Thursday, December 18, 2008

'Tis the season

I've been silent again, busy with work, and various other forms of writing that have kept me from saying anything of import here. However, now that my teaching semester and Christmas concert season are both over, or nearly there over, I can relax a little and write and do some less essential things. I've already spent hours this week playing with the Canadian Music Centre's new online toy, Centrestreams. It's delightful, and will undoubtedly become a thorn in the side of the wider world's ability to continue ignoring Canadian music.

It seems we're in for another so-called "black Christmas" this year. (I suppose Finns would call it green if there were enough daylight to see the ground – or if they weren't Finns.) Last winter was the worst I've experienced since moving here, with no snow at all and a heavy cloud cover that kept daylight out for weeks on end. If not for my month in Seaside, Fla, I might not have made it through the S.A.D. – never an acronym more appropriate, by the way. This year, though, the weather trends and bird migrations seem to be pointing toward a more normal season. With the addition to our home furnishings of a full-spectrum sunlight lamp, and hopefully a little skiing, I may survive this one.

It's also the season of endless Christmas gigs, both as a performer and audience member. I keep thinking I'll get sick of Christmas music, but I haven't yet. It's the one remainder of my Anglican/Catholic upbringing that I haven't left behind. I love the season, the mood it brings out in people, the pageantry and especially the music, from all periods. My choir did a Schütz motet this year, "Die Himmel erzählen die ehre Gottes", that knocked my socks off, and aroused interest in a composer I hadn't paid much attention to previously. Another recent highlight was the première of my friend David's new piece Resonance, for violin, strings and two horns, an evocative, soulful, warmly diatonic piece full of Celtic undertones, which I'm going to pay him the respect of stealing ideas from in my horn concerto next year. In terms of my own music, it's also been a more active season than usual. My carol In the bleak mid-winter, written last year, will be broadcast across Europe and North America as part of the Finnish entry in Euroradio's annual Christmas concert series, in a performance by the Helsinki Chamber Choir and my friend Nils Schweckendiek (info here, here and here). The December 21st concert date is a pleasing coincidence as well – in the actual bleak mid-winter.

I'm very much in a choral phase at the moment, trying to get an 80th anniversary piece for HOL off the ground and done by the time our rehearsals start again in January. I was a bit wary of taking on yet another choir piece this year, feeling kind of tapped for new textural and formal ideas. When the request came while I was working on, say it with me, a choir piece in Seaside last winter, I toyed with the idea of setting a favorite E.E. Cummings poem as a 40-voice motet, just to give myself something unusual to think about. In the end, though, I decided I couldn't get my head around the text well enough at the moment and needed a few more years to think about it. However, it was ultimately another experience this past summer that drew me away from Cummings more forcefully.

My wife and I spent a month crossing Canada and the U.S. visiting family and friends for the first time in several years. One of our stops was Amherst, Massachusetts, where I spent three of the happiest years of my life as a student at UMass. Our hosts there took us on an extensive tour of rural Western Mass, which was a delight. The landscapes in New England are much the same as where I grew up, just north of Vermont, and it felt like a return home in many ways. One of the places we visited was Hancock Shaker Village, a former Shaker community-turned-museum which I'd heard of, but never been to before. During the day, we heard a demonstration of Shaker worship songs, including the very famous Simple Gifts, most memorably used, of course, by Copland in Appalachian Spring, and which I made an arrangement of a couple of years ago for HOL. The most affecting song I heard, though, was a much more modest one called Love is little:

Love is little, love is low
Love will make my spirit grow
Grow in peace, grow in light
Love will do the thing that's right

It was on permanent loop in my head for weeks afterward, so I figured I'd been given a gift that would form the basis of the new piece, a sort of fantasia around the tune. The melody itself is so perfect that any harmonization would be a travesty, and given that it has no climax per se, I didn't want to impose a linear narrative on it. Given what we were told about the Shakers repeating songs over and over during their ceremonies, much like the way I couldn't seem to turn off my mental fixation with it, the idea that occurred to me for a possible setting was a deconstruction of the tune achieved by slowing down various melodic fragments, constantly creating new layers that gradually move off into different speeds, ultimately giving every singer their own part.

It's not particularly new, and I've been intrigued with this sort of sea-of-voices textural idea for years, since a friend and I accidentally caused a feedback loop of a Palestrina motet while copying course tapes in the music library at Stony Brook late one night. (Later that year I used a fragment of the same motet, "Sicut cervus", looped over and over itself, in a tape piece.) Another formative experience was my first hearing Brian Eno's Three Variations on Pachelbel's Canon in D about ten years ago, which begins with a few bars of a very Romantic interpretation of the famous Canon, but in which all the parts quickly slow down in increasing proportion to the depth of their register.

The other appeal in this type of process was allowing myself only the pitches of a diatonic scale. After writing a pretty dissonant chamber duo in the summer, I've been leaning further toward total diatonicism this fall as a counterweight, and the Eb-major scale has been particularly attractive for choral music: not too high or too low for amateur singers, it allows for maximum use of the choral tessitura. However, establishing interesting, varied textural ideas within those restrictions presents a problem. I don't use MIDI much for vocal music because the timbres deaden my inner ear, and I figured working blind with thick layers of diatonic clusters could potentially lead to unexpectedly turgid results. So I decided to conduct a little experiment.

Using a 250-voice choir and one of the biggest organs in Helsinki.

Allow me to explain. Every year, the university club choirs gather for a massed Christmas concert in Helsinki's Kallio church, the biggest, most cavernous worship space in town. Each group presents a few minutes of its own selections, interspersed with traditional songs and carols sung by the audience. It's a relaxed, fun, family event that almost always sees the church packed. The final number for the massed choirs is usually something traditional, the Hallelujah chorus from Messiah or some such, but this year I asked to contribute a similar-minded deconstruction of a Christmas tune for the group to perform, a kind of semi-improvised piece around something the audience would be familiar with.

The whole idea came to me in the type of rare, late-night flash that popular culture seems to think is how artists actually work most of the time, and which hardly ever happens to me. I'd been playing around with a setting of Adolphe Adam's "Cantique de Noël", known to the English-speaking world as "O Holy Night". I'd wanted to do a simple four-voice setting using only the diatonic pitches of the E-flat scale (plus an A that occurs in the middle), but one that was still quite dissonant, if not non-tonal as a result. It worked for a while, but I quickly got bored with the texture and, swtiching my Clavinova to "Strings", started smearing the notes of the final cadential 6-4 progression together. Throw in a recent listening to Charlemagne Palestine's Schlongo!!! daLUVdrone, a piece which moved me to blog last year and voilà, instant inpiration!

The choice of "O Holy Night" is another personal story. I've loved this carol for as long as I can remember. As far as carols go, it's pretty bombastic in that nineteenth-century French way. It's also one of the great tunes ever written, on par for mastery with Schubert's "Ave Maria", but it's been done no favors by countless cheesy arrangements, bellowed out every year by big-voiced pop divas and operatic tenors. And yet, I have an abiding affection for it, so I decided to scrape of the decades-old patina of Elvis, Mormon Tabernacle Choirs, Perry Como, Pavarotti and Dog knows what else to see what lay beneath, if that tune could be rehabilitated into something more insightful than a stadium anthem.

I'll leave judgment on the "insightful" part to others, but so far I'm quite pleased with the result. After a verse and chorus of my initial four-part setting, the final cadence stretches out infinitely, becoming a pianissimo hummed cluster. The organ enters, slowly building a cluster held down with bits of cardboard, à la Palestine, and the organist starts pulling out stops. The choir, meanwhile, starts playing around with fragments of the tune and its hamonization, varying in density and tonal emphasis, getting louder all the while. The organ's bass spends a lot of time osciallating around C rather than E-flat, and when it finally resolves up to E-flat near the end, the effect is pretty impressive at maximum volume, for all its obviousness. My friend Susanne Kujala graciously agreed to play the organ part. Having just recorded a CD on the organ at Kallio, she knows the instrument like the back of her hand, and is so far rocking the house, quite literally.

I still haven't heard it all performed together, as the one and only rehearsal with both singers and organ is tomorrow just before the concert. There are bound to be issues, but the improvisational, box-structure of the choral part, not to mention the total diatonicism of the piece, allows for things to go wrong, even encourages it. I'm looking forward to it in the extreme. I've wanted to write something like this for a long time, and Christmas provides an unmissable opportunity to thumb my nose at critics and colleagues alike, write with no regard to aesthetics or form save making a piece I want to hear, and hopefully make a few people joyful at the same time.

Best wishes for the season, to any and all who read this!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Oh, Canada!

A brief pause in musical discourse for some political action. For those not in the know, there's an election looming in Canada, which presents an opportunity for house cleaning that it doesn't seem like my fellow citizens are likely to take, at least not in sufficient numbers to have an effect. With the increasing ridiculousness of the party leaders making it harder to take them seriously, and polling in my home district not looking good, I'm left with very little choice as to how to vote. Below, the text in full of the letter to my current MP – scribbled in a hasty e-mail and replete with the redundancies that seem unavoidable in political correspondence – detailing the issue that has taken over my consciousness, and what I view as being the key to repairing our "dysfunctional government", in the words of the current occupant of Sussex Drive:

I am writing as a Canadian currently living abroad of my intent to cast a vote for Mr X in the coming election. As a supporter of the NDP, I have been dismayed by recent actions by that party and its leader, especially the move to exclude Green leader Elizabeth May from the debates. Although they have since reversed their position, the NDP's decision to run an unqualified candidate in my riding makes it impossible for me to cast a vote for them. With current riding polling indicating that the Conservative Party candidate and Mr X are running very closely, it is all the more important that I cast my vote for the Liberal Party to keep the seat from going to the Conservatives.

