30 November 2008

Curious Musical Similarities Dept (lower-neighbor figures plus descending arpeggio)

Impromptu (Pop Quiz)

A. Does an arrangement, for soupy soprano saxophone, of Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)" qualify as jazz?

B. "WXXX may not play much of composer x, but ten times a week you can rely on them playing his piece(s) y1 [y2, y3 . . . ]."
:: Solve for y with the following values for x:
  1. Debussy
  2. Ravel
  3. Elgar
  4. Sibelius
  5. Copland
C. Bad Christmas music: Is there a bottom? Why or why not?

27 November 2008

Compare & Contrast sine nomine

There haven’t been all that many cases where I’ve seen both the original and a re-make; so I haven’t gravitated to any generalization of either approval or disapproval. For some such pairings, the original held no great interest for me, so why should I trouble with a remake? For others, I like the original so well, what attraction could the remake have for me?

In this instance, though, we just chanced on the remake while watching cable one night. It’s a cable station which tends to ‘run’ a movie several times over the course of one or two months; so we saw patches of the remake (sometimes quite large patches) on quite a number of occasions. It was clear to me that here was a remake of a movie whose original (while I had not seen it for a couple of decades) I still remembered with fondness as amusing, even (for this was a production ideal in the cinema at one time) zany, in a fairly agreeable way.

The remake drew me in, and at the end there were ways in which I felt that the remake had very tidily improved upon the original (even though my affection for the original remains undimmed). The prospective bride and groom were better illustrated as characters, rather than walk-ons (and in the case of the pr. gr. in the original, a walk-on with big Brady-Bunch hair). Shifting the one principal from a dentist to a podiatrist made for a good (and modest) recurring plot element; and the updating, with edgier Cold War elements than the original might have capitalized on, worked nicely in general, and in particular both tightened pacing, and gave focus to the Final Act. The dénouement with the ceremony on the beach was a nice touch (and an earlier script tie-in), where all we had seen of the ceremony in the original was a New Jersey orchestra tuning up (not without some anthropological interest, to be sure).

“How ethnic?” was a great pivot line; and the Vietnamese restaurant in the re-make delicately counterpoises the pair of Chinese aviators from the original. Times have changed, and the script of the remake could not get away with anything quite so leg-pulling as the Guacamole Act of 1917 or José Grecos de muertos; but Al Brooks grabbing the mic at the rehearsal dinner is a fine set-piece for which there was no environment in the original.

Overall, the remake carries itself as a comic twin to ‘James Bond’, where the original has the amiable self-conscious mockery of a Get Smart. And I enjoyed each effort individually, as well as enjoying the differences. An unusually collegial original-&-remake pairing.

26 November 2008

Thanksgiving Eve Listening

Konzertmusik for piano, brass & harps, Opus 49

First & Fourth Concerti
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Sinfonia espansiva
Overture to Maskarade

Houston Dunleavy

F Minor Violin Sonata

En blanc et noir


25 November 2008

Three Oranges, No Waiting

The remarkable clarity of style and structural perfection of the music amazed me. I hadn’t heard anything like it before. The composer, with barbaric audacity, breaks with the ideals of the Romantics and includes the shattering pulse of the twentieth century in his music. — Sviatoslav Richter, speaking of Prokofiev’s Sixth Piano Sonata

All I do is keep the beat, and bad company. — Mark Knopfler (“Romeo and Juliet”)

There is a good deal of poignancy and near-tragedy in Prokofiev’s biography. For just one example, whatever the ‘absolute’ troubles there might have been in the Chicago production of the premiere of The Love for Three Oranges, a certain edginess in Prokofiev’s character in discussing things with the Chicago Opera probably served only to compound delays — and yet, at the last, this was an episode with a happy ending, because (a) here was an instance of a Prokofiev stage-work actually reaching the stage, and (b) the March from the opera took off as a ‘hit’, and much of the musical public who have not heard very much of the Prokofiev catalogue, can whistle the Three Oranges March.

I won’t take space to lament the traditional Prokofiev laments. The good news is, he worked hard, and wrote a lot of fine music: here is a case (not really all that rare in the 20th century) where an artist’s talent and dedication produced a significant body of work, which was in effect a cultural triumph over the uncongenial circumstances of his life.

There is, in short, art which endures, and whose excellence continues to shine when at last in interest in the details of his biography will fade.

I think that must be the point. Who (apart from musicologists — and it is right that they should, of course) cares much about the details of Bach’s life? I mean the full-fleshed biography; I don’t mean the treasured historical facts such as the visit to Sans-Souci, the challenge which Frederick the Great posed ‘Old Bach’, and the magnificent response which is The Musical Offering.

The diamond-bright highlights like this are part of our common cultural heritage. By and large, though, we can all enjoy Bach’s music without knowing when he moved from this town to another, and how poorly he may have got on with a certain employer. Our enjoyment of Bach’s music does not depend on a tabloid-like emphasis on the biography. (Nor, in the case of a less-accomplished composer, will a fascinating biography make up for artistic paucity in the actual music.)

It seems to me a delicate balance (and I am fond to think that I am close to a state of equilibrium): I read the biography of Prokofiev, and there is a certain degree to which the author’s portrayal of the composer and his time and place may kindle interest in a piece which had before struck me as a little impenetrable, perhaps. Music is the most abstract of the arts, by its very nature; and the art of music in the West has explored such a wide range since the time of the Romantics, that the comforting familiarity of models of the past peels away from the the sound that composers have found interior motivation to create.

Can the listener's reliance on biography become excessive? Can we enter the soundworld of the music, without requiring that the piece recharge us with a biography-resonant frisson?

24 November 2008

Diversionary Wheels‏

Recent weeks have furnished so many separate incidents of recollection from the distant past, I wonder if I should not fear that I am lapsing into senility.

Driving into Boston Sunday morning, I tuned in to a station unusual for me. Bad Christmas music drove me to a safe haven, you might say; a couple of the presets on the car radio began playing (bad, bad) Christmas music about the beginning of November . . . so those dials are dead to us now (as Zero Mostel might have said).

Apparently in the middle of an interview (I had tuned in), so I was enjoying the puzzle of Who is the interviewee?

I thought I recognized the name (Greg Hawkes) as the member of a band from ‘that sensitive time’, when I was fresh out of high school (The Cars). [ True fact, and about as trivial as trivia can get: I was working at a Burger King in Pequannock, New Jersey when I first heard The Cars. ]

This is a weekly show dedicated to The Beatles, and so Greg was asked if he had seen them, back in 1964. His father had taken him to the concert at the Baltimore Civic Center in September, on condition that young Greg would agree to another year of piano lessons. His phrasing in the interview was a little coyly conspiratorial — ‘blackmail’ was the word. But since Greg wound up eventually participating in a Grammy-winning band, and on a debut album which went platinum (I speak casually here, I haven’t done the research, but I hope I am no great distance from the facts), it seems in hindsight like a win/win situation.

Now, a Thanks to the InterNet Moment: on the radio itself, I caught perhaps the last two minutes of Greg Hawkes’s conversation in the interview. I wanted to check the interview, because I was unsure I remembered the word “blackmail” aright (not a word one wants to misattribute) . . . so I went to the radio’s web-page, and listened to the podcast.

