Tuesday, May 15, 2012

forgetting me, remember me

I've been absent from the blogging world for a long time, for a variety of reasons. Mostly, I've just been too busy and fried from the weight of responsibilities on me to make sense of my thoughts. But I come out of my silence for what might be the most important of reasons.

Last summer, Alex and I were talking about our early experiences learning composition, and the people who influenced us in our youth. I started telling him about my harmony teacher at Vanier College in Montreal, Robert Jones, who had been my earliest compositional influence. Robert was a composer of incredible talent, a keen ear, wide-ranging tastes, open-minded, supremely irreverent about music and music-making. He was the greatest possible teacher for a young person with composing ambition, however inchoate. Deeply involved in his community, Robert taught full-time with endless energy and enthusiasm, while finding time to compose the most beautiful, moving, stylistically diverse music you've ever heard, for whatever forces he could get his hands on. Friends, school faculty, church choirs, anything. He was a terrific pianist, too, performing constantly on student recitals and faculty concerts, always involved in the making of living music. If any example set me on the path I currently walk, it was Robert's.

Did I mention irreverent? He was beyond funny. Once we were walking down the hall and heard two pianists rehearsing Mozart's two-piano concerto in the concert hall. Robert snuck in and started playing the accompaniment, from memory, a half-step higher, on a third piano. Another time, we read through the Britten Serenade together, with Robert playing the piano reduction and singing a pitch-perfect impression of Peter Pears. His music was that way, too, a wildly eclectic mix in which fake Brahms abutted tone rows and all manner of musical gestures from all periods. Once, in his series of organ preludes, he found a single, unbelievably irritating stop on his local church organ and wrote a whole piece for it. The very next piece was the most shockingly spot-on tango you've ever heard, lewd, swaggering and funny as hell coming from a huge pipe organ, and a massive relief from the pain that preceded it. He was the type who would giggle if you told him his piece was annoying or grating. In all likelihood, he'd meant it to be. All in the cause of good fun.

As I struggled to put into words all that Robert had meant to me, Alex said, "You should write him a letter and tell him all this. I bet he'd like to hear it, and people never say this stuff until it's too late." I'd lost touch with him over the years, and touching base again seemed like a great idea. So I went home and wrote Robert a long letter. While trying to find his address online, I came across references to a recent illness, and the huge oratorio he'd written during the recovery period. It added a sense of urgency to the whole thing, so say what I had to say before it was too late. But as these things go, the letter went unmailed. I couldn't get an address for him, I couldn't get anyone at the school to answer my e-mails, and so on. I could have, should have tried harder.

And now, it's too late. Robert died a few weeks ago, and I only found out today. All the things I wanted to say to him went unsaid, and I'll never get the chance to tell him what he meant to me. It's a regret I'll have to live with, if only out of pride. Robert was so good at what he did, and touched so many lives, that he couldn't have been unaware of just how important he'd been to his students, and I'm only one of them. But as a tribute to my teacher, the man whose example I try to live up to every day I wake up to do this, I offer the letter I wrote to him, lightly edited of more personal details, in the hope that a few people will read it and see how much one person's life can affect another's.

Rest in peace, Robert. You will be sorely missed. The world with you in it was a better, less oppressive place.

Dear Robert,

I hope this finds you well. I’ve been thinking about writing this letter for a long time, but for some reason never made myself sit down and do it. I’ve often wondered how you were since I left Montreal, what you were up to, what music you’d written. Occasionally I’d see a comment of yours on somebody’s blog and smile, if for no other reason than that it was good to know you were out there. I suppose the catalyst for writing this was a recent conversation with an American composer friend about the people who’d had a strong influence on us in our early careers. I told him about you, and the things you’d done that had an impact on my life, and he said, “You should put that in a letter and send it to him. I bet he’d like to hear it. People never do that until it’s too late.” So I thought to finally do it.

Naturally, the first thing I did was Google you, and of course I found out about your recent oratorio, and your illness. To say it hit me hard would be an understatement. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to go through that, and I hope you’re recovering your health. I was amazed to hear that you’d kept composing during that time, and a huge piece at that. Reading the descriptions of the music, how eclectic and moving it is, I thought, “Of course that’s what the piece is like. It’s Robert’s.” I wish I could have been there for the premiere, and hope it went well for you. Then again, your music was always well received, as I remember.

A bit about what’s happened to me in the past fifteen or so years. I’ve been living in Helsinki, Finland for the past decade, since I bailed out of the academic world Stateside after doing my Master’s at Stony Brook. I’m married, six years now, to a lovely Estonian musician who plays a chromatic zither native to the Baltic region. You’d love the sound of it, as well as her sense of humor. We have a wonderful, bright, exasperating two-year-old son named Oliver whose mission in life seems to be to make my head explode. I work freelance as a composer, having given up the horn many years ago, and in addition to writing about music for various local festivals, I teach part-time at the Sibelius Academy, where someday I hope to stagger across the finish line of my doctoral degree. The one hurdle left is my thesis, in which I’m writing about how the idea of nature manifests in Mahler’s Song of the Earth. I do a lot of amateur choral singing, as there’s a particularly good culture for that here, and it keeps me in touch with real music-making. It’s a good life, with my family, good friends, and lots of terrific musicians to work with. After being virtually unemployed for the first few years and doing odd jobs, my career somehow just took off. The Finnish radio orchestra is premiering my viola concerto in March, and I’m currently working on a piece for the Helsinki Philharmonic, a setting for soprano and orchestra of texts by Hildegard of Bingen.

The reason I’m telling you all this is that when I think about how I got here – the ideas that fascinate me, the kind(s) of music I write, my approach to composing, even the notion that I became a composer at all – it always seems to lead back to you. Years ago, I had to write an essay in my application to some big school – I think it was Julliard, but whatever, I didn’t get in – about the musician who’d had the greatest influence on me. I wrote about you. I’m not even sure what I wrote, but as I try to recall what it was that made your presence in my life so important, I struggle to keep up with the flow of memories.

