30 June 2016

Gloria erat sic finis

Although I have probably blogged to this effect before . . . it all started with a call to Paul.  In all likelihood, I had been listening to Mozart’s d minor Kyrie, and I thought I’d like to compose a setting of my own;  and I wanted to write unaccompanied polyphony, so a good choir was indicated;  and I called to ask Paul if a Kyrie would be acceptable for use in the Unitarian parish whose fine choir he directs.  Not only did he give me the green light for the Kyrie, but he asked that fateful question, “Is this the first movement of a complete Mass?”

Hadn’t got as far as thinking that, but the question could not very well now be disregarded.  So I accepted the suggestion, on the understanding that I wasn’t “stopping everything” to write a Mass, but that I would take up a movement, now and then, on my Muse’s caprice.

That said, I wanted to get the Credo, and all its text, done up first – first, that is, after the Kyrie (which was sung at First Church Boston . . . in fact, I think I was in the tenor section of that performance . . . not exactly sure why we do not have a document of that event).

For the Kyrie, obviously, I would inscribe a dedication to Paul Cienniwa.  My idea then was to dedicate each movement to a choral director (most of them here in Boston) to whom I owe an especial debt for helping to foster and promote my compositional work.  The Credo bears the dedication “in memoriam Wm A. Goodwin,” who was responsible for commissioning so many occasional pieces for use at First Congo, and who essentially bankrolled the purchase (and the first subsequent upgrade) of Finale.  The Agnus Dei is dedicated to Mark T. Engelhardt who as Music Director at the Cathedral Church of St Paul on Tremont Street invited me to compose a festive Evensong, the chief of many occasions on which he directed his choir in Henningmusick.  The Sanctus is dedicated to Heinrich Christensen who has made King’s Chapel a welcome venue for twice-annual presentations of Henningmusick.  And the present Gloria is dedicated to Nana Tchikhinashvili whose choir Moderato Cantabile has repeatedly performed my Magnificat, itself no easy piece.

Of course, what I have found (which ought to have been no surprise) is that the Gloria, while less than the Credo, also has quite a passel of text.

– and another reason it ought not to have surprised me is, that when I finally had the Credo done to my satisfaction, I thought, “Let me write the Agnus Dei now:  that is just a little slip of text ....” –

Probably (and even granting my infrequent blogging of late), I’ve here detailed the various fitful starts to the Gloria, all the more reason why I am pleased to report what a well-oiled machine it is now, this week.

13 June 2016

Sound & Sight in the works

The artists have been busy on their own account (which is, truth to tell, their normal condition), so it was only yesterday that they sat down to listen both to The Conquest of Emptiness (the fixed media, plus "virtual winds" so that they have an idea of what we will play in counterpoint) and to On Contemplating the Irrepressible.

When Masha and I first chatted up the project, we settled on two pieces of art-plus-music, the first to be of a somewhat lamenting character (well, we said "lamenting," and I guess my music went "somewhat," there), the second, lively and cheerful.

Back when I first played for the artists the fixed media for The Conquest of Emptiness, I also played (see "virtual winds," above) the first 24-48 measures of what I had written at that time of the obbligato winds. I was highly satisfied with the both the writing itself, and how it played with (or, played off against) "the fix." This is a joint effort, however - I am asking the artists to do something a little outside their typical experience, in having them do their work as a performance, to the strict timeline of a piece of music . . .

--In a sense, they are perfectly accustomed to performing in public, all the times they set up an easel in the Boston Public Garden, or Boston Harbor, or the Arboretum, or anywhere, where passersby take an interest and stop to watch them in action. So the novelty is in degree, not in kind--

. . . and their feedback is a vital part of getting to a result with which all the artists involved are satisfied. And my first go at the wind parts for The Conquest of Emptiness, Masha felt was too active, cheerful - which was not an artistic cavil at the musical writing, but an observation on the character of the piece, to which she and Irina will respond in the space. I set immediately to re-composing the winds, but it was only yesterday (as I say) that the artists sat down with me, that I might demonstrate "the new piece" for them. They pronounced it satisfactory. (I should add that, at first, when I played for them simply the fixed media mix, they found it beautiful; they did make a couple of requests, which I incorporated in the final mix.)

So: it was only this past Saturday afternoon that I reached the completion of the fixed media for On Contemplating the Irrepressible. It's a good job I had all my evenings free last week . . . I did not genuinely dawdle, but I was a while getting the skeletal "accompaniment score" composed; I don't think that was really done until Friday evening. Saturday morning and afternoon, then, were agreeably spent in manipulating sound objects and layering them onto the skeleton. One especially fun subproject was extracting passages from three instruments from the Ghanaian drumming section ('B'), smushing them around a bit, and superimposing the result as a quiet, subversive counterpoint against the second (B) section (m. 168ff.) There is so much vigor and activity in this piece (which was a designed contrast to The Conquest of Emptiness, of course) that on Friday and Saturday, I did have an idea of keeping the live winds' component simple. More on that presently. In all events, I find the fixed media bit for On Contemplating the Irrepressible highly satisfying, my best effort in that vein so far.

I spent yesterday morning working on wind parts for On C. the I., and by lunchtime I had got to the 2'30 mark (from rehearsing The Conquest of Emptiness with the band, we found it helpful to mark in the parts what timings of the track align with the rehearsal marks) so: one-third done, and for much of the rest of the piece I could with relative ease adapt the material already written.

This, then, was the point at which I sat down with Masha & Irina to demonstrate the tracks. The artists found the fixed media for On Contemplating the Irrepressible a blast, too. They like the fact that it is not seven and a half minutes of unrelentingly fast music, but that there are the contrasting Ghanaian drumming sections, which are more moderate in pace, though still active. They want the ending to be a little louder, which I think is an easy remix.

I then played for them the first 2'30 of the piece, together with the wind parts I had then written. She expressed herself with great delicacy and sensitivity, in advising that the wind parts from that morning were too busy; "I'm sorry to make you do more work," she added. I hastened to assure her that she was absolutely right; that I myself knew a day and a half before that I wanted to keep the wind parts light of tread, but that I had lost sight of that mission; and that, as for doing more work, I wanted to make sure I was doing the right work. Right away I spent about 20 minutes modifying what I had, to test on Masha's ears, and we had the solution; and I finished off the wind lines over the course of the afternoon.

Part of 'the lighter touch' angle is, we winds have long stretches of rests. But, we aren't really 'the concertante soloists' in this context, but part of the accompanying ensemble for the featured artists; so, we'll count our rests and make sure to come in on time.

The overall structure of On Contemplating the Irrepressible, then: I don't know if this is an official musical term, but it will do the job . . . the rhythmic soul of the (A) section is the classic "mariachi hemiola," the supple rhythmic alternation between 6/8 and 3/4; in the case of my score, I vary this a little further in 'every other 6/8 measure' by an additional beat. The basic (A) riff, then, is a four-measure pattern: 6/8 - 3/4 - 9/8 - 3/4.

There is an (A') passage which is progressively varied, the same tempo as (A) but in effect 'relaxing into' a regular 3/4. At first, anyway - for we soon alternate, not with 6/8, but with 2/4. I thought of this as a sort of codetta, and as a result it is a final variation of this section which drives into the final cadence.

As mentioned above, the (B) section is a 3/2 riff which I first learnt back in Charlottesville, courtesy of Scott Deveaux's African Drumming seminar in Charlottesville. Add a ritardando here and an accelerando there, and an assortment of these building blocks essentially accounts for the course of the piece.

11 June 2016

In progress, June 2016 edition

First off, I owe the freedom of working across so liberal and ample a timespan to three expertly musical colleagues.

The rehearsal of The Conquest of Emptiness (four winds and fixed media) went exceptionally well. It is, simply said, a bit of a stretch for me, though I have the benefit both of regular practice in chamber performance, and of the experience of playing (with Peter H. Bloom) the piece which David Leone wrote for us, flute, clarinet & fixed media.

Confident that that number is readily conquerable, I've had the blank page before me, of the 7-1/2-minute "last movement" of the 21 July event. The piece has been an agreeably engaging challenge, a combination of compositional techniques completely "in hand," with two "layers" of the process out of my ordinary:  the quasi-appliqué technique of adding a counterpoint of "electronic" sounds (properly speaking, recordings of natural sounds, manipulated in various ways);  and then, this settled recording to serve as a fixed 'background', to write for four live winds, in a way which is both musical, together with the fixed elements, and executable, by four amply professional musicians, without undue (not to say, inhuman) strain.

It took me the better part of a week to be satisfied with the "skeletal score":  a base composition from beginning to end, a musical narrative of sufficient interest in itself, in that one could listen solely to it, and hear a satisfying logic carried by, and a coherent narrative through, it alone. Yet, with enough "open space," to admit two distinct counterpoints:  of "non-musical" events alongside;  and the vital participation of four real-time, live instrumentalists.

More tomorrow, Gentle Reader.

04 June 2016

Of King’s Chapel & Kammerwerke

Last week-ish, fresh word came in from Kammerwerke (double wind quintet) viz. the considered commission:

  1. The reading will be Thursday, 21 July.
  2. My piece is in consideration for their Winter 2017 concert.
  3. I may be the one to conduct it.
But we have yet fresher word, from last night’s rehearsal of The Conquest of Emptiness, the first of the wind-quartet-plus-fixed-media (one part of a dialogue between artistic disciplines, featuring artists Maria BablyakIrina Pisarenko) pieces for the upcoming King’s Chapel concert.

My liaison with Kammerwerke is Carol Epple, who is in our band for 21 June, and whom I therefore saw yestereve.  One modification seems to be, that The Young Lady Holding a Phone in Her Teeth is almost certainly on the Winter 2017 concert, as at this point there seems no active, direct resistance, but only a pocket of garden-variety musical inertia;  and the expectation is in fact that I shall conduct.  When Carol and I shared the Kammerwerke news with Peter last night, I simply told him, “We went from zero to sixty.”

As, tomorrow, Peter goes up to Maine for the annual weeklong Snow Pond Composers Workshop (he is one of just two or three featured performers, and the composers write a piece for him during the course of the workshop, and then Peter plays a marathon concert at the end of the week . . . yes, a full concert of music none of which he had seen — because it hadn’t existed — a week before, and some portion of it technically plausible . . . he always has great stories to tell when he comes back to Somerville from Down East) our next k a rl h e nn i ng Ensemble rehearsal is Monday the 13th.  Hence, my ample time to complete Contemplating the Irrepressible.

Since the King’s Chapel music must be in the can come Sunday the 12th, I then have (let us say) the second half of June to wrap up the final 90 seconds of The Young Lady, so that for the Kammerwerke reading on 21 July, we can read through the complete piece.  So, a robust but entirely manageable Henningmusick production schedule.

(Photo by Maria Bablyak.)