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.