I probably never told you this, but my studying music was pretty much a fluke. I had no ambition other than to get away from my hometown and do something I enjoyed for a change. If I hadn’t gotten into music school I probably would have ended up in languages or history and never looked back. To say my parents were confused at first would be putting it mildly. Considering I barely knew one end of the horn from other at the time, I can’t say their skepticism was misplaced, but they’ve since come to understand why I decided to do it. I’d had no training, little support, and came to Vanier knowing nothing about music, barely able to even read it. Some people, as I recall, was always eager to remind me of that, and thought I showed very little talent, which I suppose I did back then.

But I wanted to learn. Anything. As much as I could, as fast as I could absorb it. That’s where you came in. You were one of the few people in those first couple of years who took me seriously. You encouraged me in so many ways large and small that I can’t recall all of them. I remember you randomly bringing me scores and tapes of things I’d never heard of, just so I could hear them. Once I mentioned that I was writing a paper about Stravinsky, and the next day you came in with a stack of scores and tapes it must have taken you hours to copy, just to help me out. I also remember you bringing me Mahler’s 3rd, which I took home and listened to immediately. I didn’t get it. Not then, not until many years later. But I eventually got it, and as Mahler grew into a sizeable influence on my own music, I always thought back to that day, when you brought me Mahler’s longest, weirdest, most out-of-this-world piece, something I had little chance of understanding, and let me have at it. A therapist once told me that I consciously make things difficult for myself because it’s the only way I can learn. He traced it back to my being put in a French-only kindergarten class at age five, not speaking a word of the language, and having to figure it out through a fog of incomprehension. Thinking back to that now, the way you taught me was the same. You threw me in at the deep end, unprepared, knowing nothing, and let me figure it out. The people who tried to hold me back, make me “patient” and learn little things always failed, but you gave me huge ideas to swallow whole, maybe because you knew that was what I needed most: to learn everything, right now. On whatever level, conscious or simply intuitive, you understood me. You accompanied me at recitals, in competitions, dragged me into rehearsals of whatever was going on in the building, gave me advice on my first scratchings of composition, and listened to me talk and complain and boast and grandstand like the clueless kid I was. The most moving part is that you didn’t have to do any of it. Your only real responsibility toward me was teaching me harmony a couple of times a week, but you took an interest in me and my development that few others did, before or since.

Less tangible was your influence on my music. Again, I don’t think I ever told you this, but with the exception of a few terrible high school band pieces, yours was the first contemporary music I ever heard, and you were the first composer I ever met. I didn’t even know people still did that. (I grew up in a very small town.) I even remember the piece, Sangeet III. I was completely knocked sideways by it, and it was probably that moment where the idea, however inarticulate, of being a composer got into my head. I wanted nothing more than to create something that beautiful, that moving. Sometimes I think I’ve spent my life since then trying to live up to the example you set for me in that piece, and failing miserably. But in the trying I’ve written some nice stuff, which I suppose is the point. In a sense, your music saved me from the influence of a lot of well-meant but destructive teaching later on. Before I got to university, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t still write tonal music if I wanted to, or mix it with atonal music, or write a single chord, or that simplicity was something to be apologized for. None of that academic dogma ever got to me, no matter how hard they tried to push it, because I had your music to show me the way, to let me know I could do whatever I wanted. Although I’ve been through several of the usual artistic crises over the years, wondering if I should even be doing this for a living, if I’m any good, I always seem to come back your principle of total freedom to follow my instincts and not care what others think. It’s served me well. Anecdote: a couple of years back, I stumbled on a Vanier web page that had a bunch of your pieces on it and listened to them. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes schooled me once again, and changed the way I think about chamber music. Whenever my vision faltered, yours was there to guide me.

I should probably wrap up this ramble in the interest of not boring you to tears. This whole missive has just been a long way of working up to saying, “Thank you.” For taking me under your wing, for giving me what I needed most, for giving me the courage to be myself without apology, I owe you more than I can express in these few pages. If you ever doubted that you had a strong influence on your students, don’t. You taught me to think, to listen, to make serious art without taking myself overly seriously, and to be irreverent when needed. Your light-hearted cynicism about competitions and awards and your community involvement taught me that there are other paths to, and other definitions of success as a composer than through the institutional channels. Whatever success I’ve enjoyed in Finland came from following your example and being a community member first, and jockeying for status second. In my darkest hour, after I could no longer play due to injuries and was writing terrible music, wondering if I should walk away from music altogether, I’d think of you, and know that if someone like you had believed in me, I must have something to offer. You made me a better musician, and a better teacher.

I wish you all the best for your return to good health, and hope I’ll be able to think of you out there somewhere for many years to come. The world – my world – is a richer place with you in it. I don’t make it back to Montreal much these days, as my family’s all moved on, but I hope we’ll meet again someday sooner rather than later. I’d love to have a chat and learn some more.


Friday, October 28, 2011

I've been swamped with work and worry again, but I'd be remiss in my self-promoting duties if I didn't mention tomorrow's big event: the release on the Alba label of my first "solo" CD. The music in question is my hour-long cycle of piano pieces, Leaves of Grass, played by Risto-Matti Marin, a great pianist, and my great friend.

The release concert itself is being sponsored by the Espoo International Piano Festival. The highlight of the concert will be readings of the poetry that inspired the music by the renowned Finnish actor Hannu-Pekka Björkman. This will be the first time most of the twelve-odd poems will be heard in Finnish, and the translations were commissioned by the festival as a set from composer and translator Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. Between the three of us, we evolved a structure to the performance that turned out to be powerful and quite moving. I'm really excited about this, as you can tell. The CD will be on sale, in both hard copy and download form, in the coming days. Watch this space!

Friday, August 12, 2011


I've been mulling over topics for new posts, many based on conversations with other composers, students and performers about how composers are taught, how we learn, the many ways in which composers produce music. But one topic jumped out at me in the last day, and I bring it up here as a way of pondering its significance for my compositional process, and perhaps that of others.

