New Composition – Begin, Again

Just finished my latest string quartet – Begin, again – which was commissioned by the Polish Festival of Portland in celebration of the 100th year of Poland’s independence.

The piece was hard to start, I should confess. I wasn’t expecting this to be so much work since I tend to love writing for string quartet. BUT! In the end it turned out to be (what I feel) is some of my best recent work. So, you never can tell I guess.

The premiere is scheduled for later this fall and I will be sharing more info on my social media outlets as the time gets nearer.

 

JD

On Rehearsal Time

I’ve always admired how some composers can command rehearsals. I don’t mean in a kind of dominant or commandeering way, but rather like the way a conductor can micro-manage every nuance, balance, rhythm, and sound. It’s remarkable, and for whatever reason I don’t seem to have the ability to multi-task in this way. I’m not sure if it’s a defect in my faculties, my attention span, my perception, of nervousness, or whether it’s simply a result of my somewhat withdrawn personality; for whatever reason it’s just really difficult for me to impose (for lack of a better word) my will on a group of people who’s so graciously agreed to play my music.

I’ve slowly come to realize over the last couple of years how I actually operate in rehearsals. It’s not that I don’t care about how I want the piece to sound; I care very, very much about how my work is performed. The thing is, everything I have to say about how my piece should be performed is already on the page.

I tend to not spare any details, and I certainly try to make my intentions as clear as possible. There’s usually lots of dynamics, hair-pins, slurs, special performance instructions and descriptions; i.e. plenty of signs, signals, and instruction intended to try and communicate shape, texture, and form. Things that sometimes gets dissected in rehearsals. Sometimes I succeed with my instructions, sometimes I don’t. You live and you learn, and try to grow with each experience (ideally). And the presence of all this detail tends to make it very difficult for me to want to give any further instruction; it feels somewhat redundant. Because of this, rehearsals tend to go very quickly, and afterward I almost always feel guilty about whether I’ve utilized the time enough. I really worry that not having much to say about the performances – assuming they’re reading all my instructions and are otherwise on top of the notes (which is the case 99% of the time, in my experience) – make me come off as uncaring, detached, un-opinionated, or otherwise uninterested in how the performers are actually doing. Nothing could be further from the truth!

It’s most likely a failure of communication on my part, but I usually view rehearsal time with ensembles as collaborative time, rather than instructional. I want to hear what the performers have to say about the piece, and more importantly, I want to know how they hear it themselves. I know how want to hear it, but to me, that doesn’t mean that’s The Way To Hear It. Whether a gesture actually makes sense in a given context, or whether the balance of the sound or texture is as successful (or not) as I thought; I can’t know whether it’s working or not if I’m relying solely on myself. If something’s not working, I really want to know.

I don’t want to keep making the same mistakes over and over, or worse, ingrain bad composition or orchestration habits. How am I supposed to grow as a composer if I never learn from my mistakes, or worse, are never even conscious of them?

So, as a note to my future self via this post, I’m hoping to make an effort in future rehearsals to try and make it feel as collaborative as possible. In a way, I want the ensemble to co-compose the piece with me. I want to know how you hear it, what it makes you feel, what you like about it, what you don’t like about it, and how we can make the project as successful as possible. The composer-performer relationship, to me, should be as much of a team effort as possible. I’m not a priest handing down scripture, I’m one human working with other humans to try and communicate deeply human experiences.

Let’s dialogue. I don’t like talking to myself.

Music Meets Prosody

I wrote a blog entry for Third Angle’s upcoming Hearing Voices 4.0 concert!

Read it here

Come hear the premier of my latest piece, Frozen Smolder, featuring text by Portland author Sandra Stone on Friday, November 13th and Saturday, November 14th at Studio 2@Zoomtopia. Both shows start at 7:30pm.

 

The Measured And Unmeasured

Prosody is a term used by linguists to talk about the function of intonation, tone, stress, and rhythm in speech. It’s something we’re all very familiar with; a particular inflection can make something sound sarcastic, declarative, timid, or sensual. It’s the properties of speech that lie outside the rules of grammar that can influence a phrase’s delivery, interpretation, and meaning. It also has fun quirks like how the careful placement of an accent can alter a sentence’s implications. For example:

I didn’t steal the money…

I didn’t steal the money…

I didn’t steal the money…

I didn’t steal the money

(etc.)

