31 March 2009

It’s All Around Us

From an Internet exchange on Cage’s 4’33”

Yeah, I get the concept behind it. Very zen. I just wondered if folks got the giggles.

It would be fun to attend a performance to find out. I suspect that human nature more or less guarantees that 4’33” will always contain giggles, coughs, sniffs, shhhh’es, grunts, plus a creaking chair and a dog barking in the distance .....

I'm sure my stomach would start gurgling.

I wonder if anyone in this forum has ever attended a live performance of 4’33” ?? It would surely be a memorable and unique experience. And it is maybe the ONLY way for anyone to experience the composer's intentions for the listener .... I mean you could debate whether listening to a recording is a valid way of experiencing 4’33”, or simply a different way (I suspect that Cage would say the latter ....).

I have, in a “performance” by the Great Noise Ensemble in Washington DC, in a concert devoted to modern music. The silence was so complete and so reverent, the only thing you could hear was your blood pressure and your pulse. I was tempted to say something like “come on, folks, we’re supposed to be making the music. Yak it up, for heavens sake”.
(Mark G. Simon)
Although I never met him (he did come to Buffalo in my time, for the première of Europera [5, I think], but I missed him), Cage seemed a relatively frequent visitant to the University at Buffalo back in the day. His sense of humor was frequently alluded to in a variety of anecdotes. A Canadian colleague told of a lecture Cage gave on one visit to the new North Campus, whose architecture is an aesthetic disaster. Cage stopped mid-sentence in his lecture (which he delivered in a classroom whose principal feature was cinderblock which had been painted over in a lurid tint of pale green), appeared to be listening carefully, and at last remarked, “You have a very musical HVAC system here.”

Today I reached a point of creative impatience. I want to compose the flute ‘overlay’ to the alborada which is the final (and indeed, largest) section of stars & guitars. And at least in terms of the raw material (notes, e.g.) the Sibelius file has caught up to the vertically-finished MS.

The harp accompaniment which will run through the alborada is in greater part a kind of thrumming . . . I’ve had it all plotted for several days, but have needed for the MS. to catch up with that schema.

I could just input that straight into Sibelius, and that would be arguably an economizing of effort. But I want to compose the flute ‘monologue’ on paper, with the harp there.

I could still economize the effort, input the harp accompaniment directly into Sibelius, and print it out with blank staves for the flute, and compose it that way.

But . . . there is still something ineffable which I derive from the process of manually scrawling the harp part, which will inform (and, I think, benefit) my composition of the flute ‘monologue’.

Where the impatience comes in is, I have now done with the harp accompaniment on the seven and a half pages of MS. taken up by the alborada.

(Happily, I rushed the labor, and it did not take me until dawn . . . .)

30 March 2009

O My Soul

So from time to time a recording of the St Paul’s choir singing a piece of mine still gets out on the airways. In this case, Bless the Lord, O My Soul . . . a recording made when? Probably not any recent performance, possibly a recording made when I served as Interim Choir Director. (I don’t tune in to the broadcasts, so I can only speculate.) E-mail comes in from a music director at a Congregational Church not far west of Boston (and a nice tie-in, for I first wrote the piece for First Congo in Woburn), who did tune in; chap likes the piece.

(Now, there is no immediate danger of Fame turning my head; nay, let us be entirely reasonable, and strike the adjective immediate from the transcript. But I trust that it will continue ever to be the case, when any fellow musician tells me that he finds music of mine moving, that such a remark will never leave me unmoved in turn.)

A couple of funny catches in the turn of the wheel . . . a reply I sent via e-mail didn’t get through, somehow . . . then I sent the pdf file, but his “old computer” cannot open the file. No matter, there is still paper, there is still the US Postal Service. The piece is wanted, not for any liturgical date, but for a Music Appreciation Sunday.

That a score of mine should be chosen for such an occasion, is certainly a double pleasure.

Miniature Sphynx

So, an old teacher is in town. Back in town, though he was long out of this town when I got to know him, and Fate drew my steps here by very otherwise byways. What do I tell him? That I’m still writing, of course. That I write because that is what I was born to do.

But what might he say? He told me to write; well, he suggested that composition was something I should study, if I’m interested. So how was I born to do what I didn’t begin to study until a suggestion made to me when I was, what, 21?

It is Fate, and it is true.

28 March 2009

just a note

Today I’ve entered the names of the sections of stars & guitars into the Sibelius score. Playback for this piece has been a strange affair, as the sound library loaded in the program doesn’t recognize the octave transposition of the bass flute down below the range of the standard flute . . . so I took ten minutes or so to create a duplicate file, and add a clarinet staff to take up the “missing” notes. The playback is a useful tool for making sure (a) that I didn’t make any typos entering notes in, and even (b) that errant key-strokes have not messed up the odd measure at unawares (and indeed I found that what ought to have been — and what in fact I had originally entered as — a whole-note, had somehow morphed into a quarter-note plus quarter- and half-rest).

When I stopped playback to restore that whole-note, my mom-in-law complimented me. “It sounds very beautiful.” Now, one may think that this is simply a kindly relative (and she is that, to be sure); but Mom is a fine artist herself, and does not sling the adjective beautiful casually. And the composer thought, in gratitude, if it sounds that good in the mechanical MIDI, how much better it will sound in actual performance.

Still need to finish composing the final section, the alborada.

[ click on picture for larger image ]

27 March 2009

A Matter of Harmony

When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.
Oscar Wilde, from the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

26 March 2009

Diallers for Truth

Jonathan Bellman, at Dial “M” for Musicology, writes Against Familiar Thinking, However Correct. Among his pithy observations:

  • Times for musicians are never good.
  • . . . here is the One Rule: There Are No Rules.
  • Statistics are not relevant in our field.
It feels great to have someone say it: that times for musicians are never good. Of course, there are high-profile examples of individual musicians for whom the times are good — for some of them, times have always been good. But in everyman’s experience, the arts are always the first to be thrown under the bus when there is even a whiff of financial austerity in the air. Music has never been a “practical” field to study; and yet, for the artists of genius to emerge with the work which will enrich the world, there needs to be a musical community & environment.

In reverse order, here is an instance of thinking, both familiar and correct, with which Mr Bellman advises us that he declines to argue:

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself.
This resonates with a Charles Ives quote I once cited in (I believe) program notes to an orchestra concert in Virginia, which I repeat here with unavoidable inaccuracy, as I’ve no idea, today, where to search for it again: that if a musician (perhaps specifically a composer, or perhaps not) depends on his music to earn his money, there comes a time (especially if the composer has a nice wife and a nice family) when musical concerns yield to the need to (in Ives’ words) go “TA-DA!” for money. “Bad for him, bad for music.”

In very practical terms, of course, I live in agreement with Ives. My sources of regular income (for happily I have a nice wife and a nice family) are utterly non-musical. Nor am I going even to seem to complain about that, for it means that I can write what I like, for whatever reasons I like. I didn’t go to school to become an entertainer. It would be bold to add, nor do I have to sell myself . . . but there are many different modes of selling. One enthusiastic lady who led a seminar I was required to attend put it a bit coarsely (yet there is some truth in there), that everything one does, is selling something.

And I do need to “sell” my music, if my music is going to be performed by people other than those named Karl Henning. But, again, I write as I please, and I do not alter that a whit in any chase for greater “saleability.”

Sometimes, it means that I don’t clinch a sale. I recently spoke with a chap in a well-known orchestra; and it was an unfailingly pleasant conversation — but there was no suggestion that any music of mine might be programmed. One piece which has struck a rich chord with many listeners, did not quite convince him — and he was most diplomatic, and volunteered that this was an opinion. There was no getting around the fact that it was his own honest opinion, though; and there was no point in putting forward the names of colleagues who do endorse the piece.

And it comes back to the lesson from Matisse’s life. Whatever the ups and downs of temporal experience, the important thing is to keep writing, and write well. For the work will continue to exist; and if one writes into excellence, the work’s time will come.

One hopes, in the composer’s time, yet.

Separately, e-mail came out of the blue today, a music director at a church who has taken a liking to Bless the Lord, O My Soul.

25 March 2009

Yes, it’s such a ballad at this tempo

Nearing the end of stars; I’ve plotted the rhythm of the closing section. Not a true presto, but it will have that feel, meseems.

Meanwhile, I’ve started some of the finishing, in managing pedal-changes. Most of the [A] section, I composed without taking careful thought for the pedals . . . and, apart from changing a D# to the enharmonically equivalent E-flat, it stands. Possibly the most daring thing I’ve written, for musicians other than myself.

Read a bit tonight in volume 2 of Hilary Spurling’s biography of Matisse. Incredible drama attending the production of Dance and Music, and their delivery to Shchukin in Moscow. In our time, the drama is long done, and what remains is the great Art.

Another reminder, in other words, that what I should do is, not complain about the circs. today, but just keep writing my music.

And thus, stars & guitars.

21 March 2009

Back to Sibelius

(the software)

Long disuse, after no great log of ‘flight time’ (for I only bought the program last summer) . . . and I’ve been shocked to realize that I’ve almost forgotten anything I [thought I] knew in Sibelius.