A Finnish composer friend who now lives Stateside came over for dinner last night. He's a very articulate, very opinionated guy, just my kind of discussion partner. As usual, we immediately got into an evening-long debate about aesthetic values, composition training, repeating oneself artistically, and other topics we always seem to gravitate toward. Comparing our recent projects, I mentioned that I was currently about two-thirds of the way through a new piece for the Zagros ensemble, and it was the first time I'd composed a piece entirely with MIDI. It's an experiment I'd been conducting to see how I fared using this newfangled tool. I've admitted in the past, and proudly so, to being a very old-fashioned composer. Until now, I've hardly ever touched the playback feature on Finale/Sibelius while in the act of composition. I usually write everything by hand, from sketch to full score, using the computer for engraving only, much to the amazement of a lot of my colleagues, and especially my students. It's not so much a matter of habit, as that I feel I actually work faster this way, especially when I'm orchestrating. Being able to see the entire page, or twenty of them in a row if I want, being able to move my hand around freely and just scribble notes as the mood strikes me, gives me more freedom. While I enjoy working this way for the most part, I do admit to a certain amount of envy at the technical fluidity of my younger colleagues, who all seem to compose directly into the computer these days. To them, I imagine I seem quaint dragging around my huge architect's portfolio with my hand-written scores in them. (If you want to know real fear, carry your only manuscript tabloid-size copy of a 35-minute orchestral score around a city on public transportation.)

There are other reasons for my stubbornness and reluctance when it comes to integrating the computer into my composing routine. I've always looked at computer-based composition of acoustic music with a jaundiced eye. First of all, there was the sound quality of the playback. When Finale first came along, the sound was so bloody awful that I couldnt' stand it. So bad, in fact, that I couldn't even bring myself to use it to check the pacing of a section with it, because the tinny, awful approximations of acoustic instruments just ruined my sense of the harmony (back when I used such a thing), articulation, phrasing and dynamics. It was like trying to read with a strobe light in your face. Now, of course, the built-in sounds notation software packages come with have vastly improved, with some of them, woodwinds especially, being quite convincingly lovely. If they could just kill the James Galway-esque vibrato on the samples, I'd much appreciate it. Although I've recently divorced Finale, I admit that its human playback feature is pretty helpful in some circumstances. But still, as I grew to incorporate a modest number of extended instrumental and vocal techniques, and to use freer types of notation in realizing a texture, the software didn't. I was therefore left with no choice but to just feel my way by ear toward the result I wanted.

Then there's the impact of notation software on the compositional process itself, and the playability of the result. In my experience, one can usually tell when a composer uses the software to compose directly. There tends to be a marked favoring of cut-and-pasting of entire sections of music, entire patterns, wholesale transposition of harmony in favor of voice-leading. Not that any of these devices is bad in and of itself, but the medium tends to encourage a kind of compositional laziness in terms of creation and manipulation of material.

A side-effect of using MIDI playback in composing, I've noticed, is a lack of real-life playability of a lot of the rhythms. I've even noticed it in my own use of it. You can make a computer play back whatever you write accurately, but this can lead to the creation of irrational rhythmic layout whose goal is accurate playback by an electronic processor, not by a human. Of course, any decent composer will know about and correct this, but many don't. In this last piece, I've gone through it with a fine-toothed comb looking for things like downbeats that I wrote as offbeats to get the pacing right on MIDI, fast rhythms that might be better interpreted as grace notes, strict, complex rhythms in melodic writing that would be easier to read, and sound better if I were to relax and simplify them.

In the field of playability, instrumental or vocal idiom is also an issue. However good the human playback protocols of whatever program you're using, they just can't replicate the subtle difficulties of the physical technique involved in playing an instrument. Although such features can be useful in reminding one just how long it really takes a contrabassoon to sound its lowest notes after the initial attack, they can't tell you about how it feels to play through a difficult passage. The computer will happily play back whatever you tell it to, irrespective of whether or not it's really possible, which can lead to radically overestimating and instrumentalist's or singer's ability to realize what we write for them, disregarding their comfort in the realization of our compositional vision. Again, any composer worth their salt will compensate for this. Far too many don't.

Then there's the more intangible category of MIDI's effect on the inner ear, the composer's sense of instrumental or vocal sound. Frequently, when listening to a new piece, I can tell if it was orchestrated on MIDI. First of all, instrumental balance in MIDI is not, and probably never will be anywhere close to reality. When a piece of chamber or orchestral music has balance problems, it can usually, in my view, be attributed to its having been scored on MIDI, where any problem of volume or attack can be overcome by giving it more cowbell on the mixer. Learning orchestral balance takes a lot of time and experience. Not having had a terrible load of experience writing for orchestra early on, I attribute my success (so far) in the medium to my previous life as an orchestral/ensemble performer. Those years sitting at the back of the band with a score were the best education a young composer can get as to the inner workings of the orchestral beast, how a section of strings sounds at various dynamics, what kind of articulations produce the best results in the brass, etc. Sitting in choirs since I gave up instrumental performance has been equally beneficial to my choral writing. Spending years working with an ensemble from the inside, as a performer, has given me a bone-deep sense of what works and what doesn't. None of that is possible working on a computer with synthesized or sampled approximations.

Subtler still is the quality of orchestration MIDI yields. Again, when a piece has been orchestrated on MIDI, I can usually tell, because there's a marked lack of invention in the orchestration. (This is not to accuse anyone who works this way of being unoriginal, it's more of an indicator of my inability to come up with a better word.) MIDI, however much it's developed over the last decade, is still a very traditional, hidebound orchestral tool, meant largely for writing commercial music with simple orchestral solutions. Working directly into MIDI as an orchestrational tool encourages, in my view, obvious solutions in distributing orchestral material. The resulting music sounds like MIDI. It behaves like MIDI. The interaction of instruments is less idiomatic and timbre-based, and more about how easy it is to move material around in an electronic setting. There's very little sense, frequently, of the composer reaching for a sound, and as a corollary, there's less risk of failure, and failure at realizing an idea is a major component in creating a new or fresh sound. This is, in my opinion, the worst aspect of working directly with MIDI, the way it seems to dampen the imagination in terms of sound creation. What MIDI can't ever replace is a sense of "what if?". What if I did it this way? Wow, I've never heard muted piccolo trumpets and piccolo together, I wonder if that would work? How would the texture sound if I had a harp behind that string tremolo? These things are replicable to a certain extent in the computer environment, but will never sound real enough to give an accurate impression, so we're left to simply imagine it, to write it down and hope it works. The risk of utter failure has to be part of orchestration. As one of my previous teachers said, if you write an orchestra piece and it doesn't turn out exactly the way you expected and you're surprised by that, you're a fool. And if it does turn out the way you expected, you're a lucky fool. I'll take luck over certainty any day. "Huh, that didn't work out the way I planned, but it's still pretty cool."

Which brings me to my own recent inclusion of MIDI in my process. I started using it a lot to make quick mock-ups of sections of my viola concerto to check pacing of rhythm and pitch-field turnover, as well as to check the heterophonic counterpoint of a large section of polytonal melodic writing. The reasoning behind this move was that it was a huge piece, and a huge, very public opportunity, and I didn't want to mess it up when I could have checked these basic things in a controlled environment. I'm not too proud to admit that MIDI saved my ass at several points in the piece when I just couldn't work out things on paper, or had radically underestimated the pacing of a series of phrases. But I never – and mark this – ever turned to the computer until I'd figured out the entire pitch content and essential texture of a section. In a sense, the music wasn't composed at the computer, only arranged there. Wondering why I resisted integrating the computer into my routine so much, I realized that it was because I usually do a lot of the initial pitch work at the keyboard, or on whatever instrument I'm writing for if I can get my hands on one, and if I didn't have an instrumental interface, I lacked the confidence to just throw notes around on the screen. I'm not the sort of ultra-musical prodigy type who has music pouring out of every orifice and seems to just conjure things out of thin air with blindingly fluent technique. I'm man enough to admit the very real limits of my talents, and my very real attachment to sound in music rather than its technical or linguistic features, and make allowances in consequence. Getting the notes right, even if it's just five pitches, is a huge, time-consuming, doubt-ridden, long-dark-night-of-the-soul part of the process for me.

So as an experiment, I decided to buy a small MIDI keyboard and write this current chamber piece directly into the computer, just to see if I could adapt. So far, I'm finding myself comfortable doing it. It's certainly very handy to have quick access to all the instrumental sounds through the keyboard. It's an odd ensemble I was asked to write for: flute, clarinet, bassoon, harp and string quintet. There are tricky balance issues in play, made more so because they asked me to somehow spatialize the material so the wind players could move around the art gallery where the premiere will take place. But as a group of single instruments, the balances sound more realistic on MIDI, so it seemed like the right forum to conduct this trial in.

The resulting music is quite simple, very much like Feldman's Rothko Chapel in the way the materials relate. Not wanting to create a kind of mini-orchestra, or the obvious mini-concerto for harp (the ensemble is basically an extended version of the one in Ravel's Introduction and Allegro, which I know well from hearing my wife learn it last year), the instruments never play together at the same time. It's more a non-linear sequence of solos and ensembles, quite simple for the sake of coordination across a big space, but also because I'm deliberately keeping it simple for myself as a compositional exercise. I did, however, do some things I would never have had the guts to do on paper, like a section of Ivesian multi-stylistic counterpoint, where the wind trio babbles in rather banal atonal counterpoint over a diatonic bed of strings. I wouldn't have tried it without the playback as a guide, because while I could guess that the general effect would work, I couldn't be sure it would sound right. As I don't have a particularly good ear for contrapuntal structures, MIDI gave me more confidence in working out the idea, a greater sense of certainty, and allowed me to get the notes right where I couldn't have done it by ear on paper.

And that sense of certainty is what brings me back to my conversation with my friend. I told him that usually at this stage of a piece, my insomnia has gone into overdrive, with ideas looping in my head on infinite repeat as my mind works on the material, where to go next. But this piece isn't keeping me up at night. I attributed this in our conversation to my just being tired and a little burned out creatively. A part of it, to me, was the non-linear nature of the ideas. I'm not thinking about causal connection or development or transition because I don't want there to be any. I just sit down in front of the computer every day and think about where I want to go next, on a very basic, very intuitive level, like putting together an art exhibit rather than a single piece. My friend was kinder, offering that maybe it was because I've gained sufficient control over my process and critical detachment from the work that I'm able to walk away from it more easily, confident that I'll find my way back in if I don't think about it all the time. This has a certain validity to it.

But as I was brushing my teeth after yet another uncharacteristic night of sound sleep, the thought suddenly hit me: what if I'm not pondering this piece because in the very act of using MIDI playback as a tool, the music no longer holds any sense of mystery for me? I know the pacing of ideas is right because it sounds right, here and now. I don't wonder how two layers of contrasting material will sound because I know how it sounds, and it works. I don't need to worry about how my disconnected, stream-of-consciousness series of little episodes works because I know (or at least think) it does. What if the worst thing MIDI does to us as composers is kill our sense of fancy, our need to worry over the result? Why worry about a piece if you already know it's going to be successful? Working in real time, with a reasonably approximate result of our work available to hear at the click of a button, do we lose a sense of possibility? Do we lose our ability – our willingness – to fail?

I should follow this Sex and the City-style voiceover with the caveat that I don't think using MIDI as a major compositional tool is in itself wrong, or that it yields bad results, or that it inherently makes composers lazy. If nothing else, it makes bad or already lazy composers think composing is easier than it is. (This applies to other software as well. Open Music, it strikes me, is equally dangerous, albeit more sophisticated in its cut-and-paste, idiom-negligent potential.) Any good, sensitive, musical composer will be aware of these problems and correct them. In the end, there is no right amount of computer use in composing. Everyone has a different ratio that suits their needs. I've found a few limited ways of making it useful to me. I don't think I'll ever transition to full computer use in composing, especially in orchestral music, because I know that my ear and experience with the orchestra are pretty reliable, and generally more fine-tuned. But in the integration of computer playback into a compositional routine, do we become reactive rather than proactive in shaping the outcome of a piece, of a sound? There's a slippery slope here, one which I find myself sliding down despite my best efforts to remain aloof. Yet the lure of total certainty is a powerful narcotic. I wouldn't be the first ascetic to succumb to Bacchic debauchery in the name of maintaining the appearance of infallibility. And that's what the canonization of "great" composers and the music marketing world teaches us, that we need to appear infallible, assured, demigod-like in our creative powers? Where is the point of no return? I suppose that's for another day. For now, I still need four minutes of music on this thing.