However, I have made this decision under extreme duress. While I honour Mr X's service in government and agree with him on many issues, he still does not seem to support one major issue that faces the way our country is governed: that of proportional representation in Parliament. Current seat projections indicate that while the Bloc Québécois and Green Party are polling the same numbers, their projected seat count after the election stands at 47 for the Bloc and 0 for the Greens. While extreme, this example clearly illustrates the fundamental unfairness of our first-past-the-post parliamentary system. It is unfair that the views of a minority of regionalist separatists such receive such a huge share of parliamentary power versus the same number of people whose primary concern is the environment. Proportional representation should be the single biggest issue facing 21st century Canada in the area of governmental structure. Proportional representation – as for example practiced in my current country of residence, Finland – is vital in creating broad consensus through coalition government. It furthermore limits the needs of larger parties to cater in their platforms to fringe elements within their own party, such as religious fundamentalists and regionalist spoilers, thereby lessening extremism. It is also fair, in giving the views of supporters of a party a direct, measurable percentage of parliamentary power to speak for them.

Are we to continue suppressing the voices of smaller political parties by this undemocratic practice? It is long past time that the parliamentary structure of Canada was reformed. It should be debated in Parliament, given broad support by MPs and put to a national referendum, where I believe it will find support among the electorate. The current intiative to enact proportional representation in British Columbia would seem to be a first step toward a federal reform. To date, though, only the NDP and Green Party explicitly support proportional representation at the federal level in their platforms. I can only assume that the major parties (Liberal and Conservative) and the Bloc Québécois do not support this reform out of fear of losing power in Parliament, as the current system massively favours them. Nonetheless, it is unconscionable that in the 21st century Canada should continue this undemocratic practice.

While this single issue will not affect my support for Mr X in this election, I would underline that this support is strategic, and not whole-hearted. The issue of proportional representation must be brought forward and given the fair hearing it deserves. Only one of the major parties can accomplish this. A joint motion by the Liberal Party and NDP would surely be the best way. The ensuing debate would and should frame the issue as one of building a stronger democracy. I cannot imagine even the staunchest opponents of such reform casting a public vote against greater fairness in our system of representation. It is the right thing to do, and it is time to do it. I strongly urge Mr X to bring the issue of proportional representation to the Liberal caucus and persuade his fellow Members of Parliament of the justness of this reform. I furthermore urge him to add the issue to his platform and support it whole-heartedly. Until I see such a measure in the Liberal platform, any support of your policies will only be contigent, and in the best interests on the country as a whole, which are not being safeguarded by the current government. Good luck to Mr X; I hope he will prevail and contribute to a fairer, more equally represented Canada.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sitting quietly, doing nothing

After a short period of reflection and doubt, I'm back in action this week, with a renewed sense of purpose. Maybe I'm buoyed by the knowledge that, if this composing thing doesn't work out, my proximity to Russia makes me eminently qualified to serve as Vice-President of the U.S. Or maybe my piece is just going better now. At a concert last week, a stopped to chat with a colleague, and he asked me archly, "So what happened?" I must have looked puzzled. "With your piece! I'm dying to know." I find it comforting that, if nothing else, I at least provide some mild entertainment for my peers.

Whatever the case, I feel like it's back on track. As I explained to him, making a public admission that your piece sucks and you intend to scrap it makes it much harder to continue down the wrong path. Taking the piece down to its simplest components had the benefit of revealing something about those materials that I hadn't seen earlier: a fundamental rhythmic incompatibility that was blocking the music's progress. I was trying to reconcile two completely different sets of ideas under a single rhythmic impulse, and it wasn't ever going to work, at least not the way I was doing it. On the one hand, I had a set of very free, floating, quasi-diatonic ideas that, while rhythmic and repetitive, were non-periodic in their repetitiveness. On the other, I had very rigid, diatonic, periodic materials. Although constructed around the same 16th-note pulse, I was never able to make one become the other, because while the rigid material offered the possibility of change, the free materials were completely static, objects that offered no way of turning into anything else, and in combination with the developmental materials, had the effect of the stopping the piece in its tracks every time I introduced them.

This contrast between static ideas and developmental ideas, and the recognition of which is which, is one of the central difficulties of composing for me. Unable to reconcile the two in this piece, I decided to just render all the materials static, to not develop any of them in a linear way. Rather, they're constantly rearranged and juxtaposed differently, changing the perspective on each idea as it encounters another set of objects. The result thus far is like a sonic mobile, with blocks of ideas floating around freely between the two players. They sometimes play together as a sort of meta-guitar, with the Baroque guitar acting as an extension of the theorbo's upper register, sometimes they circle around each other freely. The whole thing has a kind of "suchness" to it – an unhurried, aimless sense of balance, an absence of need to change the materials in any way, their true nature having been revealed – that I find appealing at this moment in time. It turns out that I really wanted to write yet another slow, meditative piece.

I also have the troublesome Baroque guitar at my disposal for the next couple of weeks, so I can get my head around its odd tuning: five courses of strings in a re-entrant tuning (reading top-down) of E-B-G-D-A, where the D and A sound in the same register as the E minor triad. This cluster tuning creates some difficulties in imagining voicings, so having it around to experiment with will make things easier.

In line with the idea of "suchness", I took up a friend's invitation to join him last night at the local Zen center to sit zazen and hear a teisho, a teaching speech, by a visiting sensei. It was a new experience for me, as I'm mainly a solitary practicioner and consider religious expression a deeply private matter, to the point where I found a short group recitation of text mildly alarming. I found it very reassuring to hear some of the things I've been working on in my own time confirmed, and may just continue with the idea of group practice. I definitely enjoyed the feeling of being one person among many sitting in silence, doing nothing.

There's a "suchness" to life here, a feeling that each day, no matter how busy, spirals inevitably toward silence and stillness in the end, even in the city. It's embedded in Finnish culture, the value of silence ("silence is gold"), and conversations have a way of settling into enjoyable, unplanned lulls that don't require breaking. In fall especially, there's a drawing inward that happens – to people, to the earth, to the air – that makes one especially aware of silence and its place in life. (Verlyn Klinkenborg recently wrote a beautiful NY Times piece about silence in boreal Finland.) Some, myself included, would say that this craving for silence and privacy can manifest itself in extremes of social non-interaction, but it's still nice to be part of a culture that places such great weight on the importance of silence as a counterpoint to activity.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Resistance is futile

I've been trying valiantly to work on a new piece the past few weeks, a shortish duo for Baroque guitar and theorbo, the first notes I've set to paper since finishing a biggish flute and harp piece in June. It's been tremendously difficult for some reason, not least my lack of familiarity with the instruments. I came up with a pretty chain of nine chords that oscillate ambiguously between A minor and B minor... and then proceeded to write some of the dullest music I've ever come up with. Every note has been a trial, and the whole process is getting slower and slower, which means that I've hit the wall with this particular line of inquiry.

One of my old teachers (and what is the study of composition but a years-long accumulation of choice quotes from teachers past?) once told me in an e-mail that mental resistance was a sign that you've taken a wrong turn. I've been banging my head against the wall with this one, hacking out what started as pretty patterns of even, running sixteenth-notes within my chords. The intent was to create a sort of pulsing, minimalist chaconne of seven variations, with an intro and extro of slightly different music.

But it's not working. The rhythmic structure isn't holding together, the patterns aren't that interesting, and the textural difference between the variations just isn't great enough. Sometimes it takes weeks just to get to the point where you admit that an idea isn't viable, or that you just can't get your head around it at the moment, for whatever reason. Maybe you're pressed for time, or the concept isn't as clear as it seemed when you started, or wasn't as developed as it should have been. I have a tendency to overcomplicate things at first, which may have happened here. I also thought I should write something rhythmic for a change, but perhaps the piece wants to be yet another slow, meditative one. Whatever the case, I now need to start over with something simpler and more direct. The chords will probably remain, as they're the one spontaneous element that I feel has real potential. They arose in a moment of improvisation at the keyboard, when I was getting used to the tuning of the instruments, and I have a sense that those chords are the piece, just not in the way that I thought.

My next attempt will be a series of boxes, with the two parts in independent rhythms, floating figures creating a more ambient soundworld. I'd planned on amplifying the players and experimenting with some live reverb and delay, and the technological aspect may take on a greater role. I'm definitely a stranger in a strange land here: unfamiliar instruments, unfamiliar processes, a much simpler harmonic language than anything I've used in the past. The whole experience feels very foreign, far from my usual mode of working, which is actually quite apt. I'm calling the piece The wine-dark sea, after fond memories of my honeymoon trip to Crete last year (see here for the precise moment of inspiration, if that sort of thing holds any appeal). At the time, I wrote about being surprised that the landscape there didn't resonate in a musical way for me. Still, I felt I needed to address some aspect of the experience, and I latched onto the sea as a catalyst, especially its ever-changing shades and densities of blue, which these chords, shifting slowly and gently from one to the next, seemed to evoke. However, what started as a tensely rhythmic piece may become a blissed-out dream recollection of a wonderful trip.

