Be it Resolved

A major focus for my New Year’s resolutions is the piano. I will be reviving a couple of challenging pieces that I learned years ago – the Berio piano Sequenza and the first movement from Martino’s Fantasies and Impromptus – for performances at Penn as part of the “Eighty-Eight Lately” series, so I need to be more disciplined about practice than I sometimes am. (My performances will be guest appearances on recitals by Greg DeTurck (February 17) and Matt Bengston (February 24)).

While the Berio and Martino will obviously be my primary concern in the coming weeks, I’ve been thinking about my work at the piano in general as well. I have a large stack of exercise books (it seemed every teacher I ever worked with recommended different ones), but I will rely principally on the most succinct yet comprehensive, the Dohnányi “Essential Finger Exercises”. Regarding standard rep, I have spent more time with Bach (mostly the Well-Tempered), Beethoven sonatas, and the Chopin Etudes than anything else – certainly no surprises there – and expect to continue to do so in the coming year, though I will naturally dip into other areas as well.  Bach has particularly been on my mind lately, how I want to be more methodical in my work on his music, more thoughtful in my approach to choosing fingerings and articulations, trying to set aside the fact that I usually feel like I don’t know how to make those choices. These issues manifest with every composer, but seem especially acute with Bach. I was never taught how to choose fingerings, at least not in a systematic way, though I got some spotty hints here and there. But at least I can be more thorough in making my decisions, in not letting anything slide, except the occasional slide from black key to white! Of course, this is bound up with the mysteries of phrasing and articulation. I want to get away from the generic “legato sixteenths, staccato eighths” approach, though, like fingering, I am not too confident about how to make choices. But make conscious choices I will, and being conscious, consistent and thorough will constitute an improvement on my usual habits. It will help to be less inhibited about marking up my scores; I’ve tended to be too sparing about that, perhaps in reaction to a teacher who spattered my scores with slashes, circles, words of encouragement and criticism, visual debris that could obscure the picture of the score. Still, I’ve been told that there are first-class artists whose scores are thickly coated with an impasto of markings, providing a historical record of varied approaches to each passage.

Another strategy for being methodical with Bach is a path through the WTC that was suggested by something I stumbled across in the Hinson book on piano repertoire. I’ve never seen it, but there is a Bartók edition of the WTC that offers an ordering of the pieces by degree of difficulty. Of course there is something arbitrary about this, but still, it gives me a structure for choosing pieces on which to work rather than simply wandering through the collection at random or trying to work through the set in the chromatically ascending order in which they are usually printed. (It’s not surprising that I know the easier among first ten or so pieces in the first volume as usually printed better than any others in the set.) There’s plenty of room for argument here. For example, I find the D major in Book One easier than several pieces Bartok has placed before it. Here’s the Bartók listing:

bach listing copy


Flute to the Power of Two

Yesterday I finished my little flute duet for January 18th’s Dolce Suono concert at Trinity Center here in Philadelphia. Mimi Stillman asked me and a number of colleagues to contribute short pieces inspired by Bach for a program honoring her teacher, Julius Baker. Andrea Clearfield, Richard Danielpour, Daniel Dorff, Jeremy Gill, Heidi Jacob, Jan Krzywicki, Robert Maggio and myself are all writing pieces for the occasion. My piece takes off from the Badinerie, the closing movement of Bach’s orchestral suite in B minor. (A badinerie is a scherzo in duple meter; I don’t know of any examples of the term outside of a few Baroque pieces. I suppose it is related to “badinage” or “banter”.) While the original movement features a single flute with strings and continuo, I have concocted a duet for two flutes alone – hence the name Badinerie Squared. The piece is based on motifs from the Bach but with some playful distortions of the harmony. Here is a snippet of the original:

original bach

And here is the opening of my duet:

jp opening

Other versions of the opening downward arpeggio include these:

jp bach #2

and later there is an inverted form as well.

There is a good bit of harmonic slip-sliding going on in this light-hearted piece that might bring Prokofieff to mind — or, given the character of the motifs, P.D.Q. Bach!

Mimi will be joined for my piece by Jeffrey Khaner, principal flute of the Philadelphia Orchestra and another Julius Baker pupil. Jeff premiered my A Flutist’s Sketchbook not that long ago.