The intonation of the spoken word is a natural underscore to communication. Writing music alongside (or underneath) something so familiar yet so immeasurable is a strange compositional challenge. It’s been addressed in many guises; monody, recitatives, Sprechstimme, as well as peripherally through the use of film scores (underscores), cues, incidental music, etc. Usually these uses of music are meant to support the action of the play or film and aren’t necessarily meant to be the main focus. Yet, even out of sight, one can’t really deny the effect they have on the audience’s perceptions of the action. A rich, gentle, swelling string section might give the extra flowery aroma to a romantic scene in Paris, or thumping, rhythmically-driven punctuated brass and percussion might imbue tension to a chase scene. The inverse effect is true as well; putting “Yakity Sax” over a death scene might be a distracting choice, rather than supportive (though potentially hilarious).

I must admit that writing for voice is a compositional blind spot for me. I’m always amazed at how some composers can write so effortlessly for what’s arguably the most intimate instrument there is. Then to remove the scripted music entirely and give the immeasurable inflection of speech the foreground is somehow even more intimidating. The music has to at once be out of focus yet completely supportive, present but not present, working in the background to give accent and influence to the narration while not drawing attention to itself. How does one stay in the shadows and still pull all the musical heart-strings?

There’s a long lineage of music that sought to incorporate the spoken word. It can be found in the works of Liszt, Sibelius, and Prokofiev, as well as on the in the works of Cage and Parch (and many, many others). And while I’m hesitant to even mention it, I too have been tackling this compositional challenge and have been looking to these great masters for guidance as I polish my modest contribution to this lineage. What follows is a very general look at the different uses of a speaker and live ensemble as well as some comments on the approaches undertaken by each composer.

SOME PRECEDENTS

Franz Liszt, virtuoso pianist, harmonic adventurer, ladies man, and eventual monk, was nothing if not inventive. His prolific nature allowed for a wide range of experimentation in harmony and form during his 75 years and while Der Blinde Sanger (S.350, 1875) for piano and speaker is not necessarily one of his most popular works, it’s still an interesting case-study.

Scored for solo piano and spoken voice, the text (by Alexi Tolstoy) tells the story of a prince traveling around his countryside, soaking in the beauty of nature and the music of the peasants (at least that’s what Google Translate told me. It was difficult to find an English translation.)

The music ebbs and flows underneath the text (which is written directly above the music; there’s no indication of a narrator in the score, just the words), always supporting it and not too often the focus. What’s noteworthy here is that the style of simply writing the text above the staff seems to be a common technique. Even the most intricate and detailed music notation couldn’t can’t capture the natural rhythms of speech. The music is careful to trod along in the background while injecting moments of focus and breath, contrasted by typically Lisztian moments of flare and drama. There are also moments where the piano drops out entirely to give the speaker time to recite large chunks of the text. It’s difficult to tell why Liszt chose to remove the music in these moments but if I had to guess then I’d say it’s probably for the same reasons a director might not want music during a particular scene.

Jean Sibelius’s The Lonely Ski Trail, like Liszt’s Sanger, is not one of his most well known works. It takes a similar approach to narration as Liszt; spoken text lies right above the measured staff, though the music is much more conscious of the voice in this case. The music reaches a stillness during the spoken text, being careful not to draw attention to itself.

 

Peter and the Wolf is arguably Sergei Prokofiev’s most famous piece. It’s a children’s story written by Prokofiev himself, scored for speaker and orchestra and was commissioned by Natalya Sats and the Central Children’s Theater in Moscow in 1937. Unlike the previous works, this piece was written specifically with children in mind, so the musical support is intended to be much more obvious. The bird is represented by the flute (see the flute line in the example below), the duck is represented by the oboe, the cat the bassoon, and so on. By ostensibly defining each role during different parts of the story, the music becomes an active participant. Indeed, the music begins takes on literal meaning.

Aaron Copland took a less direct musical-narrative relationship with Lincoln Portrait. Rather than use extra-musical elements and represent them in the music, Copland opted to emphasize a general sense of mood through an extensive musical exposition before introducing the narrator. Notationally it’s difficult to say how Copland treated the text since I don’t have a copy of the score myself, however the New York Philharmonic has an extensive online archive and I was able to find an interesting snippet:

 

(source)

Seems whoever constructed this score opted to cut up the text and simply tape it in. A much less elegant solution, but probably the best illustration of how different spoken word and music notation is.

