The undeniable beauty of Liszt’s work arises, I believe, from the fact that his love of music excluded every other kind of emotion. If sometimes he gets on easy terms with it and frankly takes it on his knee, this is surely no worse than the stilted manner of those who behave as if they were being introduced to it for the very first time; very polite, but rather dull. Liszt’s genius is often disordered and feverish, but that is better than rigid perfection, even in white gloves.My mind reaches back, for some mysterious reason, to Buffalo, when I wrote a trio for clarinet, soprano & tenor saxophones, The Improbable Harmonica. Or, no, for quite a specific reason, but let me give some of the background.
— Debussy, writing as “Monsieur Croche”
The then-Chairman of the Music Dept grew suddenly and inexplicably hostile to my work, and informed me that he had written to the Graduate Committee recommending that my teaching assistantship be removed from me — to be reallocated, I suppose, to someone whose work pleased him better (the Graduate Committee declined to do so).
If you ask me, there is no feeling in the world quite like knowing that the Chairman of your Department makes free to use his power in efforts towards your removal from study.
I began writing The Improbable Harmonica. It was at once both an act of artistic defiance (“See if any of your pets can write something this good”) and a resolve to keep on with my work, the way I wanted to do the work. I was then studying with Charles Wuorinen, and although Charles at times might have preferred that I make other artistic choices, and he freely offered his opinion and observations, he stopped well short of telling me what I had to write. So as to the Chairman, I was less than ever of any mind to reshape my musical work to suit a self-appointed cultural despot.
On a much lighter plane, one member of the trio (itself, a subset of The Fires of Tonawanda), fellow composer-performer Gary Barwin, amiably complained that I had written, for the soprano sax, a clarinet part. And as I work, today, on It Might Be Today, I think I may be at it again, writing clarinet parts for a men’s choir.
And, Gentle Reader, you are wondering what It Might Be Today is.
There was a time when it might have been a piece for women’s choir. Back in November, quite possibly right after the Triad concerts on which we had sung the Gloria, I started to take thought for what I wanted Triad to sing next, whether something already in my catalogue (the Magnificat would be nice) or something new. I immediately tabled the Magnificat, so that I should not seem to sink into a rut of Liturgical music (and all the more the right decision, as we revived the Agnus Dei for the spring concerts). As a change of pace for my own work, I was thinking of a piece for women’s choir, and keeping an open mind for what text might suit, suit and inspire.
A dear old friend from the St Paul’s choir days, Mara, posted on Facebook that her daughter, Emma, in a creative strategy to resist being sent to bed, had improvised a song, and posted the lyrics to boot. I wrote to Mara asking if Emma would permit me to set the words to my own music, and permission was granted. I did not act on this at the time (chances are, I had gotten a start on The Nerves about then).
It was not until the conclusion of the Triad season that I returned in earnest thought to the project, and when I did, I knew that I wanted to have the fun of singing in the piece, myself, and so I shifted from women’s to men’s choir. As recorded here, I set to work on Tuesday the 26th of June; and the piece sat around as a 55-second start for a week. I had an idea for a contrasting section, but I also felt that we did not want the contrast so soon. Worked on it very well this morning, and (given that the piece is a kind of part-song) chances are strong that I basically have all the material needed to finish sculpting the piece. I think when completed it may be around five minutes; and as of this morning, two minutes and a half are composed . . . and what is there strikes me as practically finished.
What am I listening to, as I work on this piece? The 16th-century choral polyphony of the Leiden Choirbooks, some JS Bach Cantatas, Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain. None of this, probably, has any direct bearing on the work I am doing, but . . . it is what I am listening to.
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