18 September 2018

Got it!

On my way back in from a good walk at the pond, I had a “miniature Eureka!”  I now know how I want to write Olivia Kieffer’s solo part to [the original conception of] Mistaken for the Sacred.

About time! we find ourselves close to saying, as The k a rl h e nn i ng Ensemble prepares its second performance of the Op.141a.  But, I am pleased with the idea.  And, once I get the week’s handbell choir music done (and the Mystery Tune for Michael Joseph’s recital in Billerica on Sunday) I shall set to’t.

Thy song expands my numb’d, imbonded spirit

And he called the band down to the stage,
And he looked at all the friends he made.
– Jethro Tull, "The Minstrel in the Gallery"

He permitted no sound of lute or harp or song or other loose minstrelsy to be heard in his fortress, debauching the ear and softening the valor of the soldier; no other music was allowed but the wholesome rolling of the drum and braying of the trumpet, and such like spirit-stirring instruments as filled the mind with thoughts of iron war.
– Washington Irving, Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada,
"Of the Fortress of Alhama, and How Wisely It Was Governed by the Count de Tendilla"

Excellent, positive, productive Triad meeting last night. And I was served as fine a cup of chamomile tea as was ever quaffed in the Commonwealth.  Reflecting the present reduction in both personnel and rehearsal time, we're planning a program partly of SATB (or thereabouts) unaccompanied pieces, partly of solos.  Hence, it was decided (and not upon my insistence) to proceed with It Might Happen Today; and as one of the solo works, Sudie is looking at The Mystic Trumpeter.  Curiously, about a week ago I began contemplating a new voice-&-clarinet Whitman setting, to perform with Amanda; revisiting "that strange musician" of the Op.113 will be the perfect preparation.

And–as if that were not enough good news for one day/blog post–Marshunda wrote asking if we might go forward with Deep Breath for No Name Orchestra's 19 January date.

Tonight, I should chop out some handbell music.

17 September 2018

Noise vibrating through the air of the Library

Institutions have never been reliable gauges of artistic merit.

People have a knack for being both rather better than you hoped, and perhaps even a shade worse than you feared.

Work which is bad, but which bears the right labeling, will succeed in this environment, where good work which resists easy description is rejected.  Rejected even by people who know that, historically, the artists they admire created work which defied easy description in their day.

Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

No labor-saving machine,
Nor discovery have I made;
Nor will I be able to leave behind me any wealthy bequest to found a hospital or library,
Nor reminiscence of any deed of courage, for America,
Nor literary success, nor intellect—nor book for the book-shelf;
Only a few carols, vibrating through the air, I leave,
For comrades and lovers.
– Walt Whitman

Nine years ago today (tonight), we made Noise in the Library.  Which confirms that it is about time I revived the Studies in Impermanence.

And today, in an off-chance which ranks mighty high on the Trippy Scale, I have found (what I was not particularly looking for today) the symphonic band arrangement of the Egyptian Dance from White Nights.

Or, it might not (happen, today)

They say they don’t need money,
They’re livin’ on nuts & berries.
– The Talking Heads, “Animals”

“Remember, O king, that thou canst not refuse this challenge; since thy prophet, knowing the impossibility of maintaining his doctrines by argument, has commanded his followers to enforce them with the sword.”
– Washington Irving, “The Crusade of the Grand Master of Alcantara”

The great unexpected news item is, the tantalizing possibility of another Massachusetts ensemble performing The Young Lady Holding a Phone in Her Teeth.  It does not seem to be an insurmountable problem, for the performance set to come on-line at Lux Nova Press.

Meeting tonight with Triad, in quest of the solution to the present conundrum.  My proposal will be, not to consider this a disaster in terms of what the Repertory Committee was planning, but to consider a tactical insertion into the Long-Term Plan:  a “Triad Sings Triad” program, all in-house pieces which require less-extensive preparation, all voiced SATB.  From my own folio, I should propose both the Alleluia in A-flat, and the Magnificat from the Evening Service in D.  Perhaps It Might Happen Today is only postponed until the spring.

This week, I need to get two pieces into the handbell choir folders.  For one, I’m planning a slight adaptation of Rejoice from the spring.  For another, thinking of arranging Vaughan Williams’ The Call for flute plus handbells, the thought arising from finding a version of this in the hymnal yesterday morning.

I have a suspicion that there is a rehearsal tomorrow evening, where I am not expected, yet where I shall be made welcome.

15 September 2018


Saturday started out by permitting me at last the time to complete the flute adaptation of the Voluntary on “Beautiful Savior.”  And, for my next exercise in hopefulness, am sending out the Visions fugitives de nouveau to a call.

A message came in that the decision which was to be announced today, has been delayed.  Of course, the notice is a courtesy, and one is thankful.

Much occasion to revisit cherished memories, at Jack Parry’s memorial service today.  Jack was one of the anchors of my tenor section for years (and we learnt today that he sang in the church choir 58 years).  To have known him, is a blessing.

14 September 2018

Never Stop

“And it is also said, Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”
Frodo, having asked advice of the Noldo Gildor in exile

It is also said, Go not to Elvis for counsel, for he will say both love me tender and love me true.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

Very pleased to report that participation in the church choir remains strong;  it is certainly true that having an organist who is (to say no more) both agreeable and competent helps a great deal there.  The fundamental fact is that the choir share a love for serving the congregation, and for working together harmoniously.  From an impartial, musical standpoint, the rehearsals are fun and productive, morale is good, and the congregation appreciates the musical quality.  It is a situation for which any church music director would be grateful.

There remains something of a question mark with Triad;  the strong expectation is that this stems mostly from the customarily spotty communication among the collective, plus the reduced capacity during the start of a new school year, but the question is–when do we start rehearsing?  (And, I suppose, the related question, where shall we rehearse?)  I expect a satisfactory resolution of it all, but it does feel a bit like floating loose at present.

Meanwhile, the imminent weekend is an apt time to get back into the swing of practicing clarinet, as we prepare for the King’s Chapel date in October.

Nothing from Verdant Vibes, but my expectations are nil on that head, and I don’t care who knows it.  Nor are those expectations any reflection on the quality of the music I submitted.

And . . . I’ve just now found 5 or 6 other calls to send music to.  I suppose the answer must be, just to keep sending.

13 September 2018

From the archive: 11 years ago today

From Cathedral days.

[ 13 Sept 2007 ]

Choir rehearsal again last night. We had a no-frills read-through of Bless the Lord, O My Soul (which I think we may be singing on 7 October).  We also had a good twenty minutes of solid rehearsal on Nuhro, culminating in a complete read-through, with no train-wrecks of note; the piece is slated for 4 November.  I was really pleased with how good it sounded, even last night . . . it sounds more like a piece we worked on a lot last year, and not so much like a piece we haven’t sung together for several months.

Composition has taken a smaller slice of the time-pie lately; but I am still making progress on The Mousetrap . . . got a good jump on a passage described in my notes simply as “unison dance”; and I have been crunching pre-compositional notions for an abstract arabesque section of some three minutes.  Formally (in abstract terms) it is not at any great remove from the Studies in Impermanence, a fanciful composition-qua-stage-improv.  I suppose that what these pieces are for me, is something like this:  with a number of other pieces I’ve written, I have often had a very clear ‘global’ design of the piece, and in a number of these cases, one of the first sections (or at any not, not the last section) of the piece that I’ve composed, was the end, so that I knew ‘where to go’.  So in The Mousetrap, as in the Studies in Impermanence, instead I am engaging in a ‘working from inside the narrative’ perspective, playing with the relation of the parts, keeping a not-entirely-drooping eye on the whole, but largely trusting the ‘formative’ powers of the parts and of the narration.

And, of course, the English horn version of the Studies in Impermanence is on John’s [John Rasmussen] program this Saturday evening.

This past Sunday’s performance of the Alleluia in D, although Ed [Broms] approves and will use it for the radio, will not go on this week!  Stand By . . .

Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras

Caution:  It may not mean anything.

Do that which you know you ought:
Let the bacon home be brought.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

The first performance of any new piece is shy of ‘perfection’ (however considered). That said, the Voluntary on “Beautiful Savior” went well Sunday morning; I shall see when Barbara is game to give it a second go.  And, Sunday afternoon, Peter & I had a good, efficient rehearsal of Considering My Bliss Options.

Monday was originally slated for our first Triad rehearsal of the new cycle; we are considering a different rehearsal schedule.

Tuesday, we had the first full rehearsal for the 16 October concert at King’s Chapel, and it went beautifully.  The two refreshed pieces (Mistaken for the SacredKurosawa’s Scarecrow) fit back into place with remarkable ease, which is to say, we are in great shape.  The new piece, the Boston Harbor Heave-Ho (“that which the Rapido! contest rejected”) was well received by all the players, which is, simply, exactly what the composer expected.

Tonight is the second choir rehearsal of my sixth year with Holy Trinity United Methodist Church.  For the first four years one of my best tenors was a nonagenarian, a wonderfully cheerful fellow named Jack.  As his eyesight failed, he came to choir less and less.  I periodically rang him to see how he was doing.

On a somber note, at this past Sunday’s service we learnt that Jack had died.  The choir will sing to honor him at the memorial service this Saturday, my arrangement of Precious Lord.

One of the musically interesting things about Jack, who sang in choirs and choruses from his teen years, is that (when his voice broke, that is) he started out as a bass, but his range migrated up.

Earlier on Tuesday, at last, the new M.D. at First Church, Robert Jan August & I enjoyed meeting one another.  I had already started to adapt the Voluntary on “Beautiful Savior” for flute & organ, for my old friend John Rasmussen, and I was delighted to learn that Robert’s wife is a flutist–which is ample motivation to finish and polish up the new arrangement this Saturday morning.

10 September 2018


Here were the notes for my lecture three weeks ago, Gentle Reader . . . but what of the performance, you have been asking?