SOME EXPERIMENTATION

So far we’ve looked at some pretty straightforward uses of speaker and ensemble. Each of the pieces had a more-or-less similar treatment of the speaker, but what if the music was meant as a kind of counterpoint to the music, rather than play a supporting role?

The Third Angle Ensemble recently brought out New York music critic Alex Ross to read some excerpts from his book The Rest is Noise and underscore his anecdotes with the pieces he was discussing. Among those works were pieces by Henry Cowell (Quartet Euphometric), John Cage (Imaginary Landscape No. 1), La Monte Young (whose Composition 1960 #7 was performed while audience members were getting their seats), Steve Reich (Violin Phase), and Harry Partch (Bitter Music XX).

Ross was quite at home discussing these works and elucidated upon them with lofty themes of nature, spaciousness, and the West Coast. Interestingly, most of these composers are better known for the work they did while they were living elsewhere, but they never-the-less all had ties to this lovely side of the country, and of particular interest to this essay is Parch’s work, Bitter Music XX: November 15th – Leaving Santa Barbara.

Of all the works featured on Third Angle’s season-closing concert, this was the only one with a designated part for narrator (all others were meant to supplement Ross’ narration). Partch was really interested in bringing the corporeal element back into music; that is, re-introducing the bodily, the worldly, the Earthly, back into music. He approached this in a number a ways, most famously through his invention of several new instruments that were meant to accommodate his theoretical ideas.

In Bitter Music XX, Partch doubles the narrator with piano in an attempt to capture the natural inflections of the spoken voice. He counters this with a sung hymn (performed by Third Angle’s Ron Blessinger) underneath, as if to counterpoint the bodily with the celestial. It’s a fascinating and evocative effect; it’s as though the two worlds were working in counterpoint, and for me it’s a wonderful use of the speaker and ensemble. The speaker is at once outside and inside the piece; it’s there to provide a story, as well as be a part of it.

ONWARD

This brings us today (by skipping a few decades in between Partch and the present) and as I mentioned earlier, writing for voice is a major blind-spot for me. While I wish avoid comparisons, I’ve recently completed my own piece for speaker and ensemble. It’s incredibly intimidating to be standing at the end of a long line of experimentation while dealing with something so natural, so familiar, and yet so difficult to notate. I’ve been using all the pieces I’ve been discussing as a map of the territory, and I’ve found that there’s still a lot of territory to explore. Whether my modest contribution will mean anything is still yet to be seen, but I am using the lessons I’ve learned from a this tradition of experimentation to better understand the spoken word and the music that lies within.

On Censorship and Program Notes

OK, regarding the recent hoopla around the NYYS censoring their latest commission; I’ve been talking with a few people about this and I’ve heard a variety of interesting perspectives. So… here’s my un-solicited view:

First off, NYYS made a terrible and frankly, cowardly choice to pull the piece just because of one anonymous letter. The MET was very gracious in providing a whole page in the program notes for those who objected to Adam’s opera. Klingoffer has some very sensitive subject matter that no doubt would rub some very raw wounds for those involved. It’s completely understandable to object to an artistic depiction of a death of a loved one that you disagree with. That’s the nature of art: there is no one singular ‘meaning’ behind the work. I feel that if NYYS offered a similar gesture, then perhaps we’d get a better discussion surrounding the work rather than flat-out pulling the piece after spending so much time commissioning the work, rehearsing it, and eventually programming it.

Secondly, the composer did absolutely NOTHING to help his case. I completely respect the artist’s choice not to talk about his/her work. Often music is the vehicle for us to express the inexpressible; indeed he was alluding to this when he decided to include that Mahler quote. HOWEVER, I feel that If you decide to quote a Nazi propaganda tune without providing context for it’s usage under the guise of “I’m an ARTIST and I don’t have to explain myself!”, then you’re liable to have people make some judgments against you and your work that you might not like (whether or not what they say is actually true!). Of course we’re always told not to care what people think, and I agree with that to an extent, but you’re taking a calculated risk by deciding to remain silent when dealing with controversial material. I feel that if he simply gave us (especially non-musicians!) the opportunity to be welcomed into his sound world by talking about his work and the ideas behind it, then perhaps his piece would still be programmed. I hear time and time again that people love to hear composers talk about their work; it humanizes this abstract idea people have about us and creates a very real and meaningful connection. If the composer in question offered the same kind of olive branch, then maybe we’d understand him and his work better.

tl:dr – Both sides are wrong in this case. That said, I still want to hear it.