17 June 2010

Notes to the program

About the Music

Toxicodendron is the Latin term for Poison Ivy. Nicole and Brian had terrible reactions to it this spring, including a quite comical trip to the doctor for Nicole. Illustrated throughout the piece is the unceasing desire to scratch. It starts out with just a tiny annoying itch, but gradually works into a scratching frenzy with no hint of relief. [NC]

Maraschino refers to the happy and harmless cherry we put in Shirley Temple drinks and banana splits today, not the more menacing indigestible preserved liqueur cherries of ancient times. The light-hearted and cheerful cherry is captured in this duet in which the flute and clarinet exchange teasing banter in a loose fugue interpretation. [NC]

three for twoHeedless Watermelon :: This is one of a small number of pieces which I have written as a musical thank-you. Mary Jane Rupert, Paul Cienniwa, Peter Bloom & I played a recital in this very space on 24 June 2009; and in the elated aftermath, I started composing, for my Muse bade me draw up a diverting duet for flute and clarinet. After the extended musical canvases of my opp. 92-95 (about an hour and three-quarters of music total), I have lately trended to brevity. (I composed Marginalia for cello ensemble in the space of two days, while ‘powering down’ in Bethesda, Maryland.) Musically, this piece is an intuitive blend of fructose, sunshine, sanssouci and electricity. There’s even a canon on a modified Frank Zappa melody thrown in. Toujours de l’audace. Optional entertainment, forsooth. [KH]

three for twoAll the Birds in Mondrian’s Cage / Swivels & Bops :: Once I had written Heedless Watermelon for Peter Bloom and myself to play together, it proved such great fun that I wanted to round it out as a set of three pieces. Not long after our July concerts last year, my eye fell upon a Mondrian picture, and I thought about how I might compose a piece with musical means reflecting the austere simplicity of de Stijl. (Not an absolutely original idea, by the way, as I had studied with the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen when I was in Buffalo, and it is to Louis that I owe my introduction to the term.) Nicole Chamberlain and I first played All the Birds in Mondrian’s Cage in Atlanta last November. Earlier this year I wrote Swivels & Bops, because I knew that I would; it is dance-music for turtle-doves. Every Christmas, I used to wonder what the two turtle-doves would like to dance to. [KH]

Smörgåsbord :: This suite explores the different styles and textures a flutist can convey through the manipulation of the air stream. Through punching, clicks, bending, popping, fluttering, and even singing while playing, the flute can take on a metamorphosis of sound. The titles of the movements are analogous to a variety of textures found in food as well as the flute sound. Though punches and aggressive attacks, the sound can be crunchy; through bending, it can be gelatinous; through pops, clicks and different embouchure shapes, it can be carbonated; with our friend the piccolo, singing while playing, and fluttering, it can sound fluffy. Certainly the flute has a "Smorgasbord" of ingredients in the pantry that can whip up a delicious culinary work. [NC]

Chasing the Storm was inspired by the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” The Chase is a methodical pursuit for the desired object ending in a raucous realization of what was just attained. [BC]

Lost Hollow Road was commissioned by my wife, Nicole Chamberlain, though when she commissioned the piece, we had just barely met. It tells a short story of a late night drive on a deserted road after a long dinner party. Reflections are the faded lights reflecting off of the windshield when passing another car on the deserted road. [BC]

Mirage is an atmospheric study. I originally composed it as a companion piece in a recital on which Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat was also programmed; so there is a veiled reference to this classic in my own score. [KH]

Night of the Weeping Crocodiles :: This piece I originally wrote as a setting of a Wilde poem for tenor, clarinet & piano. (The title, Night of the Weeping Crocodiles, is my own, and has nothing to do with Wilde.) We performed it in that version (my dear old friend Houston Dunleavy singing) while in Buffalo, but under conditions which can only be described as horrible. We graduate composers at the University were made welcome to present some of our work as part of the Buffalo New Music Festival (on the face of it, a very good thing); but we were not accorded a “concert” slot. We were given a “cabaret” slot, so we performed in a crowded café-cum-art-gallery, the acoustics were loathsome (even when the air did not shriek with the clink of glasses from which Pink Catawba was being gradually emptied down the throats of an “audience” to whom we musicians were of no consequence). I think I remember that we performed tolerably well, but who could know? I liked the piece even as it was, back then; but some years since, I decided that the music would enjoy a more robust performance history as a purely instrumental trio. It took some creativity to re-assign the tenor material, but then, the application of creativity is my bag. [KH]