08 September 2018

Spoilerly musings

This has to do with the 1978 Philip Kaufman Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and there will be spoilers. If you have not yet seen the movie, do not read on.

(No peeking.)

Leonard Nimoy reassures Donald Sutherland about Brooke Adams, saying, A good night's sleep wouldn't hurt.  This is a richly subtle line, in context.

Nimoy plays a psychiatrist, and Sutherland brought Adams to him for help, so the line on the surface is obvious, sensible advice from a doctor.

But we already have reason to suspect that the psychiatrist may have been changed, from the disappearance of the body from the Bellicec mud bath, and the open window. If that is the case, then a good night's sleep wouldn't hurt has a dark edge: he would mean, when Elizabeth goes to sleep, her body will be snatched, and thus the problem will go away.

Much later in the movie, when Elizabeth is changed, she tells Matthew, They were right, it's painless. It's good.

So when Nimoy told Sutherland, A good night's sleep wouldn't hurt, it could both be true that he is an alien wanting that Elizabeth be converted, and that the experience will not hurt.

Heave-Ho anew

In the proposed program which appears in this blog a few days since, Gentle Reader, I listed the Boston Harbor Heave-Ho (Tea Party Dance) as scored for two flutes and clarinet.

Ladies and gentlemen, there has been a change.

It began in the group e-mail exchange with “the band” in which thoughts about rehearsal times and the program were batted about.  Seeing that the Tea Party Dance was horn-less, Pam wrote (in jest):  Don’t you need the horn to play offbeats in the new dance?

But, although a light remark, everyone liked the idea.  I mean, of adding the horn, not of giving Pam oom-pah’s.

The challenge, of course, was to add a fourth line, and have it fold in organically, not to have it feel like an “addition.”

That, Gentle Reader, was my work this afternoon, and the composer is well pleased with the result.

(This will mean, of course, that I need to add a fourth line to Revere’s Midnight Reel . . . I suppose for the spring concert.)

 (photo courtesy of Maria Bablyak)

The Entertainment Value of Paranoia

Last Sunday night (at last) I watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the original, that is.   When the remake came out, I saw that in the cinema, and I thought highly of it (scary enough that I did not go back a second time . . . now I am curious to revisit it, of course).  The triumph of the original is that it does not depend on any special effects beyond the era’s capabilities, most of it is the script and the acting.  Holy cats, that was Morticia (Carolyn Jones) as Teddy Belicec.  My first epiphany was the score composed and conducted by Carmen Dragon, who before was just a walk-on at the end of The In-Laws to me.  I half-wondered if Miles and Becky did not kiss too long for the censors of the day, though of course they were standing.

As a mere formality, I shall say SPOILER ALERT, though anyone who has seen even the remake, or knows a fair bit about the movie unseen, will not find any objection here.

So Becky does fall asleep, and she is taken over.  But how (or why)?  Presumably there was no pod in the tunnel.  And, the whole idea is that the pod becomes your double, perfect in every detail, except it lacks your mind, which it absorbs from your nearly sleeping self.  As I read it, there is no reason why Becky should not have awakened herself.


Oh, I almost forgot: an uncredited Richard Deacon!

Last night, then, and for the first time since watching it in the cinema when it opened, oh, 40-ish years ago, the remade Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  At the time of the original movie, the studio suits had little tolerance for genre-mixing, and after they overheard laughter and gasps alternating through the course of a test-screening, they compelled Don Siegel to drop the humorous elements.  It means something, that the movie which remained nevertheless worked as a good “study in paranoia” for the era; but it is arguably a bit flat.   What a delight, on revisiting the remake, to find (to be reminded, that is) that there is ample humor strewn here and there for comic relief, which does serve the main story, is no distraction.

So, almost completely ignorant of the original as I was back then, I missed the fact that the screaming man who rebounds from Sutherland’s cracked windscreen is Kevin McCarthy, essentially recapitulating a scene from the original.  Let alone that it was Don Siegel driving the cab which is not going to take Matt and Elizabeth to the airport.

So a core of “the team” from the original was on board with the remake, and there is a degree of “making it, now, the way we should have preferred, in 1956” at play.  Most particularly the ending, where (as 1978 director Philip Kaufman says) the movie doesn
t let the audience off the hook.

I love the ensemble in the remake—Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright.  I ought to include Brooke Adams, hers is a more central character than any, and it seems a discourtesy to her.  But.  On the one hand, unlike any of the four I named as the ensemble, Brooke Adams cut something of an indistinct figure.  Fact is, when I saw her at first, I wondered if she was Karen Allen (Marion in the Indiana Jones movies), although I soon understood that Karen Allen would have been too young at the time.  On that other hand, her role is rather passive.  Her husband, Geoffrey, pod person though he has become, is in some ways a more dramatically interesting character (in, say, the scene when Matt has had the police in to find, or not to find as it happens, the duplicate body for Elizabeth).  She winds up being Matt’s love interest, which is not simply an outgrowth of their always having been flirty friends from the start, but (again) something of a defensive reaction to the events all around them.  And, of course, like Becky Driscoll in the original, she grows too weary, and winds up needing to sleep.  One could argue that Jeff Goldblum does less actual acting than does Brooke Adams . . . he is more or less himself, plus some physicality.  But then, the tension between Goldblum and Nimoy is one of the lesser plot points (Matt telling himself, more than telling Jack, “You’ve never agreed with him in your life before”).