It's also a possibility that I'll return to the original idea and discover that I was right all along, but I doubt it. I went for a walk to clear my head, and thinking the matter through, I realized that my mind had given up on the idea a long time ago, and I've been flogging a dead horse. Despite being more or less back at square one, and with a deadline looming in a few weeks, that decision is a powerful one in the act of composition, a gut-level recognition that tears you away from a mistaken concept and gets you closer to the truth of the material, and thus the piece. There's a sense of liberation in walking away from an idea that, if I just pushed it to its conclusion, would do the job but nothing more, in order to find something special, different, memorable. Within reason, the goal of art should be never to settle for anything less.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tuesday, Bloody Tuesday

A sauna with friends, followed by Raclettes; drunk on two bottles of Riesling, a bottle of sherry, some Glenmorangie and that SNL video of Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin, I look at my schedule for Tuesdays this semester and it reads thus:

12:00 METH

15:00 ANAL

18:00 HOL

I'll leave it to you to decide the first two; the last is choir rehearsal. Props to David at The Late Review for the post title. Serious thoughts to follow this week, I promise.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Emerging, composer?

My summer hiatus ended up being much longer than originally planned. I started a post about compositional process, but ended up not being able to formulate it clearly enough for my own liking, though I'll get it figured out sooner or later.

My new piece for multiple flutes and harp (see post here) sucked up most of my free time and head space in the last couple of weeks of its composition in June, with the final movement causing me no end of headaches; one section in particular had to be redrafted upward of ten times before I was able to trim the fat off it and figure out its function in the form. I finished the score literally hours before getting on an overseas flight. Despite the rush, the July 19th performance went extremely well. Hanna and Lily, as expected, went above and beyond in their preparation, getting right to the heart of the music. As a result, the piece generated a lot of positive attention and good feedback, and I found myself feeling more satisfied with Night, sleep, death and the stars than I have been with any of my previous chamber works. I feel like I'm finally starting to draw together the diatonic/minimalist side of my writing with the more serialist/atonal. Though the extremes were still present in the piece (they tend to be more obvious in my chamber music, where I feel more at liberty to try odd things, than in my orchestral and choral pieces) they came into closer contact than ever before. The setting was perfect, too: a still, clear Nordic summer night, a late concert starting at nine, and an old, resonant church with a star field painted on the white ceiling. Overall, a positive experience. After trimming the fourth movement, in which I lost the thread a little in the rush to finish it, and tweaking the middle section of second to allow more time for harp pedaling, I think I'll have a strong piece.

The real reason for the long silence, though, was an extended trip to the States and Canada to visit friends and family. It had been far too long since I've trod the ground of my home continent, and it was a real pleasure to be there. We started in western Massachusetts, the seat of many fond memories from my university days, in the easygoing company of one of my old professors and her family. From there, Ottawa and the larger part of my immediate family, ending with the Canada Day celebration in the capital, which is always a fun occasion. The last leg brought us, at long last, to the West Coast and Vancouver. I'm slightly ashamed to admit I've never been to that end of Canada before – the furthest west I've seen is the Rockies – but in my defense, it's a big damn country, and you really need a reason to go out there. Luckily, my brother recently moved out to the Pacific coast, providing us with a neat excuse.

Vancouver is a lovely city, laid back, cool, scenic, really an idyllic location. There's a strong sense of being "somewhere else" out there, a vibe unique in Canada. And finally a city with enough green to rival Helsinki! Long walks through the coastal rain forests were simply spectacular, in any weather. We had a three-day side excursion to the wine country of the Okanagan valley, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise. More beautiful country, of course, but the wine, which you don't see a lot of outside the province of British Columbia, was world-class.

We spent most of our time around the smaller, start-up wineries in the south of the region, near the U.S. border, where I tasted a degree of dedication and passion in the winemaking that's hard to come by. Some standout products included the aromatic whites of See Ya Later Ranch, which also produces an excellent Brut sparkling wine with a yeasty, buttered-toast nose. Their Riesling and Pinot Gris (blended with a tiny amount of Gewürztraminer) were especially memorable. Burrowing Owl, in addition to its highly photogenic namesake and sharp, well-run restaurant, produces the best single-varietal Cabernet Franc I've ever had. Blue Mountain's refined, age-worthy Pinot Noir, Gehringer Brothers' powerful Riesling icewine and a Gewürz from Wild Goose were also eagerly packed for the trip home, but pride of place went to Golden Mile's incredible "Black Arts" Syrah, blended with Viogner in the Rhône style, simply the best wine I tasted there, perhaps the best I've had all year. The aftertaste of dried fruits and spice went on and on for minutes, always developing, always bringing new layers to my attention. Truly remarkable! Even in the slicker, more corporate north of the valley, where the wines had a designed-by-committee feel (though Mission Hill earns significant points for beauty of location), there were rare finds, the most notable being the lovely light, fresh, low-alcohol icewines at Sumac Ridge. Even amid such travel opulence I found it hard to turn off my irony filter, noting that all the wineries seemed to be named after some beautiful, ancient feature of the landscape that was plowed under to make room for vineyards. Oh well. If I ever move there, they can put me in commercials for B.C. wine; there would never be a reason to buy a bottle made out of province. Forget Napa!

The visit was all too short, and I sincerely hope to make it back to that part of the world again very soon. However, the North called, and home we returned. Truth be known, I found myself feeling homesick for Finland, which is a first. I've put down roots here, both personally and professionally, and despite the difficulties inherent of living in a faraway place as a foreigner, Finland is very much my physical and spiritual home. It seems to have become such without my noticing, too. Go figure.

And now comes a time of transition. My thesis, and with it my degree, is spiraling toward completion, though whether it's an upward or downward spiral remains to be seen. My three-year teaching contract at the Sibelius Academy came to an end this summer, and although I'll be continuing in an adjunct capacity for the forseeable future, my focus will turn toward composition as principal activity. Following a year of significant career developments, I now know more or less what I'll be doing with my composing time for the next three years and change (more about that later, as things become official). It's all terribly exciting, not to mention a little frightening, which is why I find comfort in hedgehogs. (Whatnow?) Yes, you read right. One of my Nordic fancies is this lowly creature, unremarkable to locals, but thoroughly enchanting for foreigners who grew up without them, in much the same way as my wife loves raccoons. The hedgehog has become something of a totem animal or spirit guide for me in my years here, rarely sighted in the city, but deeply affecting when seen. Quietly fascinating, calm in a paradoxically high-strung way, they counsel patience (try out-waiting a bundled hedgehog sometime to see what I mean), and I'm unfailingly reassured by their sporadic appearances, made to feel as if whatever's on my mind will work itself out. I've seen them more frequently this summer, and hope they bring me good tidings.

A small milestone I failed to notice is the first anniversary of this blog. I've been remiss in writing, partly from lack of time, partly from a desire to figure out exactly what this space is for me and my work. One thing I've resolved to do with my writing from this point is to be more proactive in my topics and less reactive. It's always much easier to write a riposte to someone else's thoughts than to take the time to formulate a positive, meaningful discourse on one's own views. Part of the reason for this is that much of what I do proceeds from a highly intuitive sense of "rightness" that's difficult to articulate in a conscious artistic credo. However, if this blog is to have any meaning at all, I believe it must be as a contributor of positive, informative thought about the process of composition, and about the role of artistic intuition in creation. There are plenty of blogs of the reactive kind, so I'll strive to do less of that this year.

Thanks to all who have stayed with me this far, and I hope I'll justify your reading time into the future!

Post-North America visit reading:
Kyle Gann, Music Downtown
John Luther Adams, Winter Music
Maria Peura, trans. Hackston, At the edge of light

John Luther Adams: Earth and the Great Weather
Sigur Rós: Med sud i eyrum...
Charlemagne Palestine: Schlingen-Blängen & Strumming Music
Neutral Milk Hotel In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Le Vent du Nord: Les Amants du Saint-Laurent

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Age of Aquarius

In reading Mark Swed's recent piece on tough times calling for thorny music, I'm kind of at a loss as to how to react – beyond my initial gut expression of, "Grr, arggghhh, Hulk SMASH!!!" I agree with certain of his criticisms – like the overprogramming of new orchestral music that too closely resembles old repertoire in the harmonic and gestural sense – and disagreeing violently with certain other statements, which may have more to do with Swed's wording than his actual meaning. For instance, he writes, "When times get tough, as in America during the Great Depression and the Second World War, music gets soft. The times, surveys say, are once again tough, and they're likely to stay that way. A sustained period of stylistic regression is thus a possibility."

Forgetting some tough, strident works from the WWII period, like Barber's Symphony no. 2, to stay within the symphonic genre, Swed's statement, at least as written, upholds the notion that artistic "progress" (whatever that is) is linear, and that change in art follows a scientific line of development based on previous advances, and not that the outward trappings of an artwork are just as subject to the whims of fashion and public taste as clothing and vernacular speech. Not that I think he's saying new music should be rooted in modernism and complexity exclusively – in fact, he goes out of his way to say New Complexity is done, what else ya got? – but it's hard to escape the historical-inevitability tone of the Boulez-Stockhausen generation in phrasing it this way, and comes off as minimizing the importance of other trends in classical music concurrent to modernism, and their relation to the society of their time.

