04 August 2020

Opus 170 Done

A tempo is correct when everything can still be heard.
— Mahler

Although I wrote yesterday that I had figured out the ending, that first attempt suffered from being unnecessarily elaborate; fresh reference to the Ur-text made a far preferable solution quite easy; and so, I finished the setting of the text, too, which I think fits the classical original quite naturally.

03 August 2020

Curious, not furious

Philip Austin: “You ever shoot beer?”
Peter Bergman: “Yeah—and missed!”
The Firesign Theatre on the air.

The two pieces of the Opus 170, I am dubbing Partsongs from a Pandemic. I’ve been working on № 2.  My musical model for this ’un is Gounod’s Ave Maria.  So, in fact most of my work yesterday and today has been the unglamorous, mechanical job of plugging in the classical original which I am commandeering.  I do have the creative challenge since, unlike Gounod, I am using not a complete entity, but the exposition of a Sonata design, of how to close it out.  I think I’ve got it.  More work, though.

30 July 2020

The Birth of the Blur

When the Vietnam War ended, well, the whole political landscape changed, and really in a sense the bottom dropped out of the whole raison d’être of The Firesign Theatre. People stopped listening to polirical comedy, and started putting on white suits and pointing at the ceiling and disco-ing.
— The late, great Peter Bergman

When I posted yesterday that I was half-done with Verb-Blur, I had composed the Soprano part on Tuesday and subsequently decided that the Tenor part could simply duplicate the Soprano (at the octave, of course.) Since the two parts are somewhat “out of phase” the duplication will not result in tedium. Through the rest of the afternoon and evening, I composed the Alto and Bass parts (both completely independent) and did some typographic tidying of all the parts.

Whence came Verb-Blur? While I was in rehab recovering from the stroke, my doctors, knowing that I am a musician, encouraged my to listen often to music (something I was full ready to do, to be sure) part of my listening rotation was the 6-volume box set of The Leiden Choirbooks, a treasury of 16th-c. choral polyphony. As my mind began to turn over ideas for new pieces (such as a new trio for Ensemble Aubade)  I had an idea of setting some Whitman in a way similar to the Gabrieli polychoral style (apologies for having wrenched us from Leiden to Venice.)  After my discharge from rehab, that idea slept in the back of my mind.

Another germ for this recent piece was:  the first time (since hospital) that I sang in a group, was in a choral workshop at Curry College, in which Triad collaborated. One of the exercises was a communal improv where we all simply “inhabited” d minor.  I felt both that it was an illuming study in improvisation, and that it was an effect worth trying to “compose into,” as ’twere.

29 July 2020

Verb Blur Plus

Music melting into dubious Infinities.
— Leo Schulte “A Bell.”

I’ve decided that I should consider these two pieces for Triad a single Opus no. together: Two Partsongs I am half-finished with Verb-Blur . . . now, for some more work,

And, here is Illegible Jubilation:

28 July 2020

Meanwhile, Here in Boston

They’ll eat their words with a fork and spoon.
— The Beach Boys “Catch a Wave.”
I can’t give it away on Seventh Avenue.
— Mick Jagger “Shattered.”
One never knows, do one?
— Fats Waller

Last night we had our periodic Triad meeting, planning how we might prepare to present a concert this November. The unusual times call for creative solutions.  The program we had originally planned for Spring of this year was dubbed I’ll Make a Harp of Disaster, a theme poignant in its prescience.  The piece of mine which was originally on the docket is Annabel Lee, which will not serve well for the present exigencies.  So tonight I was inspired to compose two short new pieces suited to the atypical preparation cycle of this year:  One on a text of Leo Schulte, “A Bell”:

A bell-free Life, 
Where the Harps of Time are never strung,
And the Chords of Gray are never strummed,
Where the ringing, snowing Crows
And the chiming, drowning Sounds 
Of a lost Earth ascending
Are stilled.