Friday, July 15, 2011


Well, I guess I'm back from my hiatus. Forgive the awkwardness of the blog's appearance, I just discovered Blogger's new templates and am experimenting with a new layout. I'm usually loath to change things about the way I work once I find something simple and elegant that suits my purposes, but it's been a season of change.

Much of my long silence had to do with the unending process of getting my viola concerto ready for printing. I thought I'd gotten over the worst of my crippling doubts about composing, or at least had learned that the pressure of incessant project deadlines was a good thing, in that it kept me from getting stuck in my head for too long, getting overly precious about my ideas and material. As such, the piece itself was relatively easy writing. It flowed well, I didn't get too attached to my ideas if I found they weren't working, and the piece assumed the shape it wanted, which ended up being quite distant from my initial conception in many ways. More about the music momentarily.

What I hadn't anticipated was all the peripheral concerns that would assail me one after another during the process of writing the stupid thing. First, I suffered a months-long litany of health problems that would bore the most sympathetic (or sadistic) reader. Suffice it to say that between August and February, I spent an awful lot of time bedridden for one reason or another. Then came the perhaps the biggest shock to my family's collective system, the decision to buy an apartment in Helsinki, and all the busy work associated with that simple act: bank meetings, mortgages, the move itself, light renovations, etc. Then Finale had a complete meltdown during the copying part of the process, necessitating weeks of polite but terse back-and-forth with tech support to resurrect my poor maligned piece. Then the trouble with the parts started. Once again, I won't bore anyone with the details, but the end results of the constant malfunctions and other work intruding were that 1) a piece that was finished in December (on deadline, if I may boast a little) took until June to be copied and delivered, and 2) I was finally pushed past my breaking point and left Finale for good, a process documented lightheartedly here, and not so lightheartedly elsewhere.

Naturally, seeing the end of this work season necessitated a little time off. So after a couple of weeks of leisure, moderate intoxication and travel, I'm back. Another part of the long hiatus between posts was a simple dearth of productive things to say. It was an immensely bleak, depressing winter, a season of which I'm normally a huge fan, but this last one was just brutal: dark, unutterably cold, buried under feet of snow all the time, the kind of winter the North serves up once in a blue moon.

It was bleak for other reasons, as I watched the politics of my now-twin homelands take an alarming turn. First Finland's elections produced tears, anger, and so small amount of introspection in electing the odd True Finns (I shall not link to them. Fie!) with a whopping 20% of the vote. The resulting parliamentary negotiations ended up producing a much more palatable government than anyone had a right to expect, but it was white-knuckle time there for a while. The worst outcomes were the rise of euphemistic campaigning in Finland, where an openly racist, pseudo-intellectual pinhead is described in the media as an "outspoken immigration critic", as well as a rise in cowardly attacks on people perceived as outsiders, notably visible minorities and immigrants. There's always been an undercurrent of xenophobia in Finnish society, but everyone, myself included, allowed themselves to think it a minor problem in an otherwise tolerant people. The whole upswelling of anti-Other hysteria culminated last week, for me and mine, in the brutal assault of a very Finnish-looking colleague by a group of young men for making the mistake of stepping into the local in his new neighborhood for pint. In the long run, it's perhaps a good thing to air out these issues now, before they get worse, but it doesn't make it any easier to watch.

Then Canada, my dear, dear Canada... Oh, Canada! Maybe I'm feeling more and more distant from the land of my birth, geographically, psychologically, even spiritually. Watching the recent elections there from afar – barred as I am from participating in them as an expat – was painful, to say the least, as a government of snide, parochial bully-boys that time and time again displayed open contempt for the populace and ran a campaign that amounted to little more than "Coalition! Ooga-booga!" was rewarded with a majority stake in Parliament. Worse still, people absolutely gloried in the debasement and humiliation of a good, well-meaning, worldly, patriotic man for the crime of having spent a few years outside the country. People complain that career political hacks have too much power, and that our best and brightest should seek office, but when they do, they're derided for not being slick career political hacks. The hypocrisy is astounding, no? (Hmm, overidentifying, much?) The state of the CBC just seems to echo the mood of the land, where people aren't citizens anymore, they're just taxpayers, and everything comes down to money and what's in it for me, right now. Ironically, this all stems from a politician actually keeping a campaign promise. Our Prime Minister is right: I don't recognize Canada anymore.

Perhaps the buying of a house here is symbolic of my increasing attachment to Finland, a land where I can do my work and still hope to live in reasonable comfort. As far as colleagues in Canada tell me, things aren't going to get better anytime soon for the arts, so here is where you'll find me for the foreseeable future. It's a funny thing to live as an immigrant in the global age. Cutting ties to a place perhaps but for a letter now and then, the virtually inevitable result of moving to a new continent and starting a new life, is now virtually impossible. Our homelands haunt us, our home cultures ever-present rather than simply remembered. The dissonance of living in a foreign culture (and Finland does feel very foreign some days, even after ten years – ten YEARS!) never resolves, it just hangs in the air, Debussy-like, a hazy background against which one's current identity is always projected.

Nonetheless, here I am, back at work, with many more things on my mind that I feel are worth sharing. What's changed? Home, space, life, family. Finishing the viola concerto, with its constant references to past ideas and forays into different temporal worlds, felt like a closure or sorts. I found out a lot of things about my ways of working, and unintentionally succeeded in a long held ambition of mine to write a large-scale piece that relies entirely on heterophony rather than harmony for its structure. It wasn't until I finished it that what I'd done hit me. Harmony, that little devil on my shoulder for years, the notion of music moving through time in a linear fashion, finally gave up the ghost in this one, leaving a sea of pure melody, endless and ruminating. I also changed my work habits quite a bit, coming to rely on my computer to a greater degree. (I know, I know.) I'm man enough to admit the damn thing saved my life in a few sections of this piece, where I would have made a hash of things trying to do it by hand and trial and error. It's an interesting development, and I'm trying to find new ways of integrating the computer into my routine as a compositional tool rather than simply a copying one.

