Friday, October 19, 2007


After hearing so much about this piece during the knock down-drag out fight over the NY Times minimalism record lists last month, I finally ordered a copy of Charlemagne Palestine's organ improvisation Schlongo!!!daLUVdrone. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I've never previously heard any of Palestine's music, especially given that I taught a course on minimalism last year. I can only plead ignorance and bad time management. I just plain ran out of research time and discovered a number of things far too late. Anyway, the disc arrived Tuesday, and I let it sit on my desk for a couple of days before putting it on for some late night listening.

There are no words that adequately cover it. But I'll try to manage a few.

Awesome. Shattering. Uncompromising. Humbling, certainly. It makes me feel small, which is the highest compliment I can pay it, and yet at the same time it feels like I'm big enough to contain the universe. I love writing long, resonant diatonic cluster chords, but Palestine takes the idea to its furthest extreme. This is the music I'd write if I had the guts, and if I didn't care if people thought I was crazy. I indulge myself in many conceits, one of them being the notion that I'm not confined stylistically, but the truth is that I'm extremely sensitive to the issue. I live in a country where modernism is still the ruling aesthetic, and even though my music is different, I draw on modernism as an influence, and willingly so, because it informs what I do as much as minimalism. As a therapeutic exercise, I'll hold a white-note palm cluster down on my Clavinova for minutes on end, but I'd never do it for an hour and call it a piece. (Palestine doesn't do that either, but the point remains.) My Western modernist training wouldn't allow it. I'd think I was a charlatan, too lazy to compose a real piece. And yet, here it is, the thing that, if I'm honest with myself, I've secretly been wanting to write my whole life, on my CD player.

Every so often, you come across a work of art that shakes you to your very foundation, that makes you question everything you hold dear as an artist, your very method of creating. This morning I woke up thinking of myself as, if not an iconoclast, then at least as having my moments of aesthetic courage. Tonight, I go to sleep in the happy realization that I know nothing of any value, especially about the meaning of courage.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Coming up for air

In between performances of kantele music, all of which went extremely well, endless shifts working on Bathseba, negotiating text setting rights and bemoaning the current state of politics in my homeland*, I've been thinking a lot about instrumentation lately . I'm now two-thirds of the way through the opera project and the end is in sight, praise be to Unnamed Deity. I'm relieved that I'm finally in a groove with it, having become more familiar with Pylkkänen's language and orchestration. The music is reminiscent of the big Cecil B. deMille-type film epics, lots of big gestures, brassy jolts and the like. Not all of it is memorable, but it meanders pleasantly between lyrical and rhapsodic, has some very nice tunes, and makes an undeniable dramatic impact.

A big stumbling block at first was the ensemble: 13 players with single winds, two horns, trumpet, single strings and percussion, with a small harp obligato that my wife will be covering on kannel. (The opera is set in Estonia, so the national instrument seemed like an appropriate choice. Also, how the hell do you replicate the sound of a harp with an orchestra? You don't, that's how.) I don't write for mixed ensembles very much. Actually, looking over my output, I don't ever, it seems. My single, only partly successful attempt in the genre was a small piece for flute, viola, vibraphone and harp, which I chose because there were areas of clear timbral convergence that I could work with.

Since my instrumental approach is mostly derived from the music-formerly-known-as-minimalism (tip of the hat to PostClassic there), I need groups of matched instruments to get the hazy, heterophonic effects I'm going for. I can handle a solo instrument or a solo-"accompaniment" texture, but anything smaller than a full symphony orchestra that combines more than two different timbres gives me the heebie-jeebies. In the States, where everybody and their dog wrote a Pierrot or Pierrot + percussion piece in grad school, the very idea terrified me. (I wrote a string quartet instead.) I've come to better terms with mixed ensembles in the last few years since discovering Spectralism in a big way. That kind of integral, timbre-based way of writing makes a lot of sense, but I think I'm still a long way off from writing an effective piece for such a group.

So working with a precariously balanced ensemble like this is daunting, to say the least. This kind of scoring has the potential to sound almost like a full orchestra, or just horribly overdone. Certain things, like Pylkkänen's tendency to always write matched winds in thirds, make things even tougher. "I'm using that clarinet to fill out a 4-horn chord, but that damn flute tune needs the third below it, and the oboe will just bury it in that register." "That violin tune needs to come out over the brass, but the winds are busy and I can't thin out that brass chord, because then it would stop being a dominant seventh/added sharp fourth/whatever chord." (My first music theory classes are coming back to me with a vengeance: "Drop the fifth, even the root, but not the seventh!")

Logistical problems like these, combined with constantly having to comb through the parts to find gestures that aren't in the vocal score, make for long days. But I'm excited to hear how it's going to sound, almost as much as if it were my own piece. I'm more at home writing for orchestra than with any other ensemble, except perhaps choir. I take great pride in my orchestration, and this has been an entirely new challenge, one I stand to learn a lot from. Few people get to write a full-blown opera for their first outing, and besides, I find it very hard to relate to grand opera as a genre. Realistically, if I ever get to write the 1-hourish, one-act opera I've had in mind and would like to do in the next five years, it will be for these instrumental forces, or something close thereto. Hearing how the layers and densities I've written interact, even in music that's pretty far from mine in every respect, will probably be invaluable. So fingers crossed, I head back into it, to be heard from no more, or at least till November.

