Otherwise, why have a blog?

On the theory that I haven’t been sufficiently self-serving on this blog lately (apart from the intrinsic egocentricity of having a blog at all), here (and in some upcoming posts), is some news about my composerly activities lately and in the near future.

A few weeks ago I finally finished A Flutist’s Sketchbook, a set of 13 pieces for flute and piano on a commission from the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. The idea was to create a piece for an amateur player of moderate attainments that would still be a satisfying concert piece for a professional to play. Originally I planned a Mikrokosmos-like set of studies on particular scales or rhythms, but only traces of that plan remain. Here is the list of pieces:

1. Chorale

2. Plaintive

3. Slow Waltz

4. Canon by Inversion

5. Asymmetrical

6. Five Against Two

7. Vision

8. Popcorn

9. “Where the Bee Sucks”

10. Nano-Variations

11. Invention

12. Dance

13. Variations on “Be Thou My Vision”

“Five against Two” is all that remains of a series of planned polyrhythmic studies. There were supposed to be modal studies as well, and the “Invention” is a lydian-flavored piece, but sketches for the others of that kind were discarded. Some of the other pieces do play with particular methodical ways of constructing a piece – the “Canon by Inversion” is an obvious one, but “Popcorn” is another. In that piece, short diatonic fragments proliferate, starting canonically, but quickly bursting those boundaries (popping the shell, I suppose). The proliferation subsides gradually, and the whole thing, thanks to the mostly staccato gestures, recalls the sound of popcorn in a microwave with a gradual increase and decrease in density of attacks. Hopefully there are no burned musical kernels.

Two of the pieces relate to already existing music of my own. “Where the Bee Sucks” is an arrangement of my setting of a text from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” – originally for soprano, recorder, lute and viol; then for soprano, flute, harp and cello; and most recently, for soprano and piano – the latter version recently premiered here in Philadelphia on a Network for New Music concert. Another movement re-works a setting of the hymn tune “Be Thou My Vision”. I have tried to make that happen in two earlier versions, one with voice and piano, the other with voice, harp and flute. Unlike the earlier “Tempest” settings, I am not quite happy with either one just yet, but I think this flute and piano instrumental version will fly. In fact, now I think I can go back and fix the earlier vocal versions.

I didn’t have in mind an overall formal plan for the set. There’s no need for performers to program all thirteen pieces in the Sketchbook, though I think it is possible to make that work. In other pieces I have tried to write a number of short movements while creating an overall expressive arc, but I don’t find this easy to pull off. The attraction of the idea is to write a multi-movement piece that gets away from neo-classical models, like a three or four movement sonata pattern; not that there is anything wrong with that, but sometimes you want to try something different. Times Like These (for clarinet and piano) was supposed to have a lot of little movements, but turned out to have just five over the course of eight minutes. Dark the Star (baritone and chamber ensemble, on texts of Susan Stewart, Rilke, and from the Bible) comes closest to the notion, consisting of 9 songs, played continuously over about 20 minutes. I am returning to the problem in one of my current projects, a set of piano pieces. More about this in my next post.

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