Much to do, much to say, little time to do it all. I'd remiss, however, if I didn't note this upcoming CD release, a quirky little project I got involved with through the pianist Antti Siirala. Track 8 features him solo, playing a tiny piece of mine based on the famous theme from the infinitely more famous, much larger preceding work. Note the incongruity of my present career profile and the label. I'm a bit chuffed.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Dear [name withheld],

By the time you read this, I'll be gone. It shouldn't come as a shock to you, given how we've been growing apart the past few years, but I know how out-of-it you can be at times, so I've taken the trouble to spell out exactly how I came to this decision. What it mostly comes down to is that I've changed; I grew up, became more sophisticated, and developed different needs, and you didn't. It's taken me a long time to come to this realization, but I deserve better. I deserve to spend time with someone who knows my needs and wants, who doesn't take me for granted, who treats me with respect. I've been faithful for years, but I can't do it any longer.

Part of the problem may be that we got together when we were both so young. I was new to everything in this life, and you were so fresh and attractive, I was blind to the potential downside of committing to someone so early. It's been nearly twenty years, and I've never known any other way of being. Looking back now, though, I see clearly the problems that have always been there, and I recognize that I can't fix them, and I'm tired of trying. Things used to be so simple and elegant, but you overcomplicate everything now. You're more difficult to talk to than you used to be, and when you don't outright ignore me, I still have to repeat the simplest requests over and over to get you to do things, when you even do them. (And don't think I haven't noticed that passive-aggressive thing you do where you rearrange stuff I put in specific places when I'm not looking.) I'm sorry, but I can't live with someone so indifferent to me.

The thing I feel most embarrassed about is the years I spent defending you to everyone in my life. My friends have been telling me to leave for years, get out, start over, find someone more compatible, more generous, less emotionally abusive. They wanted only the best for me, but I pushed them away. I'd been with you so long. I knew you better than they did. You could change. You'd improve. But we both know that didn't happen. My father was the only one who saw the potential in you, kept telling me to give you another chance, keep making that investment. I guess since he steered me in your direction in the first place, he felt he had a stake in our relationship.

And the money he gave me in our early days together! The money Dad spent helping me try to help you was the biggest waste, even after I had my own money to give you. He keeps offering to pay for your mistakes, did you know that? I kept throwing money at you, hoping you'd return my faith in you by making yourself better, but all you did was run after fads, buying trinkets and fancy accessories to woo the young kids, living it up at my expense and giving me nothing in return except the same old contempt. (Here's a tip: those kids you're trying so desperately to impress all think you're over the hill, a relic, too old and inflexible to even be interesting. You're practically a joke to them.)

And still, I defended you. You were seductive and charming, and I admit it got the better of me, got me to ignore my own instincts, that nagging feeling that you weren't ever going to change for the better, and that even your best traits were withering away, making it less and less worth my while to stay. But you kept coming back, saying you'd cleaned up, that you'd gotten yourself off all that stuff, that you were on the straight and narrow for good. But it was just an act, wasn't it?

So I've decided I need to move on, start fresh, make a new life for myself away from you. It may be too soon, but I should tell you I've met someone else. It's still very new, and I'm not yet sure it's for the best, but anything has to be better than this. I'm tired, and being with someone younger, who's more malleable and is more in tune with my needs and desires can't be a bad thing, can it? I'm sorry it had to end this way, so abruptly, but the way you ruined yesterday for me was the last straw. I have to go. It will be hard, I don't doubt. At my age, with my lack of experience with anyone but you, I'm going to need to learn a lot of new ways of doing things. But I think it will be invigorating in the end. A rebirth, of a sort.

So see you around, Finale. Have a good life. If you need to reach me, I'll be staying with Sibelius for a while. Maybe for good. At least until I decide what's right for me. If I've learned anything from our time together, it's that I should always take care of my own needs first.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Your regularly scheduled program

My feverish son is home for a couple of days, which means that my studio is keeping its nighttime job as his bedroom for the moment, leaving me with a bit of time to read and blog. I should be reading Mahler, but I got sidetracked by my wife's gift of Anthony Bourdain's latest, an all-too-absorbing account of his post-fame life. As an enthusiastic home cook and armchair food critic, I just can't resist this stuff. No, I won't be auditioning for Finland's upcoming version of MasterChef, though less due to of lack of time than out of a proper sense of shame at the raised eyebrows from my degree supervisors should I choose to go on a reality show instead of finishing my thesis. Also, I couldn't hack the restaurant lunch shift challenge.

I've also been distracted by my addiction to news, and yesterday this story about a study on the usefulness of program notes was the source of much online chatter. In that charmingly sensationalist manner of much latter-day American journalism, the headline boldly announces that program notes aren't helpful in experiencing music, which of course makes me bristle as a freelance program annotator. Based on the actual conversation about the study, it would seem that the conclusions it reaches, and the implications thereof, are far more prosaic and diffuse. I can't access the full study from here, but it seems to me that it shows largely that purple prose about an isolated passage of music isn't helpful to 16 undergraduates in Arkansas with no musical training, far from a black-and-white assertion that program notes are a hindrance to the enjoyment of music. Far more interesting and complex would be to hear how different types of program note affect the experience of music for different types of listener, the content-vs-context part of the equation. That's something I find more fascinating than the reductive approach seemingly used here. Any takers?

However, critiquing a study I can't read in full isn't my purpose. I'm more reacting to the radio conversation than anything else, and am sure the full study is far more nuanced. The real point is to address in some way the various functions program notes can have for the people involved in the creation and reception of music. It's a difficult balancing act, what to say, how to say it, which aspects of a piece to focus on, which to leave out. It goes without saying that you can't ever say everything about a piece in a program note, no matter how much space you're given. The type of piece – contemporary or classic, warhorse or historical curiosity – as well as the intended audience also influence what can and should be said. Writing about music that is familiar on some level to most listeners changes how you can approach it to a program note. An unfamiliar or brand new piece requires a different tone.

