24 July 2017

In Praise of Artistic Dissatisfaction

In the electronic folders, I have a PDF of the ancient Finale file (2006) of Intermezzo II for White Nights.  And what if it’s rubbish? I found myself asking. I hadnt really planned to work on it Friday evening, yet I proceeded to set up the score in Sibelius; and since the number begins with a string fugato, I went ahead and plugged those notes in.  But I was not much pleased with the music.

Was I just tired? Or does that passage really need to change or even to be discarded?

Of course, I left the question until Saturday morning, and watched some Star Trek instead.

Gentle Reader, let me not shrink from reporting that I was a bit annoyed with this experience ... for more than 10 years now, in the back of my mind Intermezzo II was “more or less done,” a complete composition of 127 measures, needing mostly finishing (dynamics, especially).  And I thought I remembered liking the opening string fugato back when I composed it.  (Is that trivial?  Of course I did not write it so that I should not like it.)  Friday night, though, looking and listening attentively again at last, I was disappointed.  It would perhaps be overstating it to say “severely disappointed,” but there was indeed an element of severity just in the disappointment.

Saturday morning, after a night’s rest, though, I thought the fugato recoverable.  The character which I require of the music found interference in the rhythmic ambiguity of the quintuplets, and I believed that if I simply recast that rhythm, the passage would do exactly what I require of it.

In context, then, it might not be the “age” of the Henningmusick which was the difficulty, but a bit of cabin fever.  At the time, I had a critical mass of the ballet already composed, and the ballet had (what is artistically the good thing) established its own soundworld.  Compositionally at the time, I was eager to explore somewhat wilder pitch worlds and textures (2006 was the year of the Studies in Impermanence, Out in the Sun, and the Evening Service in D with its at-times abstract writing not only for the trombone duo interludes, but in e.g. the Magnificat).

So I think that what I found objectionable to this fugato which opened the White Nights Intermezzo is, that at the time my writing style wanted to take a contrasting excursion, but that this Intermezzo is not the fit destination for it.  And perhaps it took this year’s reimmersion into the ballet for me to see it.

So, I took a Good Hard Look.  The composer was morally prepared to scrap the lot and start over, if necessary.  Well?

I found that the pitch-world is fine, just as I wanted.  What was I unhappy with?

As noted above, the quintuplets result in a fuzzy rhythmic profile, exactly the opposite of what I was trying to achieve.  And texturally, the double-bass does not participate in the imitation;  the objection being, the inverse of Goldilocks:  whether the solution is less of it, or more of it, as it is, it’s just wrong.

My initial attempt at a solution took as a premise, that perhaps I got the tempo wrong.  And since what I objected to was the clarity of flow, perhaps the remedy was, a faster pace.

Although the result was indeed an improvement in the rhythmic definition...the ratcheting-up of the passage’s energy level was contrary to my conception of the passage, of the opening of the Intermezzo.  And I felt that the more business-like pace aggravated my dissatisfaction with the double-bass line.  A further discovery:  at this tempo, I learned that I was not at all happy with the three successive quintuplet figures in the first violin.

The solution:

Lose the quintuplets; make the rhythm more (one of my evergreen takeaways from studies with Judith Shatin) specific.   I was therefore not content with just one “replacement rhythm,” but gave my whimsy leave.

Give the double-bass more to play, giving the passage a consistent “bottom.” Have the cello (before its own participation in the imitation) partly double that bottom (at the traditional octave).

Further enrich the texture with new gestures by the second violin and viola.

Result:  In all ways, an improvement, and also a spiritual “restoration”:  the character of the string fugato passage now, is as I had always wished/envisioned it.

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