The main object of his article seems to be the American New Romantics, as exemplified by what he labels the "Atlanta School", meaning people like Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Theofanidis and Michael Gandolfi.

"The only thing that allows such squishy music to be called modern, however, is a limited eclecticism, one that says different styles need not conflict, just so long as none of them resemble Modernist rebellion. Getting along is the value system. Minimalism and the New Romanticism and folk styles and various aspects of pop are all welcome in the mix. The Atlanta orchestra takes pride in sending its listeners home happy, having been given a big sonic hug and assured everything will be all right."

Aside from the fact that there's nothing wrong in wanting music to perform this function, how exactly does this work not reflect its times? Is it unreasonable for people facing difficult times to want something beautiful in their lives? Not that artists and art institutions should cater to this whim exclusively, but why shouldn't there be room for this type of work? I generally prefer superhero movies to big, serious epics (Iron Man was fantastic), because I like to be entertained by film. It's my one area of cultural consumption where my tastes are unashamedly populist/commercial. It's not that I don't want to be exposed to the grimness of No Country for Old Men or There Will be Blood, it's just that with limited time for this particular activity, I prefer lighter fare. I don't think it makes me less intelligent or blind to the reality of the world; it just means that I, like many other people, need some escapism now and then. An artist's production is not, cannot be the full measure of their engagement in the world. My work may not overtly reflect my attitude toward the state of the world, but it doesn't mean I'm not hella outspoken about it in other parts of my life. My work is just that: one part of my life. A major one, to be sure, but no more than that. Would we measure people in other fields by the same standard just because of their career choices? No. So why are artists somehow held to the higher moral yardstick, bearing some vague responsibility to enlighten their audiences to some great Truth?

Furthermore – and to go beyond Swed's article – in terms of art being reflective of its times, I think there's a sharp line to be drawn between artworks that trade largely on the rhetoric and gestural languages of the past (imitating the rhetoric of, say, a Rachmaninov piano concerto or a Shostokovich symphony), music so firmly rooted in its models that it sounds second-hand, and music which simply builds on that tradition. For the record, I'm not a big fan of Higdon, generally like Theofanidis, and know nothing about Gandolfi. What I've heard of their work makes it simply a bit conservative in my mind, but it definitely sounds as if it couldn't have been written in any other time period. Even the hypothetical imitation Rachmaninov and Shostakovich have their place, if that's what people in a certain locality want to hear. For better or worse, art can't help being of its time in one way or another. A good friend of mine who runs classical and jazz programming for an NPR station is fond of saying, "If it's out there, and successful, it must mean someone wants it." Which is not to say, again, that consumers of art should be fed on an exclusive, unchallenging diet, but that the fact that this type of work is out there suggests a need for it in the zeitgeist, on both the creative and receptive ends. And really, what's wrong with something whose primary purpose is to be beautiful and make people feel good? It seems disingenuous to suggest that all art should strive for more than that, when so noble a goal is being accomplished already. Going beyond that is an option, not an obligation. I don't for a minute believe these artists are taking the easy route; they're doing what makes sense to them. I firmly reject the notion that an artist's – or an audience's – depth of engagement with the world and society in which they live can be gauged by something as simple as artistic taste, especially when that taste is calibrated along the ever-sliding scale of so-called "complexity".

On top of that, just because a certain stylistic trait isn't exhibited in an artist's work doesn't mean it hasn't been considered. In all likelihood, it has, and been put aside as something that doesn't fit that artist's way or working or thinking. Ultimately, art has no particular responsibility to reflect any one aspect of the tenor of the times. I could just as easily use the same argument against someone who insists that music should only be beautiful and make people feel good. If there's one thing we can learn from Beethoven, the example par excellence of the artist as individual, it's not that artists should be free to innovate and shock and challenge their audience, it's that artists should be free to say what they have to say, period. In practice, whether I like a piece of art or not, I find that it all has a place somewhere, whether it's gritty and hard-hitting, reflective of a troubled time, quiet and meditative, forcing one to pay very close attention, or just escapist fun. As a practicing artist, I lay claim to all aesthetics and languages, but reserve the right not address them all in my reflection of the world around me. Michael Tippett, in his wonderful philosophical ramble Moving into Aquarius, has a quote that has resonated with me since first reading it as a teenager, and I think it's apt in this context:

"I have been writing music for forty years. During those years there have been huge and world-shattering events in which I have been inevitably caught up. Whether society has felt music valuable or needful I have gone on writing because I must. And I know that my true function within a society which embraces all of us, is to continue a tradition, fundamental to our civilization, which goes back into pre-history and will go forward into the unknown future. This tradition is to create images from the depths of the imagination and to give them form whether visual, intellectual or musical. For it is only through images that the inner world communicates at all. Images of the past, shapes of the future. Images of vigour for a decadent period, images of calm for one too violent. Images of reconciliation for worlds torn by division. And in an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams, images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty."

Saturday, May 10, 2008


I'd like to draw attention to an article on NewMusicBox in which Aspen Festival president Alan Fletcher wades into the murky, like-dislike waters of post-tonal music and emerges more or less unscathed. I do question his attitude of doubt toward the actuality of the mid/late-century hegemony of hard-core atonality in Western music, but he makes some extraordinarily well-worded points about some of the issues I've been trying, and mostly failing, to articulate here. His final paragraph in particular stands out:

"Some have a wish for music to be primarily an antidote to existential loneliness. When music fills this role, it's lovely, but the idea that this is music's primary function is so limiting as to be just bathetic. Music is a powerful, temporal art, and it needs to fulfill all the functions of art—to challenge, to celebrate, to excite intellectually and spiritually. To draw an ineffectual line called 'tonality' in the sand, and demand that none shall pass, will not work."

Reading this piece brought a certain comfort on a day when I finished a movement of my resolutely near-atonal, ruminative, distant flute-harp duo, and sketched the pulsing, pop-harmony driven coda of my eventual horn concerto. Although this back-and-forth between high consonance and middling dissonance still bugs me, especially when consecutive pieces seem to pull toward the extremes rather than a middle-ground synthesis, I've gotten used to it being a part of the way I think, and worry about it slightly less. I think the turning point, as with many of these things, came in the form of a single sentence from a composer I took a lesson with a couple of years ago, who faced similar issues in his music: "I gave up trying to ask "Why?" years ago. I figure that if all these different things come out of my head and feel right and honest, there must be some connection there. It's just not up to me to find it."

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

May Day menu

It's Vappu in Finland, or May Day, during which the entire country becomes a huge prub crawl. The results aren't usually pretty, especially when it's this nice out, but it's always interesting. In that spirit, and due to the lovely weather, a wine dinner menu for friends tomorrow:

-Freixenet Extra Brut Cava with Crème de cassis (aka poor man's Kir Royale)
-Green salad with goat cheese, pine nuts, pears and wasabi-ginger vinaigrette (Bründlmayr Grüner Veltliner '06)
-Chicken sauté with green olives and preserved lemon, ratatouille and couscous (Clos de Coulaine Savennières '01 – opened a day earlier)
-Meditation: Camille Giroud Volnay Premier Cru Champans '78(!), brought by a wildly generous friend
-Yogurt panna cotta with winter figs and honey (Tállyai Muskotályos Aszú Tokaji '95)
-Cheese & fruit plate (Gustave Lorentz Kantzlerberg Riesling Grand Cru '99)

Hauskaa vappua!

Monday, April 28, 2008

"Doin' it like a lady..."

In the category of badly misheard lyrics, via an old friend:

Thursday, April 24, 2008

From the birds

I should be working on tomorrow's Mahler lecture, but the sun is shining, the air is warm (for Finland), and my exercise-starved body, after weeks of work, illness and fouled-up scheduling, was screaming for some movement. So I took myself outside for an hour or so to participate in the curious local pastime of Nordic walking. It's ridiculous to behold from the outside, a formerly deeply held prejudice to which I admit shamefully. Since nothing I ever say seems to convince people of the worth of the activity, all I can offer in its defense is to swear that if you try it, you'll soon find yourself hooked. It's a quick, easy workout that can be done close to home and still leave time for other pursuits during the day.

It's made easier in my neighborhood by the close proximity of Helsinki's crown jewel, the Keskuspuisto, or Central Park, which should be more famous than its New World namesake, as far as I'm concerned. Helsinki may not be a breathtakingly lovely city in that cozy, Disney-ish way one expects European cities to be – indeed, it has more than its fair share of cookie-cutter suburban nightmare housing and high-rise Hell-on-earth. It may not be the most happening , vibrant place, either, but it is unpretentious and above all, it is a green city, with more trees, parks and wilderness areas than any city I've ever been to, perhaps more than any city in the world. The Finnish approach to residential building, by and large, is to leave as much existing green around buildings as possible, instead of cutting everything down, putting up houses and planting those funny little front yard trees that never seem to grow thereafter. "Park" is a misleading term as applied to Helsinki's: it's barely controlled wilderness with miles upon miles of bike paths and ski trails and public gardening plots, all of which are heavily used by the populace.