All this is obvious, but I think of program notes differently depending on which hat I'm wearing at the time. Of course, my most extensive experience wearing any of them is with new music. However, as a concert-goer, I tend to glaze over and snore whenever anyone writes about structure, form, thematic development, or focus too closely on tiny details of material elaboration. Likewise, I chafe when composers talk endlessly of philosophical mumbo-jumbo that has precious little to do with the actual sounding experience of the piece at hand. (Kyle Gann mercilessly parodied this type of note in a post a few years ago, though I regret his use of a Finnish-sounding ersatz composer name, as program notes here tend to be humble, self-effacing and overwhelmingly focused on formal aspects rather than airy-fairy post-structuralist aesthetic ideas.) Tell me a story about the composer's life while writing the piece, though, and I'm yours. I could care less about motivic elaboration in Julian Anderson's Symphony, but I loved finding out that the compositional process was catalyzed for him by viewing an Akseli Gallèn-Kallela painting of Lake Keitele at the National Gallery in London. The fact that I had a similar experience with that same painting only adds to the piece. Did knowing this create expectations about the music? Sure, but I would have like the piece regardless, and only found this tidbit clarified some of his choices for me. In the local context of Finland, that information would be helpful to a lot of people, since pretty much everyone knows that particular painting (and would dearly like to see it come home, I think, but that's another story).

Dealing with an older, more widely known piece, I don't want to read about the thematic processes at work in Mahler's second symphony, but knowing that the sacred atmosphere of the end was so important to him that he went and bought a set of church bells for the premiere is the stuff of listener dreams for me. In short, I don't want to be guided through the temporal process of listening to the piece, to be told what to listen for and when. That does ruin the experience for me as an average listener, to be walked through it in a linear fashion, because it disrupts the non-linear, atemporal aspect of music's communicativeness, the way it bombards you with meaning and experience on so many different sensory levels, independently of temporal flow, creating associations through memory and subtle triggers of pitch, rhythm and timbre, leaving some things unsaid. What I want to know is what the piece can be said to mean. I don't care that it may not mean the same thing to me, but I want to know what someone thinks of it. It's not that I need to be told how to think of it, but I appreciate having a window into the music from someone else's perspective. Having a foil against which to form my own opinion is helpful to me, as I suspect it is to many others.

And that's really what a program note is, a window into an artform that many people have difficulty approaching and orienting themselves within because of the temporal nature of the experience. Give me something to hang onto, an idea to give me some direction, not as to the structural detail of the piece, but to what the piece is trying to articulate – assuming it's trying to be articulate.

Which is why, as a program annotator, it drives me into fits of blind rage when composers refuse to say anything about their pieces, and won't supply information to those who try. Don't want to say anything about your piece? Fine, but let others write about it as they wish. (You may laugh, but I've seen program notes stating plainly that composer X doesn't describe their music. Now that's unhelpful, and frankly lazy on the part of the annotator. What's the composer gonna do, sue you for writing something about their work? Respect the creator, but also respect the listener by giving them something to chew on.) If I'm writing notes for an orchestra concert and can easily access your score and a recording, I'll of course give your piece a hearing and come up with something on my own that's meaningful to the average listener – always my intended reader when I write notes. But if I'm writing an entire festival book and have 70 words to devote to your piece on one concert? Sorry, but you're S.O.L. If you refuse to provide me with material, I won't write about your piece. To suggest that music can't be encompassed in mere words is simply facetious. If a listener wants to know what you think of your piece, wants to get to know you through means other than hearing your music, why would you deny them that opportunity? It seems niggardly, a hoarding of meaning unto oneself, and makes no sense to me, unless non-communication is your goal, which I sincerely doubt.

I might as well come clean and say that, as a composer, I consider program notes extremely important in the compositional process, a part of communication that I'm unwilling to forsake in the name of not shaping people's opinion. I consider them so important that I frequently write them before writing the piece. It's odd, I know, but it helps me form an idea of what I want the piece to be. I edit them as I go, but reducing what I'm trying to say through the piece to a short text helps crystallize the ideas for me. If it's such an important part of my creative process, why would I suppress that to the listener, placing on them the sole responsibility of figuring out something I barely understand myself? Of course I'm trying to shape their opinion of the piece. I want people to like my music. I like writing, and on my better days I'm pretty good at it. I think long and hard about what to say about my pieces, and what I think people would like to read about them. I fancy that people read them, enjoy them, and it adds to their experience of the piece and helps them get a little more into it, and a little more out of it. I've been won over by a program note before, why shouldn't others? A tune I might otherwise consider schlocky may be more palatable if I knew the composer had just become a parent. I know the feeling that brings, why shouldn't I relate to that in a piece?

Ultimately, though, my window analogy holds up. That's all a program note really is, a glimpse into the world of the piece, and no more relevant to the experience of music than that. It can be helpful or not, depending on the individual listener as much as on the note. You can write whatever you want, but in the end listeners can't be told what to think about a piece unless they let themselves. But to deny the importance of program notes, or worse, to reduce it to an equation free of context, if x then y, is simplistic. Not that the above study does that. It's more of an effect of the reductive tendency of media exposure than any conclusion the study itself reaches, a point alluded to by its author, and unfortunately glossed over in the editing. I'm sure some people find program notes a hindrance, just as some people find filling out a few questions with the goal of better governance intrusive. But I'd wager that, in this age when musical literacy and familiarity with the repertoire are declining even in highly literate places like Finland, audiences will appreciate any lifeline thrown to them in their attempt to orient themselves within our work. And I will always be happy to throw it to them, in any form they find helpful.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Out of time

Well, I'm back. I've been home for about a week now, but now I'm back mentally as well. Not much of what I've done over the last six weeks or so has been restful. Between planes, trains, cars, visits, endless jet lag and intermittent work of various kinds, I can't really say I've had much of a holiday. Nevertheless, my mind's been disconnected from its daily grind long enough that I'm starting to chomp at the bit of my viola concerto, still worried about it, still just cautiously feeling it out, but it's a good place to be in right now.