I like both, though my preference goes to the remake, both because of the sentimental factor—I might have been 19 when I saw it, and I was in for the ride, finding it every bit as creepy and compelling as the director might have wished—and because the elements which remake “restores” do add value.  As with the original, the special effects for the 1978 outing are, erm, organic, and serve the story and the tone perfectly.  The score is adequate, but not IMO great.  At times it feels like ABC Sunday Night Movie (so, of its era), at times like a poor man’s William Schuman, at times like the nascent synthesized music scene.  It all works, do not get me wrong; with a perhaps too-critical ear, I call it patchy, workmanlike.  There, the original with the score by Carmen Dragon gets the nod.

Other quibbles with the remake are: I think the opening outer space sequence unnecessary.  The big set-piece near the end, of Matt chopping the light cables to throw the nursery into (hopeful) ruin . . . for me, the weak point of a strong narrative arc.  And the two cuts or so in this montage, of pods spitting blood, are the weakest special effects of the flick.

06 September 2018

The present up-gearing

…something in the shadows waiting to pounce…
– A listener in the UK, describing the passacaglia in Plotting (y is the new x)

Now that all the clouds of Doubt are dispersed, I am greatly excited about the King’s Chapel program.

Kurosawa’s Scarecrow and Mistaken for the Sacred are both revivals;  and thus, we expect to be able to improve even upon the highly satisfactory première performances.  In particular, I think we can count on being able to crank the fixed media – that is, that in our caution, we under-dialed the fixed media in the past.

The Boston Harbor Heave-Ho (Tea Party Dance) and Considering My Bliss Options are both ad hoc rearrangements, of 2018 compositions (allowing for the fact that the first 21 mm. of the latter were composed in early 2016).  And indeed, at Peter H. Bloom’s suggestion, I shall add the horn to the Tea Party Dance.  Why leave Pamela Marshall out of the fun? in the first place; and i’ the second, I am musically amused at the challenge of adding an optional fourth line.

Our first rehearsal as a quartet will be this Tuesday coming.  Also on Tuesday, I shall meet up at last with the new-ish Music Director at First Church, Robert Jan August.  One of the choir member’s wrote earlier to say both that Love Is the Spirit has been on a kind of sabbatical, in respect for the choir’s associating the piece strongly with previous director Paul Cienniwa;  and that they fully mean to re-establish it in their repertory (after a decent interval).  And the composer is grateful for both considerations.

Oh, and I am hoping that PeterI can get together this Sunday to start considering my Considering My Bliss Options.

Also, Barbara Otto and I shall play the Voluntary on Schönster Herr Jesu this Sunday.

And there is a special event brewing in honor of a certain person in a certain specific Boston locale in October.  Hush-hush.

05 September 2018

With evergreen thankfulness

So he went to marching up and down, thinking, and frowning horrible every now and then; then he would hoist up his eyebrows; next he would squeeze his hand on his forehead and stagger back and kind of moan; next he would sigh, and next he’d let on to drop a tear.  It was beautiful to see him.  By and by he got it.  He told us to give attention.  Then he strikes a most noble attitude, with one leg shoved forwards, and his arms stretched away up, and his head tilted back, looking up at the sky; and then he begins to rip and rave and grit his teeth; and after that, all through his speech, he howled, and spread around, and swelled up his chest, and just knocked the spots out of any acting ever I see before.  This is the speech – I learned it, easy enough, while he was learning it to the king:

   To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
   That makes calamity of so long life;
   For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do
     come to Dunsinane,
   But that the fear of something after death
   Murders the innocent sleep,
   Great nature’s second course,
   And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
   Than fly to others that we know not of.
   There’s the respect must give us pause:
   Wake Duncan with thy knocking!  I would thou couldst;
  For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
   The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
   The law’s delay, and the quietus which his
     pangs might take,
   In the dead waste and middle of the night,
     when churchyards yawn
   In customary suits of solemn black,
   But that the undiscovered country from whose
     bourne no traveler returns,
   Breathes forth contagion on the world,
   And thus the native hue of resolution, like
     the poor cat i’ the adage,
   Is sicklied o’er with care,
   And all the clouds that lowered o’er our housetops,
   With this regard their currents turn awry,
   And lose the name of action.
   ’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
     But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
   Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws,
   But get thee to a nunnery – go!

– Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

To list the naked facts yesterday was bleak enough, with no need to bring out my lamenting clarinet.  Good man or no, however, I am not to be kept down;  and here are the three principal reasons why:

  1. Family, whose love and support endure as long as I have breath.
  2. My circle (“my” circle, if you please) of colleague-friends, whose reliable championship of my work, and touching generosity with their time and talents, are treasure indeed.
  3. The power of an established routine.