Spring is my favorite time to go there, what with ample signs of life, of the earth waking up. The tiny, colorful wildflowers that carpet the Nordic woodlands this time of year are starting to appear; the huge forest anthills are teeming with movement, which means I'll have to break out the bug spray to keep the critters from overrunning the house. (I'm all for sanctity of life, but it kind of goes out the window when you come home at 1 a.m. and find your studio crawling with hundreds of winged queen ants.) I even saw a bumblebee. Best of all, birds are singing again, or more species than the few that winter over in Finland. My absolute favorite, if not the most original, is the blackbird. Its song, more than any other, is the sound of spring. Hearing the first one is an irrefutable sign that winter is ending, and fills me with hope – mercifully, after the non-winter we've had. Many other species are returning, including chaffinches, which are among the prettiest to look at and listen to – although the hands-down winner in that category is the rarely seen, migratory Bohemian waxwing – and will soon be followed by that virtuoso of the Nordic woods, the thrush nightingale. They're the familiar sounds of life here, and of changes in the seasons, so much so many of their songs found their way into the tape part of my choir piece Shiki last year – based on the stunning, crystal-clear field recordings of ornithologist and birdwatching tour guide Hannu Jännes, who provided the soundtracks used on the web page I linked to above.

Listening to birds always gets me thinking about music, natch. One of the pieces I come back to every year in my 20th-century analysis class is the first movement of Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps, "Liturgie de cristal". It's a fun exercise for students in analyzing independently structured parts, from the rigidly isorhythmic piano and cello parts, to the limited, recurrent motivic material of the violin, and the free, almost improvised clarinet. Once we get past that layer, it's always productive to talk about the relationship between the musical characters present in the movement. The most eye-catching one is, of course, the dialogue between the two "soloist" players, the violin and clarinet. There's a joyous cacophony to their interaction, one which I've always found attractive, but didn't fully understand until an experience in impromptu birdwatching a couple of years ago.

My wife and I were taking an evening walk near our old apartment when we witnessed something extraordinary: two male nightingales perched out in plain sight, both singing at top volume, unbelievably loud for such small creatures. (One nested next to our bedroom window in 2003, which is when we discovered that "nightingale" is not just a clever name. We got very little sleep that summer.) Nightingales are famously hard to sight. They're very nondescript-looking, small and grey, and blend in well with the tree canopies where they hide. They tend to start singing at twilight, and if you come within about twenty feet of them, they shut up, so seeing two of them out in the open is rare.

The thing about the nightingale's gorgeous, highly complex song is that it's a territorial marker. You never hear two of them singing within hearing distance of one another. You can often tell the relative age of a bird by how long, non-periodic and complex his song is. In this case, one of the birds was clearly older, and a much more experienced singer. It would pick up elements of the younger bird's much simpler song, incorporate them, riff on them, then vastly embellish them in long, cadenza-like phrases, interrupting his opponent brusquely and drowning him out. At one point, the older bird flew into a pile of underbrush left by city park managers a couple of weeks earlier. I thought he'd just been hiding from us, as we'd gotten very close at that point. But I realized after a moment that he was using the pile of dried branches as a makeshift resonator to amplify his song. It was a fascinating display of territorial competition. Sure enough, the older bird's song was the only one we heard after a couple of days of this. The younger one, clearly out of his league, had moved on.

It wasn't until months later, when working through the Messiaen again with my class that I figured out the fundamental quality of the relationship between the birdlike violin and clarinet parts: one of competition or territoriality. I'd been accustomed to thinking of chamber music as a participatory, communal activity, where all the parts contribute to a unified whole at one point or another. But that doesn't seem to be what Messiaen was aiming at in this movement. Not only are the parts structured according to four completely unrelated systems, it would seem that two of the characters aren't really cooperating at all, they're trying to outclass each other. It's a difference in conception that adds an extra psychological layer to the music, both as a listener and, I imagine as a performer. I'd be curious to find out whether performers of this piece conceive of it in this way, or if any research has been done into this type of relationship in Messiaen's music, other than just cataloging transcriptions of birdsong. With the Messiaen centenary in full swing, I may have just figured out what I'll be doing with my summer.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Decisions, decisions

With my teaching semester winding down, I'm putting down sketches for a piece I'm calling Night, sleep, death and the stars (after Whitman) for multiple flutes and harp which, counting an overlong student effort for solo alto flute, makes this my fifth piece casting the flute in a prominent role. It's the instrument I've returned to the most often, though there's really no special reason for this focus, given that I'm an ex-horn player. The flute has just always seemed to be in my life in one way or another, either by being friends with a flutist, dating one, or discovering an old instrument in a closet of a room I was renting and messing around on it, trying out a few sounds. I've learned enough fingerings over the years that it's become the only instrument aside from the piano that I can sort of hack my way through my own pieces on, so I have a better-than-average understanding of how it works compared with, say, the bassoon.

One of the truisms of being a composer that I've discovered in recent years is that if you manage to write a successful piece for an instrument or ensemble, people have a maddening tendency to keep asking you to write for it, again and again. And one feels flattered, of course, and obliged to accept, no matter how inspired, or not, one may be to write for it. It's happened to me with choir music, and again recently with the flute. In such cases, I have to take some fairly extraordinary steps to keep things fresh for myself, finding ways to make the experience new, and to avoid retracing my steps.

This flute/harp duo proved particularly tough in the conceptual stages, though, in that a couple of years ago I wrote a piece called Sketches before a storm for flute and kantele, the zither-like Finnish national instrument, which for all intents and purposes works exactly like the harp: it's a diatonic instrument on which chromatic pitches are provided by tuning levers (instead of pedals), so if you move the C lever to C#, all the Cs change. It's a ferociously difficult instrument to write for. It's frequently impossible to follow your ear, because the instrument's technique may not allow a certain harmonic shift, or at least not without audible pitch bends, which sound extremely cool, but only when the gesture is composed in. The fact that the tuning changes are done with the hands instead of the feet adds an extra wrinkle, so that the retunings need to be choreographed into the music in order to allow the player time to execute them. (There's nothing more distracting than watching a kantele player's hands flail back and forth wildly as they play very slow, quiet, ruminative music that's too chromatic for the instrument.)

Nevertheless, had that commission been for flute and harp, I would very likely have written the same piece, with a few minor changes. I've even been thinking of making a flute/harp version of it, what with the number of kantele players in the world being somewhat limited. The question for me in this new piece is how to keep from repeating myself in the most literal way. Facing this kind of challenge, it's helpful to make a little rulebook for myself before starting, something that limits my options in certain areas and forces me to think outside the box; that, or add something unusual to a familiar texture to make me think harder about the choices I'm making. For example, in my last two big choir pieces, I added tape and percussion parts, respectively, which helped enormously in keeping me from falling back on the same set of tricks.

In this case, I'm using both specific rules to guide the composition as well as new elements. The harp is a different instrument from the kantele in many ways, much louder, wider range, etc, but the texture itself is essentially the same. Therefore, the flute part was the logical locus of conceptual changes. The first decision I came to, in consultation with Hanna Kinnunen, the flutist, was to use several members of the flute family for coloristic variety; she especially asked me to give her an excuse to play her new alto and bass flutes, a pair of instruments so sexy-sounding they should be illegal. With the four distinct images in the title, it was an easy leap to include the piccolo and write four separate pieces, one for each member of the family.

The next idea was to treat each image in a way that purposely goes against what, to me, at any rate, would seem the most obvious "depiction". The "sleep" movement is going to be super-fast and very twitchy; the alto flute is the most timbrally similar to the harp in its middle register, and at fast tempi, unison canonic music should sound especially good, making it hard to tell who's playing what at times. The registral implications of "death" and "stars" are reversed, with the piccolo invoking the former and the bass flute the latter. We also decided that the higher the flute, the less virtuosic the music would be, so that the piccolo movement consists exclusively of quiet, long tones, and the bass flute piece will be ridiculously virtuosic, replete with extended techniques. These aren't going to be quiet, distant stars, but more like a Van Gogh-style depiction, burning hot and surrealistically exaggerated. The C flute of "night" won't be allowed to make any conventional sounds, only extended ones involving voice, key clicks, whistle tones, etc.

Mixing it up in this way is making the initial stages of composition a lot of fun, cataloging sounds, putting phrases together, coming up with different relationships between the instruments: registral, gestural, etc. It's more like generating material in an electronic studio than paper-and-pencil composition at the moment. In response to the variegated flute sounds, the harp part is becoming the static element in the piece, the unifying agent across all four movements. (Despite all this back-patting talk of "innovation", I have no doubt the flute part will sound a lot like its great-grandfather, Debussy's Syrinx. It always seems to come back to Syrinx with the flute.)

It helps to be working all this out with two of the best musicians of my acquaintance. The harpist, Lily-Marlene Puusepp – in addition to having the greatest name, like, ever – is a consummate experimenter, ready for anything, and convinced that nothing is impossible to play. This is the first time we're working together on a new piece, though she played in the orchestra for my violin concerto a couple of years ago. Although this is my first piece specifically for her, Hanna and I go way back insofar as my time in Finland is concerned, to her giving the European premiere of my flute/piano duo Ash-Wednesday in 2003. I've been blessed over the years to write for some truly excellent flutists who have steadily increased my knowledge of the instrument and its technical and expressive capabilities, but Hanna just gets my music, on an intuitive level that's very rare in composer-performer relationships. It's been that way from the very start; I hardly ever have to tell her anything about how to play something, which tone color to use, articulation, whatever. It all just comes out pretty much exactly the way I imagined, and frequently better.