During my travels I was gifted with three wonderful performances of pieces from the more meditative side of my output, from three very different groups, one in Japan and two here in Finland. (The Helsinki Chamber Choir concert featuring my ad puram annihilationem meam and an amazing premiere by my colleague Sampo Haapamäki can be streamed online here until August 11th.) All three were prepared to a very high technical level, and the performers gave deeply committed interpretations, letting the long phrases breathe fully, feeling the weight of the pauses, paying full attention to the sound of each note – in short, taking their time.

I'm used to having to do a certain amount of work with performers to get them into the temporal feel of the music, the way it flows through time. There's a tendency to rush on from one idea to the next in Western music, and it always takes awhile to overcome that deeply ingrained impulse to always press onward. It's particularly problematic in pieces like the ones mentioned above, where boxes with pitches and approximate time durations vastly outnumber notated rhythms, and the long boxed figures and fermatas, even the pauses tend to go by much more more quickly than I'd planned. One could say it's my fault for not fully notating the durations I want, but the notation I use in such cases is only meant as a guide to the proportional values of the gestures. The real point of the exercise is to get the players to feel the tension of the moment, to relax into the beauty of a texture, the feel the rightness of moving forward into a new section or gesture, independent of any specific temporal duration. In most cases, it's simply a matter of drawing people's attention to the pauses, getting them to count out the durations and feel how long ten seconds really is. Once the performers catch on, it's rarely a problem. The feel and pace of the music are established, and the interpretation grows in leaps and bounds. Case in point is the Helsinki Chamber Choir, now on their third performance of ad puram, and the piece just keeps getting more expansive, more centered, its fragmented structure more cohesive as a result.

So imagine my surprise when, after my sole rehearsal with the Japanese musicians who played The wine-dark sea, I suddenly realized I hadn't had to go through that routine. I hit me on the trip back to my hotel that the issue of pauses or phrases "breathing" hadn't come up at all, everything had just flowed the way I'd signaled through the notation. There were other small issues to deal with, the normal things one faces in coaching a performance like tone quality, dynamics and articulations, but the temporal unfolding of the piece wasn't one of them.

Don't worry, I'm not going to make any broad-brush statements about the Japanese mindset and how they have a natural appreciation of stasis and repose – especially given the head-spinning speed at which Tokyo operates. Although I've been fascinated by Japanese culture for a long time and done my share of study on it, I don't know it intimately enough to make such claims. But there did seem to be an unspoken understanding between the players about how the piece should go, how long a pause should last, when the next event should occur. The product of good rehearsal, no doubt, but there was something in the room, a feeling that ran deeper than simple professional musicianship, an attitude of rightness about how things should proceed that the players brought to the piece independently of my notational choices. I don't think it's going too far into generalization to note that Japan's culture has, of course, been shaped by Buddhism, and Zen in particular, whose values have affected my attitude toward time as well. And even Tokyo, whose activity level never seems to be at less than fever pitch, somehow manages to room for genuine peace and reflection in its hectic, multi-layered design, such that passing through a gate into someone's tiny garden completely transports one out of the urban condition and into timelessness. (I was lucky enough to be staying in such an oasis)

One of the few books I've made time to read this year is Time by Eva Hoffman, a thought-provoking if not especially rigorous or cohesive essay [pot, meet kettle] on how various cultures construct and experience time. Although concerning a culture unrelated to Japan, this passage did jump out at me (italics mine):

"[...] in each culture, the temporal order is so deeply bound up with the wider matrix of values, with the conception of the human and its place in the cosmos, as to be tantamount to an existential topography. For the Balinese, a sense of spacious stasis is clearly foundational, and infiltrates every aspect of life in ways which seem very opaque to an outsider."

If this is true – let's say it is for now, I'm not convinced it's that simple – and cultural constructs of time are binding and so deeply ingrained that getting outside them requires a supreme conscious effort, it may go some way toward explaining why Western performers need to make a conscious effort to surrender to stasis in a piece, whereas Japanese musicians do it more instinctively, despite their training in Western music. By the same token, in striving for timelessness in my music, am I fighting a losing battle with my cultural conditioning? It certainly feels like that sometimes, as I struggle to hold back the pace of events, restrain the development of a pitch field, relax, enjoy a sonority, a chord, a pair of oscillating notes.

I've been aspiring to the condition of timelessness for as long as I've been composing, but the conscious act of abandoning linear/teleological time in my music took two acts. First, I stopped wearing a watch. It was driving me crazy, making me segment up my music and count every bloody beat and subdivision, using it to clock through every bar and phrase, trying in vain to get every gesture timed just right. Second, I joined a choir that performed a lot of Renaissance polychoral music. As I got into that repertoire, the way it ebbed and flowed without regard to barlines, settling where it wanted to, forsaking harmonic tension and resolution for modal euphony, I began to see a way out of the temporal labyrinth I'd constructed for myself in grad school, a way in which I could free myself of counted, segmented time, harmonic development, form – in short, step outside measured time. The pieces where I've managed to do this, to create stasis without any conscious exercise of will or discipline on my part are generally the pieces I consider my best work, the ones where effort and ordering of time give way to artless flow. I wonder sometimes why I bother with striving, except that artlessness isn't something you make happen, it happens on its own, independently from, perhaps even in stark opposition to creative will.

This is all by way of noting that the tension between striving and stasis seems to be coming to the fore in my latest piece, the much-maligned viola concerto. True artlessness has so far seemed to me like a world apart from that of ordered musical time as we understand it in the Western sense, a place outside pitch sets and formal development, rarefied and unyielding to invitations to blend into a symphonic discourse, like a noble gas. I've had to give timelessness its own space in order to let it fully expand. But this piece is different, wanting, demanding to contain both, not only as part of its formal course, but also in the relationship between the solo viola, which is always seems to be trying to crawl out of its skin, constantly pushing at its harmonic surroundings with new pitches, and the orchestra, which so far just wants to be. It's a fascinating tension, one I can't say I've seen much in the concerto format, but one I'm keen to explore and see how it pans out. More rambles to follow on related topics, this is one blogging idea I'm not planning on letting go of for a change.