Saturday, September 29, 2007

Speaking of protracted quiet

I've been slightly less than dedicated about blogging lately, and it looks like it will stay that way for at least the next couple of weeks. After taking too much time off from work this summer, I got out of the habit and, as usual, find myself behind only a month into the semester. What with a set of eight piano pieces to write, a class to teach – thank god it's only the one this fall – and a thesis to draft, I suicidally took on yet another project. I was commissioned (read: passive-aggressively harangued by a good friend) to compress the orchestration of a one-act opera by Tauno Pylkkänen called Bathseba on Saarenmaa. For those non-Baltic readers, Saarenmaa is the island off the Estonian coast where the story takes place. It's quite a nice little drama, about 40 minutes long, and very tuneful. Pylkkänen was dubbed the "Puccini of the North", and it's not a bad tag, as far as these comparisons go.

Here's the catch: there's no extant full score of the version I'm working on, so the orchestration has to be concocted from a set of parts and a vocal score. I thought it would be easy enough, but it's turning out to be a major pain, not least because the brass-heavy original doesn't lend itself easily to an ensemble of 13 players, with two horns being the only matched pair. Deciding how to voice some of the chords so they still sound full is a minor nightmare, and the woodwind players are going to kill me over the instrument changes. Still, it's nice to have a new challenge to re-engage my brain after a too-long period of rest. Something about taking on this job kick-started me, and now I'm ready to go again. So while I get this done, I'll have time for little else than short posts like the present one. More rants to come, though.

Listening to:

Frank Bridge: Fantasy Trio for two violins and viola
Luca Francesconi: String Quartet no. 3

And, of course, Pylkkänen.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sunday night beef

Interesting piece by Robert Everett-Green in the Toronto Globe and Mail today, about Glenn Gould's fascination with Schoenberg. My revered compatriot (Gould, that is) is approaching his 75th birthday, which I'm sure would be a great occasion at home, were he still breathing. Actually, reading Everett-Green's list of events for Toronto alone, it seems that it is a great event, regardless of the absence of the guest of honor, which makes me happy.

I've been thinking about Gould a lot lately, specifically his three radio compositions collectively known as the Solitude Trilogy, which in my mind are some of his best work – though "So you want to write a fugue?" gets played every year in my analysis class. However, I'll leave Gould for another time, when I'm more at leisure to utter coherent thoughts, because he's tied into other, much more complex issues. What caught my interest today was Everett-Green's writing about Schoenberg, a loaded topic always guaranteed to generate heat. I generally like Everett-Green's writing and find myself in agreement with him more often than not (this, of course, having nothing to do with him being one of two newspaper critics who didn't diss the orchestra piece that gave my blog its name when the TSO played it a couple of years ago). He presents a thoughtful, even-handed portrait of the attraction Schoenberg held for Gould, never once copping to not liking Schoenberg's music, at least not in so many words. He mostly states that mainstream audiences don't enjoy Schoenberg all that much. And still, in the comments following the article, we get this:

"It's hard to believe that Schoenberg and atonal music are still controversial after a century. Audiences are generally accepting of abstract painting or free verse in poetry, yet Schoenberg's modernism is treated with scorn by the public.

If they took the time to listen, they would actually hear that his music is quite Romantic in a way."

I'm about to inveigh at disproportionate length against an offhand comment made online, but this just kills me. One could equally say (and again I'm late to the party with this comment) that it's hard to believe that after a century, there are still apologists who insist that we've got it all wrong about Schoenberg, that his music is really (insert attractive quality here). I'm not as anti-Schoenberg as some. I generally like his earlier works, though not enough to seek them out repeatedly. That absynthe-soaked latelatelate Romanticism just isn't my thing. Some of his late music is enjoyable, as well. I attended a performance of the Piano Concerto once, played by my friend Paavali Jumppanen, a sympathetic interpreter who made the piece sparkle, and I found that it felt much more compact and breezy than one would expect from its 30-minute duration. I teach a section of the Fourth Quartet every year, because the system of pitch rotation he uses is a good exercise for students learning about 12-tone techniques. Though I may abhor the implementation, I think he had it right in believing the innovations he played a part in spearheading were necessary to keep the art form fresh. Debussy and Bartók's innovations were just more rewarding and fertile.