Had to start again (and in hopes that it might be easier the second time around). Baby steps, again, as I prepare fair copy of stars & guitars. But, the gravest ‘inconvenience’ has been that the playback does not accommodate the lower octave of the bass flute. Pleased with progress.

(click image to enlarge)

More of Just the Usual, Really

Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself.
A.H. Weiler (1968)

Scheduling is perforce an activity which tends to look into a future which is apt to seem distant, but word is encouraging viz. a spring ’10 performance of the Passion according to St John, in Rhode Island.

This composer had a beastly early Saturday (← cheap plea for low-grade sympathy; please send tea), required in part by a half-hour’s walk to the train platform (the MBTA doesn’t really get me there, thus early of a weekend ← send more tea). At least (once I got to the platform) the sun was rising and warmly bright. Got off the train at North Station, hopped on the Orange Line . . . and the train sat at State Street for . . . a while. So I got back to work on stars & guitars, which I think may be the first time I’ve composed on the subway (do so on the trains and buses all the time, naturalmente). Which converted what most commuters probably viewed as an inconvenience (nor do I suggest they are at all wrong to do so) into a fun as well as productive time.

I am tempted to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt: no one can make me feel inconvenienced without my consent.

I also hear that the First Church choir will sing my Exaltabo te, Deus sometime. Sometime soon. Don’t know just when. Perhaps it may coincide with my serving as a sub.

20 March 2009

stars in transit

Finished the [D] section, I have fun ‘crafting’ ostinati. (stars & guitars is a shade more than half finished in draught, then.) Waded right into the sort-of-harp-cadenza, [E]. Some noisy folks on the train car tonight . . . that was possibly the most obnoxious sonic environment in which I’ve found myself able, all the same, to get some composing done. Part of my mind knew that the noise was there, but the composing faculty didn’t care in the least. I picked up where I had left off from this morning’s bus ride.

The fact of not having to drive either to or from work is, in its odd way, a blessing to my creative work . . . .

17 March 2009

Athens in Boston

Herbert Blomstedt brings the Helios Overture to Boston:

(And it turns out that Blomstedt is a local boy, born in Springfield, Massachusetts.)

16 March 2009

on the naming of stars

When I met with flutist Peter H. Bloom over The Angel Who Bears a Flaming Sword, one interesting aspect of the conversation was the matter of how a performer may get ‘the feel’ of a new piece, a score whose music is organized in ways different to the various musical works which an experienced musician has already prepared. Peter was interested in how the title perhaps determines some of the tone of the musical arc of the piece . . . and the experience of fielding the question was of keen interest . . . in composing, while I certainly design some ties between the title and the music, I don’t think a great deal about it, as a rule. When I’ve got the title right, I am content, and I set it there at the head of the score, and (to some extent) I then wade into writing the piece purely from musical considerations.

Thus, I am apt to feel that the score ‘says it all’ . . . but then, of course, I am quite accustomed to my own musical idiom (or my range of idioms).

Now, I’ve been at work on stars & guitars some little while now. And if The Angel provoked intelligent query from Peter, the duet — which will be substantially larger in scope — may do so as well.

With the ‘map’ in view, then, as I’ve been writing, the thought has crept upon me, almost imperceptibly, of including headings to each succeeding section. And perhaps I’ll change one or two, perhaps I’ll change them all, but here’s a back-of-the-envelope list:

i. a dream of a dream
ii. a most cautious alegría
iii. the mesa spread out beneath the stars
iv. love awakens
v. the face of night
vi. a dream of antique navigation
vii. alborada

The Hamster Factor

Over at the Forest (which I can often see even for the trees), Bruce Hodges celebrates a simile.

I wonder, though, who puts a lock on a dryer ; )

Are you up for a fab M.A.?

More work on the harp ostinato for the [D] section of stars & guitars this morning. Not huge news, to be sure; but slow & steady, and all that. Before long, the piece is done.

15 March 2009

Artsy Neighbors

Abby Goodnough at the New York Times writes on the expansion of the Gardner Museum here in the Fenway.

If a painting were stolen out of a contemporary art gallery where the walls are all white, you might say it’s a shame for that artwork. But the way that people who visit this place feel violated, it’s like somebody stole this art out of their own living room.
— Ulrich Boser, author of The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft

And, Holland Cotter previews the MFA’s Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice, opening today.

14 March 2009

the bass flute ruminations

Scruffy, morning-commute draught of the [C] section (so to speak) of stars & guitars:

(Click on the picture for larger image.)

