31 August 2018

Got a tip they're gonna kick the door in again

An old schoolmate writes:  Something I NEVER thought I’d see:  Grateful Dead 1989 concert on PBS.

I replied:  The trip got just a bit longer and just a bit stranger, is all.

30 August 2018

No, No, No

An article online today at The Washington Post brings the welcome news that Orson Welles’s final film will at least reach an audience.

My quarrel is with a purely parenthetical element of that article:

By 1970, Welles had spent decades trying — and failing — to replicate the artistic success of his debut, “Citizen Kane.”

What the author may really have meant is perhaps something on the lines of “Welles’s work never emerged from the shadow cast by Citizen Kane”;  it is a thesis which could be reasonably supported.  The author’s statement as printed, in my view, is wrong at several points.

The critical (and perhaps social) success of Citizen Kane is irreplicable:  other successes will be of their own kind.  The film as a work, I do not believe for an instant that Welles was trying to replicate:  he was far too excellent for that – no great artist is content merely to repeat himself, even in the case of an outstanding success.  (Witness Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps.)

As to (as Kyle Swenson wrote) the artistic success, two points.  The first is the artistic rejection of carbon-copying, above.  The second is, perhaps Welles did in fact achieve comparably great artistic success in later projects – but the critics were obsessed with Kane (in the first place) and with congratulating themselves on how astute they are by preferring “the obviously superior” Kane (as an unnecessary consequence).

Once when Welles asked someone which of his films the questionee preferred, the answer came back, Touch of Evil.  Welles responded with, “Thank God you didn’t say Kane.”  Because – great film as it is – it had already become a tedious commonplace to tag onto Citizen Kane the ‘Greatest Thing He Ever Done’ label.

The fact is that we should have reason to think less highly of Welles, if all he did afterwards was try to re-tread Kane, protean achievement though it undeniably is.  It is because he was so great an artist that he sought to do other things, to expand his repertory, afterwards.  Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight are great films, marvelously wrought, and they are not “inferior” simply by virtue of not being KaneOthello is at the least a good film.  If Kane is, arguably, perfection, any ‘imperfections’ in Chimes or Othello arise (at least, insofar as they do not result from the logistics of dancing with the studio) from a great artist, taking risks.

If you never make mistakes as an artist, you just may be playing it too safe.

The article as a whole, I completely enjoyed and found interesting.  I am only saying that this one remark is signally inartistic (and possibly pretentious).

29 August 2018

Warming the engine

Those who selectively ignore history are full willing to repeat it, so long as they are the beneficiaries.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

Malevolent Maybelline.
Postcards From Dead Squirrel Trail

It may or may not be a token of how diligently I originally planned on being;  I had completely forgotten that my first draught for A Heart So White (the initial live-instrumental statement, and the beginning of the text-setting) dates from 15 January.  No, I never did look at it again until this morning.  Over the past three weeks I have formed new notions, but they appear in all ways reconcilable with this ancient MS.  (You may have guessed by now that, in fact, my “work” on the piece last night consisted solely of planning to scare up this old draught.)

But today is new.  There will be work, and maybe even a goodly shake of it.

Notes for a lecture

Thank you all for coming to hear a concert which includes music of my own, and for being interested to come hear what I may have to say about it.  I don't know if all, or any, of you are in the habit of hearing a piece which is only about five years old – in a humid climate, the ink may not yet have completely dried.  There may be some who are thinking:  "New music!  Will it be awful?!  Will it hurt?!"

Be calm.  No one has yet come to any harm, listening to my music.*

I'll talk a bit, but I also want to leave time later to make you welcome to ask any questions you may have.  I won't, or cannot, answer all the questions.  I think it's okay for art to pose questions, to some of which we may not settle upon any definite answer.  Which is the perfect lead-in to . . . chocolate cake.  You weren't expecting me to discuss baked goods.

When a host offers you a slice of homemade chocolate cake, her hope is that you will enjoy the cake, not so much that you will understand it.  Music is a bit like that.  As a composer, perhaps I understand a lot of new music better than some of you.  But a lot of my own experience as a listener, new music or old, is that very often I enjoy the music I am listening to, even if I cannot really say that I understand it.  Enjoyment is not absolutely contingent upon understanding.  How well did we understand the Beethoven c minor Symphony, the first time we heard it?

It is certainly true that (generally) I find an increased understanding of the music to be part of my enjoyment;  but I only want to suggest that we can enjoy even that art of which our understanding is imperfect or incomplete.