And listening to this, I in effect ‘rewound’ the radio to the occasion for the interview, which is Greg’s new album of ukelele arrangements (I am not making this up) of 15 songs by The Beatles. So . . . thence it was not much more than a mouse-click to go to Greg’s site, and a youtube video of “Eleanor Rigby” . . . and a tasteful arrangement it has indeed proven to be.

Separately: the first time I heard the phrase “HD radio” on the air, honestly, I thought it was a joke. But of course, most of the programming on television being so visually non-rich, I'm inclined to think even HD TV cosmically amusing.


What do you mean, it's Thanksgiving already this Thursday?

23 November 2008

A Puff of Air

This morning I sang as a sub in the choir at First Church in Boston. The Prelude and Postlude featured guest musician Geoffrey Evans playing a Native American flute; in general it resembles a large-ish recorder, but instead of a fipple (a notch in the wall of the instrument near the player's mouth which splits the air to generate the vibrations) there is a different, entirely interior mechanism. Geoff's playing was beautiful and atmospheric; and as a clarinetist, when I hear that sort of thing, I feel an inspired wish to take up such an instrument.

And then, this morning, I remembered the Studies in Impermanence.

I also remembered that, 37-ish years ago, that was how I wound up studying the clarinet: I had gone to a school band concert, just on a whim because a schoolmate (who played clarinet) invited me. And at the concert, when I heard the sound of the clarinet section, what I wanted more than aught else in the world was to learn how to make a sound like that, myself.

So part of the joy of hearing Geoff play at First Church this morning, was feeling the decades evaporate, because that pang of creative desire which his flute evoked, resonated with how I got my start as a musician, long ago which was not because (say) my mom and dad thought it might be good for me to take piano lessons, but because I took my own initiative, for love of the sound I heard.

Part of the joy, too, was realizing that this sonic delight of a single wind instrument commanding a large acoustic space, harmonized with some of my wishes in having written a number of unaccompanied clarinet pieces, notably the Studies in Impermanence.

Need I say, I thoroughly enjoyed this morning.

21 November 2008

the woman you marry

she spoke of maracas
tchaikovsky & bacchus
critiquing the coup
as a dangerous fracas

who is she, you wonder
this goddess of thunder
who seldom comes over
but never bows under

she dances, she whistles
she softens your thistles
she hopes that they won’t use
their nuclear missiles

she pines & she wishes
she feedses the fishes
she hints to you gently
to towel the dishes

she rough-sketches dancers
she focuses trancers
she shuts down tough questions
with definite answers

she carves & she whittles
she hashes mean victuals
the rich & the famous
she blithely belittles

she surges, she hastens
she sorts seedless raisins
she calls out for pizza
for plumbers & masons

she files & she ratchets
she buries the hatchets
she boosts tiny tims
and engooses bob cratchets

she contacts & touches
she cradles & clutches
she gives out in littles
but takes back in muches

she cuts & she shuffles
in late march she snuffles
she goes out for mushrooms
but comes back with truffles

she chickens, she livers
she canyons & rivers
she quickly picks up
what she slowly delivers

she twigs & she savvies
she tories and lavvies
she salts down the tars
& entrenches the navvies

she sees through your ruses
& combs out your mooses
she seems to think even
your faults have their uses

she cuffs & she fetters
she worsts & she betters
she miscarries numbers
& silences letters

she cools, she refreshes
your screens she unmeshes
at christmas she dusts off
& lights up the crêches

she seals and she otters
she parboils the waters
she unfloods the brothers
but dams up the daughters

she burs & she rankles
she diesels & wankels
she trusses up oedipus
rex by the ankles

she struts & she poses
she uncoils your hoses
she speaks well of florists
with odd-colored roses

she stammers, she stutters
she boils & she butters
nobody is certain
she means what she utters

she fawns & she flatters
she sputters & spatters
her mind cannot focus
on sensitive matters

she parries, she slashes
your turnips she mashes
she tends to your fevers
& weeps at your rashes

she leafs & she pages
her book never ages
she seldom collects
on another man’s wages

she upsets, she steadies
she pilots the eddies
in vain might you seek
to undo what she readies

in spaces she shuttles
in fishtanks she cuttles
on tv she withers
dan rather’s rebuttals

she babies & sissies
she manners & missies
she wonders what joyce meant
by writing ulysses

she heartily humbles
she tastefully tumbles
in some seats she loves
but in others she rumbles

she lads & she lassies
she tinnies and brassies
she slams down your hoods
& checks under your chassis

she blotches, she mottles
she daubs & she wattles
she carefully rinses
returnable bottles

she dervishly dizzies
she bustlely busies
she whirlingly woodies
& diddies & izzies

she soaps & she bubbles
she trebles & doubles
an ed she might norton
but barneys she rubbles

she goodies, she baddies
she clubs her own caddies
she reels in the sporrans
of incautious laddies

she ifs & confuses
but hardly abuses
she may say she offers
but you know she chooses

she fusses, she cossets
she fills up your closets
she loosens your neckties
& tightens your faucets

she kicks & she freezes
she floats on your breezes
she fuses your tofu
with pasteurized cheeses

she coupons, she rations
she fruits & she passions
she dresses your words
in preposterous fashions

she foxes, she weasels
she canvasses easels
she russians & polishes
low german measles

she crayons, she pencils
she scours utensils
she labels your tables
with yoghurt & stencils

she hawks & she eagles
she leashes fierce beagles
she upgrades your princelies
to unabashed regals

she christians, she pagans
she twists & she fagins
she troubles the naps
of the bushes & reagans

she bites & she scratches
she plays with long matches
she breaks in your doors
despite all of your latches

she flosses, she brushes
you hate when she rushes
she smiles when you stammer
you cringe when she flushes

she jigs & she dadoes
she scrubs your potatoes
you might say bahamas
but she hears barbados

she labors, she studies
your throw-rugs she muddies
she chastens your friends
& exposes your buddies

she hymns & she shakers
she oats & she quakers
she measures cathedrals
& silos by acres

she buttons, she stitches
she patches your britches
she dumps your old t-shirts
in gullies & ditches

she dwindles, she tapers
she mummifies capers
she launders on sunday
while reading your papers

she waters & dredges
& trims all your hedges
you sharpen your points
but she dulls all your edges

you long for her kisses
& conjugal blisses
she rarely takes aim
but she seldomer misses

she showers, she sprinkles
she squirrels & minkles
she tacks twenty years
onto sleepy van winkles

she sands what she spackles
she flies what she tackles
she asks you to purr
after raising your hackles

she tells off her cousins
& aunts by the dozens
she mixes her izzens
& werens with wuzzins

she maddens, she crazes
she mists & she hazes
she follows the moon
through its difficult phases

she wanes & she waxes
she duties & taxes
she buries your office
in overlong faxes

she lectures, she teaches
she peels & pits peaches
she yawns while the congressmen
polish their speeches

she curls & she crickets
on unlikely wickets
she burns up your popcorn
& scalps off your tickets

she bracelets, she lockets
she shores up your pockets
she raises your countdown
& unskies your rockets

she quiets & shushes
she waits in the bushes
she claims that you pull
all the while that she pushes

she funnels, she beakers
she heckles guest speakers
she capsizes boaters
& waterproofs sneakers

she hardens, she cinches
she pussyfoots inches
she separates lovebirds
with hydraulic winches

she plucks & she feathers
aparts & togethers
she scales & weighs fish
in the foulest of weathers

she seconds the hours
& petals the flowers
she leaves you in pickles
and stems your hot showers

she scatters, she gathers
she squeegees, she lathers
on sundays in concord
she cottons & mathers

she tugs & she barges
retreats & recharges
her view of the world
almost never enlarges

she puffs & collapses
in methodist apses
she unmelons waters
& unberries raspses

she blubbers, she sniggers
she cowers & piggers
she fleeces the sheep
of their facks & their figgers

your motives she guesses
& boldly confesses
she knows of your sallies
& lucies & besses

she irons & creases
your nephews & nieces
she ruins your jigsaws
by losing key pieces

your inner & outer
are often about her
you hope you may not have
to live long without her

(... the woman you marry)
12-24 May 1994

18 November 2008

Opus 34

Three Short Pieces, Opus 34
i. Canzona semplice
ii. O Beauteous Heavenly Light
iii. Fancy on Psalm 80 from the Scottish Psalter

Paul Cienniwa
First Church Boston (Marlborough & Berkeley Streets)
Casavant organ (1972, Op. 3140)
3 manuals, 64 stops

Sunday, 9 November 2008

[ recording ]

17 November 2008

Still-Life with Groundhog

Doth not the appetite alter? — Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing

The creation and the appreciation of Art are characterized by a variety of apparent contradictions. And in many cases, it is inartistic to press to any easy resolution of the contradictions. In some cases, the truth is to be found, not in resolving the contradiction, but in the very tension of the contradiction. A life without tension would be dull; a life of unrelieved tension . . . not dull, at least.

My ears: They’re the only ears I can judge with. That physiological point-of-reference has a seeming immutability to it; yet I am learning about music all the time, and my ears change. They change in some ways, in other ways there is apparent constancy. In general, my musical tastes expand, grow more inclusive over time. I cannot quite expel my musical impatience, but as I find myself today not merely appreciating, but liking a great deal, music which a decade before I dismissed out-of-hand as “boring” — I perforce admit that my musical impatience today, is an unreliable indicator of artistic merit.

Tchaikovsky’s music was some of the first from the Classical literature which I heard, and loved immediately upon hearing; the Suite from The Nutcracker and the Solemn Overture 1812 (which as a teenager I knew simply as the 1812 Overture). It fell upon my ear magically then, and it still sounds fresh to my ears three decades later; if that be not musical immortality, what is?

The musical environment at my undergrad college reinforced my fondness for Tchaikovsky; we played the Romeo & Juliet Overture-Fantasy in the Wooster Symphony, and I delighted to get to know the Fourth, FifthSixth Symphonies.

Later, when I was doing my doctoral work, there was a different attitude in the air of the music department. To be sure, there was a lot of disdain afloat generally (a sign which I ought to have read better at the time, probably) and Tchaikovsky was the butt of a few particularly scornful remarks. At that time, I had most likely ‘tired’ of The Nutcracker, for instance (for years, many of my odd jobs around the school year had been in one shopping mall or other, and various numbers from the Suite are an inevitable part of the sonic wallpaper of the consumer’s Christmastide); yet I could not deny Tchaikovsky outright. That would have felt musically disloyal.

(After a few years of happily avoiding shopping malls, the freshness of The Nutcracker was restored to me, and I wondered I could ever tire of it.)

High school had been a very exciting time for me musically; each year some of my close bandmates and I would audition for first the regional and then the All-State band, in which we would play some music which was more challenging than our own high school band could manage. (A thirst for musical challenge was instilled early.) One of the pieces from the regional band experience which was great fun to play was a short work called Canzona by an American composer named Peter Mennin; an exhilirating piece which made a strong impression, so that the composer’s name stuck in memory.

It was many years before I heard any other piece by Mennin, years in which I undertook all my higher education in music. The memory of playing the Canzona was still so vivid, that as I listened to Mennin’s Fifth Symphony, the immediate reaction was surprise at the close similarity in musical material between the band piece and the outer movements of the symphony. And disappointment, at what initially seemed to me like artistic laziness on the part of a composer who made an unusually strong first impression.

I wished I had heard the Fifth Symphony first (which is, after all, a far more substantial piece, with much more to it than just the Canzona-like material); and it appears that he assembled the Canzona the year after composition of the Fifth Symphony. At the time, though, I was expecting to hear “more music” by a composer whose name I had never forgotten; to a degree, instead I heard the same music ‘re-packaged’; and it felt like artistic scandal.

Since then, I have listened to the Fifth Symphony a few times more; and also sought out half a dozen other pieces. Mennin had enormous talent; listening to more of his music does reveal more of the variety which one necessarily expects of a fine artist, and better familiarity with the Fifth Symphony brings artistic rewards. For good or ill, I do not find that the pendulum has swung completely back; still unresolved are artistic questions posed by the close musical kinship between the Fifth Symphony and the band piece, and indeed with similar (if slightly muted) echoes in the Sixth Symphony of 1953.

These are questions which are close to the work of any artist himself: Here is the fresh page, how do I make use of it? How new does a new piece need to be?

Half a century has passed already since Mennin composed these three works (the Fifth Symphony, Canzona and the Sixth Symphony); and whatever benefit I may derive as an artist from the questions his work may pose to me, we cannot live in his environment, cannot re-create the situation in which Mennin made his compositional choices. And the quality of his work blunts any venture to second-guess the composer.

The Naxos catalogue has a line of American Classics, which vigorously revives a great body of music written by US composers, much of which music has lain in neglect for decades. Some of the music thus re-published (or, in many cases, published for what is in effect the first time) is masterly; and even if not all of the music ascends to quite the same level of excellence, it is wonderful that at last there is an audience for it, and Naxos is to be applauded for making the music available to an audience.

The rumor I hear, though, is that there is no intention on Naxos’s part to include Mennin in the American Classics series. This seems an unfairly compounded neglect for Mennin to suffer under. Mennin’s music has by turns a robust energy and a gracious lyricism, his orchestration is colorful and possessed of an expert clarity, and his voice has overtones which are a unique product of his place and time.

One’s ears can change to music over time, given the opportunity to hear the music again.

More Mennin, please.

16 November 2008

Five "Light"-Years

The choir of the Cathedral Church of St Paul in Boston, then under the direction of Mark Engelhardt, sang a Festive Choral Evensong of my music five years ago tonight. And this post will commemorate what I think was the greatest musical liberty I took for that event.

On a number of occasions already, Mark had had the choir sing a folksong-like setting I had written of the Song of Mary (in English); and so when he approached me with a proposal for a full service of just my own music, use of this Canticle was a natural starting-point. From there it was natural to plot a Song of Simeon to match . . . and so on.

Traditional to the Anglican Evensong is a translation of Phos hilaron, "O Gracious Light"; a lovely hymn, but I proposed doing something else instead. It involved a slight Liturgical liberty.

One of the beautiful chants in the Morning Prayer service of the Maronites (Lebanese Christians) is a Hymn of Light, Nuhro a stunningly wondrous text for which I was keen to 'discover' an original setting. I suggested to Mark that I do so, strategically neglecting to add the detail that the Maronites sing this hymn in the morning.

As I set to work, neither did I give Mark the text (whose length exceeds the Phos hilaron a great deal) nor any indication of how long-breathed a choral setting I was envisioning for it. The anthem runs a good twelve minutes, which (depending on one's angle) is a huge piece of music which perforce will dominate an Evensong, or, pulls the listener (and the Service) into a different state of awareness, so that the running clock is not the master of Time.