Where 3. (together with 2., to be sure) come into crucial play this week is:  I have long been in the habit of scheduling semi-annual chamber concerts of Henningmusick.  As a result, my catalogue is deep and strong enough, that even when a ‘Plan B’ is called for, artistic standards are maintained at their height.

[A Heart So White is only delayed, and not abandoned.  I do not now claim to know exactly when;  but whatever the date may be, its completion is assured.]

The program for King’s Chapel on Tuesday, 16 October will be:

Scarecrow Bliss, Sacred Tea

Considering My Bliss Options, Op.137 no. 2a
fl, cl  |  2:00

Kurosawa’s Scarecrow (Memories of Packanack Lake), Op.145
C fl, alto fl, cl, hn + fixed media  |  13:00

Boston Harbor Heave-Ho (Tea Party Dance), Op.154a no. 1
2 fl, cl  |  4:00

Mistaken for the Sacred, Op.141a
2 fl, hn + fixed media  |  7:30

The k a rl h e nn i ng Ensemble:
Carol Epple & Peter H. Bloom:  flutes
Pamela Marshall:  horn
kh:  clarinet, fixed media, and assorted drollery

And now, to see about a rehearsal schedule . . . .

Sometimes I wish someone would

This weekend past, I watched a featurette about The Spy Who Loved Me, and then the movie itself up to the point where Agent XXX advises 007 that when the mission is done, she will kill him.  (Wonder how that worked out for her?)

Sir Roger Moore goes on record as saying that this is his favorite of his Bond outings, which I generally read as:  In Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun, they (the actor and the organization) were getting their bearings;  they finally hit stride with The Spy Who Loved Me;  and they kinda trended downhill afterward.

Moore also, with admirable frankness, essentially stated that he would stick with the role as long as he could, to keep his family in the style to which he was now able to accustom them.  Fair enough.

I forget just which member of the team asserted that The Spy Who Loved Me is the best Bond of all time.

Phew, I do not see it that way;  no, I cannot, indeed.

On the plus side:  Moore is still fit.  We have the improbable submarine Lotus, which still maintains a reasonable gadget:gag ratio.  Richard Kiel as Jaws is one of the most fun Bond villains.  The Egyptian sequence is great Bond eye candy.

On the negative:  Stromberg is a double-plus-uninteresting villain, who makes even the double-cross of the two scientists rather workaday.  Bond’s interview with Stromberg in which he is supposedly impersonating a marine biologist is . . . weak.  Skiing off the cliff is a stunning opening stunt, but (call this a low-impact nit) he obviously was not in Austria, was he?  I get that it is only a gag, but if Jaws really dropped that block on his foot, even he would make a trip to the ER—which is to say, the Bond camp beast is already in full gallop (I still shudder at remembering the slide whistle in The Man With the Golden Gun).  I get that the Bond Stage was a magnificent achievement, and that the set for the captured submarines is huge, and it was all a technical triumph, but, well, you can see that I did not even bother to stick around for the final obligatory set-piece.  Puts me in mind of the Constable’s subtle rebuke of the Dauphin in Henry V:  Indeed, my lord, it is a most absolute and excellent horse.

And, personal to me, entirely, I get that:  I never could stick the title song.

04 September 2018

Reversal Upon Reversal

While poor Goldsmith was thus struggling with the difficulties and discouragements which in those days beset the path of an author . . . .
– Washington Irving, “Oliver Goldsmith”

He heaved a discouraged sigh, and said, “It seems to me that this race is hard to please.”

There it was, you see.  He didn’t seem to know any way to do a person a favor except by killing him or making a lunatic out of him.  I apologized, as well as I could;  but privately I did not think much of his processes–at the time.
– Mark Twain, “The Mysterious Stranger”

Two months ago I assembled quite a lengthy list of maybe’s, but now, most have them have simply blackened out to nope’s.  It is not pig-headedness, but mere cool appraisal, if I report that I do not find fault in the music which I have sent.  But, that’s as may be:  it is others who are benefiting from the performances and the prize moneys.  I wish them well.

As I have found my circumstances this August, some of them unusual in either kind or degree, not conducive to completion of the Shakespeare scena, I reached the regretful decision to push it off again.  This may look like writer’s block, but I believe it to be otherwise–I have the materials ready to be shaped.  The time is out of joint.  My catalogue is deep enough that a Plan B for next month’s date at King’s Chapel is not at all difficult to form.

Some of my difficulties might readily be solved, if I could teach at a college;  but I have repeatedly found my attempts there, too, rebuffed.  I do not think there is any hope to be nurtured on those lines, not though I was told at the conclusion of my pre-concert lecture on 19 August that I ought to teach.  Talent for teaching, and a proven facility in composition, won’t get me anywhere there.

Triad is currently facing fresh challenges, but I am confident we shall meet and crush them.

However, Thursday is our first choir rehearsal of the season, and I have pulled music aplenty.  The rehearsal will be fun.