What should I say about my piece?  In a sense, I want to say (and in complete honesty) that anything of importance which I have to say, is there in the chocolate cake – I mean, in the music – just listen to the piece!  But, neither was I born yesterday.  I know that new music is all over the sonic map, unlike the classics we all know and love.  Here on the program, there are Sonatas by Handel and Bach, and even if they are not pieces you already know well, you have a good idea of what to expect.  Same thing with (say) a Chopin Mazurka, a Beethoven string quartet, a Mozart piano trio.  But the name Henning has not yet been associated with helpful musical markers for you.

But that is about to change.  Today.

The art of music, according to the late Frank Zappa, is the result of a composer forcing his will upon unsuspecting air molecules – music as vibration.  I am a composer, but I am also a clarinetist, I am a choral singer, I am a conductor – I'm the music director for a Methodist parish on Boston's North Shore.  I am not just a guy at a desk throwing black dots onto paper – my sleeves are rolled up practically every day in performing music.  As a performer who composes, I eat my own cooking.  (I really don't mean to belabor that simile.)†

This is partly why Paul had the confidence to ask me to write a piece for him.  He knows that when I set something down on paper, it isn't just an idea which looks good on the page.  He knows that I understand what I am asking fellow performers to do.  It won't necessarily be easy, but it is achievable.

I called my piece Plotting (y is the new x).

The subtitle of course is simply a nod to the faddishness of "50 is the new 30," "quinoa is the new maypo," what-have-you.

Paul asked me to write a piece.  One of the ways in which I think about the process of composing is:  sculpting time.  Paul wanted a 12-minute piece, and I began by thinking, What will the audience's experience be, of that 12-minute expanse?  And I began to plot the course of those 12 minutes.  And even though that is not really my musical method, the word plot suggested a graph – hence y is the new x.

x is an unknown, for which we solve.  Well, what do we know about this piece of mine?

It's in three big sections of unequal length.  I may need to explain some terms, but the three sections are:  an Introduction, a Passacaglia, and a Toccata.

Sometimes when I set to work on a piece, I compose the ending first – so that I know where the piece is going, I know the point to which the music is directed.  That was not the case in composing this piece, but I am going to adopt that method in discussing it.  We'll start with the concluding section, the Toccata.

The word comes from the Italian toccare, to touch, and in the Baroque era was used for keyboard works of technical brilliance and lively rhythm.  Especially in the 20th century the term was applied more broadly.  In reflecting on his life's work, Sergei Prokofiev identified four elements which characterized most of his music;  a 'classical line,' a regard for the rich achievements of the past;  modernism, the search for new modes of expression;  lyricism;  and toccata, meaning motoric rhythm, energy.

The Toccata section which concludes my piece alternates two textural ideas, we'll call them 'A' and 'B'.  This is what happens.  In the 'A' sections the violin and the harpsichord are furiously independent – each has its own separate ostinato material, repeated cells which do not synchronize between the players, the two of them won't cooperate, each is determined to try to win the other over.  In the 'B' sections, the two join in unison, in material which is different again;  they stick together briefly, and then break apart again for the next 'A' section.  So the concluding Toccata consists of three such cycles: separate/unison/separate/unison/separate . . . and then unison once more out to the final cadence.  That's how the piece ends, and it is (I think) fairly dramatic.

Another note about the Toccata springs from a question Mei Mei posed to me;  she felt that her part in the Toccata reminded her of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, and she has good reason.  I first heard the Stravinsky when I was at the College of Wooster, where I played the soldier in a black-box production of Stravinsky's musical fable, which is based on Russian folk tales.  (The violin represents the soldier's soul, and he allows Old Nick to talk him into an ill-advised transaction.)  Early on there is a Scene by a Brook, and as the soldier, I am miming playing my fiddle and relaxing, and that violin passage by Stravinsky made a powerful impression.  In a way, I waited years for the opportunity to make use of, to adapt, that musical idea.  The soldier may have found it relaxing, but I doubt that Mei Mei does.

Prior to the Toccata, the great bulk of the piece is a Passacaglia.  The Passacaglia is a method of variation popular in the Baroque era, very effectively re-adopted in the 20th century by such composers as Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich.  (Parenthetically, another English composer, Ronald Stevenson, composed a huge Passacaglia on Shostakovich's name, and made a present of it to the Russian composer.)  In the Passacaglia, the composer begins simply with a melody, all on its own, typically in the bass.  There is a very famous example by JS Bach which many of you may have heard, whose theme goes like this:


Then as the melody repeats, often the first variation would be a matter of adding a single line in counterpoint.  Ensuing variations will add more voices, the musical activity gets busier, there might be ebb and flow – busier or calmer, fuller or sparer textures – over the course of the piece.

