30 November 2009

Watch It

Cherchez l’argent:

Pin the tail on the reindeer

Better than moaning about the saturation of gawdelpus Christmas music – it’s not news, and even the calendar creep (earlier and oftener) is non-news – time to play Spin the mp3s again:

1. “Gülümcan” (Murat İşbilen) from Istanbul Lounge [256/1029]
2. LvB, Symphony № 9 in D Minor, Opus 125, ii. Molto vivace (Kurt Masur, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig) [9/1029]
3. Genesis, “Duke’s Travels” from Duke [211/1029]
4. Shostakovich, Passacaglia (Intermezzo from Katerina Izmailova) (Mikhail Jurowski, Cologne Radio) [366/1029]
5. Ibert, Valencia from Escales (Paul Paray, Detroit Symphony) [301/1029]
6. Franz Zappa, “Montana (Whipping Post)” from You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. II (The Helsinki Concert) [480/1029]
7. Jethro Tull, “A Song for Jeffrey” from This Was Jethro Tull [23/1029]
8. Piazzolla, Invierno porteño, arr. Lluís Vidal (Josep Pons, Orquesta da camara Teatro Lliure; with Pablo Mainetti, Bandoneón) [837/1029]
9. Frank Zappa & The Mothers, “Amnesia vivace” from Absolutely Free [101/1029]
10. Frank Zappa, “RDNZL” from You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. V [560/1029]
11. Stravinsky, Interlude, Moderato assai from Orpheus (Robt Craft, LSO) [370/1029]
12. Shostakovich, String Quartet № 6 in G Major, Opus 101, i. Allegro (Emerson String Quartet) [746/1029]
13. Bartók, Intermezzo interrotto from the Concerto for Orchestra (LSO) [372/1029]
14. Jethro Tull, “Bungle in the Jungle” from War Child [134/1029]
15. Ginastera, Los peones de hacienda from the Estancia Suite, Opus 8a (Josep Pons, Orquesta Ciudad de Granada)

Pretty cheap way to smile for an hour and a half, I call it.

Brief Encounter Indeed

Although we didn't stop to listen (opera via radio is one of those highly specialized experiences for which we find we need very much to be in the right frame of mind), Irina & I heard the synopsis of Act I, and the first couple of minutes of the Overture to a Houston Grand Opera production of a new work by André Previn, Brief Encounter.  It may well be all right;  and from what little I heard of the music, I might wish that I had had both the time cleared for such listening, and the steam so that I might have attended to the piece. (Opera I generally find much easier to devote full attention to, when in the actual theatre.)

All I can really do this morning as a compensatory gesture in Previns honor is, listen to his recording of Prokofievs Cinderella with the LSO (recorded in April 1983).  Will Brief Encounter make it to Boston?  Who would bring it here?

29 November 2009

Lesser dissatisfactions

Mixed feelings about what is nevertheless a fine recording to listen to, Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra playing Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet, Opus 64 (on Decca, originally recorded June 1973). There are some tempo decisions which not only strike me as wrong, but which (meseems) ought to have been obvious to the conductor as being wrong, from where the music goes. Some numbers in which one wishes the players had been more on the edge of their seats. Nothing fatal, though I wonder (ah, speculation, where would we be without it? Or was that a speculative question?) if I would have fallen for Prokofiev’s piece (as I did, back in the early 90’s) like a ton of proverbial bricks, if this had been the recording to introduce me thereto?

Oxygen levels are getting yet more stringently reduced. It felt bad enough, that some radio stations had started the Christmas muzak music on 13 November. Felt bad enough, that one could no longer trust any sense of the proximity of Christmas because the time has arrived when the occasional strain of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” falleth upon the ear.

But now, fewer than half the car radio presets are safe havens from Christmas schlock.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” can be a trial to endure singing them through; and sheer agony to endure listening to it. But the torture has risen to exquisitely sadistic heights in a reissue of a particularly insipid version sung by Frank Sinatra and sundry Sinatra offspring. This was really a dark corner of the studio vaults which should have been walled up after a jeroboam of Amontillado.

And yet, honestly, that is not the worst of it.

Is that not terrifying? Rum pa pum pum.

28 November 2009

On Not Getting It Right

Jaya’s rant would seem to justify my absence of interest in the Metro . . .


Without this mp3 player, I should probably never have listened in immediate succession to Agon, and then to “Locomotive Breath.” Nor was the device set to ‘randomize’ — it was an act of listening Will.