I wrote the piece as I felt I ought, all the while half-expecting that (at the last) Mark might say, "Nice, but far too long."

When I finished composition, it was still summer, and my family and I went to the beach. As is generally the case when I have been long at work on a piece, and have reached the final double-bar, I spend a few days where my inner ear keeps 'playing' the piece through, to 'stress-test' it to make certain that I really do 'own' it compositionally, entirely; to assure myself that there are no parts that, in fact, demand to be changed. So here I was, wading in the gentle surf beating against Cape Ann, and Nuhro was 'playing' in my head, serene and unhurried. And I felt that it was the best thing I had written to date; the very knowledge of having written it, was a species of elation. It didn't matter whether Mark liked the piece or not (though I still hoped he might), in the sense that regardless of how anyone reacted to the score, I felt I knew its worth.

I still hid something of the truth from Mark, in a way: Normally when I finish a score, I put an estimated total duration on the first page. I didn't do that with the final draught of Nuhro as I handed it in to Mark. Again, I thought, Let's see if the piece draws Mark in to itself, so that he is not mindful of the time as overspent. And (what cannot be any surprise after the opening paragraph of this post) in fact, Mark took a great liking to the piece; and I felt that this performance was something of a watershed for me compositionally. [ recording ]

15 November 2008

Child Is Papa to the Musician

A memory surprised me this evening. It’s a fact which I haven’t ever lost sight of, one of those landmarks, bullet-points, in one’s own past which never drops off the radar; it’s a book, you might say, and I know exactly which shelf to look to, and the spine will be there.

It wasn’t the appearance of the memory which surprised me, then, but its peculiar force. And detail. I always know the look of the book’s spine, but (to seize advantage of the metaphor) it’s the first in a long time I opened the cover.

While Irina and I were waiting in the car, the radio played Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. And so I got to explaining . . .

It’s the first Haydn piece I was ever aware of, because we played it when I was in school (eighth grade? ninth?)

It was perforce different to what I might hear my parents playing on the record-player (which my dad generally called, in what was even by then an archaism, the victrola) at home; different to what I might hear on the radio whose sound spilt out the door of the five-and-dime I would walk past on my way to school. It came from a different era, and from a far-off place. The different sound-world intrigued me, stimulated me. It drew me in, and engaged my thought, so in some part, it was a stepping-stone to my eventual desire to be a composer.

At the time, though, I was still learning to be a clarinetist, and fell eagerly to that task. Our school band played a transcription of the accompaniment; and the trumpet soloist was a fellow student, in the next class older. A student like me!

Steve Falker was already a disciplined as well as gifted performer. (Fact is, his purity of tone and facility of technique impressed me to such a degree, that his playing back when I was in junior high school set the standard which — at times unrealistically — I have tended to expect of trumpet-players since.) And knowing a fellow pupil here in my home town, just a year older or so, who was such a good musician, and here he’s been selected as a soloist for such a demanding piece: he was a great positive example. I wanted to try to be as good a clarinetist as Steve had proven a trumpeter.

This is a key, too: I wanted to try to reach somewhere near there. Heck, I could do that was a great distance from my experience.

Playing this piece in my school band stretched my musical thought in unexpected ways. Only one (and a long-since trivial) example: the title of the piece was Concerto in E-flat, and I wondered, why am I playing in F?

Thanks to the aforementioned tangle of aesthetics, personal history and sentiment, the Trumpet Concerto is probably immovable as my favorite Haydn piece, no matter how much of Haydn’s music I have listened to since. Apart from anything else I’ve here recorded, it was just such fun to play.

13 November 2008

Peering Past the Premiere

From November of 2005 until May of 2006, I served as Interim Choir Director of the Episcopal Cathedral in Boston, St Paul’s, across Tremont Street from the Boston Common. My service was necessarily on a part-time scale; and the lack of a permanent full-time Music Director, to manage all the traditional ‘ancillary’ musical activities at the Cathedral, was a disruption in the Cathedral’s hitherto significant contribution to music-making in Boston’s downtown area. In the few hours each week which I could devote to the Cathedral choir, there was not much to be done against the tide of that disruption.

But what I could do was . . .

The prior Music Director, Mark Engelhardt, had invited me to furnish music for a festive Evensong in 2003 (more on which, another time); so I took that as a sort of template, and told the choir to gird their loins to sing an Evensong in March of 2006.

I did not want to repeat the 2003 Evensong (although musically, I believe it will bear repetition); and so I composed a fresh Evening Service. Indeed, I wound up composing more music than I had for the 2003 Evensong; for I wanted not only to compose my own service-music chant (Preces & Responses, &c.) for the new service, but the idea seized me of composing an instrumental prelude, postlude and interludes, all musically specific to the occasion. The Evensong would be in Lent, a season during which many parishes observe a tradition of only light use of the organ (which makes the sudden ‘restoration’ of the voice of the organ on Easter morning all the more glorious). My idea was to use two trombones (one tenor, one bass) as a spare and solemn instrumental complement.

Another difference from the 2003 service, and another aspect of seasonal solemnity: I decided to set the Canticles (Magnificat and Nunc dimittis) in Latin. A difference again: we used English settings of the Canticles for 2003; and the Song of Mary I had actually written some three years before. In the early summer of ’03, then, I composed a new Song of Simeon, but ‘retrofitted’ to match the pre-existing Song of Mary (i.e., they share some musical material). For the Latin Canticles in 2006, I decided to cast them in contrasting styles.

Writing the Magnificat first, I cast the greater part of the setting as splitting the choir between the men singing a rhythmicized accompaniment role, and the ladies singing floridly in thirds (to a degree, I had the opening of Bach’s BWV 243 in view as a distant model). As I was hammering the Magnificat into shape, I don’t remember what if anything I was thinking at that time for the Nunc dimittis. Once the Magnificat was done, though, any prior thought I had taken for the Nunc, I set aside in favor of trying my hand at a modern-ish polyphonic setting. There’s a famous anecdote of someone describing a Schoenberg piece as, like Brahms only with wrong notes; I wrote a Nunc dimittis which was, from one angle, ‘wrong-note Gibbons’.

That initial performance of the Evening Service in D had its imperfections, to be sure; yet it astonishes me that we put it together as well as we did, and in such rapid order (a rushed schedule even though the composer managed to get most everything written about when he had promised it would be written).

A composer hopefully believes in his work; or, perhaps better put, hopefully the composer does his work in a way that the result continues to inspire him with pride of ‘ownership’ rather than, well, any number of less desirable reactions.

No matter how firm a composer’s belief in his work (and, who knows, maybe he could be mistaken?) it means a great deal both when an audience responds with warmth (a warmth exceeding mere politeness, though one is generally grateful for politeness, too) to the music, and when fellow musicians, whose work and quality he respects, understand and endorse his score.

Another fact of life for the composer is: as much labor, searching, and the unending task of trying to coordinate schedules both individual and organizational, as are involved in trying to arrange the premiere of music which he has written, who has measured the effort or plotted the curve to second, or third, or fourth performances? In Zappa’s trenchant phrase, “The program says World Premiere, but what that really means is Final Performance.”

There are, then no words sufficient for this composer’s delight in learning that Dutch choirmaster Nana Tchikhinashvili and her chamber choir, Moderato Cantabile, have warmly adopted my Magnificat, and have sung it several times over recent months.