02 September 2018

Eight Years Ago Today

From the Archive :: 2 Sep 2010
Viola Sonata’s done. Still enjoying ‘recovery mode’ too much to start the Cantata just yet. So: keep my hand in with considering an arrangement suitable to Ensemble: Périphérie.
Tango in Boston reached its official completion on this day in 2010.  (Somewhere, I still have a list of the texts which I was considering for a cantata;  and nothing ever came of the arrangement for Ensemble: Périphérie.)  For late arrivals, this is the piece which one chap unhesitatingly dubbed the worst viola sonata in the world.

The composer is content.

01 September 2018

Irreverence in Time of War

It’s always “only this once” ... the first time.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

The bartender calls this cocktail the “Pain in the Ass.”
Postcards From Dead Squirrel Trail

For the first time since seeing it in the cinema back when the movie was first released, I watched Good Morning, Vietnam.  Somewhat bittersweet, with the recent-ish deaths of, first, Robin Williams, and lately the real-life Adrian Cronauer.  One trivial matter which set me to smiling (in a movie productive of many smiles) was a housekeeping detail.  In one of Williams’s improvisations near the end, he sings a bit of the theme from Rawhide;  and as a consequence, Dimitri Tiomkin appears in one of the many music credits rolling at the end.

God bless you, Adrian Cronauer and Robin Williams, wherever you are.

31 August 2018

Got a tip they're gonna kick the door in again

An old schoolmate writes:  Something I NEVER thought I’d see:  Grateful Dead 1989 concert on PBS.

I replied:  The trip got just a bit longer and just a bit stranger, is all.

30 August 2018

No, No, No

An article online today at The Washington Post brings the welcome news that Orson Welles’s final film will at least reach an audience.

My quarrel is with a purely parenthetical element of that article:

By 1970, Welles had spent decades trying — and failing — to replicate the artistic success of his debut, “Citizen Kane.”

What the author may really have meant is perhaps something on the lines of “Welles’s work never emerged from the shadow cast by Citizen Kane”;  it is a thesis which could be reasonably supported.  The author’s statement as printed, in my view, is wrong at several points.

The critical (and perhaps social) success of Citizen Kane is irreplicable:  other successes will be of their own kind.  The film as a work, I do not believe for an instant that Welles was trying to replicate:  he was far too excellent for that – no great artist is content merely to repeat himself, even in the case of an outstanding success.  (Witness Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps.)

As to (as Kyle Swenson wrote) the artistic success, two points.  The first is the artistic rejection of carbon-copying, above.  The second is, perhaps Welles did in fact achieve comparably great artistic success in later projects – but the critics were obsessed with Kane (in the first place) and with congratulating themselves on how astute they are by preferring “the obviously superior” Kane (as an unnecessary consequence).

Once when Welles asked someone which of his films the questionee preferred, the answer came back, Touch of Evil.  Welles responded with, “Thank God you didn’t say Kane.”  Because – great film as it is – it had already become a tedious commonplace to tag onto Citizen Kane the ‘Greatest Thing He Ever Done’ label.

The fact is that we should have reason to think less highly of Welles, if all he did afterwards was try to re-tread Kane, protean achievement though it undeniably is.  It is because he was so great an artist that he sought to do other things, to expand his repertory, afterwards.  Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight are great films, marvelously wrought, and they are not “inferior” simply by virtue of not being KaneOthello is at the least a good film.  If Kane is, arguably, perfection, any ‘imperfections’ in Chimes or Othello arise (at least, insofar as they do not result from the logistics of dancing with the studio) from a great artist, taking risks.

If you never make mistakes as an artist, you just may be playing it too safe.

The article as a whole, I completely enjoyed and found interesting.  I am only saying that this one remark is signally inartistic (and possibly pretentious).

29 August 2018

Warming the engine

Those who selectively ignore history are full willing to repeat it, so long as they are the beneficiaries.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

Malevolent Maybelline.
Postcards From Dead Squirrel Trail

It may or may not be a token of how diligently I originally planned on being;  I had completely forgotten that my first draught for A Heart So White (the initial live-instrumental statement, and the beginning of the text-setting) dates from 15 January.  No, I never did look at it again until this morning.  Over the past three weeks I have formed new notions, but they appear in all ways reconcilable with this ancient MS.  (You may have guessed by now that, in fact, my “work” on the piece last night consisted solely of planning to scare up this old draught.)

But today is new.  There will be work, and maybe even a goodly shake of it.

Notes for a lecture

Thank you all for coming to hear a concert which includes music of my own, and for being interested to come hear what I may have to say about it.  I don't know if all, or any, of you are in the habit of hearing a piece which is only about five years old – in a humid climate, the ink may not yet have completely dried.  There may be some who are thinking:  "New music!  Will it be awful?!  Will it hurt?!"

Be calm.  No one has yet come to any harm, listening to my music.*

I'll talk a bit, but I also want to leave time later to make you welcome to ask any questions you may have.  I won't, or cannot, answer all the questions.  I think it's okay for art to pose questions, to some of which we may not settle upon any definite answer.  Which is the perfect lead-in to . . . chocolate cake.  You weren't expecting me to discuss baked goods.