But you'd have to tie me to the chair to get me to sit through the Violin Concerto, Wind Quintet or Piano Suite ever again. Perhaps oddly, I'm a huge fan of the work that tends to piss the most people off: Pierrot Lunaire. As a theater piece, with a great ensemble, it's unbeatable. I can understand not liking it if your only exposure to it is on recording, though. It needs to be seen. In fact, pretty much all of Schoenberg's free-atonal works are terrific, and I think it's a shame that he didn't stay in that idiom longer (like, for the rest of his life). These works deserve a fair hearing, but enough of his music is sufficiently offputting – nay, grating – that a century of listeners can't really have gone completely wrong. I think a hundred years is plenty of time to make the call, and really, it's not as if Schoenberg has suffered from lack of exposure or champions.

And yet, there are still people who take offense if you dare level an accusing finger at the Master. Don't like Bruckner? Well, it's not to everyone's taste. Stravinsky not for you? Okay, we don't see eye to eye on that. You don't like Schoenberg!? Ohmygodwhatswrongwithyou!!!??? Is it possible for us to accept that everything Schoenberg touched did not turn to gold? Is it really so injurious to his reputation to admit that some of his works aren't very appealing to the average listener, and accept that their reactions are valid and informed? For what it's worth, I completely reject the canard that atonal music is controversial. I've heard great atonal music, and written some myself that received positive reactions, so it's not the act itself of writing atonal music that audiences respond to negatively. To imply as much is to insult the intelligence of the people who pay to hear our work. One of the harshest, most dissonant, most taxing pieces I've ever heard is Magnus Lindberg's Kraft, yet I saw an audience rise to its feet after the performance, not out of duty, but out of sincere joy at the experience, because the piece is damn good. Same for Feldman's Triadic Memories. I think what audiences dislike is being subjected to dull, colorless, rambling, barely expressive atonal music and being told it's good no matter what they may think of it, that there's something wrong with them for not liking it, and that by extension, they must be unable to appreciate any form of atonality.

This attitude, that audiences are too dumb to know a quality experience when they hear it, is what ruins it for the composers who give atonality a good name, who are honestly interested in reaching people with their chosen aesthetic, not ensuring the cultural hegemony of any nation or school through their work. Program works from Schoenberg's dry-toast period if you must, but don't be surprised when most people hate them. And give the audience their due: the verdict is in.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Meditative work

After having a pretty nasty, disappointing week in which I got precious little of value done, I'm playing hooky from real work today, and engaging in that most meditative of cooking tasks: caramelizing onions for soup. I'm using Thomas Keller's method, from his book Bouchon which takes about six hours from slicing to soup. (I may have to skip an hour of caramelizing just to get the soup done sometime before midnight.) Keller, as expected, gives very detailed instructions on everything, including the method of julienning the onions. It sounds slightly ridiculous, and having no guiding pictures to help me out, I butchered one onion completely before figuring out what he was getting at.

You cut off the top and bottom of the onion and slice in half lengthwise, and cut out the root and vertical core of the onion with a V wedge cut. Then you place the onion half flat on the board, and slice it from the lower edge toward the core, with the knife positioned at slight angle to the board, almost parallel. The resulting slices are beautiful, and just fall apart with almost no trimming. There's a certain amount of waste involved, but if you plan ahead, like I will next time, you can save the trimmings for stock. The caramelization process is longer than any I've ever heard of, five hours, but I'm putting my faith in the recipe. I'm keeping a photo diary of it, so I'll post pics of the results if they look remotely like food when I'm done with them. Cooking is what's going to get me through the fall, which promises to be a doozy this year, weather-wise.

Update: It turns out cutting the caramelization time isn't an option. You really do have to cook them to the end. I had the heat turned down too low for the first couple of hours because I was afraid of burning the onions, but the directions were for gas heat, which is disappointingly rare in Finland. Only the oldest buildings in downtown Helsinki have gas stoves, leaving my little suburban house with cast iron-like flat burners. It's like taking a sculptor's chisel away and giving him a sledge hammer instead.