A couple of quick observations about the Bach example:  the melody runs 8 measures (nothing unusual in that), returns at the end to the tonic, and in fact the melody begins and ends with a key-defining tonic-&-dominant gesture:  do – sol at the start, fa – sol – do at the end.

What about my Passacaglia theme?  It is five measures long.  Melodic phrases are most commonly 8 measures, 4 measures, 16 – I am not going to con you by claiming to be the first to compose a 5-measure phrase (I am not), but the asymmetry is mildly unusual.  It is, simply, minimally, five notes. It begins . . . [play]

I'll stop briefly there to observe that, so far, there is no reason why this might not be the beginning of Passacaglia theme which Bach might have used.  Adding the fourth note . . . [play]

Still, it is conceivable that a composer of Bach's day might use this, by then [play] going to the Dominant proper.  But I do not do so.  We don't get the key-defining perfect fifth of the Dominant, but [play] instead we double back to a note which Bach would never have used (in this way), a D-flat which does not belong, in Common Practice harmony, to the key of C, but which is something of an echo of one of the medieval modes, the "upper leading tone" characteristic of the Phrygian mode.

With my theme, then, we do not have the key-affirming perfect fifth which is the tonal anchor of the Bach example, but we only reach as far as the tritone, and then sidle in an entirely un-Bach-ly fashion, via D-flat, back to C.

Another departure from the Baroque model is:  where Bach comes back, always, to C, my Passacaglia (at Variation 13) starts to wander to other pitch levels, in something of a tonal corkscrew, and this wandering away from or around the home key is one level of the variation in my piece.  We do eventually return to C as the theme's point of origin.  Because my theme is so comparatively brief, I did not stint on variations upon it, there are some 35 variations of the Passacaglia theme – the 35th variation is just the five notes of the theme, rhythmically activated between the violin and harpsichord, slowing down to C in octaves – and then we plunge into the concluding Toccata.

The Introduction which (obviously) opens the piece is brief, and my remarks ought to be, too.  Here the two instruments are mostly independent;  but unlike the 'A' material of the Toccata, where they are stubborn and uncooperative, in the Introduction they are playfully testing the waters (which, it occurs to me, may be a strange expression here in Florida where the water is reliably warm).

Big parenthesis – one of the precursors of the symphony, was the opera Overture, the Sinfonia avanti l'opera.  Then, as now, going to opera was almost as much a social as a musical experience, you go to the theatre and look to see which of your friends are there, what a nice hat Mrs McGillicuddy is wearing, there is a lot of chatter, and the theatre is filled with this sociable murmur – so the orchestra in the pit would typically start the Overture with three loud chords, boom, boom, boom, as a signal to the patrons to pipe down. "The signal tone you have just heard indicates that there will soon be an opera in this building."  As a composer, I don't mind adapting past practice, so you will hear that in some of the harpsichord – starting out with a bright bop, bop . . . bop, alternating with lower bup, bup, bup, and eventually settling down into the Passacaglia.

So:  Introduction, Passacaglia, Toccata – you now know the entire plot.  I do hope you enjoy the piece.  And perhaps we have time for a couple of questions . . . .


* Originally, Be calm.  There is a first aid station in the Narthex.  As I spoke to the audience, I was alive to the possibility that I was among the youngest in the room, and that many of my auditors may in fact be very aware of where a first aid station may be, so I improvised the substitute.

†There was (I am pleased to report) some amused response in the audience, so the parenthesis was an impromptu addition.

28 August 2018

Well, only kind of crumpled

Though we seemed dead, we did but sleep. . . .
– Montjoy, Herald in service of the King of France in Henry Fift

Postcards from Dead Squirrel Trail

Thank God I live in a city where nobody looks up.
– Jeff Bridges as Jack Lucas in The Fisher King

It is not really of general interest to relate that my flight landed in Boston at Zero Hour Monday, and (Monday being a workday, and all) that I made it through the day on four hours’ sleep.  But, it was a “crumpled kind of heroic” exploit.  (“Crumpled kind of hero” courtesy of David Ossman in, In the Next World You’re on Your Own.)

The Aim:

A Heart So White finished, or just-about-finished, by Tuesday, 4 September (id est, by the end of the holiday weekend).

The Plan:

Some work each weeknight (better than dips), and substantial deep dives each day of the 3-day weekend.

This seems to me eminently feasible;  I remember the heavily productive Labor Day weekend of ’15 when I composed the lion’s share of From the Pit of a Cave in the Cloud.