Can’t Finger This Out

I know, I am supposed to use an unfingered edition of piano music I am studying, and should work out the fingering for myself. That is the moral high ground concerning fingering. However, as a composer, I need to cultivate breadth as well as depth with regard to repertoire, and fingerings help facilitate my sight-reading. But not when the fingerings are insufficient, or even inexplicable. For Bach, I prefer the Bischoff edition as reprinted by Kalmus, even though it has anachronistic slurs, etc. added – the fingerings make sense and there are enough suggestions that there are no mysteries as to what is intended. Not so my Henle edition of the WTC. In an effort to make the page have as little as possible that is not Bachian in origin, the fingerings in this edition can be cryptic. The insufficient evidence makes me have to stop and wonder what the editor meant. In extreme cases, the fingering can seem crazy. What do you make of this:


Is the “handing” bracket in the wrong place, and actually you are supposed to play the C with the right hand thumb, rather than beginning with the d-flat? Is the fingering just wrong – the 2 should be a 3? Probably not. The e-natural in the previous bar that resolves to the f on the downbeat shown here is fingered with 3-4, suggesting that they are thinking of 3 for the lower voice’s f, and therefore two notes in a row with the thumb. But what about passing 5 under 4? Such crossings are suggested elsewhere in this edition. This would let you play 3 2 1 for the sixteenths. I’d prefer to play 5 on the f and then again on the b-flat quarter on beat two rather than use the thumb twice in a row on the sixteenths. And if they really do want you to use the thumb twice in a row, they should have marked the b-flat sixteenth with a 1 rather than leaving you guessing about an exceptional procedure. I can understand that 3 is desirable for the f so as to keep a connection with the next bass note, but if I was going to use 3 on the f I would play 1 2 1 for the sixteenths, no? Maybe there is something here I am missing. It wouldn’t be the first time in using this edition that something baffled me, yet eventually made sense after sufficient reflection. But I don’t think this is one of those cases.

The Schnabel edition of the Beethoven sonatas has some unexpected fingerings, but they  often spring from Schnabel’s ideas about phrasing; I don’t think that is the case with Henle’s Bach, which mostly assumes a generalized legato rather than making suggestions about phrasing. In other words, I don’t think the fingering mystery above is telling you to play 2 1 1 so as to force a detaching of the last sixteenth. Of course, that brings up the problem of phrasing and articulation in Bach in general, for me a source of no small anxiety and uncertainty, especially when I hear the myriad subtle nuances across a wide spectrum of articulations in the playing of masters of Bach such as Schiff, Hewitt, Perahia, etc. How does one decide these things?

Go here for a previous post about Henle.

Monday Night Miscellany

– something interesting to me in the 1949 chart that accompanies this article is the listing of records in the “highbrow” row: “Bach and before, Ives and after”. I agree that this captures a certain sensibility, but I would never have guessed Ives would be a marker at that time. Stravinsky or Schoenberg or Bartok (records of music by the latter two are depicted in the chart), but Ives in 1949? True, the Concord had premiered in 1939, the Pulitzer was awarded in 1947. So maybe these brought him enough recognition to be cited in a chart of this kind? I don’t know what the Ives discography looked like at that moment, maybe there were more records of his music in 1949 than I would have thought.

– to make up for the lack of fresh posts on Think Denk, here is a recent piece by Denk on Ives, and here is an older one on Bach. The Bach score you will want to refer to is here.

– Hayes Biggs has a nice post on Mario Davidovsky and the Composers Conference here.

– some amusing procrastination devices here, here, and here.

Organic Questions Answered

Jonathan Rudy, a graduate student in organ at Indiana University, was in touch recently, asking some questions about my compositions for organ. He agreed to let me reprint his questions and my answers here.

1. In general, how would you describe your musical and extra-musical approaches to composition, and furthermore, how would you describe the musical style that results from this approach?

My approach is eclectic, varying widely depending on the expressive goals of the project at hand. I have written atonal pieces, pieces with key signatures and pieces that occupy many points in between on the technical spectrum. Sometimes a composition will be focused on a relatively small range of expressive means, but other pieces include a wider range of materials. For example, my work for sextet and electronic sound, Sacra Conversazione, alternates between tonal and twelve-tone movements.
2. Did you have to make any adjustments to your traditional approach to compose for the organ?

 No, I did not adjust my approach – it seemed like a natural medium, probably because of my experience as an organist – see below.

3. How did you become interested in composing for the organ, and have you had any prior experience with the instrument?

My principal instrument is the piano. However, my interest in the organ extends back to my childhood, probably because I was raised Catholic and heard the instrument at Mass. My own direct contact with the instrument began in high school when a spinet electronic organ, a Baldwin, was given to my family by a relative. Using the skills I had acquired through earlier music study as a basis, I taught myself to play the instrument and I began accompanying church services at St. Paschal Baylon church (see photo at left) in Highland Heights, OH. (I want to say that I do play the pedals, unlike many pianists who try to play the organ!)

Books and recordings at the local library were a big help. I also made it a point to seek out live performances of organ music such as the regular performances at the Cleveland Museum of Art (I recall a Messiaen festival there when I was a student) or the lunchtime programs at Trinity Cathedral, the Episcopal cathedral across the street from Cleveland State University, where I studied (A new Flentrop was installed at the Cathedral during my undergraduate days.) Radio broadcasts also nourished my interest in the instrument. I recall the regular series offered by John Obetz on the Auditorium Organ broadcasts heard weekly on WCLV-FM in Cleveland.