When a host offers you a slice of homemade chocolate cake, her hope is that you will enjoy the cake, not so much that you will understand it.  Music is a bit like that.  As a composer, perhaps I understand a lot of new music better than some of you.  But a lot of my own experience as a listener, new music or old, is that very often I enjoy the music I am listening to, even if I cannot really say that I understand it.  Enjoyment is not absolutely contingent upon understanding.  How well did we understand the Beethoven c minor Symphony, the first time we heard it?

It is certainly true that (generally) I find an increased understanding of the music to be part of my enjoyment;  but I only want to suggest that we can enjoy even that art of which our understanding is imperfect or incomplete.

What should I say about my piece?  In a sense, I want to say (and in complete honesty) that anything of importance which I have to say, is there in the chocolate cake – I mean, in the music – just listen to the piece!  But, neither was I born yesterday.  I know that new music is all over the sonic map, unlike the classics we all know and love.  Here on the program, there are Sonatas by Handel and Bach, and even if they are not pieces you already know well, you have a good idea of what to expect.  Same thing with (say) a Chopin Mazurka, a Beethoven string quartet, a Mozart piano trio.  But the name Henning has not yet been associated with helpful musical markers for you.

But that is about to change.  Today.

The art of music, according to the late Frank Zappa, is the result of a composer forcing his will upon unsuspecting air molecules – music as vibration.  I am a composer, but I am also a clarinetist, I am a choral singer, I am a conductor – I'm the music director for a Methodist parish on Boston's North Shore.  I am not just a guy at a desk throwing black dots onto paper – my sleeves are rolled up practically every day in performing music.  As a performer who composes, I eat my own cooking.  (I really don't mean to belabor that simile.)†

This is partly why Paul had the confidence to ask me to write a piece for him.  He knows that when I set something down on paper, it isn't just an idea which looks good on the page.  He knows that I understand what I am asking fellow performers to do.  It won't necessarily be easy, but it is achievable.

I called my piece Plotting (y is the new x).

The subtitle of course is simply a nod to the faddishness of "50 is the new 30," "quinoa is the new maypo," what-have-you.

Paul asked me to write a piece.  One of the ways in which I think about the process of composing is:  sculpting time.  Paul wanted a 12-minute piece, and I began by thinking, What will the audience's experience be, of that 12-minute expanse?  And I began to plot the course of those 12 minutes.  And even though that is not really my musical method, the word plot suggested a graph – hence y is the new x.

x is an unknown, for which we solve.  Well, what do we know about this piece of mine?

It's in three big sections of unequal length.  I may need to explain some terms, but the three sections are:  an Introduction, a Passacaglia, and a Toccata.

Sometimes when I set to work on a piece, I compose the ending first – so that I know where the piece is going, I know the point to which the music is directed.  That was not the case in composing this piece, but I am going to adopt that method in discussing it.  We'll start with the concluding section, the Toccata.

The word comes from the Italian toccare, to touch, and in the Baroque era was used for keyboard works of technical brilliance and lively rhythm.  Especially in the 20th century the term was applied more broadly.  In reflecting on his life's work, Sergei Prokofiev identified four elements which characterized most of his music;  a 'classical line,' a regard for the rich achievements of the past;  modernism, the search for new modes of expression;  lyricism;  and toccata, meaning motoric rhythm, energy.

The Toccata section which concludes my piece alternates two textural ideas, we'll call them 'A' and 'B'.  This is what happens.  In the 'A' sections the violin and the harpsichord are furiously independent – each has its own separate ostinato material, repeated cells which do not synchronize between the players, the two of them won't cooperate, each is determined to try to win the other over.  In the 'B' sections, the two join in unison, in material which is different again;  they stick together briefly, and then break apart again for the next 'A' section.  So the concluding Toccata consists of three such cycles: separate/unison/separate/unison/separate . . . and then unison once more out to the final cadence.  That's how the piece ends, and it is (I think) fairly dramatic.

Another note about the Toccata springs from a question Mei Mei posed to me;  she felt that her part in the Toccata reminded her of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, and she has good reason.  I first heard the Stravinsky when I was at the College of Wooster, where I played the soldier in a black-box production of Stravinsky's musical fable, which is based on Russian folk tales.  (The violin represents the soldier's soul, and he allows Old Nick to talk him into an ill-advised transaction.)  Early on there is a Scene by a Brook, and as the soldier, I am miming playing my fiddle and relaxing, and that violin passage by Stravinsky made a powerful impression.  In a way, I waited years for the opportunity to make use of, to adapt, that musical idea.  The soldier may have found it relaxing, but I doubt that Mei Mei does.

Prior to the Toccata, the great bulk of the piece is a Passacaglia.  The Passacaglia is a method of variation popular in the Baroque era, very effectively re-adopted in the 20th century by such composers as Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich.  (Parenthetically, another English composer, Ronald Stevenson, composed a huge Passacaglia on Shostakovich's name, and made a present of it to the Russian composer.)  In the Passacaglia, the composer begins simply with a melody, all on its own, typically in the bass.  There is a very famous example by JS Bach which many of you may have heard, whose theme goes like this:


Then as the melody repeats, often the first variation would be a matter of adding a single line in counterpoint.  Ensuing variations will add more voices, the musical activity gets busier, there might be ebb and flow – busier or calmer, fuller or sparer textures – over the course of the piece.