*(Pop quiz: How, as a minority government that was elected with just over 30% of the popular vote, do you avoid ever having to compromise on your dubious agenda in Parliament? Answer: Make every proposal a confidence motion! That way, if the government is brought down, the opposition heads into an election with labels like "uncooperative" and "obstructionist" tied around their necks. Governance by schoolyard bullies.)

Monday, October 8, 2007

An embarrassment of riches

This fall boasts an unexpected number of performances of my music, something I'm not really used to. This coming weekend, the Sibelius Academy kantele studio celebrates its 20th anniversary with a concert festival. October 13th features two of my pieces, starting with Sketches before a storm in the afternoon, with Hanna Kinnunen on flute, and Eva Alkula on the Finnish electric kantele. On the evening concert, my lovely wife, Hedi, who plays the fully chromatic Estonian version of the instrument, performs the piece I wrote for her in 2002, The Snow Watcher, after the eponymous poetry collection by Chase Twichell. November sees the Finnish premiere of my recent solo accordion piece, being the pine tree, which I wrote for the incredible Veli Kujala. And in December the choir of which I'm a longtime member, the Hämäläis-Osakunta Singers, give the première of my carol In the bleak mid-winter. Getting your work played by top-notch musicians is always great, but getting it played by top-notch musicians who also happen to be dear friends and family is even better.

Interludes and random thoughts

I'm taking a break from the opera arrangement today to compose. I've tried to do both in the same day, but I always end up so fried after working on Pylkkänen that it's impossible to concentrate. Usually orchestration is pleasant work. I sit at the coffee table, spread out my score paper, pop on a set of DVDs – Scrubs, Friends, whatever, though The West Wing is particularly restful for some reason – and go to it. I enjoy it because it's automatic work for me. My music is so strongly built around instrumental color that by the time I get to the orchestration it's only a question of copying it out. I rarely have to stop to figure out how to score something or bang it out at the piano. Obviously with Pylkkänen it's different, because it's not mine, and I'm doing my best to respect his original scoring, which imposes a few more limitations than I'm used to.

The biggest problem is that I'm scoring directly onto Finale, which is something I never, ever normally do. I can't see the whole page, I'm more prone to make mistakes, and staring at the screen all day is wearing on the eyes. I'm one of what is likely a very small number composers my age who uses the computer purely as a copying device. I much prefer good light, a pencil and paper. It's old-fashioned, I know, but I studied with a long line of old-fashioned composers, people who grew up when they still had to write everything by hand, and only used the computer for clarity in copying, if at all. I work faster this way, writing a shorthand full score by hand, and then copying the clean version on Finale when I already know how it looks. I'm extremely visually oriented this way: I need to have everything in front of me in order to see and hear how things relate.

I can't compose at the computer, either. I have many friends who do, and produce terrific music, but for the life of me I can't figure out how. I hardly ever touch the playback functions, because it wrecks my sense of the music. I'll occasionally build a model for a section of music in MIDI just to check the pacing of events, or to check a tricky rhythmic bit, but only after I've already decided on the content. I may not have the world's greatest ear, but I do know from experience that what I hear is invariably more accurate than the computer's approximation, and my notation employs a lot of boxes and such that Finale can't play back properly, so usually I end up having to trust myself.

All this is just to say that it's frustrating and tiring to be tied to this piece all day, and I needed some time off from it. So I yesterday I also did my work quota for today as well, in order to have some head space for my own work. I'm currently working on the final eight of a set of twelve (natch) pieces for piano for my friend Risto-Matti, based on Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I'm also putting the final touches on the text I compiled for my new choral piece for the Helsinki Chamber Choir, ad puram annihilationem meam, for which I'm close to working out the details with the publisher in Paris. The commission was for a spiritual piece with a largely French text, and after some searching, I settled on a series of excerpts from a tract by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called La Messe sur le Monde. I'm also thinking forward to another Whitman-derived piece for flute and harp due for next summer that I'm calling night, sleep, death and the stars.

I take a lot of what is, I hope, affectionate ribbing for my titles from my buddies, and get asked fairly frequently by colleagues and teachers alike why I saddle myself with so much extramusical baggage when I write. I can only answer that music is not, and has never been an abstract thing for me. I've tried writing technical exercises in the past – fugue, Renaissance counterpoint, etc – or thinking purely about musical issues, but I usually fail miserably. Writing for the sake of gaining technical skill just isn't sufficient motivation for me: If I don't have that visual/poetic catalyst, I can't work. Our macho western classical music culture, or academic music culture, at least, tends to make people who think this way feel like a bit of a wuss or, worse, a Romantic, but I suppose everyone limits themselves in some way when they write: pitch content, form, style, what have you. Since I try not to limit myself stylistically, it helps to have an outside factor dictate what the piece is "about" to me. I'm not into program music, and what I write ends up functioning abstractly as music, independently of the images I've attached to it, but getting the notes out in a coherent form always requires an external stimulus. Most of the composers I know are of the Sibelian "form arises from material" school. I respect this process, and even envy it, but it's not enough for me. Music only comes out when I've have a clear idea of what the piece is supposed to express, and sufficient time to figure out what form and language are necessary to articulate that vision. The abstract formal function of the various compositional elements comes much later in the process.

I'm funny that way. But I think a part of developing as an artist, on the technical level at least, is knowing what works for you, what helps you get the piece done, and what doesn't, and being comfortable with that, even proud of it. I used to beat myself up a lot for not being able to think in abstract musical terms, for needing that expressive crutch. It does impose a lot of preconceptions on the piece, and finding that perfect way of expressing it is a long, arduous, ego-destroying process, but it's what works. If that makes me a Romantic, so be it, I guess.