21 February 2009

Composing: fragments from "The Wanderer" and my new piece for guitar and mandolin

I’ve begun and am now more than halfway done with a work for soprano and nine instruments based on fragments of the old English poem “The Wanderer.” I decided to use transcriptions (creative transcriptions) of wind sounds recorded at various places around the world – among them the ruins of Tughlaq’s palace in Delhi, the Turfan depression in China and others to develop chords and from there composed more or less freely. It is a very strong powerful work that I’m having a great time writing and am proud of. Shockingly it is among the more rhythmically simple of my pieces. I’ve taken little phrases and words here and there from the poem, so to say it is a setting of The Wanderer would be wrong – instead it is a setting of my feelings about the poem in general viewed at through the lens of memory. The text is an instrument, perhaps for the sentiments. One aspect of the poem that seems to be among the more salient is that of decay – the poem has a happy ending per se, but I’ve avoided that part. I’ve decided to enact that in a structure of changing instrumentation – different instruments will drop out with each section become “wanderers” if you will, joining with the voice or going off on their own. I’m quite pleased with it and hope to have it finished by mid-March. No performance scheduled or in the works – any takers?

After working diligently for several months, I decided to take a break from the guitar/mandolin piece in early January as things had reached a point of wrapping up. I was still unsatisfied with the piece and thought that some time away would allow me to return to it with a fresh perspective. Parts that I liked had begun to be changed beyond recognition, I had eliminated parts that I felt didn’t work in an effort to see if they were necessary and so forth. Ultimately, I think time away is the right idea.
I sat down yesterday and listened to what was there of the score and remained dissatisfied. Last night, I got up in the middle of the night with an I’d like to try out on it. First, create a version of the score that is simply the two parts and then two blank staves underneath – to make the composing over easier. Then consider the structure – making it more codified in a form of Introit, Sostenuto and Dance. Reinstate some of the introit figures which I always felt worked well as a beginning. Redo the middle section in order to create the thing that I felt I could never get from the ensemble – sustained pitches. Rewrite it so that it is a sustaining section in beautiful harmonies. The final dance section can be just that. Perhaps three movements instead of one? Or else divide the one movement into three movements with mock tuning and instrument arguments – in this way the performance becomes a part of the piece. Perhaps this will save the piece – the other option is to create a series of ephemeral moments – jumping in in the heat of action perhaps. I think I’ll try the first now and if that doesn’t work, try the second later.

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12 February 2009

It kind of warms the heart

of an old craggy modernist like myself to read some of John Adams' recent interview with Newsweek. After saying some not particularly interesting things about a proposal for a Secretary of the Arts and the like, he goes on to mention briefly about some of the young comnposers who are composing in a style that mixes "indy" music with classical. I quote:

" How should concert halls go about attracting new listeners? Does government play no role in this?
Well, the one and only way to interest people in classical music is to get them to play it as children. People who grow up not having learned an instrument or not having been exposed to playing Bach on the piano—or playing, as I did, clarinet in a concert band—they have no understanding and no exposure to it. When I was a kid, we all had music lessons as part of the school program.

Isn't that changing, to some degree? Aren't composers who cross streams with "indie" or experimental rock—people like Nico Muhly or Caleb Burhans—bringing non-instrumentalists into the concert hall?
But both of those guys, they're highly trained musicians

Yes, but their fans aren't, necessarily.
Possibly. But there's another side to that. Some of the music that these composers are producing is so simple that it's in danger of dumbing-down. Not necessarily Nico and Caleb. But there are a lot of young composers in their 20s and 30s who are very anxious to appeal to the same audience that would listen to indie rock. But they are creating a level of musical discourse that's just really bland. I don't think it will have a very long shelf life. The bottom line is art really can't be made easy and palatable without simply losing its meaning and importance. I had this conversation with the new executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. We all went out to dinner and this fellow said, "I think we should make concerts interactive." Here I am, someone who's always been the renegade. "Wait a minute," I said. "You can't listen to a really important piece of music and have people banging on their BlackBerrys."

Is there more to say? Well I would add that for me the problem really is is that these folks aren't doing anything interesting with this potentially fertile blend of genres. There is no translation - moving the essence of "indy-rock" (itself a misnomer given how many people listen to it) into a new music framework. Essentially what we get instead is no different than transcription or arrangement - there is no imperative for this music to be scored for the forces it calls for. An equivalent might be if I took David Allen Coe's "Hank Williams Junior Junior" and arranged it for pierrot ensemble, although that might be more interesting than some of these things I've heard.


03 February 2009

An Award and a Recollection

Last night, I received word that Haziri was awarded honorable mention in the Millennium Chamber Players of Chicago’s annual Composition Competition. Out of over 300 scores received Haziri was one of less than ten that received mention. It came as a nice surprise at the end of a long day and after a meal of not-so-good Mexican food at Mama Mexico on Broadway – a restaurant I had avoided for nine years for philosophical reasons, but that’s another story. The jury for the prize was Bernard Rands, Augusta Read Thomas, Kyung Mee Choi and George Flynn. It’s particularly heartening because as far as I know none of these composers know my work. One of the other honorable mentions was the composer and flautist Ned McGowan.

Seeing the jury and Ned’s name I was reminded of the wonderful summer I spent at the Aspen Music Festival in 1998 when I was a part of the Advanced Composition Master Class led at the time by Rands and John Harbison. It was one of the last, if not last times this seminar ran concurrently with the normal composition program at Aspen and there were tensions between the two groups.

When I drove cross-country, my car stuffed with belongings for the summer – I overpacked - I had just finished my undergraduate work and wasn’t quite sure what to do next. For the program we were asked to write a work for the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble – my contribution was the Septet - and I was floored by the virtuosity of the ensemble: I still remain in touch with some of those players, Michael Norsworthy who played clarinet for instance or Blair McMillan who was the pianist. The composer and percussionist Nathan Davis played marimba. My cohort in the seminar were equally brilliant and have all gone on in their careers: Ken Ueno, Keeril Makan, Suzanne Sorkin, Ben Sutherland, and a composer from the Midwest named Colin Anderson. We spent a few weeks discussing music, listening to music and having an all-around good time. John Adams visited and discussed his use of computer software to tweak Slonimsky scales in his new piece Slonimsky’s Earbox, Augusta Read Thomas gave a presentation about a new piece she had done for a Chicago fish exhibit. David Zinman gave a masterclass at which I played a midi realization of my then-unheard and now-never-really-played orchestra piece Ma Fin. I'll never forget Bernard Rands comment on hearing the very poorly realized midi on cassette. "Never play that for anyone again." The midi did no justice to what is actually a very beautiful piece. Zinman didn’t like that the horns played so high at the beginning. I was young, I didn’t know any better – at the reading later in the summer, Jeri Johnson conducted beautifully – I remember our meeting beforehand to discuss how to approach the mood of the piece.
At the end of the session we had a big party at Rands’ Aspen apartment. We all ate and drank a lot of beer and whiskey – surely there are pictures out there – and at a certain point John Harbison brought an enormous smoked salmon.

This appears to be my 100th blog post, what a happy coincidence.