Lunar Glare :: A large portion of the inspiration for this piece I owe to Domenico Scarlatti, although I do not pretend that my piece sounds at all like the Italian master. Most inauthentically, I had heard a very few of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas on synthesizer and piano before I ever heard them on the harpsichord . . . I thought them fun pieces even when synthesized or pianified, but I like them even better on the shimmering strings of the harpsichord. The clarinet was invented (developed is probably better) in the mid-18th century, a time when the harpsichord was already being eclipsed by the piano; so the very idea of the two instruments together implies a degree of anachronism which likes me well. As to the process of composition, I don’t know that I could say much apart from the fact that I delighted in the timbral contrasts between the two instruments. Some passages are fanciful explorations (in my own musical language) of the harpsichord’s proper idiom. There is a kind of mensural canon (imitation in which the second ‘voice’ employs the same material, but at an accelerated rhythmic rate). There are stretches of the piece where the two instruments alternate with different material entirely (suggesting that they have no common ground), and another passage where the two instruments are bound together in a whirlwind unison. It was fun to write, and I find it great fun to play. An early draft of the piece included notes that are just too high for Paul’s harpsichord to play; he made me change those. The inspiration for the title came from signage on a Massachusetts highway advising motorists to be cautious of solar glare in the morning. [KH]

Lutosławski’s Lullaby :: The first time I went to St Petersburg was a day-trip from Tallinn, Estonia. I took a bus to the city of Peter the Great; walked around the part of town between Arts Square and the Winter Palace; looked for the first time upon the granite-faced fortress of Peter and Paul across the River Neva; spent a dazzling and tantalizingly brief hour in the Hermitage; and missed my bus going back.

Any first-time visitor to such a beautiful, enchanting, and poetical city as Petersburg might have done so, and might have spoken as little Russian as did I. As little Russian as I spoke means, in fact, not the least word. A succession of kindly strangers pointed me along the stages of making my way to Varshavsky (Warsaw) Station, whence trains depart also for Tallinn. At that train station, so different from Penn Station or Grand Central, a series of delightfully implausible circumstances led to my being introduced to the wonderful woman who is now my wife.

As the name suggests, trains also depart from Warsaw Station for Poland. I left on the train for Tallinn little dreaming (— no, I did dream, but I hardly dared think much of the dream —) that the young woman I had met, for such a brief time, would eventually permit me to marry her. Later, I promised to write her a piano piece.

In Tallinn, I heard the Estonian National Philharmonic play Lutosławski's Symphony № 4, and I learned that Lutosławski had passed away. I did not travel to Warsaw, but I heard a train rumbling from Petersburg to Poland, the mechanical rhythms of the iron horse lulling a composer to sleep. [KH]

Gaze Transfixt :: This is a set of variations on a folksong said to be George Washington’s favorite.

Theme: In E major, although accompanied laconically by a series of pitches which, in another composition and under different methods, might be a tone-row. But it would be a dull tone-row in a serial piece, because of the limited intervalic content — it arranges the twelve pitches of the octave into a series of melodic major seconds (interval class 2): [A,G] [C,D] [A#,G#] [F,D#] [E,F#] [C#,B] [G,A]. Another reason why it is not strictly a tone-row is, it comes back to the first dyad at the end; but part of the structural game of the piece is playing with the tension between a lovely, tonal melody, and materials which pull away from tonality.

Variation [i]: Very simple; melody restated verbatim in E major. TWD (The Wayward Dyads) accompany, in a different transposition, and registrally separated.

Variation [ii]: The first of a number of wilful rhythmic adjustments to the pitch-faithful tune; a sort of toccata-game with the melody in fifteenths (e.g., two octaves) and dry other-stuff going on in the middle, shared between the two hands. Melody is in C major, taking off from the closing three pitches of [i]. The last chord is a simple pentachord, the five notes of the pentatonic scale on F. The uppermost pitch is G, so . . .

Variation [iii]: . . . melody in RH is in G major, rhythmically forced to 5/8. Left hand is a kind of inversion, one note staggered, at transpositions chosen to irritate G major. Brief variation, this.

Variation [iv]: An ostinato on the 5/8 from [iii], and also a kind of canon, though it is not written to sound particularly canonic. Bass voice is a free inversion of the melody; soprano voice, when it comes in, is a strict transposition of the bass, a major third up (interval class 4); the tenor and alto voices are TWD, inversions of one another. This describes, technically, where I get the notes, but the simple fact is: I liked the chords. My feeling is, do whatever fancy things with pitches you like, as long as the result is musical; and throw out anything if the result is unmusical, rather than insist on it out of adherence to any ‘system’.

Variation [v]: The soprano voice at the end of [iv] sets the tune up in E major, the general tenor of the Variation is romantic, the chords are all common practice – but they’re wrong (by common practice principles). This variation doesn’t take the musical world by storm, but I like it.

Variation [vi]: A furious toccatina consisting essentially of arpeggiated chords which, some other day, might be used to creatively harmonize the tune.

Variation [vii]: I wrote this quasi arpa variation just because I like the sound of the piano strings up there; the left hand is a free mirror of the tune in F major. There are added “trillo” remarks from TWD down in the basement.

Variation [viii]: Even by common practice standards, the melody is a bit conflicted here ... first half is in B-flat, second half in E-flat. TWD appears as “blippy” grace notes.

Variation [ix]: Just a fragment of the tune appears against rapid arpeggi which loosely recall [vi].

Variation [x]: This was the variation I wrote with the thought, What if Copland used this tune in, say, Billy the Kid?

Variation [xi]: The melody wavers between e minor and e phrygian in high register; fifths plod down below.

Variation [xii]: A variation of [xi]; the tune is exploded registrally, tempo is faster, and there are some repeated notes.

Variation [xiii]: A deliberately jarring return to (some echo of) traditional harmonic syntax. The tune is in g natural minor (aeolian mode). Apart from the ornamentation, the left hand is a strict canon at the octave.

Variation [xiv]: I wrote this more than a decade ago, and I couldn’t say exactly where this comes from, pitch-wise. Probably an exploration of “derived chords” in the spirit of [iv]. This is pseudo-Messiaen, with an emphasis on ‘pseudo’.

Variation [xv]: In an abrupt recantation, the tune comes back in simple G major (and 7/8); the left hand confirms all your mother’s warnings about the excesses of Alberti bass.

Variation [xvi]: Wrote this with the Englishry of Holst and Vaughan Williams in view; in D major.

Variation [xvii]: Yet another mishandling of that by-now-worried-to-distraction tune, in d aeolian, with TWD moving slowly in the left hand.

Variation [xviii]: The tune here returns to E major, in a manner loosely suggestive of the Baroque, or rather, in an exaggeration of an impression of that manner, though there is affection even in the exaggeration. TWD in the bass are gruff yet reserved.

The Theme, in a not-perfectly-literal return. [KH]

Nastenka’s Story :: This is a scene about half-way into my ballet based on the Dostoyevsky novella, White Nights. Here, Nastenka is telling the narrator (in the ballet I call him the Dreamer) about her life at home, into which there enters a modestly charming lodger who by delicate degrees enlarges her world. And indeed, Nastenka falls for him (a crisis in a subsequent scene). The understated nature of the music in this scene is thus meant, in style, as a kind of narrative inset within the ballet; and in content, to denote a home life, to which Nastenka is dutifully resigned, but which is a bit confined.

I mean for some of the passages through the course of the scene to suggest an awakening sense of romance. And as to the close of the scene — the Lodger surprises Nastenka and her granny with an invitation to the opera, Il barbiere di Seviglia. The Lodger is thus an agent for lifting the spirits of Nastenka and her granny both, and that is what drove the decision to close the scene with a cheerful characteristic Spanish dance.

The ballet as a whole is scored for large orchestra, so that any reduction is necessarily makeshift to a degree. Nonetheless, the thought of arranging this scene for this group of instruments struck me as natural and suitable. [KH]

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