One continues composing, to be sure, in spite of a variety of discouragements. And when musicians of the calibre of Nana and Moderato Cantabile adopt your music, out of sheer musical affection, there is a flame which is kept alight, and the composer is in harmony with himself. [ recording ]

12 November 2008

More Bus Music (Lullaby, Phase III)

Our Kay responded favorably to the excerpt I sent her, so cooing seems indicated; the setting for yet more of the text came to me while in a bus a-rolling this fair morning. Over the past few days, I've discarded three sketches for accompaniment so far; which I am taking to mean that I should just concentrate on the vocal line. Get that done, and I shall discover the accompaniment.

If I'm having difficulty writing a certain thing, experience teaches me not to 'force' it; work on something else meanwhile, and the other will arrive in its own time.

11 November 2008

A Trap Without Bait

What I want is an art of balance, of purity, an art that won't disturb or trouble people. I want anyone tired, worn down, driven to the limits of endurance, to find calm and repose in my painting. — Henri Matisse
The Mousetrap was a musical dare to myself, it was an exhilirating obsession. To write it was an improbable mixture of giddiness and compositional surety. It was a creative response to Peter Cama-Lekx’s musical excellence, which made it possible to write something for the viola much tougher than I could dare to write for anyone else. Like the Studies in Impermanence, it was an exploration of This seems a good idea, can I really get away with it, do you suppose? It was a piece which at once had strong roots in my compositional (and performance, and listening) experience, and yet took unhesitating strides away from beaten paths.

In first dreaming up the piece, I originally thought of The Mousetrap as about a 14-minute piece. As I found my way across the formerly-blank MS. paper and through the composition process, and re-plotted a musical curve to the final double-bar, I came to be thinking 17 minutes instead. But in time I stopped kidding myself as to the music's scale, for it wound up (like the Studies) a 20-minute piece. (And given some of the necessary cautions of the first performance, plus some musically natural breathing-space, the premiere actually ran to almost 25. A pace at which the piece nonetheless hangs together nicely, I think.)

It’s a crazy piece: after we read it together the first time, Peter said of a certain couple of pages, It's evil. Nor did I write a cream-puff clarinet part; it didn't seem fair to place all the technical demands on Peter's shoulders. It was yet another piece I wrote, where I knew that every note lies well under the fingers, knew that it was a part which I could play well and make a good impression, but which even I as the composer was going to have to spend hours and hours practicing, to get the whole thing under control. And even so, the first performance was going to have its share of wrong notes.

I almost don't want to write a piece which I know I can play perfectly the first time out of the box. Where's the glory in that?

The title comes from Hamlet. The play-within-the-play is The Murder of Gonzago, and yet when Claudius asks, Hamlet tells his wicked usurping uncle that the name of the entertainment is The Mousetrap. Generally, in the background of the composition, were thoughts of how Shakespeare on one level, drew frankly from existing dramatic sources, and yet created something of excellence which is all his own; and, on another level, that it contains a distinct dramatic event which is nonetheless an organic piece of the whole. Part of my thinking in the piece was, a new (for myself) approach to including 'found objects', and also variation in representing the object.

When I began writing the piece, it was going to be a relatively brief piece . . . and sparse and atmospheric. But there wasn't the time to wrap up composition and get even an easy piece rehearsed in time for the recital which was then in preparation, so I set the MS. down.

By the time I took it back up, I had decided on a somewhat grander plan. Part of this may simply have been, that in my mind, it was a slow-sustained piece for a long time already, and compositionally I wanted to write a burst of activity to contrast. Even in the early stages of the composition, I had included an 'organic quotation', though something pretty obscure and with sentimental value here at home, to make Maria and Irina smile . . . an allusion (though not, in The Mousetrap, in waltz-time) to a waltz used in the Gary Cooper / Audrey Hepburn movie Love in the Afternoon, called "Fascination." Soon I was not only broadening the compositional scope, but making a game of composing an environment whose 'orbit' might capture various bits from the literature. Part of what was going on, too, was likely the fact that in writing for viola, I had in mind Shostakovich's references elsewhere in both the Viola Sonata and the Fifteenth Symphony. And my own 'fascination' with enlarging the piece was partly a matter of building on the Studies in Impermanence . . . thinking that, having managed a block of 20 minutes with a solo wind instrument, it must after all be an even easier accomplishment with two instruments.

The piece, then, includes intentional allusions to: Bach's Ein musikalisches Opfer; Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata (to which Shostakovich alluded in the Viola Sonata), the Brahms E-flat Major Clarinet Sonata (which is also played by violists), Stravinsky's Petrushka (a waltz-tune he in turn pinched from Lanner), and Shostakovich's Tenth & Fifteenth Symphonies. A friend in the Netherlands thought he heard a reference to Tristan und Isolde, but the composer is not sure about that . . . .

Bulletin from 9 Nov

From this Sunday past.

10 November 2008

Never Steal from Yourself

The musicologists are so happy, in a self-indulgent way, when they can point out the influences. But that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that the composer transforms those influences, and makes them his own. Which reminds me of a wonderful Stravinsky statement. He once said, “You must always steal, but never from yourself.” What he meant by that is quite obvious. When you steal from yourself you learn nothing. When you steal from others, you enrich your vocabulary. — Lukas Foss

My listening lately (over the past couple of weeks, say) has included two pieces by Buffalo fixture and Minimalist icon Morton Feldman: Why Patterns? and Coptic Light. Of some seven or so discs of Feldman’s music (pretty much all of which I enjoy from time to time), these two pieces remain consistent favorites.

I think of musical time in some different way, when listening to Feldman, than most other music requires; nor can I quite explain the nature of that difference. Another thing I cannot explain, is why it is that I have ‘taken’ to Feldman’s music now (in the past three years), where my ears had very little patience with it back when I was actually in Buffalo.

Just how it is I am thinking Time differently, I don’t ‘know’; but there is some way in which I am making application of that mode of thinking, in some of my own composition. Which is not to say that any of my music sounds particularly like Feldman’s (probably, it does not).

Inspiration comes from many sources, and the relation of artistic inspiration to the source is not always much the same. One can look at an exquisitely beautiful work of art, and find inspiration for one’s own work. Or, again, one might see (or hear) something to which his response is a kind of artistic revulsion; and the inspiration one feels is something on the order of No, let’s try it this other way.

There’s a story of Harpo Marx listening to a harpist, and saying, “I’m going to lie down over here and listen, and if I fall asleep while you are playing, believe me, that is the greatest compliment I can pay you.” And a friend who is a great fan of Feldman’s music, composer and pianist Chris Forbes, admires the Second String Quartet, particularly – and Chris feels perfectly comfortable with napping while listening to the quartet. There is a ‘non-rhetoric’ to Feldman’s music which is relaxing, meditative (and yet, much of his music employs ‘dissonant’ intervals and chords which, removed from the musical syntax and structure of Common Practice, actually acquire a ‘consonant’ aspect . . . Hamlet might have said, There is no consonant or dissonant but thinking makes it so).

My enjoyment of Feldman, then, is on at least two levels: my ears simply enjoy the listening; and, reflecting upon the experience of the music enlarges my idea of the art, and of the practice of composition.

One fellow composer to whom I showed one of my scores (I believe it may have been the Overture to White Nights) responded curiously. My piece did not seem to make a favorable impression; but the reply was diplomatic on that head. I was given the advice that I should listen to more new music.

One unexpected aspect of this advice is, that in fact, my listening regularly includes music new to me, music off my own beaten sonic paths, music which requires me to seek it out, and indeed a great deal of music which falls outside my ‘preference’ (broadly considered). A composer makes his own choices in the art he makes, and necessarily listens to (and, one hopes, genuinely likes) a good deal of music which is rather otherwise than the music he himself makes. (Which, in turn, is not quite the same thing as liking everything.)

Was the advice offered, as a suggestion that there was some degree of shortcoming in this piece of mine, and on the assumption that, with exposure to ‘the right sort of music’, my music will result somehow in another and a better way? One score, too, is not always a reliable indicator of the breadth of a composer’s palette; I wonder if this advice would have been offered, if I had sent a work of quite a different character (yet no less characteristic of my work).

In all events, maybe I have already listened, or am already listening, to the music which my colleague has in mind; but I am doing my own work, my creative reaction to the ‘feed’ is my own, and unique. No one can predetermine, when you introduce sonic input to a composer, the nature of the ‘output’. The artist’s intelligence acts upon the stimuli in (ideally) unpredictable ways.

A new acquaintance, Frank Warren kindly attended yesterday when Paul Cienniwa performed some organ pieces of mine for the Prelude at First Church in Boston. Frank recognized the tune from the Scottish Psalter which was the foundation of the third piece in the set; and he told me that he enjoyed hearing the unexpected manner in which someone else made use of already well-known musical material.

This week, too, finds me revisiting (after a couple of decades plus) the Stevie Wonder album Songs in the Key of Life. This was a new release (and became my class’s musical property, you might say) my senior year in high school; so, listening to it again, there is that tangle of aesthetics, personal history and sentiment with which many of us are well acquainted.

There’s a joke which goes: Knowledge is awareness that the tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is omitting tomato from a fruit salad.

Amid my unalloyed enjoyment of the Key of Life, I smile at the thought that Knowledge is perceiving the parallel octaves in “Always”; and perhaps, Wisdom is not minding much.

08 November 2008

Solar Anniversary

Two years ago tonight, members of the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, led by Charles Peltz, played the premiere of Out in the Sun. [ recording ]

Later in the evening, violinist Stephen Symchych remarked:

A most successful premiere tonight, played with elan and precision by a group of undergraduates at NEC. There were some other guys on the program too, and their stuff was pretty good. Gabrieli, Ligeti, et al. Al wasn't at all bad. And I had no idea that Ligeti produced music that sounded like his music for winds (1953/75). Great stuff.

But the audience saved its most enthusiastic response for the Henning.

And Peter Czipott wrote a more thorough review of the entire program:

This was my first time in Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory: a lovely 19th century interior in warm woods, with an impressive organ backing the stage. The layout is nearly semicircular, with one horseshoe balcony (the rear walls form a polygon – I didn’t count the number of sides – inscribed in the circle). The result, judging from a seat near the very center of the orchestra level, is a warm sound with a lot of reverberation (well over two seconds). It must be glorious to sing in.

The concert opened with a bare stage. Two brass choirs (each consisting a brace each of trumpets and trombones) stood in the balcony on either side of the stage to play antiphonal music by Ludovico Viadana (Sinfonia, “La Bergamasca”) and Giovanni Gabrieli (Canzon Primi Toni à 8). The young players, led ably by Charles Peltz, played wonderfully (the choir on stage left seemed ever so slightly more secure than the other – could it be because that’s the side Peltz was on?), and the acoustic, of course, suited the music perfectly. The Gabrieli, after all, was written for the echoing spaces of St. Mark’s in Venice. Gabrieli’s piece is relatively familiar; Viadana’s is a slightly earthier (because intended for secular performance) example of the same style.

As the musicians decamped from the balcony, ten other players made their way onto the stage. Let me see if I can recall the instrumentation (which the program did not indicate): two flutes (doubling piccolos), two oboes, two French horns, bassoon, English horn, two clarinets (one of them doubling the squeaky high one). The work: Six Miniatures for Wind Ensemble, by György Ligeti. I was nonplussed when I saw the work’s title, because I thought I knew all Ligeti’s works, and didn’t recall one by this title (nor one for ten winds). It turns out that this is an arrangement, by one Friedrich Wanek, of Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet. Ahhhh… this work, I know and love. It was composed in 1953, thus either under the Stalinist terror or just after, but in any case before Ligeti made it to the West, in 1956 – and thus, before he found his mature voice(s).

This work pretends to fall into the Hungarian mainstream of folk-inspired music in the post-Kodály and post-populist-Bartók tradition – the only sort of classical music accepted in early-50’s Hungary. However, as Ligeti writes, it “contains too many minor seconds. (Dissonances and chromaticism were still ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘hostile to the people’ [even at the time of its public premiere in 1956], just somewhat less so than previously.)” He continues, “The audience of intellectuals and musicians was at a loss as to whether or not they were permitted to enjoy the music or to applaud.” The Bagatelles are characterized by a winning concision: Ligeti says what he wants to say and then moves on; the six pieces last about 11 minutes.

Wanek’s arrangement certainly gives everyone plenty to do, as well as finding some new colors for the work (the plaintive English horn’s being especially felicitous), but I suppose its main value is pedagogical, giving a larger ensemble the opportunity to work on the music. The ten instrumentalists, conductorless, played it simply magnificently. Jordan Hall’s reverberant acoustic is not, however, made for the rapid figurations to come across with ideal clarity. The audience was permitted to enjoy this music, and gave ample evidence of having done so.

Next on the pre-intermission agenda was the world premiere of Karl Henning’s Out in the Sun, Op. 88, for ten winds. Would it stand up in comparison to the preceding Gabrieli and Ligeti, or to the concluding Debussy? Karl’s instrumentation is radically different from the Ligeti/Wanek: two clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), saxophone quartet (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone), two tenor trombones, bass trombone and tuba. Karl’s musical concerns are also radically different from Ligeti’s, and actually links back to the Renaissance polyphony of which Gabrieli was an exemplar.

To quote the composer: “I played with patterns of staggered superimposition … I enjoyed the challenge of composing with the repeated patterns, enjoyed the question of how a passage of such apparently ‘mechanical’ ostinati differs from the larger question of composition and shape… My linear approach in the unfolding piece is perhaps something like the points of imitation of Renaissance polyphony.” This play with patterns, then, dictates a scale unlike the concision of the Bagatelles. Henning again: “Once layered ostinati are set in motion, the important compositional questions of where you go, what is the end, and how do we know it’s the end (how does the ending ‘convince’ me) all remain.” The work is 16 minutes long.

Note that Henning is concerned with process here. However, his preoccupation seems not at all unhealthy to me, for the musical ends are always paramount. (Had the preoccupation been unhealthy, the piece might have been dubbed Sunstroke.)

Peltz conducted the instrumentalists in the Henning, and from the get-go conductor and musicians alike were swaying, bouncing, counting but, above all, swinging the complex rhythms. The music has a – to use the obvious modifier – sunny disposition, and everyone on stage could be seen visibly enjoying the experience of performing it. To my ears, Karl’s “performer’s instincts” are true; the piece is never mechanical; it always has a sense of direction.

