25 September 2016

The Young Lady, Her Progress

The members of Kammerwerke first  wrote to me about a possible commission in January of 2015;  but earnest discussion of what it would musically entail did not begin until May.  I proposed a 12-minute duration for the piece;  and Kammerwerke asked of me that the piece should be written for ten musical peers (i.e., not for a solo quintet plus an ‘accompanying’ quintet), and that the piece should contain “melody.” I cast that word in cautionary quotes because two different people (even two different musicians) can mean quite different things by melody. We mutually decided that we would start by my writing a beginning to the proposed work, so that the group should have a concrete musical example; and we would discuss the matter further.

At about that time, I was walking in downtown Boston at my lunch hour, and I saw an energetic businesswoman walking up the sidewalk, talking on her cell phone. Suddenly, she seemed to have need of both hands, in order to fish something out of her bag. What to do with the phone? She popped it in her mouth, and I thought, there:  That's the name of the piece for Kammerwerke. The Young Lady Holding a Phone in Her Teeth.

Both the impression of restlessness, even impatience, and the peculiar (although, from a certain angle, practical) solution to the problem of freeing up her hands, set my musical mind working.  A vigorous rhythmic profile, to suggest the bustling activity;  wilfully independent voices, to suggest the apparent chaos of the street scene of a lunch hour in Boston’s financial district, or perhaps to suggest the contrast of the swirl of activity around the Young Lady, and the swirl of her internal demands.  Our Young Lady is a soul, and like any of us (however agreeably stimulating we find the bustle of such a scene) must have a center of calm and focus.

The piece is no linear narrative of these things;  it is rather a composition shaped by musical logic, with elements mysteriously suggested to the composer by reflection upon the experience of watching, and contemplating the sight.  And, of course, music intended to comply with Kammerwerke’s musical guidelines, which were quite reasonable, and which any capable composer might fulfill.

I began, then, with composing the first five minutes of my projected piece, and I sent that beginning to Kammerwerke in June of 2015.  While I waited for the group’s response (which would probably not come in until they had had a chance to sit down and read the piece all together), I sent the piece to Dr Jack Gallagher.  I had studied composition with Dr Gallagher at the College of Wooster (Ohio), and I keep in touch with him, periodically sending him my latest work, that he may know that his efforts to teach me something have not been fruitless.  Dr Gallagher’s response to the beginning of the piece was sufficiently positive, that I felt I should go on with writing the piece, regardless of how it might be received by Kammerwerke.

Thus by October of 2015, I had advanced the piece to the nine-and-a-half-minute mark;  so (as the final piece would be 12 minutes) substantially done.  (All this while, I might point out, I had also been at work on a number of other compositions.)  I sent the expanded score and parts to Kammerwerke, so that they should have the freshest version of the piece to review, while they were still considering the question of whether to commission the piece from me.  Again, they have had other programs to work on and to perform, and while I knew they would return to me, I understood that patience was of the essence.  There was a request to simplify the rhythmic notation of a couple of measures;  and as I considered it, I agreed that the musical result which I desired could be notated less “densely”;  and I modified those measures.

In November, word came that the group had read the Young Lady and that the reception of the piece was generally good;  there was as yet no pressing need to complete the score.

In April of the present year, word came that Kammerwerke would sit down to read the piece sometime between June and September;  with that in mind, I dedicated a week’s compositional efforts in June to completing the piece (as planned, 12 minutes and perhaps just a bit).  And soon word came from the group that they wished to go ahead and program the piece for their November concert, and that I was invited to rehearse and conduct it.

On 21 July we all together rehearsed the piece, and even managed to play through the entire score (under tempo, for the most part), and the piece made a good impression on the group.

Karl Henning

24 September 2016

15 September 2016

Letting the dross be dross

Tonight is our second church choir rehearsal, and Sunday will be our first service "on duty." An idea had been buzzing around the back of my mind, and when I acted on it last night, I made an enlightening discovery.

With our reduced musicality in the bass clef, I've thought about reviving an old, simple 3-part choir piece from First Congo days, setting five verses from Psalm 31; one of the very first pieces I wrote for Bill Goodwin's choir in '98.

Last night, at last, I rooted among the electronic folders and found the Finale file. (At such an early date, I did not yet adopt the sensible routine of saving scores as PDF files.)  Partly because a new Sibelius engraving would look worlds better, partly because I needed to allow higher notes for my tenors, now, than the bass part of back then provides, I set to creating a new score in Sibelius.

After about 15 measures, I found myself concluding this is rubbish.

At the time at First Congo, the piece was graciously received ... the centenarian mother of a correspondingly old parishioner had died, and this was a piece I wrote, probably quickly, for the choir to sing in her honor. But looking at the piece now with cool impartiality, whether the blame falls on the rapidity of writing, or on its being an early effort, or both, the pacing of the phrases is poor, some of the rhythms are rather stiff, and the harmonic traversals are uncomfortably arbitrary.

I'm sure I must have tried to emulate the simplicity and solemn gait of Russian liturgical choral music, but this attempt stinks.

So, I have discovered an early piece of mine which I am perfectly happy to leave in the dustbin! (Quite a few of my early pieces, on the contrary, I continue to own entirely.) Of course, I went on to write a great deal better for choir, so in the larger context the fact that an early attempt was a flop, is hardly either a surprise nor any disgrace. So the ancillary discovery is, how at peace I am with finding a failure in my files.

And another good thing is, I was not counting on having this piece in my choir's folders tonight.

11 September 2016

Windy & Sky-Wheely

So, part of the story of The Wind, the Sky, & the Wheeling Stars . . . in the days when the company where I work was a subsidiary of A Large Bank, I knew a chap named Wendell (still with the bank, I believe) and he was taking part in a sort of external workshop or seminar, and another participant was Yoichi Udagawa, who conducts the Quincy Symphony. Wendell brought us two in contact, and Yoichi asked me to write a piece for the Quincy Symphony; I still remember meeting Yoichi in a Dunkin Donuts in Cambridge, not far from Alewife station. (No, there are not many Dunkin Donuts visits which stand out in my memory.) This must have been in the fall of 1999; the concert would be February of 2000. I should emphasize the kindly confidence that Yoichi placed in me; or, how kind it was of him to adopt the self-confidence which I projected. At that time, I had only wished to write for orchestra, had never actually done it; so this was my baptism by fire.

The work went reasonably quickly, as I recall;  certainly comfortably within the timeframe decided with Yoichi. When the piece was finished, I was happy to own it all compositionally; there was a passage or two where (as it turned out) I needed to write what I wanted better for the instruments, but this did not reach my attention until some while after the first performance. I also remember delivering hard copy of the score to Yoichi's apartment one windswept evening in (probably) October; I remember this all the more readily because it accorded so nicely with the piece's title.

Details of why elude me now, many years later, but there was a passage of which Yoichi was unconvinced, and a cut was required. Even though (then, no less than now) I believed completely in the music to be cut, I complied, and recomposed a measure or two to accommodate the requested excision. (That cut did not coincide with the material I mentioned above, which needed repair.) In writing about this now, I do not mean to seem to rail against any artistic injustice;  I am only recording the history. So the full piece is 12 minutes in duration, and maybe with the cut, the piece ran ten minutes and a half (let us guess).

At the time, I was working in Finale (perhaps Finale 1998? No knowing, now), and the endgame of cleaning up the layout of extracted parts for a large score was nightmarish. (I'd like to mitigate this by proposing that the problem lay in its being the first large score I needed to perform this operation with; but in the following years, with other large scores and more flight time logged with Finale, it always remained dogsbody work, and eventually that was why at last I tried Sibelius, which after very a surprisingly brief learning curve proved much easier to work with, and with better-looking results.) So as a performer myself, I was a little nervous about what the players' experience in working on the piece would be. I was highly interested in attending rehearsals, to see (for instance) if there were any changes I might need to make. But everyone was a little nervous about having the composer present when there were still notes to be learnt; and (not at all unusually for the Boston area) at least one weekly rehearsal was lost to a snowstorm.

In the event, then, it was only the dress rehearsal which I was able to attend, and although there were some rough aspects, it would not at all have been the time for me to make suggestions. The performance, I am pleased to report, was a good advance upon the dress rehearsal. I do not recall if I received a recording; it would have been a cassette tape, and it is now more than a decade since I listened to (or had the gear to listen to) a cassette. What I suspect is that, since the performance was of a cut version which I would not endorse for any subsequent performance, if I did have a recording, it was not one which I was apt to make generally available.

Sometime later, more than a year, less than ten years, later . . . I was looking at the score, and realized that there were some passages (i.e., a passage in the exposition, and which was largely repeated in a recapitulation) where the writing for the low strings was impossibly busy. And my first thought was, this must have been problematic in the rehearsals for the first performance, but I heard nothing about it, and so could not offer the composer's sanctioned solution to the problem. It was both impossibly busy, and unnecessarily busy, so I found an easier and a playable way to get what I wanted from the low strings in those passages. Those changes were reflected in the March 2015 Sibelius version of the score; and I have now just made some minor adjustments here and there (most notably, improving the writing for the optional harp part).