Collateralized Chagall

(It isn’t just Brandeis anymore.)

In a cynical twist on Sir Duke’s remark, The Metropolitan Opera isn’t worried about posterity, they’ve got bills to pay now:

“We have no intention of giving up the Chagalls,” Mr Gelb says.

He seems to fancy that he’s found a sort of grey area. Hardly any more than an art museum could ‘liquidate’ its artwork to cover operating expenses — some have tried in the present difficulties, but it’s absolute unethical — the Met really has no business putting these up as collateral. “No intention of giving them up” is beside the point; lenders do not accept collateral on the borrower’s non-intention to yield it up in the event of default.

13 March 2009

Two Sides of a Coin

We aren’t worried about posterity; we want it to sound good now.
Duke Ellington
I don’t care whether I’m remembered. As a matter of fact, there’s a lot of people who would like to forget about me as soon as possible, and I’m on their side! You know? Just ... hurry up and get it over with. I do what I do because I like doing it, I do it for my amusement first, if it amuses you ... that’s fine. I’m happy that you’ll participate in it. But, uh, after I am dead and gone, there is no need to deal with any of this stuff, because it is not written for future generations, it is not performed for future generations. It is performed for now. Get it while it’s hot, you know? That’s it.
Frank Zappa


The harp ostinato is taking shape nicely, and is based on the tuning of the titular instrument (an idea which seems to me to benefit both from seeming obvious, and from freshness . . . as it only occurred to me recently).

11 March 2009

Picasso’s Food-Fight

For Picasso, Gaudí’s famous church, the Sagrada Família, was something of a joke — more to Salvador Dalí’s taste, he once commented, than his. In the living room at La Californie there used to be an enormous panettone that mice had reduced to ruin. ‘Gaudí’s model,’ he would say.

(J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso. Vol. I: 1881-1906. p.62)

10 March 2009

“the searching question of What? and Why? which the spirit of man asks of life”

The nice German recipe—to hell with it!
Charles Ives

Alan Gilbert, music director designate of the New York Philharmonic, is in Boston conducting Sibelius, Rakhmaninov & Ives. [ review here ]

Even many who sort of wonder about Ives found the experience of the Fourth Symphony richly impressive. With a score calling for two cornets and six trumpets . . . even though Ives has two dozen different things going on at once, if the trumpets play too loud (and heck, they’re likely marked forte in the score) it’s just going to sound like trumpets, and everybody else is briefly a dumbshow. At one point you could see Stephen Drury planting both hands into the keys at the treble end of the piano, but one strained to hear any piano. That’s a technicality, though; the piece is fun on a grand scale.

Very funny story in the notes about John Heiss (composer, flutist, now a teacher at NEC) when yet a grad student, who went to the premiere at Carnegie Hall. A lady outside the hall offered him an extra ticket, on condition he explain to her something about Ives. The effulgent cacophony of the Comedy (second movement) ended, and the string fugue of the third movement began. “Is this still the same piece?,” she asked.

(Nor is it at all a bad question.)

The Theremin stood to the conductor’s right. The player stood, but so did the instrument, which had the look of a compact writing-desk, with part of a mammoth paper-clip sticking out one side.

A memorable event: part concert, part county fair, 100% Ives.

A few un-captioned seconds

(So nearly fame!)

Surfing the BSO website in search of the official page concerning this release, I found a video module with an edited/streamlined account of the event I attended. So I mashed the play button, and after a while . . . there I am, concentrating on some Mahler:

[ watch the complete video here ]

“When you put on the nose, it gr—”

Interior, Cutler Majestic Theatre

In the pre-performance lecture, NYC Opera Dramaturge Cori Ellison congratulated Boston on ‘scooping’ the Met (which will offer The Nose in their ’09-’10 season).

It was a delight to see my friends from Boston’s Firebird Ensemble serving as the core of the pit. Though they suffered a slight indignity early on, when the lights in the pit failed, and conductor Gil Rose had perforce to make an apologetic announcement to the theatre (illumination was rapidly restored).

Another great moment was the ‘want-ad fugue’ after Kovalyov unsuccessfully entreats the editor of the paper to place a notice of his errant nose.

09 March 2009

How Led Zeppelin Left the Wheaton Community Center

“the crucial soundtrack to important dreams”

. . . mayhap a shade portentous, wot?

Carl Bernstein may make his way into future expansions of The Lexicon of Musical Invective:

Subsequent Led Zeppelin performances are well documented, including the band's appearance at the Laurel Pop Festival in July 1969. The Post sent Carl Bernstein to review the show. He was unimpressed with Zeppelin: “Mildly interesting, if not musically original,” he said, and he lamented that the popularity and success of Zeppelin and other British power groups “make it unpleasant to contemplate where rock is going.”