Anyway, I couldn't get the onions to the dark brown color they should be, mostly because we had company and I wanted to feed our guests. Rather than add flour and broth to the onions to simmer for an hour and reduce, I just assembled the soup directly in the bowls and put them under the broiler to melt the cheese. I will never, ever caramelize onions any other way. I'll do it better next time, and maybe cut the croutons more carefully so they don't sink into the bowl as much, but even a few steps short of ideal, the soup was unbelievable: refined, rich, sweet, almost no seasoning needed, except for a little salt and a few drops of sherry vinegar. This is about to become a winter (weekend) standby in my kitchen. I served it with a '93 Rheingau riesling, and it was a perfect match. The off-dry, slightly sweet wine picked up the sweetness of the onions, and the its remaining acidity was a cleansing finish for the soup. The photo diary follows. It was 6 large spanish onions, 6-8 tbsp of butter, and 1 tbsp sea salt.

At 30 minutes:

90 minutes:

3 hours:

5 hours:

Finished soup:

Friday, September 21, 2007

Friday night listening

I came across a few clips from a new CD from British label NMC of music by David Sawer. I'd read the name many times, but never heard the music. Liking the previews, I decided on an impulse to download the whole thing. To date, I've don't think I've been disappointed in an NMC recording I've bought. They seem to have a great ear for variety and quality, so I was expecting a good buy. But...

Wow. (I get eloquent when I'm impressed.)

This is music that's bright, colorful, kaleidoscopically orchestrated, multilayered, complex, the whole package. Sawer hews to the postminimalist side of things, working with very simple, diatonic materials in a repetitive, obsessive, yet playful and lighthearted way. It's fun to listen to, and sounds like Sawer had a ball writing it, too. The closest thing to it in sound that I can think of is the chirpy friendliness of early Michael Torke, but that still doesn't come close, because there's more going on under the surface, and the forms Sawer creates have more byways and digressions, sudden turns and stops that give the music an expressive depth, as well as lending it a certain modernist tinge, yet blessedly without the angst. I listened to three ensemble/orchestra works from the 90s, Tiroirs, The Memory of Water, and the greatest happiness principle, leaving a longer, more recent opera suite for later in the weekend. I may be late to the party in discovering Sawer's music, but I'm enthralled by it, and it's nice to hear of a Briton who writes music of this aesthetic stripe getting big opportunities like orchestra and opera commissions. I hope this won't be the last Sawer disc I get to hear.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Time well spent

Composing and performing are highly satisfying activities which well justify the disproportionate amounts of time put into them. But few things pay back as evenly on time invested as cooking with and for friends, especially on a cool fall day as with today. Making a home cooked Sunday dinner and sharing it with people I care about is just about the best way I know of easing into the work week, with its classes, appointments, and the ever-growing stack of books on my desk waiting impatiently.

A menu:

- Lentil potage with curry and mint ('06 Sander Riesling, Rheinhessen)
- Roast leg of lamb with herbs and shallot gravy, twice-baked potatoes with old Cheddar cheese and chives, and glazed Brussels sprouts and carrots ('01 Basarin Barbaresco, '01 Rioja being brought by our friends)
- Bread pudding with apples, nuts, raisins and dates and vanilla sauce (coffee & tea)

Payback is a bi...

As some sort of karmic retribution for my last post on choral music, a simple, entirely conventional, slow-chorales Christmas carol got stuck in my head on the way home from Iceland. Being obsessive by nature and needing to get it out before it drove me nuts, I had to bow to inspiration (whatever that is) and write it down. Actually, it's something I've been wanting to write for years: a setting of Christina Rosetti's "In the bleak mid-winter". It's a slightly frightening prospect to take on a poem like this one, that's been set many times, and by two of my choral gods at that, Holst and Britten. But after writing some fairly far-out choral textures in the last year, I had a hankering for some triads, so I jumped in.

My initial contact with the poem came when I was about 20 through Britten's version, in the a capella cantata A Boy Was Born, an incredible, highly virtuosic display of compositional technique, text setting, and catchy tunes and textures, made all the more unbelievable by the fact that Britten was only 19(!) when he wrote it. Pieces like that make me wonder why I bother sometimes. I got a score and took it apart from beginning to end, but the one section that kept haunting me was the Rosetti setting, for the women's voices alone, and a melodic cameo for treble choir.