And:  now I do remember that I am to play the Voluntary on Beautiful Savior on Sunday the 9th.  Glad that the thought occurs to me.

The sound of someone just not getting it

Subject of a spam message:  How to make the most of your down time!

26 August 2018

Some further unquietude

It is a lack of imagination, as well as a vulgar error, to mistake imagination for madness.
Porrider’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

Lolling on the beach, and I don’t care.  Could watch, and listen to, the surf all day, with no
danger of boredom.  “Forget about the restless world of Anglo-Saxon discipline,” said
David Ossman.

Yesterday, Paul and I hung out underneath an overpass bridge, singing bicinia. (Auto-
correct thought I meant bikinis.)  No, in fact we were sober.  Good fun, nevertheless.

Spent some time this morning figuring out how to harvest that audio, may use it for
marginal expansion of the fixed media for A Heart So White.  Mostly, I think we need
more knocking, which out to be easy enough.

When the sun beats down
And I lie on the [beach] ….

All in all, I suppose I must reconcile myself to not being able to wrangle a pianist for my
Clarinet Sonata.  Again, the important thing is:  A. The piece is written, and I think it
a solid, more-than-respectable accomplishment;  and B. I stand ready to play it, myself.

[Later:]  I think I like the quasi-vocal sort-of-interpolations in the fixed media.  I shall let
the additional knocking wait upon my return to Boston.

24 August 2018

A bit more about the first of three disappointments

The expectation given out was, composers to be notified 16 July.

What happened was, no notification, but the selected composers names were posted in what passes on the Internet for a press release (it is, of course, a kind of publication) 10 or 11 August.

The much-delayed courtesy” of e-mail notice to the composers not chosen came in at last, yesterday.

Boilerplate, of course;  otherwise is not to be expected.

Give them credit, that late (horribly late) notice is several notches better than niente.

Still do not expect anything in future, which will not stop me from sending in.

There is always the chance of a freak accident.  I make no bones about the fact that my chances may hinge upon freak accidents.

23 August 2018

What next?

This is my brain at rest.  My mind is in serious vacation Shut-Down.

But, I have (at last) sent out the poll which should result in a viable rehearsal schedule for the October King's Chapel date.

That may be as much work as I may undertake before returning north . . . .

18 August 2018

In-flight entertainment

It's all right, the rumble in your ears,
It's all right to feel a little fear.
~ King Crimson, “Sleepless"

They say the Point, demons guard it:
An ocean grave for all the brave.
~ Kansas, “Point of Know Return"

Well, they tell me, I'll be home someday;
Well, I doubt it, if I continue this way.
~ Jethro Tull, “Driving Song"

They headed for London,
And that will be their grave.
~ Genesis, “Eleventh Earl of Mar"

She took my favorite guitar,
She smashed it on the floor;
Well, she danced around on top of it,
I thought I might get sore.
~ Adrian Belew, “The Momur"

Why don't you come with me, baby?
I'll take you where you want to go;
And if it don't work out,
You'll be the first to know.
~ Bob Dylan, “Pledging My Time”

Don't it ever get lonesome,
Don't it ever get sad when you go out on the road.
(Ah, there was one time in Minneapolis, I got the clap.)
Don't it ever get lonesome,
Don't it ever get sad when you go out on a thirty-day tour.
You got nothing but groupies and promoters to love you,
And a pile of laundry by the hotel door.
~ Frank Zappa & The Mothers, “Road Ladies”

She worked at the Fotomat,
She wore a uniform and a lavender hat;
That's all there is to say about that.
~ The Bobs, “Drive-By Love”

Tigers don't go out on rainy nights,
They don't need to [whet] their appetites.
~ The Bonzo Dog Band, “Hunting Tigers Out in Indiah”

17 August 2018

Full steam ahead

Huckleberry was always dressed in the cast-off clothes of full-grown men, and they were in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags.  His hat was a vast ruin with a wide crescent lopped out of its brim;  his coat, when he wore one, hung nearly to his heels and had the rearward buttons far down the back;  but one suspender supported his trousers;  the seat of the trousers bagged low and contained nothing, the fringed legs dragging in the dirt when not rolled up.
– Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

My love, she sleeps! Oh, may her sleep
As it is lasting, so be deep!
Soft may the worms about her creep!
– Edgar Allan Poe, “The Sleeper”

“Upon her face there was the tint of grief,
The settled shadow of an inward strife,
And an unquiet drooping of the eye,
As if its lids were charged with unshed tears.”

