23 October 2021

Tectonic Shift?

But, is now the time for rhetorical questions?
Postcards From Red Squirrel Trail

Ah, well! We live and learn, or, anyway, we live.

— Will Cuppy

I’ve been mulling of late, partly in response to a virtual acquaintance’s recent

enthusiasm for composer N. Composer N. is perhaps a year older than I. She’s an internationally

celebrated composer. In fact, I met her at Symphony Hall after a

Boston performance of a piece of hers. The Boston Symphony may

never play any of my music. There is no benefit to the idle

speculation that it is possible they may play my music after my death.

When Composer N. is commissioned to write a piece, the sum of money

is considerable.

If I and Composer N. sat down in conversation, and I told her the sum I was

paid for my recent commission, she might perhaps laugh, if she were not

such a nice person, as all reports suggest. None of this is composer N.’s fault,

and it’s not a zero-sum game. While I do not believe I hold any of it against

Composer N.,

I did not enjoy nor think much of the piece that night at Symphony. I do

consider in hindsight that I may simply have been resentful, but neither do I

feel that I owe anything to composer N.

It also doesn’t help, that the artistic director of a choir dedicated

to performing new music, turned a piece of mine down (a piece

of which many colleagues

think highly) with the ‘explanation’ that my music is not like that of

Composer N. upon whom they lavish their musical love. But enough of

Composer N. whom I wish no ill whatever, and who I hope will continue

to enjoy success and prosperity.

Today, I debate which better describes my state: low motivation or nil

motivation. My thoughts of late have not (despite the theme of the first

paragraph) dwelt upon either resentment of successful living composers, nor

self-pity. I am wondering what my goal should be, or even if having a goal is

of any use to me. For instance, up to now (let’s say) I have had

the ambition that the Boston Symphony Orchestra should play music

of mine. But it is plain to me that this is a foolish ambition, as there is

nothing I can do to make such a thing happen. Today, I wonder if

having that as an ambition (or even as a hope) is not merely pointless

but self-deceiving.

So, what?

An old friend of mine composes only when commissioned to do so, and

has enjoyed some performance opportunities of which I can only dream.

I certainly do not resent him, nor feel envious of him. In a general way,

I might wish that I were in a similar position, but if I composed only

on commission, I should not have written White Nights,nor either of my two symphonies. It is pointless for me to wish that

I had been commissioned to write these, I am practically a musical

nobody and I have certainly been

treated so by musical somebodies. I am not going to be the next

John Williams. Setting aside the speculative q. of whether I could

successfully score a film, the universe has not afforded me any such

opportunity. Nor am I going to be the next John Adams, Philip

Glass or Joan Tower. I observe merely factually, with neither

envy nor resentment, that the universe has not afforded me

even such opportunity.

Then there is the clarinet, from which I have been perforce separated

by my stroke. I pursue my therapy and do my homework. My

determination remains staunch. Yet with the impaired sensation

in my fingers, it is simply impossible to know, today, when I shall

be able to play again. But I ain’t stoppin’.

Perhaps this week I am asking myself, why should I still compose? For most of my composing life, notwithstanding my negligible

level of success, I never needed to ask myself such a question. When

I was in rehab after my stroke, I did not

ask myself any such question, it was simply that I wanted to compose.

For only one thing, I

was determined to complete White Nights. If I don’t write my music,

no one will, I recall saying even as I lay in hospital.

As I write today, the latest of the Op. 169 organ pieces I composed was 31 May, and I don’t know whether I’ll finish

the set as conceived. The last I worked on the string symphony was 4 Oct.

I make no claim or promise as to

the future. I can only say, I don’t feel like writing today.

09 October 2021

Satori in Lowell

There is a specific class of conditioning—we might say that one has been “Pythonized”— typified (to give but one example) by the involuntary chuckle which is the subject’s nearly immediate response upon hearing the phrase
“I am the Bishop of East Anglia.”
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

I hope my recordings of my own works won’t inhibit other people’s performances. The brutal fact is that one doesn’t always get the exact tempo one wants, although one improves with experience.

— Aaron Copland

Back in June when Orlando first invited me to be part of the Setting Kerouac event, I formed a mental image/scenario of the night, which was this past Thursday. but the night itself was all I might have hoped—and more:  a piece which I am proud to have written, and well pleased that it should represent my work, was superbly performed to the largest-yet audience for Henningmusick, who all received the piece warmly. I wrote The Orpheus of Lowell as a showcase for the soprano, and composed it expecting that the singer would be fearless. But of course, Rose Hegele was not merely fearless (which criterion was but the threshold, to be sure) she made agile, playful, nervy music—which is to say, her performance was utterly faithful to the piece, and ravishing. It was a miraculously good night for this composer.

06 October 2021

About the Op. 172

Ask your Veterinarian if Ivermectin is Right for you!
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

This would be a better world for children if the parents had to eat the spinach.

— Groucho Marx

The inspirations for the piece all relate to the text. The bulk of the text I have set is five choruses from Mexico City Blues. I was taken with the conceit of the poem, the idea of a singer/poet fronting a bop ensemble and extemporizing. The two albums my ear was “marinating” in while I was contemplating writing my piece were firstly, Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart because the complete freedom and fearlessness of the music (and especially the vocalization) is just exhilarating, and secondly Money Jungle with Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus & Max Roach, an evergreen and indeed iconic album. These musical influences are transmuted through my own accumulated musical sensibilities and experience, so one should not expect my piece necessarily to “sound like” Beefheart or Ellington. I have played a lot of clarinet myself, and have written a great deal of chamber music including clarinet and flute, so one of my guiding principles in writing the piece was, I wrote music which I thought I should have fun playing. I was free to select my own text(s) and in leafing through Mexico City Blues, I was like a kid in a candy store, and at first I chose too much text to be practical for a piece of the desired scale, so the greatest challenge I faced was in striking the right balance between the "volume" of text and the duration I was aiming for. Discovering my musical material was in large part easy, as Kerouac's words are so musically suggestive and by turns electrifying and lyrical. What I think will engage and perhaps surprise the audience is how the piece offers flute, clarinet and cello (on the face of it, not a “jazz combo”) together with the piano as vehicles of stylized “bop.”

My initial idea was to assemble a text from sentences here and there from a number of books (On the Road, The Dharma Bums) I had begun this process (highlighting sentences on my Kindle) when I added Mexico City Blues as an additional source, but then, in leafing through, it became evident to me that I ought instead to select a number of choruses from this last, which was new to me. Each of the choruses I chose had simply grabbed me for one reason or another in that first pass-through. A vestige of my first thought for “assembling” a text is the final line of the piece, which is the curtain line of the first chapter of The Dharma Bums. I am highly gratified to have learnt that both the pianist and the soprano like the piece very well.