Showing Up

Do the Math affirms the old principal that a goodly portion of life is about showing up. Here are a few things at which you may show up:

– I’ll be introducing a talk by George Lewis at my day job tomorrow, Sept. 12, 5:15 in the Music Building on the Penn campus. It feels a little like I am introducing a panel discussion – we will be hearing from a trombonist of historic important with a huge discography; a pioneer of electronic music, particularly in live and improvised contexts; and a musicologist who wrote an important history of the AACM.

Here is George Lewis speaking prior to a program of his music at Columbia’s Miller Theatre in 2012:

– the first of two all-Harbison Songfusion programs is this Friday in NYC. My friend Mary Mackenzie will be doing Simple Daylight, John’s emotionally devastating and impeccably crafted song cycle on Michael Fried texts, written for and recorded by Dawn Upshaw. The program includes instrumental works as well as vocal; the players include Ben Fingland, who gave that fine performance of my clarinet concerto last season.

– Judith Gordon, who premiered my piano consortium commission last spring, will take the piece out for another spin later this month. She will include Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift on a Sage Chamber Music Society concert, Sunday, September 29 at 4. The program is free, and will take place at Sweeney Concert Hall on the Smith College campus. More soon on performances of my music this coming season – for now click on the “performances” tab above.

Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift

The piano consortium commission is finished. I sent out the remaining two movements this past week, completing a set of five that will run about 13 minutes.

The first movement is quite bleak – here’s an excerpt:

A nice cheerful way to start a piece, don’t you think? The movement stays in the bass clef for most of its duration, tries to ascend, crescendos as it goes, the rapid figures get more and more wild, the music reaches the middle of the keyboard – but then collapses back to the depths. The title for this movement is from a Stephen Crane poem:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter–bitter, ” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

(Those closing lines also serve as the title of a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, a fact unknown to me until I googled the Crane.) This first movement is followed by a moderato that is mostly in the treble clef. (There is an excerpt here.) The contrast of registers is a strategy I learned from playing sets of piano pieces by Crumb and Martino. In Crumb’s Makrokosmos, Volume I, the first piece is similarly focused on the lowest register – the figure at the top of the keyboard at the end of that movement is startlingly fresh, as is the next movement – which is all in the treble clef. (Once, in the Netherlands, I had to play Mak. I on an old piano with fewer than 88 keys, which required a quick adjustment to the end of the first movement!)  Crumb’s use of short, sharp gestures in a higher register for the second movement serves not only to contrast with the opening movement, but also takes advantage of the resonance created by the low cluster held over from the first movement with the sostenuto pedal. The high staccato sounds excite sympathetic vibrations in those freely sounding bass strings. In the third movement, Crumb keeps the low cluster and mostly stays in the upper register again, though adding a few long-ringing bass notes. The Martino piece I am thinking of is another big set of relatively short movements, the Fantasies and Impromptus. Here the first movement is registrally quite wide-ranging; even the very first phrase spans the keyboard. The second movement resides in the upper half of the keyboard – the restriction of register and the resulting airborne texture provides welcome contrast with the previous movement. It is like chamber music after the full orchestra of the first movement. We worry so much about fine distinctions in composition, trying to find exactly the right pitch – as well we should;  but the grosser distinctions – whether a passage or an entire movement is mostly high notes or mostly low notes – can be more important than one might think.

The central movement of my set is a “Gigue-Scherzo” (would Scherzo-Gigue sound better?) that I wrote about here and here; the scherzo and the moderato mentioned previously are both discussed here.

I haven’t blogged yet about the slow movement that follows. Here’s an excerpt:

Instead of just “Nocturne”, I’m now going to call the movement “Nocturnal Obsessions”; the tritones of the steady eighth note ostinato continue almost throughout, with short motivic cells floating above. This type of night music is indebted to Crumb – who got it from Bartok. To see what I mean, check out the slow movement of Bartok’s Out of Doors.

The last movement is called “Contraption” (the program note below will explain the title). This is a light-hearted piece, opening with a sort of fanfare:

and continuing with an oom-pah accompaniment that hints at a rag or stride texture. There are some simple but fun rhythmic games going on. I like this one:

where the steady eighth notes are at odds with the assymmetrical melody. When this is revisited later, the left hand eighth notes speed up and there are hints of Nancarrow and of stride:

Here are the movement listing and program note for the whole set:


Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift

Five preludes for piano

Program Listing:

1) Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart

2) A Gracious Dance

3) Gigue-Scherzo

4) Nocturnal Obsessions

5) Contraption

This work was commissioned with the generous support of:

Daniel Barber
Geoffrey Burleson
Eliza Garth
Judith Gordon
Stephen Gosling
Aleck Karis
Catherine Kautsky
You-mee Kim
Jon-Luke Kirton
Ryan MacEvoy McCullough
Eric Moe
Christopher Oldfather
Linda Reichert
James Winn

Program Note:

Auden’s poem The Composer speaks of how painters and poets must “translate” from images of the real world or experienced feeling while the work of composers is something different:

Only your notes are pure contraption,
Only your song is absolute gift.

 Now, there are abstract paintings that “aspire to the state of music” in Walter Pater’s phrase, and the conjunction of music and purity is questionable. But there is still something to the notion that music is about the play of forms that exist in the domain of music, and nowhere else. In this work, rather than setting a text or reflecting on some external image, I wanted to write a piece that would live in that musical realm.

Therefore, the individual titles for this set sprang from the music, rather than the other way around. The first movement’s title comes from a Stephen Crane poem, while the last’s reflects Auden’s sense of music as a self-contained construction, but also the dictionary definition of a contraption: “a machine or device that appears strange or unnecessarily complicated, and often badly made or unsafe.”

The plan is for each of the fourteen pianists to play the piece at least once in the next few years – I’ll be letting you know the details when the performances get scheduled.

My next tasks will be to continue work on some orchestral songs with texts by Susan Stewart, as well as a new motet for Emmanuel Church. There will also be a few things happening that I have been neglecting, like calling the plumber and raking leaves…

Deadline Approaching

Not much posting happening lately as I am pushing to finish up the piano consortium commission. Three movements are complete; two remain – the first and last in the set. The opening movement is nearly done: a harsh, dark chorale, dark in register, bitter in affect, with ornaments that mutter or sweep upward. There will be fanfares and a toccata for the finale.

A few items before I go back to work:

– Kile Smith posts more eloquently than I – and more comprehensively – about last week’s Lyric Fest program.

– my colleague Guthrie Ramsey has been writing a series of very substantial posts springing from his course on African-American music – the first one is here. He also has a guest post by Penn grad composer Erica Ball, writing about a recent visit to Penn by Brett Sroka and his group Ergo.

– Minnesota Public Radio offers a conversation with Maria Schneider here.

-the fine composer Hayes Biggs (a friend of mine from Columbia U days) has redone his website – there’s audio and more to explore.

I’ll be back after the piano piece is done…

Tuplets or Dots?

The discussion in the comments on the previous post brought about the present post. Here is a different approach to notating the first page of my Scherzo for piano.

As with the previous version, I have not fine-tuned the slurs, aligned everything properly, etc. This is just a draft, so don’t jump all over me, you connoisseurs of fine notation. The point is that I tried it with tuplets instead of dotted 32nds when there are four notes in the time of three sixteenths. Of course, this is quite reasonable, and it would work out OK. I’m not sure it is actually an improvement, but it would work fine. The spot that makes me nervous, and the kind of thing that led me to use dotted notes, can be seen in bars 5 and 6 where there are plain 16ths and tuplet 16ths against beat units of different lengths. (There is more of this type of thing later in the piece.) The dotted 32nds make a more immediate distinction between the durations in these two measures. It does help that I broke the sixteenths of  m. 5 into four groups of two instead of two groups of four, but the notes still look too similar to me. The tuplets do get rid of the slightly bizarre looking dotted 32nds, I suppose that is a good thing. But it doesn’t strike me as a compelling reason to change.

I didn’t change the dotted 16ths in m. 12 – I suppose if I went with quadruplet 16ths I should write duplet eighths to be consistent, no?

One thing I did change in this version is definitely an improvement – the right hand in m. 8 now reflects the 3+3+2 beat units suggested by the left hand – before I had two eighths and a sixteenth for the high f-sharps. This is better.

I’d be interested to hear from readers with their thoughts on this, especially if any of my pianists are reading this.

Of course, if the dotted 32nds in the scherzo bug you, I imagine you won’t care for this page from a piece I wrote for the Prism Quartet:

Doing this page with dots lets me vary the length of the beat unit. Besides, it was exciting to write a measure of 27/32 time.

Consortium Comments

A theorist friend of mine noted the prominent perfect fifths in the “moderato” piano piece from my current piano consortium project (I posted a fragment here), saying that this was not something he was used to seeing in my music. I wrote back that the fifths – and the triads, for that matter,  were part of a conscious effort to freshen my harmonic vocabulary – to get away from a more exclusive focus on the 013, 014 and 016 world, with its tendency to octatonicism. I also wanted something different from the diatonic (with a few funny notes) vocabulary that is my usual other gambit. Actually there are a lot of fifths in my more diatonic music, a whole lot. I rely on stacked perfect fifths a great deal. Look at the first page of this.  (click on the image of the first page.)

On the local level, the new piece obviously uses the symmetrical structures of Bartok, Berg, and Varese that I learned about from George Perle and I think those patterns work reasonably well.  However, I look at the piece now with a certain amount of dismay at how the large scale structure seems arbitrary – the cadences, for example, are to:

B-flat over F
A-flat M
em7 (#11)

B-flat, E and G fall into the same symmetrical axis, but it is hard to relate the other harmonic resting points. (I’m going to skip over the tricky question of whether these points are all of equal structural weight.) I actually thought about revising the piece to end on A, but that seems no less arbitrary. Maybe the piece is more about other things – degrees of tension, polymodality, modal planeing – rather than some sort of post-diatonic tonality (a phrase of Perle’s – its partner being “post-tonal diatonicism”. The two sum up a great deal of twentieth-century harmony.) And just how important is it to end on the chord/key/tonal center that you started on? Is anyone really disturbed by the fact that the later strains of a Joplin rag are not in the same key as the first strain? (Actually, I have on my office bookshelf a score anthology for use in theory classes where the editor expresses concern about exactly that…sigh…)

The scherzo is very much an 016 piece, but there are other things as well. I liked the idea of writing something that seemed to be rather neoclassical, even neo-baroque (it’s a sort of gigue) but kept going off the rails every few bars. I also liked the idea of writing a seemingly straightforward ABA (the excerpt I posted only shows the first A), and even having a literally repeated first strain in the trio section (I can’t remember when I have ever used a first ending/second ending notation in a concert piece before this.) The second A starts the gigue in inversion, as a good suite movement should, although the tritones are now perfect fourths, at least part of the time. It’s as though the mode has changed. The trio is dominated by scales that are a compressed variant of the figuration in the A section that involves a step then a seventh.

It’s a very thin thread of connection, but I had in mind the scherzo of Beethoven Op. 2, #3, where the A section has imitations and the trio is just arpeggios, and relatively athematic, like my trio.

I hope the pianists will play the rhythms precisely so that the written out rubato and the written out accelerando will  come through as I  planned – they don’t need to do more than what is there. This reminds me of an interpretation problem in Brahms – when he writes an augmentation with a rit. over it, are you really supposed to rit., or is he just acknowledging what the augmentation is doing for you? Of course, he is the guy who puts < > over a single chord in a piano piece – which I think Schoenberg does as well. (I always took that to mean “espr.” or “dolce”.) Of course, part of the pleasure of handing a score to a performer is to discover new things about a piece that you (foolishly) thought you knew – after all you wrote it! – and my pianists will undoubtedly teach me things about the rhythm – and a great deal else – in my music that I didn’t know was there.

Mid-Hiatus Miscellany

– Two of the projected five movements of my piano consortium piece are now complete. I showed you a bit of one movement here, and here is an excerpt from the other movement:

As with the previous fragment, this still needs some editing of the notation, but it will give you a little taste of the piece. Will comment on it in another post. I want to replace the tired name “Scherzo”, but no idea yet what it might eventually get called.

– If you like words (hey, you’re reading something, so I guess that might include you), you might find these as interesting as I do.

-regarding some Boston friends:  Cantata Singers is offering Bach, Brahms, Zelenka, Marjorie Merryman, and James MacMillan, among others during the coming season. In addition to the usual Bach Cantatas, Emmanuel Music is doing the Bach Christmas Oratorio, and the Boston premiere of Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. I assume this will be done in the recent “pocket version” that Jacques Desjardins re-orchestrated, rather than the original version done at the Met.

-Here in Philly, Orchestra 2001 is offering an all-Cage program and a collaboration with Pifarro, the Renaissance Wind Band this coming season.

Piano Progress

Not a lot of blogging lately, as I am concentrating on two composition projects – the piece for the consortium of pianists I wrote about here; and a set of songs on texts by Susan Stewart. The piano piece is due first, so it has been occupying more of my attention. It is looking like a set of preludes rather than a short sonata or a single movement. I have accumulated a lot of material since starting the set, just bits of things: different kinds of pianistic texture, chord progressions, melodic fragments. The problem has been to select and build them into pieces. Which fragments belong together? Which ones do I need to let go of, perhaps save for another piece? Here’s the possible beginning of one of the movements (editing obviously incomplete, even the spelling of the chords!!):

But there are, as the poet says, miles to go before I sleep…