I'm lucky, I think, to have this in my life. At one time or another, I think composers tend to find someone whose sound and musicianship embody their ideal for that instrument; indeed, composer catalogs are littered with streams of pieces written for the same performers. Even if you do compose for someone else, you're still writing for your favorite flutist in a way. My concept of flute sound is raw, airy, almost vibrato-less, steely and tough, yet transparent, light, almost like a shakuhachi. It probably comes from my playing it badly for years, and this type of sound isn't widely favored in flute-playing circles, based on my anecdotal observations. Imagine my delight, then, when I met a player who took those very elements, those fringe characteristics, and made them positives, whose core musical values were exactly mine. We'll be collaborating on two other projects over the next couple of years, and far from dreading the prospect of returning to the same instrument time and again, I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Strange bedfellows

Excellent article in the Vancouver Sun about the CBC Radio Orchestra fiasco, bringing up some very pertinent issues, and breaking down the CRO's budget to a cost of $0.02 per Canadian, which is revealing in the extreme. On this matter, if the comments sections following many such recent articles are to be believed, I find myself in bed with a class of people whom I'd normally decry, that quasi-jihadist sect of snobs who loudly insist that classical music is the only legitimate musical art, and everything else is garbage. That argument, it goes without saying, hurts the CRO's cause more than it helps, and I have no doubt that most of these people would be quick to denounce the greater part of the music I and other living composers write as tuneless, formless crap. And yet, we're forced onto the same side by this issue.

Anyway, Janet Danielson of the Canadian League of Composers asks some tough questions about the CBC's new classical policy, or lack thereof, but the lines that most stuck in my mind were the following:

"Have we really reached the point where to voice a preference for classical music is to disenfranchise oneself?

Then there is the question of genre. The CBC website breezily assures us, "we'll be drawing from a broader, richer and diverse spectrum of music: classical, jazz, folk, world, R & B, singer-songwriter and roots.

Breaking down music into categories of genre is not as clear-cut and fair-minded as it might seem.

Why have "classical" as a single genre -- why not Renaissance polyphony, 19th century art song, French baroque opera, serial music, and minimalism, just to name a few?"

The CBC's much-touted (by the CBC) new aim of being more inclusive of other genres flips the supposed elitism of classical listeners by cramming centuries of musical art into a catch-all category, making it much easier to dismiss. To be honest, I was never entirely thrilled with the classical programming on the CBC, or many NPR stations in the US, for that matter, with their broad over-reliance on 18th- and 19th-century warhorses and kleinmeistermusik from the same period. Any modern/contemporary music you'd hear in time slots before 10 p.m. tended to be "safe", i.e. highly accessible. My "classical" listening tastes are overwhelmingly centered on music from before 1600 and after 1900, arguably the least represented periods in classical radio programming. My listening preferences are/were not really being met, yet if I argue to preserve classical programming, am I trying to suppress other genres in the eyes of the CBC brass?

I'm not a connoisseur of many genres outside my field, though I do try to listen to – and understand – a lot of different kinds of music. I'll freely admit that I couldn't tell you the difference between folk and roots. That probably makes me elitist in the eyes of some, though I prefer the term "specialist". But what is the lumping of minimalism, French baroque opera and Renaissance polyphony into the same category of "classical" music, then shoving it aside in favor of other, much more specifically defined genres within popular music, but the same ignorance and snobbery in reverse?

Monday, April 7, 2008


"[…] wildness has been perceived as a dangerous force that confounds the order-bringing pursuits of human culture and agriculture. Wildness, according to this story, is cognate with wastefulness. Wild places resist conversion to human use, and they must therefore be destroyed or overcome."

–Robert MacFarlane
The Wild Places

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A bang or a whimper?

This isn't going to be one of those posts about the supposedly sacrosanct position of classical music in Western society. I don't have the time or energy to mount an argument as to why classical music should get public financing at the expense of other forms of music, because honestly, I can't rationalize that disparity, except to say that I think it's important to keep creating big-budget, large-community, unprofitable art like classical music, just because we can, and that very act of making something that is of no real use or benefit to the commercial market is a powerful statement about our values, and our value as a species.

However, when a national broadcaster abdicates a significant part of its mandate to support the culture of its country on specious grounds of profitability, the gloves have to come off. The CBC's ridiculous decision to terminate North America's last remaining radio orchestra is a final, public slap in the face to Canadian music from an anti-intellectual, anti-cultural government that is trying to stamp out creativity in my native country. The CBC's new management have been systematically shutting down outlets for classical music, especially contemporary, for going on two years now. Radio shows of broad popularity have been cancelled, classical music moved to inaccessible late-night time slots, and now they cut an orchestra with an infinitesimal budget, part of whose stated mission is contribute to Canadian culture by spurring the creation of new music by Canadian composers. The CBC Young Composers' Awards, which the CRO served admirably for years in the orchestral category, died a quiet, shameful death a couple of years ago, leaving emerging Canadian composers with one less high-profile way of getting some attention.

Read this, and note the bureaucratic doublespeak in the CBC mouthpiece's answer, rife with material from the Department of Redundancy Department. "Existing music organizations"? To my knowledge, the CRO is an existing music organization, or was until a few days ago. This is not a budget decision, it's a political one originating with the philistines in both the CBC management and the government that appointed them, yet another shot across the bow in a long line of attempts to eliminate quality and originality from Canadian art, thereby reducing the demand for it, and providing grounds for cutting off funding. Be sure to follow up your reading with this, a run-down of other attempts to stifle artistic and intellectual diversity. (I particularly love Bill C-10, an attempt to legislate the censoring of homegrown film productions by revoking tax credits, while allowing foreign productions to do whatever they please, as long as they spend their money north of 49.) Protest this. Write letters. Sign the petition to save the CRO. Make some goddamn noise, and vote these uninformed bumpkins out of office at the next opportunity.

I have yet to fully process why this single issue makes me so angry, given my geographical and temporal remove from Canada. I've been away for a long time, I'm comfortably settled in Finland, and love the work I get to do here, and the local community that has accepted and supported me. But Canada has always been, and always will be my ultimate home. I will not argue that classical music holds some inviolable, all-hallowed place in our culture. It was always a tradition planted in shallow soil in North America, and constantly under threat as a result. But in Canada, it's a small, thriving industry, one that could blossom into a powerhouse like Finland's given the right attention and funding. To see our national broadcaster abrogate its responsibilities so flagrantly, to watch the government my countrymen voted for trying to dismantle my art form piece by piece, makes me deeply sad.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Eagle has landed

Without a doubt the coolest thing I've ever owned.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday dinner redux

More to come about Mahler in a day or two, but for now, a slow-food menu for friends:

-Cauliflower and Jerusalem artichoke soup with bacon, black pepper and olive oil ('06 Sancerre "Les Baronnes", Henri Bourgeois)
-Braised lamb shank in red wine reduction sauce, chèvre risotto with thyme, roasted Brussels sprouts ('01 Château d'Aurilhac Cru Bourgeois)
-Cheese & fruit plate
-Lemon custard tart with wildflower honey whipped cream ('05 Lenz Moser Trockenbeerenauslese)

It's a bit odd to match Sancerre with creamy soup, but I quite like the contrast between the stony, acidic wine and the smoky smoothness of the soup.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Laid bare in the deep midnight

I'm up far too late for a school night, alight with a fire I haven't felt in a very long time. Against my usual habit as a recovering insomniac, I was doing some late-night listening in preparation for tomorrow's lecture on Mahler's 3rd, with accompanying digressions into Klimt and, Unnamed Deity help me, a bit of Nietzsche. I'd intended to just brush up some ideas about the Midnight Song movement, I ended up going right through the last half of the symphony.

And I am broken by it. Shattered. Wrecked.

Some unseen force has been holding me back from working on my thesis. Inertia? Fear? Who knows? But struggling under the weight of teaching this massive topic, all the details, the amount of history nobody can hope to master in a single semester, and at the end of my degree no less, I think I'd lost sight of why I wanted to do it in the first place. But listening to the close of that radiant Adagio movement, I find myself brought full circle by the sheer humanity of Mahler's utterance, reminded why I wanted to be a composer in the first place: in the hope of being able to touch people the way he did, to someday make that kind of contact with a listener, be it someone known to me or not. Beyond the biographical minutiae, the politics surrounding Mahler's life and music, the analysis of his character and ample personal flaws, the raging egotism, behind all that there's a soul so great, so all-embracing, harboring a love of the world so vast that he couldn't contain it, had to let it out in such a glorious effusion. For me, such music stands as a gauntlet thrown down, a line drawn in the sand for all who dare participate in this art form, as if Mahler were saying, "I dare you, double dare you, triple dog dare you to give so much of yourself."

A century on, I'm not naïve enough to think that one can return to that language and hope to find it fresh. Much as I'm a fan of George Rochberg's music, the slow movement of the 3rd Quartet is a look back, not forward, and as such doesn't register with the same emotional force as Mahler's Adagio. And yet, I'm forced to wonder if, over the course of the last hundred years, we as composers have abdicated a significant part of our emotional palette to whatever technical and aesthetic ideologies grabbed our attention. Is it still possible to express oneself in such direct emotional terms, with utter sincerity, without sounding bombastic, nostalgic or merely empty? I hope so, because if I should ever manage to write something so monumentally touching as the end of Mahler's 3rd, I'd consider my life's work done, and done well.