Your languishing Faith, Aurelia,
Your increasing Doubt, Aurelius,
Flourishing and anguishing Arcadia,
Chanting Melismas lugubrious,
Music melting into dubious

A bell-filled Death,
Where the Verbs of Time are always heard,
And the Hues of Love are always blurred,
Where Colors blending, confounding, and transcending,
Time-rhymed Colors, Verb-blurred Colors,
All unnamed and unknown are stirred by the Hand

Of God.

The other, setting a poem of Walt Whitman “The Last Invocation”:

AT the last, tenderly,
From the walls of the powerful, fortress’d house,
From the clasp of the knitted locks—from the keep of the well-closed doors,
Let me be wafted.

Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks—with a whisper,
Set ope the doors, O Soul!

Tenderly! be not impatient!
(Strong is your hold, O mortal flesh!
Strong is your hold, O love.)

26 July 2020

Waiting and Working

Having been obliged to compose most of my works for particular individuals and for the public, I have been placed under more restraint in these works than in the few pieces I have written for my own pleasure. Indeed, sometimes I have been compelled to follow very ludicrous instructions; still, it is possible that these far from agreeable suggestions may have insoired my creative imagination with a variety of ideas that otherwise probably never would have occurred to me.
— C.P.E. Bach

I have had confirmation that the slightly rescored version of The Nerves is compliant with the call requisites.  Also, I have heard from Rapido! that their plan is to announce the results in September.

Last night, I did indeed make a start on My Life, My Life. Also on the second of the new set of organ pieces, based (by request) on “In the Garden,” While the dew is still on the roses.

24 July 2020

Planning the Opus 169 (and not only planning)

Minnie Mouse has got it all sewn up: she gets more fan mail than the Pope.
— 10cc “Life Is a Minestrone”

Quite some time has passed since the last piece I wrote for organ solo, the Sonata in 2013, so I have been thinking of writing a fresh set of short pieces, for HTUMC’s organist, Barbara Otto. Ill say that, since both the Op. 28 and the Op. 34 consist of three pieces, it was natural for me to think at first of another set of three pieces.  But as I went for this evening’s stroll to the pond, I reflected how lazy it would seem of me to dig myself into a three-piece rut, so I shall write a set of four, and (as I did with the five numbers of the Mass, I shall dedicate each of the four to a different colleague, as a thank-you.  There is a fifth colleague whom I should like thus to thank: Paul Cienniwa, but Paul has switched hats, from a church music director, to the CEO of the Binghamton Symphony.

I made a good start last night in finishing Barbaras piece, the Op. 169 № 1, titled Where bright angel feet have trod.

23 July 2020

Sheep and Scarecrow

For us to have pulled off the amount of group-writing that we’ve pulled off, and to have pulled it off as successfully as we’ve seemed to have, is to me, the biggest success of The Firesign Theatre. 
Secondly, that we haven
’t killed each other is the next biggest success.  No one has been shot during the writing sessions, and that’s a great success (laughs)
— the late, great Philip Austin

Counting Sheep (or, The Dreamy Abacus of Don Quijote) Op. 58b
The occasion for composing the original piece was a request by the Czech composer-pianist Giorgio Koukl for a new piece for piano and wind quintet. I exulted in the opportunity to write for six professional instrumentalists. I started actually with the title, I believe I found the alternative orthography ‘Don Quijote’ in the writings of Washington Irving, who spent time in Madrid at the invitation of Alexander Hill Everett, then American Minister to Spain. This suggested the general character of the piece, which I approached as an episodic fantasy. I wrote it at a time when the nation was shocked by a national catastrophe, and so, as an artistic response I wanted to write a piece bristling with good vibes, we might say. This I especially expressed musically in the balletto quasi flamenco which is the piece’s climax. In 2013 I prepared the arrangement for “Pierrot-plus” ensemble.

Kurosawa’s Scarecrow (Memories of Packanack Lake), Op. 145a
I wrote this piece in 2017 for my k a rl h e nn i ng Ensemble. My colleagues asked me about:
1. The Scarecrow. The fact is that at the time, I believe I was simply exulting in the phonemic play, in the phrase “Kurosawa’s Scarecrow.” But not long after I coined the phrase, or at the least, formed that title, I watched for the second time The Seven Samurai. And my wondering eyes saw a scene in which an armored scarecrow was raised to draw fire from the attacking bandits. Of course, I had seen the movie a few years earlier for the first time, and I cannot, therefore, discount the possibility that the image, the idea, lodged somewhere in the Henning brain. (So many odd things do there lodge.) So there the question rests.

2. Packanack Lake. It isn't as if the lake really meant that much to me, ever. There was a time in my life when I lived nearby, although I saw the lake more frequently reading a map than I did with my eyes. For our present purposes, there are two emotional notions. The first is that bodies of water have always meant something to me, and this was one near to which I long resided, but which I did not know. I knew of it (savoir) but it was not familiar to me (connaître). The second is that the lake was part of my life, insofar as it was any part, at a curious in-between period in my experience... I had been graduated from high school, it was my ambition to go to college to study music, but I had no understanding of how I might do so, and I was simply working odd jobs. It was a kind of twilight in my life, but neither can I deny that the twilight is a romantic, suggestive, hopeful hour.

I created the fixed media element first. All I can really say of it is, I have fun manipulating “found sounds.” I later rescored the live ensemble component for string quartet at a time when I happened to have met both a fellow composer and his wife (a violinist in a local orchestra, who gave me a card for her string quartet)

Oh, in sending in The Nerves t’other day, I was inattentive to the scoring requirements.  Last night I brought my submission into compliance.

22 July 2020

Niet zo snel!

Of all lies, art is the least untrue.
— Gustave Flaubert

While I do not truly regret acting so quickly (for one thing, I got this message in time to act) I got a message discreetly informing me that the scoring of The Nerves does not comply with the requirements of the call (a result of my having tailored the scoring to a specific group).  I can, indeed, make suitable modifications, and in time still to meet the deadline.

Meanwhile it's off with the Saltmarsh Stomp, Akira’s Scarecrow and Quijote, to two other calls (yes, three for two!).

21 July 2020

More “Send it on in! Who knows?”

The belief in technique as the only means of salvation must be suppressed, the striving toward truth furthered.
— Arnold Schoenberg

A friend sent word of a number of calls for scores, and even though (as ever) nothing may in fact come of it, I am elated because I have what I consider very good pieces, still waiting for a performance, to submit.  Chuffed to find that I have such a strong portfolio . . . whether a panel of judges sees the music’s merits, or not.

Thus. I have now sent out Discreet Erasures, Snootful of Hooch and The Nerves.  Give ’em what for!

20 July 2020

One fine Hallowe’en in the Nixon Era

Sour cream and chives on your baked potato?”
“Yes, ma’am, just like the President.”

— the late, great Philip Austin

I dreamt last night that fellow composer Luke Ottevanger and I were exchanging musical sketches using a pitch-world we jokingly called “Bentatonic.”

 More than a month ago I enjoyed the privilege of previewing the now-released (as of 17 July) double CD of a live improv event performed by the Mark Harvey Group, Peter H Bloom (woodwinds) Mark Harvey (brasswinds) Craig Ellis and Michael Standish (percussion) A Rite for All Souls.  the quartet “employed an array of Western and non-Western musical instruments of classical and traditional disciplines as well as toys and found objects” in an aural theatre piece performed in two acts with a brief intermission. Interspersed through the course of the musical improvisation are four recitations: Gary Snyder’s Spel Against Demons (1970), Wm Butler Yeats’s The Second Coming (1919), Jack Spicer’s A Book of Music (1961) and Craig Ellis’s Napalm Rice Paper (1970)

A marvellously executed Service of Shadows, this was a once-in-a-lifetime, an extraordinary event, whereof this compact disc is a rich and enjoyable listen:  the colors, the unflagging verve, the protean invention, the joyful anarchy which nevertheless subsumes into a centripetal organic whole.  As a musical endeavor/result I find it thoroughly admirable. One aspect which probably defies either analysis or explanation:  When I listened the very first time, and the recitation of Spel Against Demons began . . . in the back of my mind there arose the (ultimately unfounded) doubt that the recitation elements might prove an obstacle to repeat listening. Not a jot, not a jot:  I do not know how they managed it (I have tried a few times over the years to include such a textual element, and have later generally cringed at the recollection) the whole feels like a seamless fabric.  My hat’s off, gentlemen: Genius!