Above all, Karl’s compositional voice is strong and individual: there’s no mistaking this piece for anyone else’s music. One aspect of his voice is his amazing ear for timbre. Two examples will suffice: an unexpected and simply gorgeous duet for bass clarinet and baritone sax, and a chorale for tenor trombone, un-muted, accompanied by the other brass, muted. (That chorale provides structural pillars for the work, appearing in three different instrumental guises and tempi.) As a performer, Karl also knows how far he can push his players; solos are always challenging (Karl: “I wanted to give the tuba player something that would repay time spent in the practice room”) but grateful to the ear and, I’m told, to the executants as well.

This work got a very warm reception from the audience and from the performers as well. Charles Peltz is forwarding the score to several colleagues at other institutions, and one of the saxophonists approached Karl at Pizzeria Uno (where we repaired for a post-concert bite), giving him his card and inviting Karl to think of him any time he was inspired by the idea of a work for solo sax. As for me, I can hardly wait for the recording to appear magically on a CD in my mailbox! And I hope that the recording also clarifies the details washed over by the hall’s acoustic (Karl is not afraid of keeping his players busy!).

Following intermission came a performance of Decem Perfectum by Robert Rodriguez, a composer born in 1946 and published by Schirmer. This work is scored for an orchestra of winds and percussion, plus ten soloists (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, tuba, French horn, trombone, and two trumpets) in a sort of ripieno. According to the composer, the work’s title and structure are inspired by Pythagoras and the pitch material is based on the perfect intervals (unison, octave, fifth) in sets of ten pitches presented in rhythmic groups of five.

I rapidly gave up on trying to identify the pitch and rhythmic groups. The work is attractive, but not an unqualified success. The opening and closing movements seem, in their most striking moments, to be based on some pretty obvious sources: an extended riff on various Tristan-like chords; a riff on a brass motif from Firebird; and, at the conclusion, a strong whiff of the Danse générale from Daphnis et Chloë. Karl noted that the work's title, Perfect Ten, might invite a reference to Boléro and Bo Derek, and indeed, near the end there, briefly, is the snare-drum tattoo (but for only one snare drum, not two).

The central movement, entitled Cadenza, is a set of solos – interesting solos, and interestingly linked from one soloist to the next, but all too baldly structured. The flute (seated stage right) starts, then yields to its neighbor the oboe, and so on down the row of ten seats (and down the range from flute to bassoon and sax, to tuba and then back up to the trumpets). The only element of surprise is to combine the trumpets in a duet rather than give each a solo. Even though the solo passages are full of interest, the structure is so plain and so obvious that it seemingly encourages a checklist mindset – not to the work’s benefit.

The full band performed wonderfully, as far as I could tell, and Peltz conducted with verve and apparent conviction.

The concert ended with an arrangement of Debussy’s L’Isle joyeuse by the noted South African composer, Kevin Volans, for winds and percussion. The original work, of course, is a piano masterpiece. Volans’ arrangement yielded many striking colors (wonderful use of alto flute, for example), but not all of them seemed (to me) to serve the purpose of illuminating Debussy’s work. Nevertheless, both work and performance were highly enjoyable and brought the concert to a pleasing close.

For me, the concert had twin high points: the Ligeti and the Henning. And the great, happy news is that Henning’s music stands its ground proudly in mighty fine company. May it have many opportunities to do so in the future!

An Alternate Angel

Some few years ago, I had made the acquaintance of trumpeter Chris O'Hara, who was playing with the Synergy Brass Quintet at the time. Earlier this fall, Chris got back in touch with me, and (as brevity is the soul of wit) I wrote an 11-minute unaccompanied trumpet piece, The Angel Who Bears a Flaming Sword.

Not an easy piece? When Chris showed the piece to organist Mark Engelhardt, Mark "smiled and thought the devil made him do it! Now, let's find the trumpet player intrepid enough to play it."

I don't much mind writing into intrepidation, really . . . .

While finishing the layout of the score, I was visited by the thought that the piece would work quite effectively for flute, as well (with judicious transposition). When I bounced that thought off my friend and colleague Peter H. Bloom, he looked at the score, and countered with the adjustment of employing alto flute. One further transposition later . . .

Peter made the time to look at and play through the piece carefully, and replied:

It fits the alto flute perfectly, and the pp high Bbs beautifully exploit the complex and singular sonority of the instrument. Composers/arrangers rarely, as yet, make the most of the instrument's range (dynamic and tessitura) and colors. The work, in structure and motivic elements, evokes (but is certainly not derivative of) the 16th-century unaccompanied instrumental ricercare (like Bassano's or Virgiliano's). The pervasive fourths (intervals) and fifths particularly remind me of the "battaglia" style ricercare. The 4ths/5ths/8ves, as they appear throughout the range of the alto flute, are trumpet-evocative (but in as a mysterious and other-worldly voice). You've crafted a very good piece!

06 November 2008

Ballet, Only Not the One I've Been Thinking Of

A letter came this week from an old friend, originally from Buffalo, but who has been in Ulm these several years now. He likes The Mousetrap, and suggests that it would make an interesting ballet. Hadn’t thought of it like that; although the ‘physicality’ of the music did sustain us performers through a piece which, to be fair, is a demanding (not to say unrelenting) duet.

I like the idea of The Mousetrap being danced to. Wonder what ideas the choreographer is entertaining . . . .

05 November 2008

An Introduction to White Nights

Five years ago I decided that it was high time I write something substantial for large ensemble. It’s what I’ve always wanted and hoped to do, it is what my musical training has equipped me to do, although it is something which my own musical circumstances of the past twelve years have not, shall we say, asked of me. In the hope, though, that there may be some future occasion for such a piece, I was determined to write something large-scale, determined to have acquired that experience on my own initiative, since there has been no external occasion. I had written a respectable volume of smallish occasional pieces over several years, but it was high time that I apply myself to writing a large-scale work.

Before setting myself to this most deliberate of projects, which appears from the outset destined to rest on the shelf and cure for a bit, I had begun sketches for a symphony. I should almost say “a first symphony,” since I believe I have it in me to write some dozen respectable symphonies, given opportunity and time to write them. For this project, though, I did not want to ‘settle’ for a symphony; I wanted instead to write something on such a scale that, having once completed this score, I will never after think such a thing as a symphony (or concerto) any such improbably grand a piece to write.

I wanted, you might say, to write a piece so grand as would put a symphony in its place. I had already written a piece or two for orchestra, but minor pieces, and of such technical restrictions that the piece would not exceed the musical abilities (or rehearsal dedication) of the odd local community orchestra.

In this new piece, though, I wanted to write a big piece, and a piece which would demand the technical resources of a professional orchestra. A piece which, either a professional orchestra takes it up, or it just sits unperformed (and having already a backlog of pieces composed which have never yet seen performance, this prospect no longer holds any terror for me).

So I decided to write a ballet, and not your bite-sized Dyagilevish ballet, either (not that there's anything wrong with that) but a full evening’s ballet on the scale of Swan Lake, or Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. Which is to say, I embraced the challenge of conceiving, organizing & writing so enormous a musical project, around a non-musical full-time job, plus a non-musical part-time job, plus serving as a chorister in Boston’s Episcopal Cathedral. And so I set out to compose a full evening's ballet based on the Dostoyevsky novella White Nights.