Not a lot — call it a middling volume of detailed tweaks I’ve been applying to the score of the Opus 92 Passion, in preparing it for press over the past week. Not enough work to complain of, and in all events, the result is looking good.

Apologies to all the virtual friends to whom I promised discs. I will get to them, and yes, before the year is out.

One piece brand-new to me over which I enthuse is the Copland Organ Symphony. Our friend Ben knows why, though there is a timing reason why Ben doesn’t know (just yet).

Just landed (courtesy of Ben) is the Maazel/Cleveland recording of Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. More on this, later.

25 November 2009

Brideshead Revisited, Revisited

The pages of my copy of Brideshead Revisited have yellowed. I’m unsure just how long it’s been since I last read it, nor do I know what whim it was prompted me to draw it from the shelf, and set to re-reading it.

“I have been here before,” I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool’s-parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer . . . .
. . . first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago . . . I read this again, and then turned to the title page, on which I had inscribed the date when I first finished reading this volume: 10.ix.89 – a bit more than twenty years ago.
I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?
— Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.
But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.
— Can’t I?
I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.
— Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.
But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.
— But I do. That’s how I believe.
There is probably some reason (maybe more than one) why I should re-read this. Waugh’s wicked satire has always amused me, but his more obviously satirical books are as fountains in a park, while Brideshead is a large, still lake. It is rich, it has an engaging yet not entirely comforting gravity, and when it is at its most charming, I feel almost a suspicion that I ought to weep. I’ve always enjoyed the book too well to bother with any screen adaptations of it, not that I have anything against Jeremy Irons. It is a romance, which I only now realize resonates with a book I came to half a decade later, Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. Both books stir me with not-quite-governable musical impulses (though I don’t know that I shall write any resultant music related to either).

The First Thanksgiving

(Not really, of course.)


Any compilation going by the title The Very Best of Jethro Tull would probably have to begin with Living in the Past and Aqualung, of course.

Eat at Joe's

There are Google ads above the control strip of the youtube modules now;  so as excerpts from the Magnificat in D (BWV 243) were playing, there was an ad inviting me to Buy Used Trumpets.

19 November 2009

Lise de la Salle & Fabio Luisi in Boston

Last season it was the 1911 Petrushka, this season, the 1947 . . .

[ link → review ]

18 November 2009

Thank You!

[ click for larger image ]

17 November 2009

Shamrock Antiquities

Second rehearsal with Nicole was a refreshingly efficient affair; everything has fallen into suitably musical place so readily, that we essentially just played through All the Birds in Mondrian’s Cage and Heedless Watermelon, and felt we were ready.

As a guest performer/composer, I richly enjoyed meeting with six composition students at Emory University yesterday. I talked a bit about Blue Shamrock before playing it. I was asked about the title. On one hand, I am sufficiently ‘out of practice’ in terms of explicating the titles of earlier pieces, that I almost just want the question to go away. But on t’other, here were students of my own craft, and part of the mystery of composition of which they are embarked on the study, is the ideas between title and music. I felt, then, that I owed them an answer, and (even) the right answer.

The shamrock part was easy, as the piece falls into three readily discernible sections, musically related, and even seamless, so relation to the modest three-petaled plant was obvious. But I wasn’t going to be let off that easy, and the question necessarily arose: Why blue?

Hadn’t thought about that in an age, but happily, I remembered (hurray for sometimes being able to think on one’s feet). The shamrock is normally green, but may it look blue? Both color and musical sounds are actual objects in the external world, yet quantifying how we perceive them, and comparing our personal experiences of them, can be problematic. Everyone unthinkingly knows grass to be green, and yet it sometimes appears a different shade (so that bluegrass is not merely a name for a musical genre, but has an origin in botany). And there are languages other than English where the speakers use their word blue for objects which in English we should describe as green. From one angle, green and blue are clearly different colors, yet there is not a firm ‘border’ between them.

Another aspect of the piece which I had not thought about for many years, but which came right back to me when asked, was a ‘scale’ I discovered . . . but I’ll leave that for another post.

Shortly, I have another workshop, this time at Georgia State; and my publisher tells me that I will receive as a gift a complimentary score for unaccompanied clarinet. An invitation to sight-read? Well, and why not?

And tonight, there is the recital, of course.

16 November 2009

Heedless Rehearsal

First rehearsal of Heedless Watermelon with Nicole; everything has gone very nicely, smoothly & musically.