14 July 2020

The Happening Today

Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.
— Churchill

Six years ago today, I finished Scene 7 of White Nights, which reminds me how gratified I am to have completed the ballet.

The weekend before my stroke, we had a wonderful time in our Triad concerts, which included It Might Happen Today (the première) and The Mystic Trumpeter (somewhat abridged, with the composer’s leave) I was indeed greatly elated with the concert experience:  it was marvelous to collaborate with soprano Sudie Marcuse in the Trumpeter, and if our performances of It Might Happen Today might have been still tighter, that is true of the first performance of any challenging piece, and it carried well both nights, and I had great fun singing it.

The concerts were probably on Saturday and Sunday evenings.  I watched the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man on Monday evening.  I had my stroke in Tuesday’s pre-dawn dark.

When I emerged from the oblivion of the operation and awoke in hospital, the fresh memory of the wonderful concerts was one of many positive thoughts I held onto.  I knew I would compose more, and that I shall play clarinet again—a goal towards which I still work tirelessly. Months passed, and I was delighted to learn that Triad would program both my Alleluia in A-flat and a reprise of It Might Happen Today, which our Sydney Mukasa led with verve and sensitivity.  And we have just today uploaded the vid to YouTube:

13 July 2020

The Ax Is Whetted

Jazz is the result of the energy stored up in America.
— Geo. Gershwin

I had the text ready for the Op. 167 on 9 April. I sent the parts out to the choir on 11 or 12 April.  In the way of practice/preparation, I created what I called a “proto-mix,” using the first three recordings that had come in, on 24 April.  I liked it, and pretty much wanted it to stand as the start.  More singers sent recordings in over the next two weeks, but I pretty much dawdled.  I was in a state of “fixin’ to do it” all through the Independence Day weekend.  Lo! on July the 9th I acted, at last.  Response both from the singers and from my “focus group” was generally positive, with the greatest concern being a feeling that the lower voices were underrepresented.  I worked up an alternate mix on the 10th  but the file exports mysteriously failed.  User error? Perhaps.  At any rate, I tried again today and: no problem.  I pronounce Best Get the Ax, Op. 167 done.
And we have a Triad meeting this evening . . . .

09 July 2020

A Kind of Recapitulation-plus

. . . “a conviction that art should do something more imaginative than servile imitation of nature.”

harking briefly back to this week’s review, it is a welcome case when one has more material to select from, than can be accommodated in the space of the review.  But here in my blog, I can enlarge, parenthesize, or comment with no limit which does not originate with myself.

This wonderful Gabrieli disc was not conceived ex nihilo, but is a later generation’s fond salute to the landmark 1968 Columbia Records LP, The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli, Columbia Masterworks: MS 7209, a combined endeavor of the Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago Brass Ensembles, an album of which at least one of our artists on the 2014 project “wore out the grooves” (an image which lacks relevance to CDs—let alone mp3s.

About the Opus 119

. . . Does the idea ask whether I have spare time or not? I am its victim, everywhere, all the time.
— Leoš Janáček

As listed here, in 2011 I had Leo Schulte’s “The Crystalline Ship” in mind as one of the movements of the Cantata that never was; it is the Mass which (a little to my own surprise) germinated determinedly, and now bears the Op. 106 designation.