For an instant the buried tenderness of early youth and the fluttering hopes which accompanied it, seemed to have revived in his bosom, and the idea to have flashed upon his mind that his image might be connected with her secret woes–but he rejected the thought almost as soon as formed.
– Washington Irving, Abbotsford and Newstead Abbey

Soon to embark (aerially) for Florida.

I see that I recorded the following, a bit more than a year ago:

I may be at an advantage [in the United States], living in a society where being able to earn one’s living by composition, and by composition alone, has throughout this nation’s history been the exception.  What are the principal lessons?

1.       There is, in fact, no correlation (direct or inverse) between whether I can earn my living as a composer, and the quality of my work.
2.      Some motivation other than monetary success is required for me to pursue my work.  If instead, my motivation is the desire to do the best work I am capable of, then this actually may prove an artistic advantage.

Damn the torpedoes.

16 August 2018

Nor is the quiver yet empty

"Now had the Dutchmen snatched a huge repast," and finding themselves wonderfully encouraged and animated thereby, prepared to take the field.  Expectation, says the writer of the Stuyvesant manuscript, expectation now stood on stilts.  The world forgot to turn round, or rather stood still, that it might witness the affray, like a round-bellied alderman watching the combat of two chivalrous flies upon his jerkin.
– Washington Irving, Knickerbocker's History of New York

Concerning the pumpkin.  This berry is a favorite with the natives of the interior of New England, who prefer it to the gooseberry for the making of fruit-cake, and who likewise give it the preference over the raspberry for feeding cows, as being more filling and fully as satisfying.  The pumpkin is the only esculent of the orange family that will thrive in the North, except the gourd and one or two varieties of the squash.  But the custom of planting it in the front yard with the shrubbery is fast going out of vogue, for it is now generally conceded that, the pumpkin as a shade tree is a failure.
– Mark Twain, "How I Edited an Agricultural Paper"

In the spirit of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness (for there will always be a lot of darkness), I managed to find three calls to which to send scores–including a choral score to a group right here in southern New England.  Also, the Denial of Symmetry diptych (the fl/pf adaptation of two movements from the Sonata for Clarinet & Piano, Op.136) and a slightly tweaked Intermezzo I from White Nights–the instrumentation for the call would not allow for harp, but did allow for another percussionist, so I reallocated the harp figures, which alternate with marimba anyway, to vibraphone . . . all in all, a gratifyingly musical solution to the 'problem.'

I even sent The Nerves to a fourth, although the chances are very high–let's peg it conservatively at 98.5%–that my submission will be rejected out of hand:  in addition to the score, they ask for a sound-file, but will not accept a MIDI realization.  I think I know what is going on there, and we can give it a name:  the reliable axiom in the musical world, that Them What Has Already Got, Gets Some More.  This was clear on the merits, and was only corroborated by a later, cursory glance through the list of previous awards.  But–what if The Nerves should in fact be the best composition of 2018 for symphonic band?  What if it should be, and it is passed over for recognition, on an inbreeding technicality?

Well, ain't nobody going to care much, is my guess.

The good news is:  I can report that, as I revisit old(er) scores such as the Op.75 № 6, I still find them music worth listening to.  I believe that if real musicians should play them in concert, there is an audience which may just agree.

15 August 2018

... sore labour's bath ...

In time, you will find everything.  If only you recollect where last you set it down.

No matter how good your work, no matter how strong and sustained your work ethic, or how hard soever you may strive–your efforts may not, in fact, ever be rewarded.  Nor can you expect any other body to give much of a damn.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

Well, I didn’t get here by being smart.
– Nick Danger (the late, great Phil Austin) in Bride of Firesign

The agony of his countenance, the convulsive struggle of his frame, gave evidence of superhuman exertion:  but no sound, save a solitary shriek, escaped from his lacerated lips, which were bitten through and through in the intensity of terror.
– Edgar Allan Poe, “Metzengerstein”

“It’s human life, Washington–just an epitome of human ambition, and struggle, and the outcome:  you aim for the palace and get drowned in the sewer.”
– Mark Twain, “The American Claimant”

Now, I have a clear idea of how I want to “let out seams,” and expand the fixed media for A Heart So White.  Also, I have a fair idea of how I want to write for the live winds (no clarinet–I am fairly certain I shall need to conduct).

But perhaps there is no need to let out any seams–the fixed media as I first fixed it (as it were) in April runs about ten minutes.  As I ‘speak’ the scene, in what feels a fair, dramatic pace, it clocks in at less than five minutes.  Singing (and minimal employment of ‘musical’ cæsuræ) expands it a bit beyond six minutes.  Allowing for introduction, for some instrumental participation, for extended pauses at key points in the scene . . . extending the piece to twelve minutes may not be crazy.

