably flawed (if Commodore Mendez is an illusion courtesy of the Talosians, why does the illusion threaten to shut Spock up?)

“The Conscience of the King”:  I almost want to upbraid a script whose title comes from Hamlet, but which opens with a scene from Macbeth.  Could the perp really have set a phaser to overload, secret it in Kirk’s cabin, and be gone, all in time for it to be a threat to the Captain?  Lucky thing there was that dumbwaiter, too.  In spite of all these (and the show’s apparent ongoing mission to have Kirk be “Mister Lovey-Dovey,” and the villain’s lost mind at the end) I’d call it a success.

“Balance of Terror”:  Possibly the first ‘perfect script’ I have come to watch.  I had only the night before re-watched The Search for Spock, so imagine my pleasure upon seeing Mark Lenard playing the Romulan commander.

“Shore Leave”:  Overall enjoyable, but I think it’s a half-hour show which was padded out to the full hour.

“The Galileo Seven”:  The hermetic separation of logic and feeling in the character of Spock, while inherently interesting and a key driver of so many plot elements, is of itself essentially problematic.  Spock is in danger of being something of a wooden caricature in this one (a pity, as it is his first command);  and I am not sure that Kirk is able to drag his heels past the deadline (when Commissioner Farris had been so ready to remind him, with annoying frequency, how little time he had) in order to save his crewmembers.  Best Scottie/Spock relationship building to date.

“The Squire of Gothos”:  Of course, I love the Scarlatti.  As with “Charlie X,” the deus ex machine ending is an amateurish disappointment.  One completely understands how William Campbell found it a thoroughly fun role to create.

This weekend, I also revisited the two abovementioned movies.  In The Wrath of Khan, I may never understand how it was that Chekov survived having that vile creature in his head.

And while my enjoyment of both Khan and The Search is confirmed, I found myself annoyed with Horner’s music in both soundtracks, which in more than one cue feels unseemly close to a John Williams pastiche.

Horner’s music did not bother me (i.e., I did not feel otherwise than that it ‘belonged’) when I first watched the two movies, which would have been while I was at Wooster.  The source of my recent problem, as it were, is that I am finally watching the series itself.  The show’s atmosphere is very well enhanced by Alexander Courage’s score;  in contrast, Horner serves up what strikes me as boilerplate space-swashbuckling music.

The discussion is apt to veer towards ethics when the subject is Horner’s work, but neither are we in the position to disentangle the composer’s role and choices, from the demands of the production (“Give us something just like Star Wars...”)  There is a well-loved tune in Star Wars (itself related interestingly to a Leitmotiv from The Ring) which Horner manages to echo in The Wrath of Khan, and, why yes, he brings it back at a key dramatic moment in The Search for Spock.

Mind you, while the springboard here has been my expression a degree of disappointment at the artistic effect of the character of Horner’s score, I am not (presently) concerned with the ethics angle.  The broader question of reference/appropriation has been uppermost in my mind as I have continued work on White Nights—though to be sure, all the material is my own—as I find use in these later scenes for material already exposed.

In Praise of Artistic Dissatisfaction

In the electronic folders, I have a PDF of the ancient Finale file (2006) of Intermezzo II for White Nights.  And what if it’s rubbish? I found myself asking. I hadnt really planned to work on it Friday evening, yet I proceeded to set up the score in Sibelius; and since the number begins with a string fugato, I went ahead and plugged those notes in.  But I was not much pleased with the music.

Was I just tired? Or does that passage really need to change or even to be discarded?

Of course, I left the question until Saturday morning, and watched some Star Trek instead.

Gentle Reader, let me not shrink from reporting that I was a bit annoyed with this experience ... for more than 10 years now, in the back of my mind Intermezzo II was “more or less done,” a complete composition of 127 measures, needing mostly finishing (dynamics, especially).  And I thought I remembered liking the opening string fugato back when I composed it.  (Is that trivial?  Of course I did not write it so that I should not like it.)  Friday night, though, looking and listening attentively again at last, I was disappointed.  It would perhaps be overstating it to say “severely disappointed,” but there was indeed an element of severity just in the disappointment.

Saturday morning, after a night’s rest, though, I thought the fugato recoverable.  The character which I require of the music found interference in the rhythmic ambiguity of the quintuplets, and I believed that if I simply recast that rhythm, the passage would do exactly what I require of it.

In context, then, it might not be the “age” of the Henningmusick which was the difficulty, but a bit of cabin fever.  At the time, I had a critical mass of the ballet already composed, and the ballet had (what is artistically the good thing) established its own soundworld.  Compositionally at the time, I was eager to explore somewhat wilder pitch worlds and textures (2006 was the year of the Studies in Impermanence, Out in the Sun, and the Evening Service in D with its at-times abstract writing not only for the trombone duo interludes, but in e.g. the Magnificat).

So I think that what I found objectionable to this fugato which opened the White Nights Intermezzo is, that at the time my writing style wanted to take a contrasting excursion, but that this Intermezzo is not the fit destination for it.  And perhaps it took this year’s reimmersion into the ballet for me to see it.

So, I took a Good Hard Look.  The composer was morally prepared to scrap the lot and start over, if necessary.  Well?

I found that the pitch-world is fine, just as I wanted.  What was I unhappy with?

As noted above, the quintuplets result in a fuzzy rhythmic profile, exactly the opposite of what I was trying to achieve.  And texturally, the double-bass does not participate in the imitation;  the objection being, the inverse of Goldilocks:  whether the solution is less of it, or more of it, as it is, it’s just wrong.

My initial attempt at a solution took as a premise, that perhaps I got the tempo wrong.  And since what I objected to was the clarity of flow, perhaps the remedy was, a faster pace.

Although the result was indeed an improvement in the rhythmic definition...the ratcheting-up of the passage’s energy level was contrary to my conception of the passage, of the opening of the Intermezzo.  And I felt that the more business-like pace aggravated my dissatisfaction with the double-bass line.  A further discovery:  at this tempo, I learned that I was not at all happy with the three successive quintuplet figures in the first violin.

The solution:

Lose the quintuplets; make the rhythm more (one of my evergreen takeaways from studies with Judith Shatin) specific.   I was therefore not content with just one “replacement rhythm,” but gave my whimsy leave.

Give the double-bass more to play, giving the passage a consistent “bottom.” Have the cello (before its own participation in the imitation) partly double that bottom (at the traditional octave).

Further enrich the texture with new gestures by the second violin and viola.

Result:  In all ways, an improvement, and also a spiritual “restoration”:  the character of the string fugato passage now, is as I had always wished/envisioned it.