However, on 14 Mar 2014, D’anna Fortunato and Peter H. Bloom performed the première of my setting of “The Crystalline Ship” for soprano and baritone saxophone as my Op.119 № 1 . . . and I had formed the idea of the Op. 119 comprising a set of pieces for voice plus Peter, as he plays several instruments. Probably at the time, but certainly since,  I decided, too that the other unifying factor would be, Schulte texts.

Thus, the new soprano/alto flute piece for Janet Ross, will be the Op.119 № 2, “My Life, My Life”

08 July 2020

Artisanal Forge

Dotterels have no sense whatever. They know in a vague sort of way that something happened in 1492 because something happens every year, but the details are all a blur. The Dotterel lets himself get caught by all kinds of people because he is too trusting. He walks right up to them in the belief that they want to take him on a visit to the Bok Bird Sanctuary. As a result of this habit, the Dotterel will soon be extinct and nobody will care much excepting the members of the Save the Dotterel Movement. Dotterels swallow grit and have pervious nostrils and something is wrong with their pineal glands. The Dotterel makes wigwag motions with his wings and legs but nobody knows what he means. Whatever it is, it is wrong.

— Will Cuppy, How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes

My latest review went up today: My proposed title was “All-Star Brass Venetian Carnival,” though I do not at all object to the published title (mine was only a suggestion, knowing that a title is sometimes a challenge to come up with.

CD review: “Gabrieli” showcases all-star brass

There may well already be collective nouns for the groups of the orchestra, but, well, a composer devises, so I felt that a smithy of brass players had a good, erm, ring. The pleasant surprise for me was, what a very good piece John Williams wrote for this endeavor.

I had composed the whole of the review before the video, below was brought to my attention. The remarks of these colleagues about how orchestral players inspired them, and how they hope their wonderful work here may inspire the next generation of great instrumentalists really hit home.

07 July 2020

Music Among Friends

The point is not to take the world’s opinion as a guiding star, but to go one’s way in life and work unflinchingly, neither depressed by failure nor seduced by applause.
— Gustav Mahler
A soprano friend via Triad, Janet Ross, was looking for pieces for soprano and flute, so I offered to write one.  Keeping my friend Peter Bloom in mind, I thought I wanted to write for soprano and alto flute, and I asked yet another friend, Leo Schulte if he had a likely poem;  well, he wrote one:

Thus moaned the soil:
My life, my life, my life,
A mass of desire
In a priestless church,
A smile of despair
In a cloud-choked face,
A gasp of adieu
In an unknelled box.   

Thus cried the fire:
My life, my life, my life,
Growing and thinking and warming,
Gilded and hated,
Warming and yearning and fading,
Useful and useless,
Fading and yearning and fading,
With a yearning heart.

Thus sighed the air:
My life, my life, my life,
A wave in a sea
With a too-far shore,
A clock in a world
With a time-free sky,
A grain in a dune
With a boundless mind.

Thus sang the sea:
My life, my life, my life,
Dreaming and birthing and storming,
Frozen and cobbled,
Storming and healing and playing,
Lovelorn and Love-filled,
Playing and healing and playing,
In the healing soul.

02 July 2020


Last night I was thinking why is it a surprise to people that the Firesign albums can be played over and over again? Don’t you you play your favorite music albums over and over again? Once afain that’s an often-asked question. What makes these last? It’s because they’re more like music than they are like jokes, and part of that is the performance, you know, if you love the way Lena Horne sings a song, then you love everything she does because she has a way of doing it. There’s a particular kind of sound to that and it’s the same thing with the Firesign Theatre. You love and you react favorably to the richness of the language that’s contained in a certain melody. The music of the piece just bounces right along. Our pieces are very musical.
— David Ossman (Sagittarius)
At my weekly physical therapy sessions, Mike makes me welcome to connect my phone to his Alexa via Bluetooth.  Over the months, the music which it has been my pleasure to introduce Mike to has included Haydn string quartets, the Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphonies, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and more.  Sometimes we listen to non-classical music:  One week we revisited (what neither of us had listened to for a long time) Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. When I arrived for my appointment today, I had decided to introduce Mike to Robert Fripp’s 1980 new wave dance quartet, The League of Gentlemen, and we listened to their performance in Philadelphia, When we were wrapping up and I went to grab my phone, I saw that the date of the performance we had listened to was 2 July 1980:  40 years ago, today.