15 November 2009


Just landed in Atlanta. Preparations for the trip, atop all the usual distractions of the weekly routine (for which, of course, I am only grateful) curtailed my blog activity. Thrilled at how well Out in the Sun is reported to have gone in Ann Arbor, and I am keen in hopes that a recording will come.

[ click for larger image ]

Thursday morning was such a blur, that (even though I have the poster taped to my cubicle wall) I had clean forgot about the fact that Paul Cienniwa would be playing the Three Short Pieces at the M.I.T. chapel that lunch-time. Happily, Paul thought to text me, and great was my joy at reading the message, and realizing that I could still make it over to Cambridge. There, I renewed and expanded an acquaintance with organist Leonardo Ciampa; and we two will get together to read some of my cl-&-org music in early December.

Later the same day, Paul played the same program in Fall River. He reports that it went well, and remarked of his astonishment that (apart from the all-inclusive applause at the end of the program), the audience applauded my modest Three Pieces the longest.

Happy to report the continuing renewal of musical partnership with organist Bill Goodwin; I will be a guest musician at First Congo in Woburn the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Response to the anthem-of-a-sudden, my five-part Tallis-esque setting of what is hopefully a public domain text by an obscure (unless you happen to be Unitarian) nineteenth-century minister, has been gratifying and immediate. It is on the slate for a 6 December ordination service.

Now, of course, to remove garments from the valise, hang them up, and rehearse Heedless Watermelon for its Atlanta debut.

Good flight, really. They gave me an extra packet of “mini pretzels” as consolation for when I asked for peanuts, and there were none.

12 November 2009

Word from Ann Arbor

Out in the Sun is one of Karls best works: trombones and a tuba provide a kind of slow, warm and glowing basso continuo, (although the tuba does get a moderate workout), while sparks of driving energy are provided by a quartet of saxophones and two clarinets (one alternating on a bass clarinet).

The sparks are intriguing melodic fragments passed around by the clarinets and saxophones, and they build to various climaxes: for an image, you could envision a partly sunny day, when clouds at times tame the rays and at other times release them to flash around. (This is not to imply that Karl had such a tone-poetic idea in mind, but given the title he chose, it would seem appropriate.)

Eventually the work slows down to emphasize those warm and, to my ear, rather mysterious, meditations in the brass, whose music has maintained a detached, almost Olympian tone, although for a few moments the tuba does attempt to dance with the winds.

The student orchestra gave a nice reading, and the players were obviously very engaged and enthusiastic about the work. The conductor (Rodney Dorsey) kept everything in balance, and the lines were usually clear. A few errors here and there (e.g. the one clarinetist working on the bass clarinet was having trouble with the mouthpiece at the beginning) ultimately did not detract from the performance. The response from the audience, numbering around 75 to 100, was equally enthusiastic: a very mixed group consisting of parents, elderly college-town types, and of course assorted students, including the curious 21st-century types, who feel they must be seen sporting scarves (even though the weather was not cold (40s)) to proclaim a sort of personal statement.


. . . Karls work was next, and they launched into it exuberantly. Perhaps Ive succumbed to suggestion, but the works title seems completely apposite. The groups rhythm was excellent; all the elided lines overlapped with great security, creating the impression (in me) of watching clouds roll by on a truly clear summers day. This configuration of the group was standout, particularly the low brass. Perfect intonation and perfect balancing and blend of their voices gave it the burnished sound one hears in the best orchestras. The piece rolls along until it contentedly runs out of energy, settling down gradually into a somnambulant coda that was exquisitely paced and played with perfect blend and pitch. The conductor was Rodney Dorsey, who clearly rehearsed this extremely well and interpreted it with great care. Love this piece. The crowd wasnt too large but they were enthusiastic.

11 November 2009

Ask a rhetorical question . . . .

      Personally, Im thinking this is a no-brainer.  How is film music different from music written to accompany a ballet?

That has the look of a rhetorical question.  But . . . .

Im writing a ballet.  The duration of the ballet, the component scenes, the sequence, every bar of the music — that is all under the complete control of one person, and that one person is the composer (in this case, myself).

Is there a film where this was ever the case?

Now, one may object that I am working under atypical conditions:  there is as yet no stage director, no choreographer, with whom I am working, and these are people who normally have some input in various details of the music to a ballet.

Two answers:

1]  When (as I hope, or we might say simply if) my piece reaches a point where a company will dance it, and the stage director or choreographer suggests cutting this, changing that, switching the order of these two numbers, taking this dance from Act IV and inserting it into Act II — I have the option of saying, No; this is the way I have written the ballet, and either you dance the piece the way I have written it, or you find some other ballet to do.