And now, to bed.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Concert life

For whatever reason, there's been a dearth of live music in my life lately. Either there hasn't been much to interest me in Helsinki this season, or I just haven't felt like going out. Whatever the cause, I've made up for it in spades this past weekend. It started with a concert of music for Finnish kantele on Friday, in which my good friend Juhani Nuorvala participated in an improv piece for microtonally tuned kantele and synth, with live electronics. Lovely music, very restful, and redolent of Brian Eno's Music for Airports. My only complaint, which I voiced to him, was that I wanted it to last all evening instead of just fifteen-ish minutes.

Later that same night, I ended up at a concert of Czech music for strings put on by players from the Finnish Radio Symphony. I'd gone along with my friend David, of The Late Review, nominally to hear Janacek's String Quartet no. 1. It was lovely, as expected, and I can think of no other piece quite like it, the way it just seems to start in the middle of a drama, with no preamble or context. The real discovery of the night, though, was Erwin Schulhoff's String Sextet, a predominantly quiet, slow, obsessive, repetitive, magnificently bleak piece that took my breath away. I've usually liked Schulhoff's music when I've encountered it in the past, but have tended to find myself entertained rather than gripped. Knowing the composer's eventual fate, it was easy to picture the Sextet as his final utterance before being taken away to the concentration camps. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover it was written in the 2os, around the same time as the other Schulhoff piece on the program, a fun, if not especially deep set of dances for string quartet, light years away in mood. Glancing over the available recordings, I'm amazed the Sextet isn't more popular. Clearly a major statement, one that will hold up to repeated listening, I think.

Just this afternoon, I ended up at the Finnish première of Rhys Chatham's Two Gongs, in a performance held in an art gallery downtown. It was an impressive piece, all the more so that Chatham wrote at in his teens. Such an idea would never have even occurred to me at that age, and I wouldn't have seen the sense in it even if I'd heard the piece back then. Leaving aside the various problems I had with it as a composition, most of them having to do with the teeth-rattling dynamic levels, it was phenomenal. The waves of sound emanating from the gongs made a hard-hitting, physical impact. The semi-randomized patterns of harmonics and pulses resulting from various playing techniques were endlessly absorbing. Even jamming my fingers into my ears to preserve my hearing produced fascinating textural results. Overall, I'm glad I went. And yet…

It should have been the perfect environment for this music: a high ceilinged, resonant chamber with plenty of natural light filtering in, a few chairs for the audience, and some pretty paintings hanging on the walls. But the performance was endlessly marred by the attitude of the museum-goers who weren't listening to the concert. People, mostly middle-aged and older, strode around the gallery where the concert took place, looking at paintings, fingers stuffed theatrically in their ears, even deliberately crossing the space between the audience and the performers, staring us down with defiant, fuck-you expressions on their faces, as if to challenge our willingness to sit there listening to this horrible music, saying "we paid to get into this exhibit and see these paintings, and we're not going to acknowledge that there's any kind of performance going on, so deal with it." They'd leave the room and immediately begin having loud conversations just outside the open doorway. It made it impossible to focus on those slowly-evolving, iridescent patterns, which was the entire point of the piece.

I'm not one of those people who insists on absolute silence in concerts. I generally like quiet for performances, and hate when people fidget, rustle papers, or start clapping before the last note of a piece has finished ringing, but I'll willingly revise my expectations of quiet, depending on the occasion and setting. In a museum space with open exhibits, one can't expect or demand total silence, or require people to stay still. Two Gongs isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, and one should expect and allow for walk-outs, as well as encourage people to walk in from adjacent rooms if they're interested. To their credit, the gallery did post warning signs about the extreme volume, and requesting a minimum of noise for the barely hour-long duration of the concert. But it truly was ridiculous to be part a group of people trying to have an experience, with another group of people who don't understand that experience doing their level best to keep us from enjoying it, for whatever reason. If I don't like a concert, and can get out without making a big scene, I'll do so. But to disrupt the proceedings for people who are clearly into it, because of some animus I might have against the music? Boorish, shameful, and antisocial in the extreme.

Oh my dear Lord...

There are some things in the world that are so bizarre as to defy description. I can't look away.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Come again?

A quote from a Wall Street Journal article delving into the secrets of the Finnish education system:

"Ask an obvious question and you may hear "KVG," short for "Check it on Google, you idiot.""

Assuming I'm reading that acronym right, that's not quite what it means. The closest English equivalent I can think of would be "RTFM". But YMMV. IMHO.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

"I'll be there with bells on..."

I'm now the proud owner of an oceanharp, also known as a poor man's waterphone, the sound of which is famous from sci-fi and horror movies everywhere. Even if you never knew what it looked like, you've probably heard it. I've always wanted one, but with no real reason to make such a frivolous purchase, it remained a fond wish, and nothing more. However, my orchestra piece Of aspens, hills and shattered dreams has a prominent part for waterphone in the final section, and the Helsinki Philharmonic was understandably not all that enthused about buying an otherwise useless instrument, what with a tiny, tiny handful of pieces calling for it. The sound can be replicated (badly) with a bowed cymbal, but the waterphone's entry is really the cherry on top of Aspens as far as I'm concerned, so I gleefully pulled out my credit card. It's a silly thing to have, really, what with its uses being limited mainly to 1) sound source for electronic music, and 2) sitting exotically on my office shelf and making my students think I'm cool.

While prepping last week's lecture on Mahler's Symphony no. 2, though, I was pleased to discover that I'm in rather exalted company, if not quite in the same league, in buying odd instruments for a single performance. It seems Mahler didn't like any of the commonly available orchestral bell sounds, and actually went out and bought a set of church bells for the final moments of the 2nd.

I bet the shipping charges were brutal.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Taking a breath

I've been silent since coming home from Seaside, dealing with jet lag and struggling out from under the vast mountain of work that was waiting for me on my return. In the past two weeks, I've copied my new choral piece ad puram annihilationem meam, which the Helsinki Chamber Choir is premièring in April, and of which a rehearsal tape needs to be cut so the dancer/choreographer can start working on her part (more on that later). True to form, I was unable to not volunteer to create more work for myself, and it seems I'll be doing some radiophonic work for that concert as well. I've been getting my Mahler seminar off the ground and planning my writing and composing work for the next few months, but the thing that's been dominating my life for the last week or so is the orchestra parts for a performance by the Helsinki Philharmonic of my earlier orchestra piece Of aspens, hills, and shattered dreams, which I wrote for my Master's degree at Stony Brook, and which was performed there in 2001.

The parts needed a fairly onerous amount of revision, and to compound the problem, when I imported them from an older version of Finale, in addition to the notes, the program brought all the problems I vividly remember from the last time I dealt with this music. However, they made on deadline, and I can now return to a normal sleep schedule. As the performance was added to the orchestra's calendar quite late, it kept me from tinkering with the piece too much. Although I'm still quite proud of it, and am ecstatic about my pro orchestra debut in Finland, going through the piece again was pretty traumatic. Knowing way more about orchestra writing than I did eight years ago, I was aghast at some of the ridiculous, awkward things I did in Aspens, and the temptation to mess with it was hard to resist, but for the tight schedule. If I'd had a couple of months, I'd probably have taken the whole thing back to the drawing board.

In retrospect, though, it's probably a good thing I can't work too much with it. It can be counterproductive to constantly revisit one's older works. The urge to smooth out the rough edges, reduce outward signs of naïvety, make stylistic influences less obvious, can easily rob the music of what made it special to you in the first place. At some point, I think, you just have to let a piece be what it is, if it works on its own terms, and damn the embarrassment of long, wordy titles, Romantic outbursts and ungainly bits of orchestration – that nevertheless produced unexpectedly cool effects. Listening to the recording from 2001, which I haven't done in quite a while, brought back some of the feelings I put into the piece, and makes me think there's something in it that I should revisit, a depth of emotion I haven't gotten to in a very long time in my pursuit of a leaner, cleaner, if not necessarily meaner sound; a humanity, however unsubtly expressed at the time, that's perhaps been lacking.

Part of the reason for this shift in focus is that I'm just a happier person than I was back then, more fulfilled, less anxious – if marginally – and don't feel the need to write myself little utopias anymore, or take the weight of the world on my shoulders. A not insignificant part of it is location, which I think has a huge effect of the way one makes art. I live in a less outwardly emotive culture, and it's had its effect on me, a positive one as far as I can see, since the emotional temperature of my music definitely needed cooling when I moved here, although that process had already begun before I left the US. I've been hitting some shades of expression in the last three years or so that weren't available to me when I was younger. But through the trifocal lenses of time, greater maturity and improved technical mastery, it's all too easy to be caught up in the new things you can do and lose sight of the expressive core of your art. It's something I need to bear in mind in the coming year, with anywhere between three and five projects in the offing, that it might be time to come full circle and admit that naïvety back into my expressive palette, as something to take greater pride in.