Three things I asked Alexa this week (generally, not while I was at therapy):

  1. How big a Bengal Tiger is
  2. When Jno. Frakes was born
  3. Where Lake Titicaca is located

30 June 2020

In Celebration of Asteroid Day

. . . Tutti! for Earth and Heaven! The Almighty Leader now for me, for once has signal’d with his wand.
— Walt Whitman, “Proud Music of the Storm.”

These Triad concerts marked my post-stroke, pre-pandemic return to participation in the collective

This was our second go at Jim Dalton’s setting of Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer,” and, as one might hope, we made better music with it the second time.

28 June 2020

New Choral Music Under Lockdown

It is high time that I apply myself to mixing Best Get the Ax. My friend Charles Turner is first out of the gate with Berkeley Denies:

27 June 2020

Shake It Off—Move On!

Two years ago, I participated in the Rapido! Contest, a biennial event sponsored by the Atlanta Chamber Players.  In brief, the idea is that the participating composers have two weeks to write a piece. Not all contestants win, and I was one of the non-winners. I've made note of this already, so I am not writing to complain, today. One of the specs for the entry that cycle was, music related to dance, so I wrote a set of two:  Dances of Exhilaration and Nonchalance . . . consisting of Revere’s Midnight Reel (War Dance) and the Boston Harbor Heave-Ho (Tea Party Dance)
One reason not to complain about not having won is, I am pleased with what I wrote; indeed, I arranged the latter for “my band”

Was my piece perhaps too “retro” for the judges?  No matter.

If at first, you do not succeed . . . so I enrolled for this year’s Rapido! cycle.
As a rule (under normal circs) writing a piece of the scale required in that time-frame is a task I do not find unduly trying.

The difference, this year, is that I am in therapy, recovering from my stroke.  So I undertook the challenge, on the understanding (which operates for me, but which will be irrelevant to the judging process, of course) that I would pace my efforts, and not overwork in order to write the piece.

So, I got a good night’s rest Sunday, 30 May.  The e-mail with the specs came in at 9am Monday, 1 June.  The requested scoring is right up my street. And as the piece needs to be 4-6 minutes in duration, I figured I could compose 30 seconds of music per day, and have lots of wiggle room.  By the time  I set myself to a relaxing Tuesday evening of watching James Bond, I had written 60 seconds of my piece, and I was quite pleased with the start I had made.

Although I rested well Tuesday night, on Wednesday morning I felt tired.  when I have talked with my Occupational Therapist about the question of my returning to work, I had to report that, while my stamina is generally good (I certainly have steam enough for a walk around the pond, generally 50 minutes) I find that my body requires a nap at periods too frequent for me to consider resuming a spot back in The Workplace.  The brain's efforts to re-map the neural connections are indeed an expenditure of energy; and I am diligent in my therapy “homework.”  And my weekly P.T. sessions, whose activity sends a great deal of input to my brain, typically require a couple of days to “recover.”

So, Wednesday morning, my feeling was, that not only would I not compose that day, but that I should simply rest, and leave off any thought of composing until I felt completely recharged.  I understood right away that this threw my “plan” off the rails, but I was morally prepared to abandon the contest, if I did not feel up to the work: there will be other opportunities.

Days of rest (for which my body was grateful, went by.  At last, on Sunday (the seventh day of the contest, and thus the half-way point of the contest period) I felt myself again, and thought I might resume composing.  I trimmed my scheme for the piece, so that, with a stricter rest regimen, the project would be achievable, and I opened up the Sibelius file for the first time since downing tools.  What I found was that, although I had felt that those first two days’ work had been good, I had messed up the cello line with an errant mouse-click.  This was, is if anything, confirmation that I was too tired towards the end of that work period.  The fact is, too, that even under good conditions, I sometimes make such a mistake, so it was not anything to impute to (say) my still-compromised left hand.