Or . . . maybe just leave the fixed media as is.  More research is indicated.

0 for 2

Well, since they are going to announce the winners of the 2018 Rapido! Take Five!! Composition Contest today, it was both courteous and professional that they notify us “losers” yesterday.

So: 0 for 2.

And my strong expectation is for Verdant Vibes to confirm the strikeout, next month.

Well, I need to take thought for October’s concert, anyway.

14 August 2018

Recollecting Castelo dos anjos

I’ve written my own self-help book.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

The plunge into this pit I had avoided by the merest of accidents, I knew that surprise, or entrapment into torment, formed an important part of these dungeon deaths.  Having failed to fall, it was no part of the demon plan to hurl me into the abyss;  and thus (there being no alternative) a different and milder destruction awaited me.  Milder!  I half smiled in my agony as I thought of such application of the term.
– Edgard Allan Poe, “The Pit and the Pendulum”

One is often surprised at the juvenilities which grown people indulge in at sea, and the interest they take in them, and the consuming enjoyment they get out of them.  This is on long voyages only.  The mind gradually becomes inert, dull, blunted;  it loses its accustomed interest in intellectual things;  nothing but horse-play can rouse it, nothing but wild and foolish grotesqueries can entertain it.  On short voyages it makes no such exposure of itself;  it hasn’t time to slump down to this sorrowful level.
– Mark Twain, Following the Equator

Eleven years ago today (before this blog came into existence, that is) I was finishing the proofing of Castelo dos anjos for Tapestry.  The ladies of Tapestry had sent me a number of texts, I suppose the idea was that I should choose one, but I liked all of them, and immediately formed the idea of writing a long-ish through-composed cantata.

[1.] “Lá no céu está um castelo — The accompaniment is a kind of rhythm game of interlocking patterns;  the percussion and the voices cycle at different rates.  Additionally, there are some ‘breathing’ departures from the mechanical repetition in the percussion;  and though the canonical relation of the two lower voices is fairly strict, the pattern which begins by fairly regular repetition gradually ‘blossoms’ a bit in counterpoint to the solo.  The florid writing for the soprano here is not literal folk music, but (I hope) something of a ‘lens’ upon folk music.  I wanted to take musical advantage of the fact that the texts of both [1.] and [2.] closed with doxologies;  so for the Glórias here I changed musical gears, not only in the ‘Picardy third’ shift to the major from the Phrygian mode, but in something of a sonic homage to the ritornello-like Lyke-Wake Dirge of Stravinsky’s Cantata.  The doxologies also serve as a break for the percussionist to change instruments.

[2.] “Noite de Natal (a)” — As [1.] started out as a kind of ‘dancing ritual’, with this setting I wanted something brilliant and lively.  The combination of the rapid tempo and the nimble meter changes make this a practicing challenge (I have a knack, it seems, for writing music which resists sight-reading), but I hope there is a musical reward which compensates the labor.  The doxology is a loose inversion of that from [1.]  It ends on a half-cadence in a new key, which waits until m. 188 to take tonal effect.

[3.] Intermezzo — I wrote this so that the percussionist has the responsibility of setting the new tempi at mm. 148, 167 & 188.  The overall effect of the changing tempi is a kind of accelerando, and yet (paradoxically, because of the reorientation of the pulse) to set up [4.] which is the slowest tempo of the piece.

[4.] “Noite de Natal (b)” — Overall an A-B-A' shape;  the A material is a strophic ballad with gradual variation (mostly in the accompaniment).  The opening A consists of three strophes;  the accompaniment at first continues the clapping from the Intermezzo, then the two accompanying voices join essentially as sustaining tones with momentary ornament . . . loosely in rhythmical canon, and with a gradual ‘accelerando’ suggested by gradually briefer note durations.  One of the first ideas I had for the overall piece was tied to the lines where the gallos and pajaritos are singing;  I’ve always known that I should want twittery music for those lines.  On the surface it feels like a change to a quicker tempo, but of course the 16th-note pulse is constant.  Since so much of the piece heretofore has centered on the same pitch as a home, the birds here also serve as a kind of pivot, in inviting us to different keys.  With the return to the A ballad, the bongos return as well;  one strophe is a solo, the next a duet, and the bongos increase in rhythmic intensity. To contrast with the doxologies which served as tempo transitions and ‘breaths’ after [1.] and [2.], tempo remains constant between [4.] and [5.], though the impassioned bongo solo ‘masks’ that continuity somewhat.

[5.] “Rosaflorida — To reflect the similarity of the texts, I wanted Rosaflorida to be both a clear echo of Lá no céu está um castelo,” and yet, to make itself distinct, too.  The bongo pattern is a literal return (in fact, if anything more relentlessly exact in its repetition than the bongos of [1.]).  Generally, where Lá no céu está um castelo carries itself as tightly regulated ostinati contrasting with quasi-improvisatory solo, Rosaflorida instead creates an impression of a denser mesh of more communal improvisation among the three voices (notwithstanding that the mezzo and alto are again in relatively strict canon).  In the soprano line, the literal gestural borrowings from Lá no céu está um castelo sneak in with (I think) a little subtlety, and the ‘chemistry’ between the solo and the accompaniment is a bit like a new creation with similar elements.  The contrapuntal coda, I hope, appears as a logical ‘destination’ plotted from the doxologies which close [1.] and [2.]

In a kind of ‘global reflection’ of the Phrygian mode which dominates [1.] and [5.], the general progression of keys in the piece – A in [1.], G in [2.], F at the start of [4.] but moving to E (which then sets up a return to A for [5.]) – is a descending tetrachord suggesting the Phrygian mode.

At least twice, I have thought of adapting/modifying the piece for other performers.  I may yet do so for Triad, though it would not be until the 2019-20 season.

13 August 2018

Such choirs as dreams are made of

And now commenced the horrid din, the desperate struggle, the maddening ferocity, the frantic desperation, the confusion, and self-abandonment of war.
– Washington Irving, Knickerbocker’s History of New York

We quote from “The Tea-Pot” of yesterday the subjoined paragraph:  “Oh, yes!  Oh, we perceive!  Oh, no doubt!  Oh, my!  Oh, goodness!  Oh, tempora!  Oh, Moses!”  Why, the fellow is all O!  That accounts for his reasoning in a circle, and explains why there is neither beginning nor end to him, nor to anything he says.  We really do not believe the vagabond can write a word that hasn’t an O in it.  Wonder if this O-ing is a habit of his?  By-the-by, he came away from Down-East in a great hurry.  Wonder if he O’s as much there as he does here?  “O!  it is pitiful.”
– Edgar Allan Poe, “X-ing a Paragrab”

Occasionally, I dream of music, of composing music.  That is, I do not dream that I have my pencil poised over MS. paper in my 3-ring binder, but I see a score unfolding, and my thoughts of music affect what appears on the score in my dream.

Most of the time, when I awake and recall the music I just dreamt of, it is not particularly worth recording here, in the real musical world.  I think last night may be one of the exceptions.

Not that it will make a great piece, mind you–that, I do not expect.  Really it is a simple harmonic arc, nothing dramatically novel about it, at all, at all.  Simple material for an easy SATB choral piece, really.  As I lay in non-urgent wakefulness afterwards, I thought of what text to use, and how it should be deployed, which will make the piece a mildly aleatoric endeavor.

Well, we shall see if, two weeks from now, I remember.  Because the plain fact is, that with the Florida travel at the end of this week, and the necessary preparations leading thereunto, I am very doubtful that I should have any chance to attend to this fanciful dream-piece soon.

The pianist/organist in DC whose virtual acquaintance I made not long ago sent a nice message about the Three Short Organ Pieces she bought from Lux Nova.  The message reminded me that I meant to send her the Opp. 4 & 11 piano solo pieces (from the Little Towns, Low Countries re-jiggernaut).  So now, I have.

(I think there is no reason at all why the pieces should not reside both in their Opp. 4 & 11 suites, and in a grand Little T., Low C. series.)

Day after tomorrow, there may be news.

12 August 2018


Some new titles for future use (some of them, old posts which a body forgets):

  • Steely Élites
  • Three Senior Moments in Five Minutes
  • The Fourth Thing I Forgot Yesterday

Listening this morning to “Papa’s” String Quartets Op. 9 № 4 in d minor, and Op. 17 № 6 in D Major, played by the Festetics Quartet.

Driving home on the Mass Pike yesterday, there were stretches when the sky opened up, and the downpour was of such fury that visibility suffered greatly.  Could not stop (which I might have done if I were on, say, Pleasant Street), but happily the motorists ahead of and behind me slowed down, too, and we all continued to maintain safe distances.  Stayed alert, and luckily no accident befell me.

This is the week when the Rapido! contest announces the decisions.

Something like four weeks late, the ACO decision was announced, Friday, or Saturday, I do not know.  We composers whose work was not selected did not receive the courtesy of an email message.  Rather than any complaint at this, it seems of a piece with the degraded professionalism of the endeavor.  The word that comes September from another call, will be courteous, but (I expect) not any more encouraging.

As ever, I need to forge my own encouragement at the furnace of my work.

A week from today, I shall be in Florida, hearing Mei Mei Luo & Paul Cienniwa perform Plotting.  It is a great gift that they are reviving the piece, that I have been made welcome to share my thoughts about the piece with the audience before the concert, and that there will be a “Meet the Composer” reception afterwards.

09 August 2018

The downside of solitude

But, though I love solitude and am never in want of subjects to amuse my fancy, yet solitude too much indulged in must necessarily have an unhappy effect upon the mind, which, when left to seek for resources wholly within itself will, unavoidably, in hours of gloom and despondency, brood over corroding thoughts that prey upon the spirits, and sometimes terminate in confirmed misanthropy–especially with those who, from constitution, or early misfortunes, are inclined to melancholy, and to view human nature in its dark shades.
– Washington Irving, “The Little White Lady”

Six years ago on this blog.  “Sometimes I surprise even myself.”

Although I have (merely as a possibility, not as a genuine hope) wondered if the delay in the ACO announcement might mean that Ear Buds is still in some kind of running . . . I had a lovely catch-up phone call with an old friend yesterday, a fellow composer, whose thesis is, the decision has been made, and the delay is a discourtesy to all the composers whose work has not been selected.  (This is the 25th day of Non-Information.)  He is probably right, but I shan’t spend any time in grievance over such a discourtesy.

This morning, reading the text more closely for the Rapido! contest, they advise that a decision will be announced “by August 15,” which holds out the chance that word may be sent earlier.  Honestly, simply on time will be nice, and will compare favorably to peers.  Chances are good that they will be truer to their stated intention, since the four regional chamber ensembles will need to prepare the music for recitals in the fall.

(Then again–unless those dates, too, are fungible–the orchestra for the ACO call is expected to read the selected piece in September.  I.e., less than six weeks from today.)

By mere chance, my thoughts this morning returned to both Jazz for Nostalgic Squirrels and Thoreau in Concord Jail.  The former deserves, probably, an improved performance, although I do not have any especial strategy for arranging a fresh performance.

As soon as I typed that, though . . . .

07 August 2018

My L'histoire du soldat Tale

There was a time when I wanted to reform television.  Now I accept it for what it is.  So long as I don’t write beneath myself or pander my work, I’m not doing anyone a disservice.
– Rod Serling (1970)

Throw some bread to the ducks instead–
It’s easier that way.
– Phil Collins/Genesis (1979)

You may not be able to do anything about the environment; your work, is entirely your affair.  Even if the environment be implacable, do your best work–and throw it in their teeth.  No one worth his salt will praise you for doing shoddy work, because it is what the environment ‘required.’
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

There is nothing like studying your own score, to give you an intelligent idea of what you ought to tell an audience.  I think I am going to just study for another day, before actually setting to write my notes for the pre-concert lecture, down Florida way.  Which is in 12 days.

A very nice message came in from Mei Mei, saying that the final toccata section reminded her of Stravinsky, and asking if she is right.

You are right.  When I was at the College of Wooster, I played the soldier in a “black box theatre” staging of L'histoire, and the Scene by a Brook violin lick made a powerful impression.

Very fond memories, as my clarinet teacher, Nancy Garlick, violinist Robt Hamilton and pianist Brian Dykstra played the trio version of the music for the production, which was a cooperative venture among the French, Theatre and Music Departments.

How I even got involved was a peculiar concatenation of circumstances.  Although I had gone to Wooster planning to pursue a B.Mus., there was one quarter when I thought I might opt instead for the Music Ed. degree, which had a science requirement.  To fulfill that req., I elected to enroll in Fred Cropp’s already-legendary Intro to Geology course, whose enrolment was large enough that, instead of being held in whatever building where the Geology Dept resided, the class would be held in a large lecture room in the basement of the new building of the Theatre Dept.  It was an eight o’clock class, if I remember aright;  so to make certain that I knew just where to find the class at that uncertain hour of the day, I went to find the room.  As I clambered down the stairs, I ran upon people holding some kind of reading.  The material was in French, and my Junior High and High School instructors had bequeathed me an outsized confidence in my French;  so I thought, Why not?

I wound up cast as the Soldier.  That apparently chance acquaintance with Theatre Dept personnel led at some point to participation in one (or two?) of William Butler Yeats’s Plays for Dancers, and ultimately to my being groomed to audition for the rôle of Salieri in the campus production of Amadeus.

So, as I say – many very fond memories.