A couple of quick observations about the Bach example:  the melody runs 8 measures (nothing unusual in that), returns at the end to the tonic, and in fact the melody begins and ends with a key-defining tonic-&-dominant gesture:  do – sol at the start, fa – sol – do at the end.

What about my Passacaglia theme?  It is five measures long.  Melodic phrases are most commonly 8 measures, 4 measures, 16 – I am not going to con you by claiming to be the first to compose a 5-measure phrase (I am not), but the asymmetry is mildly unusual.  It is, simply, minimally, five notes. It begins . . . [play]

I'll stop briefly there to observe that, so far, there is no reason why this might not be the beginning of Passacaglia theme which Bach might have used.  Adding the fourth note . . . [play]

Still, it is conceivable that a composer of Bach's day might use this, by then [play] going to the Dominant proper.  But I do not do so.  We don't get the key-defining perfect fifth of the Dominant, but [play] instead we double back to a note which Bach would never have used (in this way), a D-flat which does not belong, in Common Practice harmony, to the key of C, but which is something of an echo of one of the medieval modes, the "upper leading tone" characteristic of the Phrygian mode.

With my theme, then, we do not have the key-affirming perfect fifth which is the tonal anchor of the Bach example, but we only reach as far as the tritone, and then sidle in an entirely un-Bach-ly fashion, via D-flat, back to C.

Another departure from the Baroque model is:  where Bach comes back, always, to C, my Passacaglia (at Variation 13) starts to wander to other pitch levels, in something of a tonal corkscrew, and this wandering away from or around the home key is one level of the variation in my piece.  We do eventually return to C as the theme's point of origin.  Because my theme is so comparatively brief, I did not stint on variations upon it, there are some 35 variations of the Passacaglia theme – the 35th variation is just the five notes of the theme, rhythmically activated between the violin and harpsichord, slowing down to C in octaves – and then we plunge into the concluding Toccata.

The Introduction which (obviously) opens the piece is brief, and my remarks ought to be, too.  Here the two instruments are mostly independent;  but unlike the 'A' material of the Toccata, where they are stubborn and uncooperative, in the Introduction they are playfully testing the waters (which, it occurs to me, may be a strange expression here in Florida where the water is reliably warm).

Big parenthesis – one of the precursors of the symphony, was the opera Overture, the Sinfonia avanti l'opera.  Then, as now, going to opera was almost as much a social as a musical experience, you go to the theatre and look to see which of your friends are there, what a nice hat Mrs McGillicuddy is wearing, there is a lot of chatter, and the theatre is filled with this sociable murmur – so the orchestra in the pit would typically start the Overture with three loud chords, boom, boom, boom, as a signal to the patrons to pipe down. "The signal tone you have just heard indicates that there will soon be an opera in this building."  As a composer, I don't mind adapting past practice, so you will hear that in some of the harpsichord – starting out with a bright bop, bop . . . bop, alternating with lower bup, bup, bup, and eventually settling down into the Passacaglia.

So:  Introduction, Passacaglia, Toccata – you now know the entire plot.  I do hope you enjoy the piece.  And perhaps we have time for a couple of questions . . . .


* Originally, Be calm.  There is a first aid station in the Narthex.  As I spoke to the audience, I was alive to the possibility that I was among the youngest in the room, and that many of my auditors may in fact be very aware of where a first aid station may be, so I improvised the substitute.

†There was (I am pleased to report) some amused response in the audience, so the parenthesis was an impromptu addition.

28 August 2018

Well, only kind of crumpled

Though we seemed dead, we did but sleep. . . .
– Montjoy, Herald in service of the King of France in Henry Fift

Postcards from Dead Squirrel Trail

Thank God I live in a city where nobody looks up.
– Jeff Bridges as Jack Lucas in The Fisher King

It is not really of general interest to relate that my flight landed in Boston at Zero Hour Monday, and (Monday being a workday, and all) that I made it through the day on four hours’ sleep.  But, it was a “crumpled kind of heroic” exploit.  (“Crumpled kind of hero” courtesy of David Ossman in, In the Next World You’re on Your Own.)

The Aim:

A Heart So White finished, or just-about-finished, by Tuesday, 4 September (id est, by the end of the holiday weekend).

The Plan:

Some work each weeknight (better than dips), and substantial deep dives each day of the 3-day weekend.

This seems to me eminently feasible;  I remember the heavily productive Labor Day weekend of ’15 when I composed the lion’s share of From the Pit of a Cave in the Cloud.

And:  now I do remember that I am to play the Voluntary on Beautiful Savior on Sunday the 9th.  Glad that the thought occurs to me.

The sound of someone just not getting it

Subject of a spam message:  How to make the most of your down time!