Although I am self-taught as an organist – and a real organist would justifiably laugh at my technique – I have long functioned on a paid professional basis as a church organist, in my hometown of Cleveland, OH and in New York City. (I have been less active since my move to Philadelphia in 1988, although I continue to play the piano at services.) This probably bespeaks the low level of competence among Catholic church musicians these days more than any talent on my part. But it also reflects the fact that I am a composer, for as a composer I have a vivid imaginative sense of how a piece of music should sound. Having in mind an intense sound image can overcome a lack of technique, for the body will follow where the ear leads. I also think my composer’s ear serves me well in choosing registrations. I have a sense of whether, for example, adding a mixture for the final verse of the hymn will either encourage or overwhelm the congregation’s singing, something that some organists with a bit of training seem unable to calculate.

4. In terms of your output for organ, did you have any inspiration or guidance, such as the works of other composers (past and present) or performers? 

The most important organ composers – Bach and Messiaen – are, of course, primary inspirations. But I am interested in a wide range of organ compositions from Frescobaldi and Buxtehude to the present day. The Messiaen influence is readily seen in certain treatments of texture and layout of musical material. For example, in my “Meditation on ‘What Wondrous Love is This?’”, the use of the 4’ pedal for the melody and the dissonant figures over sustained slow moving chords come right out of Messiaen.

I owe a great deal to Karel Paukert, organist and long-time Curator of Musical Arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art (now retired), who, through his playing, programming, and support of my compositional work, was a tremendous inspiration and resource.

5. I’ve read in your biography that sacred music plays a deep role in your compositional work. Especially considering the organ’s origins and usage today as a “church” instrument, how do you feel sacred music plays into your works for organ? Furthermore, how do feel these works would function as practical pieces in a sacred setting?

Ever since my “Three Sacred Songs” for voice and piano, I have made use of pre-existing sacred melodies in some of my compositions. That set began in response to a friend’s request for folk song arrangements to perform at an upcoming recital. I was not especially interested in folk music, but chose to arrange melodies that I had learned in my work as a church musician. The use of older melodies worked well with my eclectic compositional approach in which tonal and post-tonal materials are integrated. All three of my published organ compositions make use of pre-existing tunes. Although the program note for my “Little Suite” speaks of the three movements as possible prelude, interlude, and postlude at a service, in reality I don’t suppose that my organ music would actually find a place in the vast majority of churches today, at least in my own denomination.

6. Finally, what did you enjoy most, or perhaps find most inspiring, about writing organ literature? How is it similar and/or contrasting from writing for other instruments? First of all, I simply enjoy the instrument with its vast range of expression and technical possibilities. I enjoy working with an instrument with which I have had hands-on experience. And I like the idea of working in a somewhat esoteric niche, of being in on the trade secrets of a special guild, so to speak. Most composers wouldn’t know a bourdon from a salicional, but it is fun to be someone who does know the difference. There is also the somewhat childish thrill of simply being able to make a big noise!

Technically, the chief issue in writing for the organ compared with other instruments – besides knowledge of the instrument’s capabilities – is keeping in mind the highly resonant spaces in which the instrument is typically found. The organ is a public instrument, and although you can write intimate music for it, that music is always perceived at a certain psychological distance compared with, say, a solo piano or string quartet. A Bach trio sonata is like chamber music, but it is not heard in a “chamber” – literally, or metaphorically, in the mind’s ear.


If I am completely honest, I think seeing this film at an early age influenced my interest in the organ, especially the second portion of the clip.


Emmanuel Music will sing my Cummings motet, Spiralling Ecstatically this coming Sunday, March 7. The piece will be heard at a 10:00 Morning Prayer service at Emmanuel Church on Newbury St. in Boston, as well as at the 3:00 installation service  for Emmanuel’s new rector, Rev. Pamela L. Werntz. The afternoon service will include the celebration of the Eucharist. Bach cantata #163, Nur jedem das Seine!, will also be heard at the morning service. If you don’t know about Emmanuel, this is a place where a Bach cantata is heard every week in its proper liturgical context, a practice begun under the leadership of the late conductor Craig Smith that has continued now for decades. (It is Craig who conducts Emmanuel on Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s sublime CD of Bach solo cantatas.) Emmanuel is a lively and welcoming worshipping community that has an unusual commitment to the highest musical standards. I am very happy to be, in a small way, a part of that community through the motets I have written for Emmanuel over the years. You can hear one of those motets here (scroll down to “choral”), and see a sample of a score for that piece here. I will be there for both services, and also for the BMOP concert on Saturday night – Ball, Wheeler, Hartke, Babbitt, Olivero, Bartók. (At left: the “Pilgrim’s Progress” window at Emmanuel Church.)