26 June 2020

The Challenge of Simplicity

Picking up from yesterdays post, I found Judith’s memorial piece for the Public School teacher delicately touching, both for itself, in its unaffected artistry, and in its light-handed universality (as it seems to me) Even at this far remove, I have teachers from my youth whom I remember with love and gratitude, it would not surprise me if we all have.

I was also reminded vividly of one of my first meetings with Judith in her studio at UVa, possibly when I was interviewing for admission to the graduate program in Composition. She asked me to show her some of my work, and one of the pieces I showed her was a set of three occasional pieces which I had written at Wooster for soprano Elaine Krochmal  and tuba-player Jennie Macke, a set of Three Viking Proverbs from the Prose Edda (I think)

They were scored actually for soprano, clarinet and tuba; Elaine and Jennie asked me if I knew of any music for soprano and tuba.  I did not, so I offered to write something for the three of us.  At the interview, mildly embarrassed by their musical modesty, I apologized for their simplicity.   “There’s nothing wrong with simplicity,” she assured me.  It was both a generous, friendly ice-breaker, and a maxim that I have kept to heart.  Indeed, I knew the truth of it, as soon as she gave it utterance.

It is, I think, in some ways superficially easier to compose dense, complicated music.  The result, at least is sufficiently active to beguile the ear.  In the most important sense, composing music is a challenge, simple or complex, because the goal is a piece which will engage and interest the listener, and beyond these, to earn the listener’s affection.  But there is a sense in which the challenge is more acute when the music is simple: There’s no place to hide, we might say.

There are a few student works which I still own, but the Three Viking Proverbs is not one of them.  There is a good idea or two in there. The piece does suffer from a number of flaws. Simplicity is not among them, however.
I remember that piece now, most importantly because Judith reminded me that there is nothing wrong with simple music.

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