29 August 2018

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.

No comments: