Back to School Miscellany

Labor Day has yet to happen, but I was back at my day job today. I have some more substantive posts planned, but you will have to make do with a few  links for the moment:

– One of my current composition projects is to write an oboe quartet for Peggy Pearson on a commission from Winsor Music. The premiere is planned for the fall of 2014. Winsor has a handsome new website, with information about their concerts as well as some intriguing and uncommon projects, like their relationship with Project STEP and their Songs for the Spirit hymnal-in-progress.

– Go here to read Stephen Sondheim’s acceptance speech at this year’s MacDowell Medal Day; there are also links to remarks by Michael Chabon and Frank Rich.

– Season announcements are being flung over the digital transom. Go here for Orchestra 2001 (highlights include a Gunther Schuller premiere and Richard Wernick’s Kaddish-Requiem); here for Network for New Music (including a 2-concert Harbison festival with premieres by the guest of honor and five more composers – I’m working on something for that); and here for Songfusion (opening with more Harbison, including a program at Small’s jazz club featuring Mary Mackenzie – who will be doing a program at Penn on October 23.)

Show Me the Meter

Having enjoyed studying Stephen Sondheim’s two volumes of collected lyrics, I recently picked up Sondheim on Music by Mark Eden Horowitz, a book that seemed like it would address his music – the notes and rhythms – in a way that the lyric collections do not. It does indeed address the “musical” side of the music, and I have found the book fascinating, but frustrating as well. It is a transcript of video interviews made in connection with Sondheim’s donation of his manuscripts to the Library of Congress, the point being to try to give some clues that will help future scholars interpret the manuscripts. There is lots of interesting information here because Horowitz asks intelligent questions, but I longed for a more systematic exploration of his music. Furthermore, a big chunk of the book is given over to a listing/discography of Sondheim’s songs, something useful more for reference than musical insights. I must quickly add that the copy I have been reading is the first edition – there is a later revision that sounds more extensive in several ways, and I need to get a look at that second edition.

Not far from Sondheim on Music on the library shelves was On the Street Where I Live by Alan Jay Lerner. It is a memoir of the creation of My Fair Lady, Gigi, and Camelot. This is an enjoyable book, with plenty of fine anecdotes, but it’s relatively superficial, and you won’t learn from it the way you can from Sondheim’s books. I was struck by an assertion made by Lerner  that the agitated mood of “Show Me” from My Fair Lady is supported by the five-eight meter. What? Did I learn the song wrong, listening to my family’s LP of the cast album as a kid? I thought it was in a straight triple meter. Actually, the A sections of the song could work well in five, divided 3 + 2 — the bridge has to be in triple meter so the big hemiola across the barline can work. But a quick check of YouTube confirmed my recollection of the meter. Here are two unusual versions: Audrey Hepburn *not* dubbed by Marni Mixon:

then – a very unfair comparison – Julie Andrews doing the song on what I believe to be a special Ed Sullivan show devoted to Lerner and Lowe. In the book, Lerner speaks of this telecast as being the turning point for Camelot which only became a box office hit immediately thereafter. It’s interesting that Andrews plays rather free with the pitches in this version – listen to the semi-spoken effects (Rex Harrison’s influence?) and the glissandi at the ends of the lines of the A sections. It’s not sloppiness — I’m certain she could hit all the notes, just listen to the bridge, especially the first one.  I suppose it is more a function of having done the piece a million times between 1956 and 1962, the year of this clip — her interpretation had evolved into something that valued passionate gesture over pinpoint clarity of pitch. It’s a cliché to say it, but it remains a pity that Andrews is not in the movie version.

Finished “Finishing”

I finished reading Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat last week, his first volume of collected, annotated lyrics. A few random comments:

-Reading the lyrics is enjoyable, but what I really ate up was the commentary, both the notes on Sondheim’s own songs, and the mini-essays on canonical music theatre composers. As some reviewers have noted, Sondheim is very critical of his colleagues – Lorenz Hart is “lazy” for example. I have to say that my awe of an artist like Hart always led me to assume that my slight discomfort with the last word in the couplet “your looks are laughable, unphotographable” (in “My Funny Valentine”), was my problem, not a flaw in the lyric. Sondheim throws the blame on Hart, saying “unphotogenic” is what is really meant, and “unphotographable” is sloppy.

-As a composer I longed for commentary on the music itself, the notes and rhythms. A truly technical discussion would not be possible. The level of musical literacy, even among the elite population (the “general public” – ha!) that would buy this book, is appallingly low. But surely there could have been a less technical discussion that would engage, for example, the play of motives in Sweeney Todd, or would expand on Sondheim’s assertion that the languages of  both Ravel and Rachmaninoff were models for A Little Night Music. (Ravel obviously, but where is the Rachmaninoff?) I also wish there were annotations on the reproductions of lyric drafts that appear throughout the book, and more draft pages with musical notation. The book is already big, and asking for even more is probably unreasonable – but still, the commentary is what I found most interesting in the book.

-It seems odd that a book proclaiming that “God is in the details” right on its very endpapers should have more than one page where an analytical comment is stated both in the body of the text and in a footnote on the same page.

Sondheim on Colbert here.

Music Illiteracy Alert

Another week, another questionable bit of writing about music in the NY Times. I don’t mean a review with which I disagree. I mean the following:

In the article about Arvo Pärt in last week’s magazine section, Arthur Lubow notes that  “…it is also important that Pärt, a fanatic for detail, painstakingly adjusts each score to achieve the result he is after.” Goodness, a composer who painstakingly adjusts each score! What will those crazy composers think of next? Who knows, maybe writers will start “painstakingly adjusting” their writing after having it looked at by someone who knows something about the topic on which they are working.

And in Paul Simon’s review of Stephen Sondheim’s new lyric collection, he states that “He [Sondheim] often uses dissonance (notes from one key added to chords from another, as if the ear were hearing two different keys at the same time) to indicate a character’s inner turmoil.” So there is no such thing as dissonance using only the notes within the key? Maybe Simon missed the class on diatonic non-harmonic tones. There are hints of polytonality in Sondheim’s music, but that is not the only source of dissonance.

OK, enough sarcasm. I am happy to see writing about significant composers get some column inches in the newspaper of record. And the Pärt piece is remarkably free from gaffes given that it is written by (I assume) a non-musician. Simon’s review is basically well-written as well. I think his mistaken explanation of dissonance is trying to refer to the use of blue notes, because it comes in the context of an intriguing point about how the sound of jazz does not play a role in Sondheim’s musical vocabulary. This is partly explainable by the European settings of some of his shows. Still, I hear little, if any, black influence in the music of “Company”, a quintessentially New York City show. My sense is that jazz musicians respond in kind, so to speak, because few show interest in covering Sondheim songs. What Sondheim tune would you like to submit for consideration by The Bad Plus?

May 2013 UPDATE: regarding the last sentence above, see this.

Thursday night miscellany

-info on the Philly version of the Bang on a Can marathon here. Lots of great stuff, laudibly diverse programming – though not as diverse as the press releases might make you think. Fact is, the early iterations of the NYC version even included Babbitt and Davidovsky –  since excluded; and midtown work has, in general, never been welcome. But, again, there is much here to enjoy, and I applaud the Philly-centric inclusion of Uri Caine and the Sun Ra Arkestra. How about more Philly composers – and genuine stylistic diversity – next time?

-Anthony Tommasini on great moments in Sondheim.

-current (and upcoming) playlist:

(Iverson on Jasmine, and on Hank Jones)