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 . . . .


J.Z. Herrenberg said...

The composer is as coy as Hamlet. ;)

-a friend in the Netherlands

Karl Henning said...

At least, my uncles don't make nearly so much trouble . . . .