09 April 2023

How the Vermicelli Stuck

Fool’s wool! Don’t be fleeced by sheep imitations!
Postcards From Red Squirrel Trail

Mel [Gibson] will always be Mad Max, and me, I will always be a number.
— Patrick McGoohan, creator of the iconic series, The Prisoner.

In the true microblogger spirit, yesterday I reported having composed two pieces, but discussed only the first. Nevertheless, as pleased as I am to have wrapped up the latest of the Opus 169 organ solo pieces (and I am greatly pleased, I have also managed in the space of ten days to begin and complete (allowing still for tweaks-&-finishing), a new flute and alto saxophone duet for Paul Gardner and Gregory Weber, who did such a beautiful job with I dreamt of reconciliation and harmony, Opus 171. So it is pretty much a wrap on Waiting on the Italian Paperwork (or, Throwing Vermicelli at the Wall), Opus 177.

08 April 2023

Big News for Little Old Me

...at last: avant-garde without the messy hallucinogenics!
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

Better to suffer injustice than do it.
— The father-in-law in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life

After months of not feeling any particular motivation to do any creative work (in general) or to carry on with the Opus 169 organ pieces (in particular) I have finished two pieces this week. It is long enough since I have posted here that some recapitulation is justified:

The idea behind the Opus 169 set is a number of short pieces written as musical thank-yous to organists in the Boston area who have been supportive of my work. In most cases I pretty much picked a tune out of a figurative hat, but in the case of № 8, there’s a sense in which I let the dedicatee choose. Jack Russell was the instructor for my class's first-year Music Theory course, and also director of the Wooster Chorus, a group which continues to tour every Spring Break as a kind of cultural ambassador from the College. At the end of the year of Theory we had individual appointments, and after the business of the appointment was done, Jack asked me my plan, which at the time was just to major in Clarinet Performance. He explained to me the advantage (or even, in hindsight, necessity) of versatility and encouraged me to consider a double major ... Composition was one suggestion, and I took to it directly.

So, fast forward to the present: Jack has served as Music Director of the Episcopal parish in Hamilton, Mass. (not far from Danvers, where I serve the Methodist parish.) Id reached out to him a couple of times by phone, so weve been in loose touch. In the first year of the Pandemic, which in effect shut our church down for Lent and Easter of ’20, Jack’s church had a live stream for a light-staffed Good Friday service, in which a baritone soloist sang “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (to the tune Hamburg) ... so thats why I have employed this tune in the Op. 169 № 8. I no longer remember just when I set to work on the piece; it had something of a false start, and I needed to recompose whatever I began with. Then the piece stalled out completely for at least a couple of months. In need of getting something easy together for our handbell ringers (few as they are, thanks in large part to the pandemic) so that they might participate in the Easter service, I whipped up a minimalist arrangement of “What Wondrous Love Is This.” As a result, I thought to get on with the Opus 169 № 8 by inserting a bit of “What Wondrous Love Is This.” I then managed to complete the piece in short order. On Wednesday morning I gave Jack a call, and “warned” him that I would be sending him the piece. I was then the fortunate beneficiary of positive reinforcement, as my friend Carson Cooman prepared a performance of the piece with breathtaking dispatch.

23 November 2022

G-rated Night Gallery: the start of a list Part 1

Everyone’s a critic, and sometimes he’s a jerk about it.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

Do what you want to, do what you will, just don’t mess up your neighbor’s thrill.
—Frank Zappa “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing”

I have the pleasure of sending to a good friend my no-longer-needed DVDs of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (as the glorious Blu-Ray editions for all three seasons have now arrived.)

It crosses my mind, as I am sharing these with a friend, that I need to be highly selective about sharing these with the missus (who has zero appetite for horror) hence this list—just a start and therefore subject to expansion—of episodes suitable for horror-averse viewers:

From the Pilot:

“Escape Route” (author: Serling) a fugitive Nazi in South America meets Karma.

From Season 1:

“The Housekeeper” (author: Matthew Howard) Larry Hagman seeks to “cure” a bad marriage.

“The House” (author: Serling) Joanne Pettet in her Night Gallery inaugural, a gentle ghost story.

“Lone Survivor” (author: Serling) Arguably something of a re-tread of a Twilight Zone story.

“They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” (author: Serling) One of Serling’s hymns to nostalgia, and nominated for an Emmy.