And nought to show for their visit to Wheaton, but $100 in gas money. (The Importance of Publicity.)

08 March 2009

Briefly to start with

What fun The Nose is. The challenges of taking a story which revolves around a single personage, and making a stage-work out of it, yet wanting to create ‘breathing space’ for the performer of that central character . . . are well known to the scenarist of the ballet-in-progress White Nights. How brilliantly Shostakovich scored such a streamlined pit (apart from the horde of percussionists, I mean). And how perfectly well the opera suits the stage.

The Ives Fourth was cracking fun at Symphony Hall last night, too. Sprawling, crazy piece in its own right . . . the listener needs to be in the space so that the more densely chaotic passages have texture and profile; the volume never got out of hand (one close to me with sensitive ears, in especial, surprised me by not finding it overwhelming).

More on both before long.

07 March 2009

Musical Engine Idling

Some more work on stars & guitars yesterday, probably some more yet today.

The Three Pieces, Opus 34 are part of a demo for a lecture today.

And going to Symphony tonight. Sibelius’s Night-Ride & Sunrise, the Rakhmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (featuring Stephen Hough), and the Ives Fourth, guest-conducted by NY Philharmonic m.d. Alan Gilbert.

Idle Reading

Applying the maxim festina lente in reading Philip Norman’s biography of John Lennon. Last night I reached the brief passage about the Magical Mystery Tour project (don’t believe I’ve actually seen the movie). Learned to my delight that the Bonzo Dog Band were part of this (and that they do “Death Cab for Cutie,” which they also did on an episode of Do Not Adjust Your Set). Norman relates that the Beatles were keen to have them participate, save for surprising resistance from John . . . and that, as a result, during the shoot/walkabout, Viv Stanshall would often be wearing a T-shirt reading Lump It, John.

Lord save me for an heretic, but as I read of the passing of Brian Epstein and of the resulting trauma experienced by the lads from Liverpool, I couldn’t help thinking of the parallel episode in The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash.

05 March 2009

Just a quick note

Worked on the bass flute ‘cadenza’ in stars & guitars on this morning’s bus.

Few days earlier (actually) firmed up a timetable for cello ensemble music.

Late this afternoon, had a very nice meeting with a harpist who most graciously played through every page not only of Lost Waters, but of the harp part to Radiant Maples. The verdict? All playable, the composer understands the harp, some of it needs practice on the part of the performer but all technically feasible.

Listened today to Bach’s Chorale Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch (budget 40-disc Bach set, so all the info I've got — not that I have it to hand now — is the name of the organist) . . . in a sense, for the first time. Realized that all the times I’ve heard it before today, it has been in Stravinsky’s marvelous arrangement.

More later.

03 March 2009

Fifteenth Anniversary Celebration

i had a date with spring
i didn’t know at all and
i was a little nervous
on our six-day first date
kissed almost immediately
and very immediately liked it
so i felt i should behave
differently with spring
the crows dress differently here
they sport grey-feathered
spring came to my door overdressed
in gaudy blue-purple rainclouds
sometimes through the folds
the sun shone like calls
from saint petersburg
i took spring around
to the backyard knowing that she
shares her mother’s bedroom
so i made breezy remarks
and hung my wet clothes
on the line
draped my mind
over my fingers
stroking her cheek
yet spring passed
among my shirts
and we carefully collected
a ladybug
off my dripping cuff

across from the train station
the garish soviet-era statue
has been taken down
and instead you may see
in bronze and marzipan
spring asking
karl henning to a hayride
i am the one muttering
about crows
and holding clothespins

(... monument)

02 March 2009

Blast from [my literary] past

. . . ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought
Alice ‘without pictures or conversation?’


The Boston Symphony promotes affordable tix for under-40s (and tut-tut to the Globe for the tin-eared tired headline).

Of Abacab, Bob Eichler casts the query in parenthesis, (am I the only one who doesn’t hate the throbbing jam at the end of the title track?)

Shostakovich’s Нос (The Nose), after Gogol, went missing by way of collateral damage from the firestorm over Лэди Макбет. Opera Boston now presents the New England premiere, and I nose an occasion.

And Bruce Hodges sneaks Conlon Nancarrow into a review of the WTC.

01 March 2009

Julius in Greasepaint

We didn't fight this war out of love for Freedonia, you know. We fought that war because we wanted to throw things.
— Groucho Marx (on the movie Duck Soup)