The idea is simple, really, but the effect is powerful, to say the least. Those chilly half-step dissonances on "bleak", the open fifths, it's all textbook, but transcends the bounds of obvious word painting. I especially love the way Britten turns the line "snow on snow" into the background texture for much of the piece, those soft, descending lines bringing a warmth to the music, enhanced by the trebles' melody. I've wanted to set the poem since that first experience, but couldn't get far enough from Britten to do it. I eventually settled for a more distant take on Britten's texture in the last movement of my much-mentioned piece Shiki, to a haiku by Santoka Taneda:

yuki e yuki
furu shisukesani

snowfall on snow

If I couldn't get away from Britten's sound, at least I'd change the words around a bit, and in a different language. Still, Rosetti's verse kept bugging me until now – note that I say "verse" in the singular – which ended up causing problems in the piece. The poem has a very subtly asymmetrical rhyme scheme, in spite of its being cast in a fairly conventional verse form. If you try to do a strophic setting of it, you end up with some awkward compressions and extensions of words, and strange, counterintuitive emphases placed on the wrong part of a sentence. This is exactly what happens in Holst's verse-form setting.
Despite the music being meltingly beautiful, I find that Holst often had to crowbar the words into place in order to fit the 4x4 phrase structure of the piece. If verse-form music doesn't work, the only option is a through-composed approach, which brings up the ever-present danger of chorales. I have absolutely no problem with the chorale texture itself; it's a perfectly valid form of text setting. But all too often, it ends up being a cop out, an easy way to avoid dealing with tricky rhythmic problems, much like the use of recitative to churn out a lot of text and information. Chorale phrases can be of any length without sounding too long, and such a texture is easy to rehearse.

Britten neatly sidesteps the problem by setting only the first of Rosetti's five verses, troping in additional verses from the Corpus Christi carol when the treble choir enters. He creates a more or less single-idea piece out of very few words from the Rosetti, putting the rhyming weight on the Corpus Christi lines, which are more symmetrical and do support even phrase lengths. I suspect that Britten's decision to do this may also have been due to the slightly maudlin turn the poem takes in subsequent verses into a display of stock Christmas imagery. And this is where I got stuck. Since the Britten setting had been foremost in my memory, I'd never paid much attention to the content of the later verses. A devout Catholic in my youth, I left the Church about 14 years ago, and as a rule don't set explicitly Christian texts. It's not due to any particular animus against the Church, but rather a desire on my part to be sincere and respectful of others' beliefs. If I couldn't utter the words of a devotional text in faith and sincerity, I won't set them.

So having set the first verse from memory and running up against the wall of Victorian sentiment, I was faced with a choice: use words I didn't like or mean – and the 16-year-old boy in me really couldn't set "a breastful of milk" with a straight face – or alter the poem significantly. I picked out the words I found least problematic and compressed the poem thusly:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Heaven cannot hold
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
In the bleak mid-winter.

Thronged the air,
The night rang
With their bliss,
But only mother
Worshipped with a kiss.

What can I give?
If I were wise, I would do my part
Yet what I can I give –
my heart.

The intent of the poem is preserved, I think, the fervent sense of expectation of a world in need of deliverance and individual sacrifice, but without all the cherubim-and-seraphim stuff of the original. My setting solution to the rhythmic difficulties is far less creative than Britten, with a solo soprano plainchant-like melody over a fifth drone at the beginning and end, and chorales for the middle two verses. It dances perilously close to the clichés of the Holy Minimalists, but I thought I'd give it a try anyway. Wanting to stay as far away from Britten and Holst as possible, I decided not to make a big deal out of those wonderful, singable, endlessly spinnable words, "snow on snow", keeping the flow of the poem as direct and unobstructed as possible. I'm pretty happy with the end result, and I'm hoping it will come across as pithy but effectively dramatic, though the voicing may yet require some tinkering. I was going to post a pdf of the score here and offer it as a Christmas gift to anyone who's interested, but I'm having web hosting difficulties and couldn't find a place to upload it. However, if anybody wants a copy, all they have to do is e-mail me. Our choir will be performing it on our seasonal concert in December.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Something Old, Something New