Schreker, Chamber Symphony
Mahler, Das Lied, Chinese language version(!), Singapore Symhpony with Lan Shui

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Not shown to scale

I've been in the composing zone (read: total freakout) for the last two weeks and change, hence the silence. I've finally got the frame of my new piece ad puram annihilationem meam up and working, and can now hang some pretty things on it. As expected, it ended up being quite different from what I set out to do. I was asked for a meditative piece, which I was able to provide in part, but Teilhard's words steered me to a rather odd place in terms of the emotional content. I was aiming for total stasis, with a quiet, effortless transcendence toward the end. What I got was a fervent, fragmented, almost primal prayer rite, pleading for an enlightenment that never really happens.

Part of it was the difficulty I had in quieting my mind during the writing. The text was exceedingly difficult to approach from the musical perspective, what with it being an edited series of excerpts from Teilhard's writing with no true poetic form of its own, causing me no end of difficulty in connecting the events. Another issue was the obvious polystylism of the material. This is something that happens to me every so often, when a piece just fractures into shards of various styles that end up competing for dominance, or just agree to sit uneasily next to each other. It occurred in my violin sonata-cum-Requiem a few years back, and last year in my horn trio, which I later realized is a travelogue charting my journey from New York to Finland, both geographical and mental. It's quite terrifying to be confronted with material that I can't control, yet wants to be in such a powerful way that I can't ignore it or leave it out, but I've come to accept that it's part of who I am, and something I need to say. In a way, these pieces are what my old mentor Fred Ward called "everything I ever learned" pieces. Looking back over the ones I mentioned above, they look like summations, a catalog of impressions and ideas I've picked up over the years, crowding into the same piece to see which ones really are for me, and which ones I can safely leave to the side afterward. The resulting music may not be formally organic, if by that we mean in the stylistic/material sense, yet I've felt satisfied with the dramatic flow of disparate events, which creates a kind of cohesive narrative of its own through powerful juxtaposition rather than logic.

Nevertheless, they're taxing and confidence-sapping pieces to write, and I'm glad to be done with this one. It's light years from the self-contained, single-idea worlds of my previous choral pieces, with a sort of updated Hildegardian chant butting up against chorales of augmented-seventh chords, passages of whispering, speaking and shouting, and a final, minimalist illumination supported by an enormous Thai gong. In a decidedly immodest, Straussian moment, I even caught myself quoting... myself, with bits of my last three choir pieces floating to the surface. The chorales, my favorite choir composing bugbear, arose out of a need to keep the words as intelligible as possible, and French, it turns out, is a frightfully difficult language to set in anything other than a syllabic way. The chains of augmented seventh harmonies are a chicken-and-egg question I haven't been able to answer yet: are they there because the piece is in French, or because I listen to too much French music?

All in all, it's been a terrific month in Seaside, with a lively, intelligent, diverse group of people to trade ideas with, and it's rare to see so much beautiful art being made right before my eyes. I've also fallen deeply in love with the cuisine of the American South: simple, hearty, yet intensely flavorful, prepared with consummate craft and care. One dish I had recently, in fact, registers as one of the best, most perfect things I've ever eaten. It was a plate of creamy, smoked gouda cheese grits, topped with a sauté of finely chiffonaded spinach, bacon, mushrooms, shallots, white wine and cream, the whole thing completed by spicy grilled shrimp and fried sweet potato filaments. The flavors in this heart-clogger were simply electric, but the real glory of the dish was its scalability. It could function as an appetizer, a lunch, or an extremely filling dinner with equal ease of preparation, and fit anywhere in terms of the composition of a meal.

This, of course, got me thinking about music, and the idea of compositional "voice", which I've blathered about before in this space. One of things that that creates a sense of voice about a composer's work, at least on the most superficial, immediately perceptible level of the listening experience, is scalability of material, the extent to which the composer changes their approach from one ensemble to the next. Of course, any good composer will adapt themselves to the medium they write for; this is all part of being sensitive to the unique nature of an instrument or ensemble. Some composers, however, have a more consistent approach to the generation of raw materials, and bring a coherent, well worked-out, largely predetermined harmonic world with them to each new piece. This is what I mean by scalability: not that a saxophone quartet by a given composer could just as easily be an orchestra piece or vice versa, but that the material itself, and the composer's way of working with it, is identifiable and more or less consistent from piece to piece. I tend to go the other way and write non-scalable pieces out of materials – gestural, harmonic and otherwise – that proceed directly from the sounding nature and playing technique of the instrument itself, thus making these materials less adaptable to other media, and less stylistically consistent from one piece to the next. Part of it, I suspect, is my easily distractable nature, although a more significant part of the motivation for doing so is a deep-seated, quasi-Buddhist conviction that in order to express myself authentically, the approach must be renewed every single time, as if starting from scratch. (Sometimes, enlightenment is within easy reach, and at others, the road to it is more circuitous, running through unknown territories, and cannot be planned out in advance.)

This isn't to say that either approach is more valid than the other, nor does one guarantee the writing of superior music, or even freshness, but I do think that identifiability of voice, in this sense, is a function of where you get your material, and the number and nature of the predetermined ideas you bring to the table in starting a new piece. It's an idea that I'll probably return to in the future as I start to make sense of it myself, but for now, I promised to sous-chef for a painter who's going to teach me, at long last, to make real Louisiana-style gumbo. C'est bon!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Value Added Tax

"If everything is judged by how 'useful' it is – useful for staying alive, that is – we are left facing a futile circularity. There must be some added value. At least a part of life should be devoted to living that life, not just working to stop it ending. This is how we rightly justify spending taxpayers' money on the arts. It is is one of the justifications properly offered for conserving rare species and beautiful buildings. It is how we answer those barbarians who think that wild elephants and historic houses should be preserved only if they 'pay their way'. And science is the same. Of course science pays its way; of course it is useful. But that is not all it is."

–Richard Dawkins
Unweaving the Rainbow

One could just as easily exchange "arts" and "science" in any clause and still end up defending both.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008


I haven't been blogging lately, not so much due to not having anything to say, but rather owing more to the tendency of the holidays to lessen the burning need to say anything. I was also trying to clean up a lot of unfinished business before leaving Finland for the month of January. I'll be spending the next four weeks as an artist-in-residence at The Seaside Institute in Seaside, Florida, the New Urbanist community on the Gulf coast where The Truman Show was filmed. (I had to suppress the urge to check my bathroom for cameras when I moved into my cottage.)

I'll be giving a couple of lectures while here and doing some work in the community, but the main purpose of my visit is to complete (after starting) work on my new choral piece, which just hasn't been getting anywhere at home. It's a long way to come to do it, but the removal from my daily life seems to already be having an effect on my mindset. All I hear are the waves, and the quiet in my normally overactive mind. This is a new experience for me. Much like Jerry Seinfeld's protestations of not being an "orgy guy", I've never thought of myself as an "artist colony guy" (not that there's anything wrong with that). As mentioned in the past, I'm the worst kind of homebody, shutting myself up in my house for days at a time. I love my studio space, with all its clutter, piles of books and twenty different open scores. For lack of a better word, the room has my aura in it, and that familiarity with my space helps me write, and I've never felt the need to go away from home and isolate myself in order to work. I tend to get stuck in my various compositional neuroses easily, and not having my wife and colleagues around to talk me down when I freak out about the piece I'm writing isn't usually an appealing prospect. For whatever reason, though, I've been unable to really focus for the past few months, so when this incredible opportunity came up, I jumped at the chance and packed my bags happily, hoping to get the entire 15-minute piece in one month so the choir can cut a practice tape for the choreographer.

The irony is that I've come to this little corner of paradise, with its blissful weather and warm, kind people, to write something stark, ascetic, ritualistic and meditative. And it forces me to think about what fires my imagination. I've written some about Nordic landscapes, and what it is about life at the top of the world that I find so appealing. I'd thought that landscape in general was the prime source of my work, and that any beautiful corner of the world would translate musically. But in a recent experience with a new environment, I was confronted with the possibility that I'm northern by more than just birth and residence.

After a tough year of work, my wife and I took a long-delayed honeymoon to Crete early last summer. It was something of a homecoming for me, as my dad was born and grew up on the Mediterranean, and used to tell me all kinds of stories from his youth, rhapsodizing about the light, the warmth, the taste of fresh figs, and above all, the "wine-dark sea" (great title for a piece!) that looms so large in the literature and culture of the region. When I got there, I was indeed impressed by it. I was reminded of the music of William Walton more than anything else, those beautiful, shimmering textures from after his move to to Ischia, like the Violin Concerto and Troilus and Cressida. It was gorgeous, by any standard.

But it wasn't inspiring. At least not to me. I found the folk music of Crete, with its wailing voices and virtuosic use of a fiddle-like instrument called a lira, extremely appealing, and bought several CDs for the trip home. But the landscape, as beautiful, varied and extreme as it was, from desert to wine-growing valleys, didn't make music for me, I think because it just wasn't mine, part of my consciousness, the landscape I immediately conjure when I think of nature. For me, it's birch trees, crystal clear skies, and that dark, silvery Nordic sunlight that become music. Finding myself in this place presents a challenge, to not succumb to the gentleness of the climate, and let the piece become too sunny, too comforting, when what I'm really after is something burning, purifying, detached, and ego-less.

Or perhaps coming here will turn in the piece into what it's really supposed to be. After years of trying to fight my material, I fairly recently came to the realization that most of the time, it's best to just let the piece be what it wants to be. Material takes on a life of its own after a while, and resistance to it just creates misery. And who needs misery in weather like this? I prefer margaritas.