I ask again:  Where is the fellow who scored a film, who ever possessed a claim to that option?

2]  Even under more typical ballet-creation conditions, the composer has creative control over the final musical result, to a degree which is simply impossible in film.

You ask, How is film music different from music written to accompany a ballet?

Read Stravinskys biography where he is working on Agon.  Then read Hitchcocks biography where he is working on Pyscho.  In the first case, Stravinsky is in the drivers seat;  in the second, Hitchcock.

Only one of them was the composer involved in his respective project.

09 November 2009

Inspirational Obsession

      What moves men of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.
      Eugène Delacroix

Very busy of late, and delightfully busy, with an unusual density of practicing. There are a few measures in Irreplaceable Doodles, and a few measures here and there in the Studies in Impermanence, which I have never (or seldom) played quite right. It may be that the perfect execution may elude me this time, as well, but its fun to have that for a goal. In all events, the playing will go well; I have no objection to better still.

The necessary preoccupation with the impending Atlanta appearances has forced a temporary shelving of Discreet Erasures. Should have no difficulty taking that project back up promptly, the week before Thanksgiving. Erasures is a complicated enough project that I want to leave it for when I can devote more focus to it but I have not wanted to leave off composition altogether. So, on Monday and Tuesday of last week I whipped up a five-part unaccompanied choral setting of a text which seems it ought to be in the public domain (but were investigating), for Paul at FCB. Piece was largely done by the end of Tuesday, though I knew directly that I wanted to tighten a few nuts here and there . . . wasnt able to re-open the toolbox, though, until Friday. The finishing took very little time, and (even while I dont include the piece in my personal top 20) I got the score to where I can own it entirely.

Now, Paul wants a melismatic Amen. Well, and why not?

Found a few minor edits to apply to the Finale files for the Passion (why not have it looking its best as it goes to press?)

Hoping to revive a musical conversation this Wednesday evening.

03 November 2009

Son of Ambiguous Strategies

While pursuing my doctorate in Buffalo, I wrote a few pieces essentially as zone-stretchers. The head of the composition faculty chided us graduate composers for being too cautious in our presentations on the graduate composition recitals.

(To be fair, we graduate composers were only given one recital each semester on which to present our work. It is both natural and obvious that under such circs, a composition student is likely to follow Andrew Carnegies advice: Put all your eggs in one basket and Watch That Basket. More accurately, since the Music Department provided only that one basket, there was nothing for it but to Watch That One Basket.)

But, as I had already done undergraduate study and a Masters elsewhere, I had enough experience writing that I had no particular need to be over-precious with my writing while in Buffalo . . . so I thought, You want experimentation? All right, Ill give you experimentation.

Gentle Reader, you must understand that even in this waggish defiance, there was not the least willingness to lower musical standards. I still had an eye (or ear) on the musical Result; I only felt that I had license to make free with the process. And in all events, as there were six of us graduate composers who felt (likewise in something like defiance of The Mans strict wishes) that we wanted to continue as performers as well, we made a group of ourselves . . . so however I might fiddle around with compositional process, I was eating my own cooking (and cooperating with fellow diners).

So, no, I wrote no pieces for portable hair-dryer, contrabassoon, macaw and eggplant-o-phone.

I got the idea for one piece from Walter Ross in Charlottesville. While at UVa, I played in a small chamber piece of Walters in which each player was provided a menu of several musical passages, and the player was at liberty to play them in whatever order he liked. The piece was thus a balance between the composer having control over the material being played, and the performer exercising some freedom in execution. No two performances of the piece would (probably) be the same.

That experience was fun, but I wanted to expand on the idea. First of all, I was writing for a sextet, and so for a significantly larger ensemble. As a result, where in Walters piece each player could operate under his own sense of tempo, I felt that coordination of the sextet would depend at last on there being a common tempo from section to section (immediately, I suppose, an instance in which I was exercising Compositional Control). While emulating Walters example of giving each player a bucket of material, I thought, How do I give the overall piece a shape? When you have a chance, or aleatoric, or improvisatory, piece, how do you known when it ends?