Well, that discovery, and dismay at the prospect of recovering the material, came close to convincing me to throw in the towel.  However, I thought to pour out my tale to fellow composer Mark Gresham, who had originally informed me of the contest. He reminded me that Sibelius auto-saves backup files (something, admittedly, which I ought to have known) So, on the early side of that Sunday evening (I think it was) I went back into Sibelius, and managed shortly to set my score to rights again.  And I shut down the computer and got a good night’s rest.

Quite probably buoyed by the successful restoration, I awoke fresh and ready on Monday morning.  All through the week, I remained true to keeping the work periods brief, and getting ample rest.

I did, indeed, finish the piece, both to my entire musical satisfaction, and in time for the deadline.

And, Gentle Reader, since anonymity is one of the conditions of the contest, that is all I shall say, until I know the result.

All I shall add is, whether or not I succeed in this contest, my piece will be heard. That is a promise.

26 June 2020

The Challenge of Simplicity

Picking up from yesterdays post, I found Judith’s memorial piece for the Public School teacher delicately touching, both for itself, in its unaffected artistry, and in its light-handed universality (as it seems to me) Even at this far remove, I have teachers from my youth whom I remember with love and gratitude, it would not surprise me if we all have.

I was also reminded vividly of one of my first meetings with Judith in her studio at UVa, possibly when I was interviewing for admission to the graduate program in Composition. She asked me to show her some of my work, and one of the pieces I showed her was a set of three occasional pieces which I had written at Wooster for soprano Elaine Krochmal  and tuba-player Jennie Macke, a set of Three Viking Proverbs from the Prose Edda (I think)

They were scored actually for soprano, clarinet and tuba; Elaine and Jennie asked me if I knew of any music for soprano and tuba.  I did not, so I offered to write something for the three of us.  At the interview, mildly embarrassed by their musical modesty, I apologized for their simplicity.   “There’s nothing wrong with simplicity,” she assured me.  It was both a generous, friendly ice-breaker, and a maxim that I have kept to heart.  Indeed, I knew the truth of it, as soon as she gave it utterance.

It is, I think, in some ways superficially easier to compose dense, complicated music.  The result, at least is sufficiently active to beguile the ear.  In the most important sense, composing music is a challenge, simple or complex, because the goal is a piece which will engage and interest the listener, and beyond these, to earn the listener’s affection.  But there is a sense in which the challenge is more acute when the music is simple: There’s no place to hide, we might say.

There are a few student works which I still own, but the Three Viking Proverbs is not one of them.  There is a good idea or two in there. The piece does suffer from a number of flaws. Simplicity is not among them, however.
I remember that piece now, most importantly because Judith reminded me that there is nothing wrong with simple music.

25 June 2020

Past, Present, and not-quite-immediate Future

In reverse order:

I have done just a sliver more work on the second movement of the Symphony № 2. Will let ideas percolate a bit more.

One of my teachers, Judith Shatin, writes:

I composed The Best Angel in Heaven in the cruel month of April, 2020, in memory of Sandra Santos-Vizcaino, the wonderful third-grade teacher at PS 9 in Brooklyn, NY who passed away from Covid-19.

The poignant directness of the ‘found’ text is powerful, both because the music is of just the right character, and courtesy of the composer’s keeping masterfully ‘out of the text’s way.

The latest Facebook status update of an old schoolmate of mine reads: I never finish anythi

I shall conclude this post tomorrow (weather and authorities permitting)

24 June 2020


The blog Earrelevant featured my Apr 2018 video of Thoreau in Concord Jail as one of their Interlude features. It reminds me (altogether pleasantly) that I am recovering towards playing clarinet again.

And: credit where credit is due ... I had neglected this my blog for some time, and the fact that my buddy Dave in Minnesota recently posted to his blog told me that I was due for one, meself.