Well, I'm back from a full week in Reykjavik and surroundings, plus two travel days, and recovering at home after a long, hot shower, blissfully absent the smell of rotten eggs. No disrespect to Iceland's unique and environmentally sound hot water supply, but damn. I'm also sorting through the usual chaotic set of impressions, experiences and memories, good and bad, that accompany such a tip-of-the-iceberg immersion in a new culture. Once again, though, I return madly, hopelessly in love with a place, or rather its landscape. I was woefully under-equipped for venturing out into the wilderness on this trip, though I did manage some short excursions into places like Þingvellir national park, seen above, where you can see the American and Eurasian tectonic plates – the ridges at left and right, respectively – pulling apart.

Iceland is everything I'd read: rough, exotic, hip, cultured, friendly, bleak, exciting, a curious mix of traits, with aspects of both Nordic social organization and a frontier-like chaos of events. The Hvönn Choir and Gunnsteinn Ólafsson gave an enthusiastic, lovely-sounding performance of two movements from my choral piece Shiki, graciously letting me join them in singing, and even managed to find a kargyraa guy for the second movement. The festival itself went off rather well, without much of the usual dick-swinging that accompanies a largely male group of artists with big egos being sequestered together for a week. I admit that I socialize minimally in such circumstances, not because I don't like people, but because I get claustrophobic in groups full of people I don't know. I can manage a night or two at the bar, chatting and trading ideas, but at heart I'm a homebody, something I get from my father, and prefer to spend evenings with my wife, or talking in the company of trusted friends. And at New Music events, the conversation can become circular, with the same topics coming up over and over. At such times, I prefer to strike off on my own or, as with this week, with a few buddies. One of the best parts of the week was getting to hang out with one of my favorite colleagues, composer Antti Auvinen, whom I rarely get to see more than once or twice a year due to his living in Jyväskylä in central Finland. He's a cool guy, a serious artist who doesn't take himself too seriously, as another friend once put it, and it's always a pleasure to talk with him. Our music sounds like we're from different planets, yet we see eye-to-eye on a great many issues. He's funny as hell, a character, and very much the way his music sounds: jerky, hyperactive, peppering his talk with lots of sound effects, yet strangely lucid, and with startling moments of introspection and calm. Antti does great work with professional and amateur ensembles out in the provinces, but I selfishly hope that the Helsinki scene will be able to steal him away someday soon.

Reykjavik itself is a charming, busy, terminally hip little city, full of activity and life, far from what one would expect from its location and population.
Once I got used to the staggering, breathtaking prices, and the notion that I'd be paying off the trip till Easter, I had a wonderful time. The Icelandic people I found to be friendly, welcoming, zany, but with a curiously Finnish sense of humor, self-deprecating and unpretentious, and unashamedly proud of their country and heritage. It's remarkable how many artists there, having gone abroad to study, ultimately return, never having intended to stay away for long.

What I most enjoyed was hearing the language spoken all around me for the first time. I've heard bits of Icelandic before, but never a whole backdrop of it. Being an English speaker is sometimes a lonely state, oddly enough for one of the world's dominant language groups. I occasionally miss the sense of kinship that comes of having a surrounding group of cognate languages, siblings, half-siblings and cousins to our own. As much as the influence of vernacular Latin, French and others have enriched English and made it singularly adaptable and fluid as a mode of verbal construction, it's an isolated language, with no close relatives like the pan-Scandinavian group of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian, all of whose speakers conversed freely this past week (though Swedish-speaking friends tell me that talking with Danes usually involves a lot of smile-and-nod). Even Finland and Estonia share a close kinship in this regard. Despite their cultures being so different and their languages mutually unintelligible (contrary to popular myth, Finns and Estonians can't understand each other freely), there's still a sense of shared roots, of "these are our people" that I've never had as an English speaker, and a New World one at that.

