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.

No comments: