20 June 2018

At the time, a kind of breakthrough

Two works that I composed ten years ago, may prove to be the most seminal accomplishments in my catalogue.

While there are several pieces I wrote before, in which my pride is scarce less, and which were arguably the last steps leading there – Out in the Sun, the Studies in Impermanence, Castelo dos anjos – in hindsight, I cannot help thinking that the Opp. 91 & 92, The Mousetrap and the Passion according to St John, represent a genuine watershed in compositional confidence and achievement for me.  They are both large-scale works (time-wise, at least – of course, The Mousetrap is scored for only two single-line instruments) and quite demanding (not insanely difficult) for the performers.  I had the great good fortune, thanks to the dedicated endurance of Peter Lekx for The Mousetrap, and of Ed Broms and the choir of Boston’s Cathedral Church of St Paul for the Passion, to have both pieces performed, on the occasions for which I had labored to compose them.

More than once in this blog, Gentle Reader, I have noted how many pieces I have written – and not ostensibly “for the shelf,” but with actual performers, with an actual group, in mind – which still await performance.  So the fact that two consecutive opus numbers, each of them the most ambitious endeavor on my part in their respective genres at the time, both “came to full term,” as it were;  and the additional fact that the performances confirmed for the composer the rightness of the scores – the boost to my musical core was at once immediate, and incalculably far-reaching.

I had made glancing, coy references to popular music on isolated occasion before (“42nd Street” in Hurricane Relief, “I Got Rhythm” in Out in the Sun, e.g.) but in The Mousetrap it became something of a sober obsession, to borrow extraneous musical citations, but to make them organic within my own work.  Perhaps it was something of an exorcism;  I don’t know that I have never done it again, since, but this proved a kind of unburdening.

In the case of the Passion, once I had well established my own psalm-tone (and perhaps had the listener wondering, or fearing, if the whole piece would play out that starkly) I parceled the text out into specific modules, constructing the grand whole out of building blocks, driving at last to the through-composed finale.  I might say that even the glaring mistake of the Passion, I managed to convert into a triumph.  When I traveled south to a friend’s house, as a kind of composing retreat to concentrate on finishing the piece, my copy of the text was incomplete, and I was missing the final few verses.  Back in Boston, when I realized that I was not yet as finished as I had permitted myself to think, the final Burial music came to me practically immediately.

I think back ten years, and I see that the pride I can now take in the Viola Sonata, the First Symphony, and the Clarinet Sonata, has its root in what I learnt from the experience of The Mousetrap, and of the Passion.

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