25 August 2022

A Day of impersonating a composer

Run your fingers through my soul, but wash your hands first.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

I think I tend naturally to write about forms of transportation and women. It comes from growing up in Fresno.
— Phil Austin of the Firesign Theatre

The background: In September of last year as I actually reported here, I wrote a short Alleluia which, as it was meant for my church choir, was a failure. Why a failure? Although I meant for it to be easy to put together (I included a supportive piano reduction-plus, and kept the whole piece in the same time signature, to that end) at that time, it proved difficult for our altos to attend Thursday rehearsals. For all its keeping to 2/4, my piece is larded with my characteristic rhythmic tricks—and I may have mentioned here in this blog ere now, Gentle Reader, that not all my singers read notation well, so that learning new music takes a degree of demo and imitation—the upshot being that the piece was far too much of a chore for my faithful sopranos to try to learn, without having the alto line to interact with. The piece was, therefore, a monumental non-starter.

Today’s developments: For personal reasons, I have been slow to attend to any musical business, and certainly have done no composing. Yesterday was the day I nominated for tasks related to the October Henning Ensemble dates, and today was Triad Day, as we plan for our November concerts. It appears that to our historical challenge of populating a tenor section, we must add the challenge of populating an alto section. I had planned on having the group sing the Sanctus from my Mass, a piece which would prove rather rehearsal-intensive. That fact plus the uncertainty of our inner-voice situation has me looking for a Plan B, specifically secularizing the abovementioned Alleluia. So, insofar as I have been a composer today, it’s been a matter of re-texting. Mostly using the phrase How short will songs get? for which I have my friend JP to thank. The Opus 174 will now therefore be Rhetorical Question in E-flat.

Otherwise, there is nothing to report. I’ve not heard from the conductors to whom I sent various scores. Not sure why I should write anything more. Success and recognition? I’m nearing the past hoping stage.

16 July 2022

Subject to revision in the Future

It’s funny, in August of ‘69, I was doing two weeks of summer camp in the United States Army, up in Fort Cronkite in Sausalito, California. I went in my uniform down into Berkeley. It was unusual to be in uniform down in Berkeley, but I had to because I had to be in uniform at this point, to get to a record store to get the record. I walked in and I said, “Do you have The Firesign Theatre?” These guys looked at me as if I was going to blow the store up. They said, “Yeah, a new album.” They said, “Let me ask you, how come you’re interested?” I said, “Hey, look, that’s me.” “It blew their minds. I love to stretch ’em around.

— Peter Bergman, as relsted to Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr

Of the Genesis album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a virtual acquaintance wrote:

... an album I've always really struggled to make sense of, both musically and narratively.  What's the secret - apart from to go back 40 years and get immersed in it?

To which I replied:

The “narrative” of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, whether Peter Gabriel’s lyrics or his prose blurb, which originally appeared inside the gatefold (irreconcilable as they are), is simply a hot mess (at best) with the occasional embarrassingly weak “wordplay” which at times mars even the best efforts of early Genesis at worst. I treat the album kind of like a Wagner opera, in that I pretty much just focus on the music. Apparently (relations already being strained between PG and the rest of the band at that point—IIRC, Mrs PG was having a difficult pregnancy, and the band could have been more emotionally supportive than they were) the band basically communally composed the album song by song, and PG devised/applied lyrics with the music more or less a fait accompli) which anyway supports the notion of receiving the music as the core experience. All that said, it’s kind of surreal to find the audience in the DVD of a live performance. singing along to “Carpet Crawlers.” I love all the rhythmic ingenuity of the album, and of course, Steve Hackett’s colors, especially. For me, the outstanding tracks are “Fly on a Windshield,” “In the Cage,” “Back in N.Y.C./Hairless Heart.” “The Waiting Room/Anyway/Here Comes the Supernatural Anaesthetist” & “Silent Sorrow in Empty Boats.”

On the theme of “a hot mess,” here are five outstandingly less-than-his-best lines from Peter Gabriel’s lyrics on that album:

5. Groucho, with his movies trailing, stands alone with his punch-line failing.

Something failed there, but it wasn't Groucho.

4. With no sign of life at all, I guess that I’m alone.

Well, I guess so!

3. Chances narrow that I’ll make it in the cushioned straight-jacket.

The strained rhyme only accentuates the strained imagery.

2. It’s a yellow plastic Shoobedoobe

Part of me applauds the made-up word, and yet it feels too much like I don’t know what to write, so let’s just go with, erm, something.

1. It’s only knock and know-all, but I like it.

Gabriel rarely strained more than right there.

Bonus: the reader is invited to consider which of the following two songs, in their entirety, is worse: “The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging,” or “Counting Out Time.”