So in spite of not understanding more than a few words, and finding that it sounds nothing like modern English (indeed, Dutch and Swedish are closer), hearing Icelandic still started a twitch of recognition in some long-dormant corner of my subconscious, a sense of close familiarity with the sounds, rhythms and cadences of the language, and a desire to understand more of it. There was a sense that along with the changes that made English such a force in the modern world, we have lost a level of familial connection with other languages, like the black-sheep sibling who ventures out into the world and never quite fits in again at holiday dinners. There's an ancient poetry to Icelandic, the impression of which was only strengthened when I got to hear some Icelandic folk music, in the powerful form of Bára Grimsdóttir, whose singing had an unaffected beauty and immediacy, and whose control of a huge range vocal timbres is exactly what I was going on about a few posts ago. I've since heard some of her choral music, and she's an accomplished composer as well, it seems. Her performance of an Icelandic song she introduced as the Seafarer's Hymn had tears welling up in my eyes, not least due to the surprise, crystalline addition of a Finnish kantele to the accompaniment, which up to that point had consisted of various string instruments familiar and strange played by Chris Foster. Truly memorable.

Another highlight of the week was a barnstorming performance of Le Sacre du Printemps by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra which, to quote Pres. Josiah Bartlet from The West Wing, "has got some serious game". I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I blew off a festival concert for this, but it was unforgettable: raw, edgy, and not a little bit wild. The culmination of the first part was like a tsunami, with all the non-congruent rhythmic cycles going off with great precision, yet feeling like the barely-controlled bacchanale it really is. The final upward thrust of the piece, which you always know is coming, somehow came as a complete surprise this time, like a slap in the face. It was all I could do to keep from following Debussy's lead (or was it Ravel?), springing to my feet and shouting, "Genius! Genius!"

The strange thing is, I don't really know what motivated me to go to the concert, other than that I felt an irrepressible need to hear this piece again, right now. It's heresy to admit this, but unlike most composers, I'd never been truly captivated by Le Sacre. The orchestration has always been fascinating, and indeed, there are parts of my recent orchestra piece, Solen, that would not be the way they are without Le Sacre (six solo violas, who else but Stravinsky could have thought of that?). But for me, twentieth-century music always began and ended with Debussy, and to some extent Bartók, whose mantles as the great innovators of the century I've always felt were unfairly usurped by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. With Stravinsky especially – with the exception of pieces like Symphony of Psalms and the Elegy for solo viola, which are uniquely expressive works in his output – I'd gotten the impression of being able to see all the strings being pulled, of not being quite as impressed as I should, despite the bells and whistles. Stravinsky was better than anyone at picking up fashionable stylistic elements that were in the air and polishing them to a gleaming shine, but that was pretty much it as far as I was concerned. I've heard Le Sacre live many times, and yet it wasn't until now that it hit me why this piece caused a riot at its première. (Yeah, yeah, I know that story may have been inflated, but it's worthy of legend, so I'll let it go.) The primal, raging energy of the score, the intended cacophonic effect of the rhythmic complexity, was evident for the first time, and I went back to the hotel – after a long, long drinking session with members of the orchestra, who graciously welcomed Antti and me like part of the band – burning with the desire to break out a score and recording and go through it again.

Revelations abounded on this trip, and the country itself was another major shock, one that will necessitate another post. I plan on folding it into my delayed ramblings on landscape and "Nordicity" as it concerns my coming to Finland, but that will have to wait another few days. For now, I'll end by stating that everyone should go to Iceland. Now. Next time, I'm bringing a backpack and a good tent. Waterproofed. For a country with a self-explanatory name, it sure rains a lot.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Happy Anniversary to me…

Today marks six years since I first arrived in Finland, and five since I moved here permanently. Six isn't an anniversary you usually notice in a big way, but it's significant to me because it's the same amount of time I spent in the United States. I've now been away from my home country for twelve years, basically my entire adult life. I was going to wax rhapsodic about what being here has done for me, why I felt I needed to leave the States, and why being in a Nordic country again has been invaluable to my artistic development, such as it is. But I was waylaid by a large fireworks display on my way home, and need to get some sleep before my flight to Iceland, so it will have to wait. Still, I needed to mark the day. Cheers to all, and more tangents on my return!

Edited to add: I started posting this on the true date of my arrival, August 31st, but the phone rang, and it was a new day when I got back. Linear time wreaks its customary havoc on my life.