06 December 2010

Text prepared for a radio show

Just got a very nice message from Lance G. Hill, who says there has been good response to the radio show featuring my music on WPEL-FM. He may possibly repeat the show next year.

I had sent him a passel of music to choose from, and I had also promised him some text for background. Thus the track listings in the following refer to those four CDs (which my colleague Luke jokingly called the Henning Box).

When my family and I moved to Massachusetts, we knew hardly anyone in Boston. It happened that many of the musicians whose acquaintance I first made, were organists and choir directors. They were generally interested (at least politely) on learning that I am a composer, and more than one made me welcome to float by them any music which I thought might be suitable for use at their parish. Often, the choir of such a church might be of fairly modest musicianship.

The Alleluia in Ab (Disc 1, track 10), while not posing great demands, I did write as a piece not for any choir I then knew, but as a ‘stretch’, a piece for some choir, somewhere, capable of music of more technical difficulty than some of the occasional pieces I had written before. It was the first piece of mine to be published (by Lux Nova Press, in Atlanta), and in quite a short period of time, came to be sung by choirs on three continents (North America, Europe & Australia).

It was one of the first pieces of mine which Mark Engelhardt, then music director at the Episcopal cathedral in Boston, had his choir sing.

In early 2003, Mark approached me with the idea of an Evensong which the cathedral choir would sing, featuring my music. The canticle, the Song of Mary (Disc 1, track 8) pre-dated this proposal (I had composed the piece at St Vincent’s Arch-Abbey in Latrobe, PA) but its use in the Evensong was the first thing Mark & I settled. It also provided musical material for the companion Song of Simeon (Disc 1, track 9).

Now, I am a performer myself, a clarinetist and often a chorister. In my composition time and again, I seem to show a knack for making technical demands of the performers which call forth their full attention (and which require ample rehearsal), but the character of the music itself wins them over (we might say), so that they are very gracious even while they find that they have to rehearse a piece a great deal. One such piece in particular, is Nuhro (Disc 1, track 7), an original setting of an ancient Maronite hymn which I first heard in a monastery near the Quabbin reservoir in central Massachusetts. I decided to set this hymn to serve as part of the November 2003 Evensong. Mark’s choir at the cathedral, all paid singers at that time, were all highly capable; yet it was a small-ish choir, three or four singers to a part. I had been working with them some little time by then, so I knew their capabilities. I composed Nuhro for seven-part choir, which probably pressed Mark’s choir to their utmost, in terms of their handling long-breathed parts with divided sections. Even as I was writing it, I felt that it was the finest music I had composed to that point. I must have completed the score in July, and when I had reached the final double-bar, my family & I went to the beach. All the time when I was playing in the surf at Rockport, the strains of my new piece were echoing in my inner ear, and I was filled with this wonderful feeling that I had accomplished something in which I could always take great artistic pride.

In fact, Mark’s choir did such a beautiful job with the November 2003 Evensong, that I quickly wrote a piece in gratitude, a setting of the Christmas text Hodie Christus natus est (Disc 1, track 11) for choir in five parts and clarinet. Mark and the choir did indeed first sing it the following month, on Christmas Eve (although the recording we have is of a later performance).

The season at the cathedral following Mark’s departure in August 2005, I found that members of the choir had pressed the Dean of the cathedral to engage me as an Interim Choir Director. One of the things I wished (and which it actually proved practical) to do was, to keep the choir’s morale up by maintaining the tradition of singing a special Evensong; and as a composer, I was eager to write new music for the whole service. We scheduled the service to take place in Lent (March 2006), and so the idea of the new setting was that the organ would remain silent, and the instrumental compliment I selected was a pair of trombones, with a suitably austere sound to reflect the season of penitence (Disc 1, tracks 1-5).

That Easter I directed the choir in a purely unaccompanied adaptation of my setting of Pascha nostrum (Disc 1, track 6), which originally I had composed for organist Bill Goodwin in Woburn, Massachusetts, for choir accompanied by brass quintet and organ.

All this may give the false impression that I am primarily (or even, heaven forfend, solely) a composer of sacred choral music. Although I am certainly pleased, musically, at the artistic contribution I have made to that sector of the musical world, I think of myself much more broadly as a composer.

I am often asked if I have written a symphony. The short answer is, no, but I am keen to. In fact, I should like to write about 12 symphonies. In general, though, I have an abhorrence of writing “for the shelf”; and no orchestra has yet made itself available for such a collaboration. How should they, when no one has heard of me? Composers who already have established names (you don’t even need me to name them, you know them) are those whose symphonies are played by the orchestras.

Another reason why I tend not to write “for the shelf,” is – well it’s two related reasons, really. I like to have music which I have written performed, so most of the music I write is for musicians I know, and for an occasion where there is a fair prospect of actual performance. Where that is of particular importance is, in trying to overcome my anonymity as bemoaned above. I have worked hard to write music, which could then be performed, so that (hopefully) there should be a fair document of the piece, which people can hear. So that (hopefully) more people out there know that there’s a chap named Karl Henning who writes music, and quite fine music it is, too.

In this I see at least a chance of eventually becoming known. The idea of writing my twelve symphonies as a complete unknown, to be discovered only after my death, is a prospect I do not find at all attractive.

Not surprisingly, then – as I am a clarinetist – I have written quite a bit of music including the clarinet, including one piece for clarinet quartet: Square Dance (Disc 4, track 5).

I’ve also made a special exploration of music for unaccompanied clarinet. This is a genre which Nancy Garlick, my wonderful clarinet teacher at both the College of Wooster and the University of Virginia, taught me to know and love. At Wooster, she had me prepare for various recitals a clarinet transcription of one of the Bach Suites for solo cello, Igor Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for clarinet solo, and a hauntingly beautiful Sonatina for unaccompanied clarinet by Miklós Rózsa. I began with a very short (three-minute) piece which I had largely composed when I was in St Petersburg, Russia: Blue Shamrock of 2002. I became progressively entranced by the idea of scale for unaccompanied wind instrument, ultimately resulting in 2005’s Studies in Impermanence, which runs some 20 minutes, and becomes something of a marathon. In our selection here, we have the “mid-range” Irreplaceable Doodles (Disc 4, track 4).

My penchant for writing technically challenging music has meant that more than one piece has depended absolutely on the good graces of a fellow musician. Violist Peter Lekx responded very favorably to The Mousetrap (Disc 3, track 1) . . . whose origin was something of a compositional dare to myself. Having already written the 20-minute Studies in Impermanence for clarinet solo (and, honestly, feeling that I had filled the 20-minute time-span creditably) I thought, “If I have carved out a reasonable 20-minute space for clarinet alone, it must only be easier to compose a piece of that scale for two instruments.” The Mousetrap includes some enigmatic – you know it’s a sign when the composer himself is no more definite than the adjective enigmatic – citations of music in the repertory. Which ties in with the title, itself an allusion to the play-within-the-play of Hamlet. A friend of mine in Germany has an idea of staging a ballet of The Mousetrap, and I should ask him where that stands these days.

Another great sport among the very fine musicians I am privileged to know is Paul Cienniwa, with whom I’ve played Lunar Glare (Disc 2, track 4). My favorite story about Lunar Glare actually ties in with de Falla. There are many irregular groups of notes in my piece (quintuplets, especially), and Paul worked hard to master them. As a professional harpsichordist, of course Paul has known de Falla’s famous Concerto for the instrument; but he had never played it, as he felt rather intimidated by some of the modernity of the idiom. As a result of working on my Lunar Glare, I was very gratified to hear Paul tell me, the de Falla concerto held no more terror for him. He played the de Falla in a concert up in Maine this past summer.

A colleague whose generosity to my work stands out even above the generous souls already mentioned, is Boston flutist Peter H. Bloom. I had met Peter some years ago, and he gave me his card . . . he mentioned that he had a bass flute, and particularly made me welcome to send him a piece for bass flute and harp. Now, it was a little while before I got around to that piece. I think the first music of mine I showed him was actually a piece I originally wrote for trumpet. I had finished composition of The Angel Who Bears a Flaming Sword, and was laying it out, when the happy thought occurred to me that it would transpose nicely for flute. As soon as I finished laying out the original trumpet score, then, I hustled to lay out a parallel flute version, which I e-mailed to Peter with polite inquiries for his thoughts. To my great gratification, not only did Peter like the piece, but he proposed a further transposition, because he felt that the piece would work particularly well for alto flute (Disc 3, track 7).

That transposition done, I felt it was time I wrote for Peter and his friend Mary Jane Rupert the long-promised piece for bass flute and harp, stars & guitars (Disc 3, track 6). I started the piece with a very different working title, which I do not now remember, no doubt because even at the time I was not mad about it. But I went to a lunchtime recital at King’s Chapel in Boston one Tuesday, and the performer was a guitarist – and bingo, I knew what the bass-flute-&-harp piece needed to be called.

Harpist Mary Jane Rupert also gave the long-awaited première of music I had written back in St Petersburg, Lost Waters (Disc 3, tracks 2-5), a suite of four short pieces each inspired by a favorite American author whose work I was considering (and reading) with especial pleasure while I was in Russia and Estonia.

The three flute-&-clarinet duets of my Opus 97 were sort of a game of tag started by my collaboration with Peter. I wrote Heedless Watermelon (Disc 2, track 1) for the two of us to play together and at the time I was writing it just as a stand-alone piece. When we got together to read it, we both enjoyed the piece so well, I promptly decided to make it the first of a set of three pieces. As it turned out, though, when I wrote All the Birds in Mondrian’s Cage (Disc 2, track 2), the first performance was with Nicole Chamberlain when I went to play a concert in Atlanta. That concert in turn gave me the musical germ for Swivels & Bops (Disc 2, track 3), which I first played together with Peter; though just a month or so later, Nicole came up to Boston for a pair of concerts– and so I played the complete set of three pieces with both flutists within a few months.

I Sang to the Sky, and Day Broke (Disc 1, track 12) I wrote for the orchestra at Clemson University. The music director, Andrew Levin, had particularly strong wind players, and he wanted a piece to show them off, if possible a new piece written for the occasion. At the time, Andrew knew me only as another participant in an Internet music forum, so it was quite brave of him to permit me to write the piece for his group.

That piece also hinges on a fun story. I had known New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble director Charles Peltz some years before, when we were both in Buffalo (where I did my doctoral work). When I learnt that Charles was at NEC, I called, and we got together to talk, and I brought the score for I Sang to the Sky, and Day Broke. The Boston Chapter of the American Composer’s Forum (I think it’s now the New England Chapter) together with the NEC Wind Ensemble had an annual call for scores for a reading. They would select the best pieces from among those submitted, and the composers would come to Jordan Hall, and the ensemble (who had all been given parts to look at ahead of time) would read through the pieces. Charles suggested to me that I submit the piece for that reading. Which I did, and the piece was selected, and the reading was very nice.

Now, although Charles was not the only judge of the scores submitted for the call, and even though the other judge agreed that my piece was worth selecting for the event, in the interests of preserving impartiality, starting the following year, the call for scores stipulated that the submissions be anonymous. Obviously, the desire was to avoid any possible suggestion that Charles had only selected my score, because we already knew one another. (I mean, of course, that this change was of value as a general principle; there was nothing personal at all in the new policy.) During the next four years, I submitted three pieces anonymously, and pieces of entirely different character; so that in a five-year period, music of mine was selected four times – three of them anonymously, which I found sufficient vindication of that initial submission which bore my name.

The last time I submitted a score to this call, I had the trunk of a piece I had begun a few years earlier, five minutes of the start of a piece for six saxophones and four low brass. It was a chunk of music I liked a great deal, and which I had not meant to leave unfinished so long. But one of the reasons I don’t like writing music “for the shelf” is, I don’t have a performance to motivate me to finish it, and then, if there is demand for another piece which will be performed – I find that instantly more attractive. That was why Out in the Sun lay unfinished so long: there were other pieces which wanted writing.

And so, when in 2005 (probably) I saw the latest annual call for scores co-sponsored by the American Composers Forum and NEC, I felt that perhaps this was the occasion to dust off Out in the Sun. I was not yet setting myself to finish it; I thought I would just submit that (self-contained) opening of the piece, which was in essence already composed. All that needed doing at the time was, I had to change the scoring to suit the call: six saxophones were too many. I reacquainted myself with this old sketch, and found that I could recast some of the writing, so that I could substitute clarinets for two of the saxophones, which would bring my score into compliance with the specs of the call.

So: yet again (I am pleased to say) my piece was among those selected; and this time the piece made such an impression on Charles, that he spoke to me about a performance. The piece was unfinished as it was, but I could readily complete it. That trunk of the piece was about five minutes long, and I was planning on about a 15-minute piece (Disc 1, track 13).

A great friend of mine in San Diego (who may wish to remain anonymous for this program) has commissioned a few pieces from me over the years. One was a set of three duets for clarinet and horn for the children of friends of his family, who in school were studying those two instruments. The idea really was that they should be able to play the duets together, but I am afraid that I composed the pieces too difficult: the Three Things that Begin with ‘C’ (Disc 4, track 2). Another piece he commissioned was for a more somber occasion, the De profundis for choir and organ (Disc 4, track 3).

The piano solo pieces Lutosławski's Lullaby (Disc 2, track 5) and Gaze Transfixt (Disc 2, track 6) I wrote when I was in St Petersburg, and really ought to have been working on my doctoral dissertation for the University at Buffalo.

I wrote Castelo dos anjos (Disc 4, track 1) for the wonderful virtuoso singers of Tapestry, as a result of being introduced to them (this will sound crazy, since they are here in the Boston area) by an expatriate English composer in Portugal, Ivan Moody. If it were not for the Internet, perhaps the ladies of Tapestry and I would still be strangers.

While I was earning my Master’s in composition at the University of Virginia, Scott DeVeaux asked me to take part in an African Drumming seminar. Scott had studied for two years in Ghana. Knowing me for an instrumentalist with a strong sense of rhythm, Scott had me play one of the drums in the ensemble of his seminar. The lessons in rhythm which I soaked in on those occasions, have stayed with me, and I have put them to a great variety of uses in many different pieces. Those lessons are quite close to the surface in a piece for percussion ensemble, such as Murmur of Many Waters (Disc 4, track 6).

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