I began writing the Overture to the ballet in October of 2003. I will remove some of the suspense from this post, by revealing that I have not finished the ballet yet (though the Overture, for instance, has long been complete); I do think, however, that I can repel charges of dawdling. I have made substantial progress on the piece in the past five years (an hour and three quarters of the music is composed now), and apart from the mundane work ‘distractions’, I have actually composed a good deal of other, occasional music in that time, as well (I’ve assigned White Nights the opus number 75, and the recent wedding-music commission was Opus 93).

In a sense, I have dawdled, though. If I’ve written all this other music in this time, in theory I could have been finished with the ballet some little time before today, I suppose. But I’ve had to live (and do creative work) practically, and not in the shelter of any nice pristine theory.

At any rate, the music I’ve written for the ballet I am very pleased with, in its quality and character; and the other music I’ve written when placing the ballet ‘on hold’, I am also very pleased with. I should like, by all means, to be writing more music, wish that I had more time to dedicate to musical activity; but considering the music I’ve actually written, I have rather more occasion (I believe) for contentment than for complaint.

Again, then, I am determined to complete this ballet.

I’m not setting any deadline, though. As the Russian proverb says, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.”

04 November 2008


The weather is maintaining a most pleasant aspect in Boston; so this photo might seem more timely than in fact it is.

In late September I was at work on a mad, mad eleven-minute piece for unaccompanied trumpet; and I sometimes walk on Boston Common at lunchtime to collect my musical thought. One activity which somehow aids me in thought-collection, is furnishing the odd peanut to some squirrels on the Common.

This photo was taken on a day when, in fact, I wasn't do any composing (The Angel Who Bears a Flaming Sword having by then reached the editing/detail-adding/tweakology phase). So that afternoon, I just spent half an hour communing with the squirrels. More of them are less timid about taking the peanut from my hand. One young fellow was quite the hungry 'un . . . took one, sat nearby and munched right into it (sat his ground, too, even while some few pigeons were curious about his strewn leavings . . . just shells and peanut-paper, this one — seems almost rude to refer to the grey-tailed chap as "this one," e.g., so I gave him a nickname — Borya is a tidy and efficient gourmand) . . . took another . . . took three in all. I felt somewhat like part of a tourist attraction at Boston Common, as some visitors (from abroad by their speech) took notice of Borya, took delight in the sight, and snapped the odd discreet photo with their digital cameras. I felt more yet; I just get joy out of watching squirrels be themselves, scampering around, busy at work finding a place to stash an acorn, or their meticulous landscaping to hide a nut they've just buried. Then, too, there is joy in having such a delightful creature's trust, in the small matter of offering them food. And then that joy was multiplied in the faces of these chance visitors to Boston in October.

And one such visitor, Hendrik from Germany, took a picture of Borya, and sent a copy to me on his return from his holiday in New England.

Three Short Pieces

Although all three pieces have been played before, this Sunday will see the first performance of my opus 34 organ pieces (modest little things) as a set. Paul Cienniwa has selected them for the prelude to the service this coming Sunday at First Church in Boston's Back Bay. These are pieces I originally wrote for Bill Goodwin, organist at the First Congregational Church in Woburn.

The first, Canzona semplice, began as a sketch for children's chorus while I was in Tallinn, Estonia. I was in Tallinn teaching English at the Kopli Kunstikeskkool, through a volunteer program; and the music teacher at the school, Priit Poom, suggested that I write something for the school's chorus. My sketches never came to much while I was still in Tallinn (for only one thing, I was writing a tune and harmonizing it, but there was no text in sight, so what would anyone have sung?). A few years later, and now in Boston, I was leafing through my files, and found the sketch. I had composed the melody, and then harmonized it two different ways, in three and four parts respectively. There was no great need to fashion a choral piece out of it, so I arranged it as a simple organ piece.

The third piece emerged from my leafing through a hymnal, where I found an arrangement of a tune from the Scottish Psalter, a fine modal tune with a certain Celtic sturdiness. I puttered with it, drew up a harmonization or two of my own; and the result was both this organ piece, and (in part) a contrasting middle section for a string orchestra piece, Canticle of St Nicholas.

The middle piece of my opus 34 I drew up as a freehand harmonic game, O Beauteous Heavenly Light. Spare harmonies casting sonic shadows into the space. In writing it, I was thinking less in terms of "an organ piece," and more reminiscing of walking into a quiet basilica, and as I accustom myself to the feeling of the place, realizing that the quiet is not a silence, and there is, not so much organ music, as a hint of organ music.

Since these pieces will be played for the prelude, they won't much make it out in the live broadcast of the service (0ver WERS Boston); but perhaps there may be tape running.

03 November 2008

Lullaby, Phase II

Riding the bus in to Boston this morning, I set the first two quatrains of Blake's "A Cradle Song." I am concentrating first on the vocal line, and will dig into details of the accompaniment later (a little prima la parole, e poi la musica). I am also thinking of having it both ways, in terms of accompaniment. I don't want the extra attention needed in devising a figured bass to interfere with composition of the song, so I've decided to score it first for bass flute and harp; but I am tickled by the thought of composing two entirely different accompaniments for the same song. Thus I am composing the vocal setting of the Blake text as an independent 'module', and will write the accompaniments to suit.

It just seems a fun thing to do.

In an e-mail message to my friend Kay, I asked, I need cooing on the first-ledger-space G. Can you coo?

02 November 2008

Lullaby, Phase I

I've settled on a text. Not sure if I'll go the continuo route: I should need to root around some scores to investigate historical practice . . . an activity I should enjoy, if free time were ample; but which this week feels like an agreement to slow the compositional process down when, probably, what I want to do is just write. While I am reading the text, for instance, music for the voice occurs to me, and the shadow of an accompaniment as well. Perhaps another time, I'll do prep for writing a continuo accompaniment; in the present instance, I seem just to want to 'exhale' the piece.

01 November 2008

An Incidental Landmark

Nor did I time the inauguration of this blog for this reason: that ten years ago I composed the first piece of mine to be published, an Alleluia in A-flat which I wrote in dedication to my wonderful mom-in-law, Irina Pisarenko.

Quiet Beginnings

Heard on public radio a short piece on Mexico's observation of the Day of the Dead (though it seems that today is actually El Día de los Angelitos, and the 2nd is El Día de los Muertos proper), and how it is a celebration, and not mourning. I wish I could claim that I cleverly selected this occasion to start up a blog, but it will be truer to claim enjoyment of the serendipity.

I got the idea (of at last starting up a blog) in part from an invitation (not an invitation to start up a blog) extended by my young friend Margaret. I shan't explain further; but if Margaret or her excellent parents read this, it will perhaps occasion a smile.

A short while ago, I was talking with colleague (and friend) Paul Cienniwa, and he invited me to write something for voice and continuo. Writing a figured bass does not strike me as impossible, but it's quite different to how I usually compose, and I did not immediately take up the invite. However, Maria since asked me if I could write a lullaby, as a gift for friends who are just now welcoming their first child into the world. The two requests at roughly the same time, I may take as a compositional occasion . . . and so I called Paul, and we talked about how I might approach his invitation. He was, as I fully expected, helpful . . . and I am still mulling.

I can't spend much time mulling alone, for Maria will expect a piece in short order.

Also, I am very nearly back in touch with a fellow clarinetist from undergrad days, at the College of Wooster. I hope to have more to say on that before very long.