So, I designed the piece as a five-part arch form (ABCB'A'). The brief A sections were actually composed to be played as scored, no chance element to them, and there was a tempo specific to the A sections; for B, I gave each player (I am trying to recall) 13 musical excerpts, each excerpt a different number of measures, each player was to play the excerpts in any order he liked, should play each excerpt twice (though never the same excerpt twice in immediate succession). In principle, the six players could each have played out his game with his excerpts, and everyone would end the whole section at the same double-bar. So (again, I am piecing things from distant memory) I believe I shorted the violist (maybe I only gave him 12 excerpts), so that as the remaining ensemble were finishing the B section the violist was independently phasing into C.

C was distinct both by tempo, and by instrumentation, as I decided it would be a viola/piano duet. And by material (of course) on a similar principle to the B section, I wrote a number of excerpts for each player, of different lengths, &c. We decided on some strategy so that the pianist would signal to the rest of the ensemble when the C section was drawing to a close.

B' was the same material as B, maybe (?) at a slightly different tempo, and maybe (?) each excerpt was only to be played once. Similarly, one player was elected to cue the rest of us when we should be prepared to move to the A' section, which like the opening was composed through, was (as one might suppose) a fairly clear variant of the start of the piece, and a section which ended with a clear event.

Thus was born Ambiguous Strategies.

One benefit of going to Buffalo to do my doctoral work was, that I was again in comparative proximity to an old Wooster classmate, Jeff Wallace, who was in Cleveland at the time. Jeffs passion was (and remains) the dance, and particularly a creatively spontaneous dance-interpretation. It seemed to me (in the first place) that this type of dance would go best with live performance (which even with a purely through-composed piece, will be different each time); on top of that, I was inspired by the thought of the synergistic spontaneity of interpretive dance, to a chamber ensemble piece incorporating elements of chance.

Jeff came on over to Buffalo; we must have had a sort of rehearsal (though it is not the sort of event which quite rehearses, in a traditional sense). And Jeff brought video gear, so there is a document of the event.

Although I dont think Ive actually watched the video more than once (and that, a long time ago), Ive always felt some comfort in knowing that the piece is thus documented. I was really pleased with Ambiguous Strategies musically, I felt that it was a compositional success in ways which frankly surprised me. On top of that, Jeffs dance added a further dimension of artistic success and the piece remains to date my only adventure in spectacle.

At times I have wished that I could review the piece. As you can tell, Gentle Reader, from my description of the piece, it did not exist as a score; but only as six separate parts (and a paragraph of rules). Even before I left Buffalo, I was unsure where all the parts were; at this time, I dont think I know where even a single part might be.

In ways perfectly apt for the milieu in which I produced the piece, it furnishes a Cageian example of allowing oneself to be free of possession of the musical score. I suppose it were theoretically possible, from close attention to the video document of the performance, to reconstruct the piece with some accuracy. Though honestly, at this point I should simply write a new piece.

Last week I had a very nice chat with Jeff, and he will prepare a DVD of Ambiguous Strategies. I look forward to watching, and smiling.

02 November 2009

Building a program

Order, order . . . . let’s see.

I like to open with Blue Shamrock; we should probably close with the Watermelon; Mondrian should precede the Watermelon . . . how about the following order—

  • Blue Shamrock, cl solo (4')
  • The Angel Who Bears a Flaming Sword, fl solo (14')
  • Irreplaceable Doodles, cl solo (6')
  • [Nicole solo flute piece, (5')]
  • Studies in Impermanence, cl solo (20')
  • All the Birds in Mondrian’s Cage, fl/cl (4')
  • Heedless Watermelon, fl/cl (6')

01 November 2009


Music is no different from opium.
— The Ayatollah Khomeini

. . . he makes the sound that beards make
when used for straining soup.

— Viv Stanshall (of the Bonzo Dog Doo/Dah Band),
“My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies”

Started the blog a year ago today. In this time, I have newly composed:
  1. stars & guitars for bass flute & harp
  2. two pieces for cello ensemble, Marginalia & Après-lullaby
  3. two pieces for flute & clarinet duo, Heedless Watermelon & All the Birds in Mondrian’s Cage

I have arranged:

  1. Lutosławski’s Lullaby for cello ensemble
  2. Heedless Watermelon for viola & cello

. . . and made modifications to the trumpet original of The Angel Who Bears a Flaming Sword.

I’ve made a good start on a new orchestral piece.

I’ve played four recitals, and have a fifth scheduled shortly.

Lux Nova Press have prepared editions of Out in the Sun and Bless the Lord, O My Soul.

Perhaps the blog is a success, perhaps the blog is not much of a success. However that question may hang, I’m pleased with my music-making this year, and pleased to have it reflected on the blog. I shall consider that success enough at present.