For the sake of some balance: five lines from the album which I especially like:

1. Silent sorrow in empty boats.

2. Youre sitting in your comfort, you don’t believe I’m real; you cannot buy protection from the way that I feel.

3. And I’m hovering like a fly, waiting for the windshield on the freeway.

4. They say she comes on a pale horse, but I’m sure I hear a train.

5. They are pulled up by the magnet, believing they’re free.

09 July 2022

Symphony № 3 Done

Should I worry about back-end Russian troll interference if, when I say “symphonies are,” my phone’s speech-to-text utility gives me “Symphony Czar?”
Postcards From Red Squirrel Trail

As the Symphony № 2 (which, with the long-awaited typographical clean-up of the score for the third movement, is now at last a fully completed project—though I guess that is not really true until there may be an actual performance) was for symphonic band, I decided early on that the third would be for strings (there was the fleeting thought of making it a piece for brass and strings, but I dismissed that sonically attractive thought, considering that the addition of brass would only make it harder to find a prospective performance—and since I already had two as-yet-unperformed symphonies, I didn't want to start this new piece off at a disadvantage.)

I decided, too, that it would be a single movement, and about 20 minutes in length. The death, a year ago, of Louis Andriessen, whom I knew from his time as a visiting composer at the University at Buffalo while I pursued my doctorate there, determined the symphony’s largely elegiac character. By 4 October, I had the piece at about the ten-minute mark, at which point it had absorbed Marginalia, the brief imitative chorale (a character which made its incorporation musically organic) in the middle of a suite of short pieces, the Opus 96, one of any number of works I wrote with a specific colleague in mind (and, indeed, on invitation in this case) but which went nowhere. After a brief period of going back and forth on the question, I decided that I would go ahead and allow the Symphony № 3 to cannibalize all three pieces of the Op. 96, the first of which was itself an adaptation of the Opus 25 toccata, Lutosławski’s Lullaby, which has only been performed twice as a piano piece. In January, I composed the brief conclusion of the Symphony, and over the past two weeks, I have completed the process, and so now the Symphony № 3 for strings in memoriam Louis Andriessen is finished.

I seem to have reached a place in my substantially-unrequited journey (it cannot be called a career) as a composer, where completing yet another piece on spec gives me scarcely any joy. I feel, in rather a cold way, that it is good to have finished the piece. Normally in the past, I should then be eager to set to writing another piece. At this point, I might finish the Opus 169 organ pieces, but almost none of the dedicatees of the pieces already finished have even acknowledged the piece I've sent to them. So here is a project where (I thought) at least the people for whom I've written them will have use for them, but I find I was (perhaps quite pathetically) apparently mistaken, and I think I need to ask myself, why write music which no one needs? So maybe the Opus 169 is complete at seven pieces.

There are many respects in which Life is very much different than I had imagined and hoped when I was young and fresh. I have to admit that the Universe's sustained indifference to my work may be starting to wear upon me.

So, I simply do not know.

28 June 2022

Lungs Now Neatly Laid Out. Thoughts on the new trios

There was something on the chair that night
the eggs were white, Fernando ....

As reported here, I completed composition of The Lungs a little more than a year ago. It was only this past week.  I suppose I was motivated by the positive tone of my 12 June encounter with Matt Marsit.

Separately, I've been somewhat immersed in both Bicycling Into the Sun (Feel the Burn) and Swiss Skis (the new ieces for Ensemble Aubade) for a couple of weeks now. My feeling about Skis is that it is something of a pastoral second movement, contrasting with the bravura of Oxygen Footprint  as a first mvt. And Bicycling is the closing gigue, which itself dissolves into a broad quasi-timeless coda in something of a Stravinskyan manner. In some sense, Swiss Skis springs from my harpsichord/violin duo, Plotting, which my old friend Gene Barnes characterized as "L'Histoire du Soldat" on steroids. For Skis, the viola takes something of the lead in a quasi-concertante rôle. There's an implacable quiet intensity in the 'A' material which I think one of the better things I've created. My sense is that when the violist digs in, the sparks will fly. I admit, too, to simply enjoying the misleadingly carefree tone at the start of Bicycling. And I consider the sparse exoticism of the coda (the Sun into which we've bicycled?) an especially felicitous invention. Sure, there must be an element of pride, in the accomplishment of composing both pieces soon after my discharge from rehab. But insofar as I can separate myself from the urge to pat myself on the back, I'm warmly enthusiastic about both pieces on (I believe) their musical merits.