23 April 2020

After the Ballet

There seems to loom the possibility of a performance of Snootful of Hooch.  The singers of Triad have begun sending me sound files for Best Get the Ax. I have made a start on The Heart, movement 2 of the Symphony for Band. I have revisited the conference-room-environment piece I devised this past September, and I rather like it, now to be dubbed A New York State of Mend. My organist-composer friend David Bohn has issued a playful call for 20-second pieces for melodica, so my submission bears the title Illegible Jubilation. And, although my submission to the 2018 Rapido! cycle went nowhere fast, I shall give it another shot this year.

15 April 2020

About the Opus 28 organ pieces

I composed the Small Ricercar and Meditation in 1994 for the late William A. Goodwin, organist at Woburn, Massachusetts’ First Congregational Church, whose Sixth Meeting House is home to a beautiful 1865 E & GG Hook organ. Bill made me welcome to compose anything I liked, though in his self-effacing way he joked that I could write anything provided it was in C Major, Common Time, and marked Largo. Although these two pieces fail to comply with those strictures, he did indeed play them as part of worship services. I composed these while riding the MBTA buses in my daily commute to Boston.

In 2003, while serving in the choir of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St Paul on Boston’s Tremont Street. I frequently collaborated both as clarinetist and composer with the Music Director at that time, Mark T. Engelhardt, an organist of such accomplishment that I was shy of offering him most of the organ music I had written theretofore, as too simple for him to find musically gratifying. Thus I set to writing (we might say) the toothy organ Toccata of my musical fancy. I composed most of the piece while on retreat at Most Holy Trinity Monastery in Petersham, Mass. Although Mark assured me more than once (when I offered) that there was no musical need to change anything in the Toccata, I do not believe he has yet had occasion to perform it. Atlanta organist Albert Ahlstrom eventually gave the piece its première

The score leaves the matter of dynamics to the discretion of the performer, guided by the requirements of the space and the registral characteristics of the given instrument.

Karl Henning (April 2020)

11 April 2020

And about the Opus 167

Best Get the Ax (Variation on a doggerel), Op.167

About the music:

There is no full score
Taking my experience with various fixed media mixes as a point d'appui,
I composed a setting of the text; and then shook and shuffled things around to create 6 voice parts (SSATTB).
Each singer selects a part to suit his or her voice. In preparing and recording the part,
The singer is welcome to any artistic liberty which to him or her feels true to the piece,
and then sends the sound file to me for assembly/treatment. The piece is thus somewhere in the midst of improv, composition-mixage
and Renaissance partbooks

About the text:

An old friend of mine (in fact, the person who helped me figure out how to go to college, decades ago)
to help amuse his friends in these dour days, sent the text of a song he used to sing at camp as a boy.
I enjoyed the playful reckless imagery, and felt it would be a good text to set and a fun text to sing (well, it's a camp song, so it must be).
Although my friend is sure the song is P.D., I felt that I should create what is clearly my own variant.

10 April 2020

Comes the Dawn

God in heaven! A whole moment of bliss!
Is that not sufficient even for a man’s entire life?...

Comes the dawn—A Beginner’s Guide to Henning’s White Nights

I began work in 2003 on a full evening’s ballet after the Dostoyevsky novella
whose title I need not repeat in this paragraph. I began by re-reading
my source, drawing up a fairly extensive outline, and composing the Overture.
As I had no collaborative organization or ensemble, and was pursuing
the project for my own artistic benefit; I periodically set the ballet aside
to compose music for which there was a more immediate prospect of
performance. Nevertheless the finished portions
of the ballet steadily accumulated over time until, more than a decade later,
the end was in sight.  I did indeed revisit the work at intervals,
so I assured myself that there was musical continuity in spite of the prolonged
production. At last, I completed my White Nights, Ballet in Four Nights
and a Morning on 5 April 2020

Karl Henning (10 Apr 2020)