Saturday, December 12, 2009
M: "It was amazing, gorgeous. Lyrical and tragic in a very understated way. I want to turn it into an opera!"
A: "Yeah, I thought about that too, but it's so quiet and internal. There's almost no dialogue, and nothing really happens."
M: "Dude, you just described my ideal opera scenario."
Friday, October 9, 2009
Saturday, October 3, 2009
Later that evening, I'll be appearing as a guest on BBC Radio 3's The Choir. Host Aled Jones and I discussed my move to Finland, my other move toward a form of postminimalism, Cyrillus Kreek and other hot topics in the choral world. They'll also be featuring a number of tracks from HOL's new CD. Tune in and listen as my motor-mouth does its best to keep up
Thursday, September 3, 2009
One of the questions I was asked after the talk was how I dealt with the situation when it happened. I responded that I generally asked questions back, like why the person disliked the piece. If they can give me specifics – a type of texture they didn't enjoy, it was too loud, too soft, too repetitive, too uneventful – I can offer a different way of listening, or offer them a tidbit about the piece's background story (there's always one of those) that may give them something to hang onto. If they just state a general dislike, there's not much you can do, except wish them well and hope they don't discount all new music because of your piece. It's usually out of a deep-seated conservatism, fed by timid programming and worship of the master canon, that makes people expect all music to sound and behave a certain way, and that's hard to argue with. But for far too long, composers have indulged themselves in the conceit that dislike of a piece indicates lack of understanding, with the partial result that listeners have been cowed into a state of submission where they feel unable, or unwilling, to express an opinion on a piece of new music. So they don't react for fear of being labeled an ignoramus, or at best respond with polite if bewildered approval. Audiences should feel that, within reason, they're allowed to have an opinion on works of art. By the very act of placing a work before an audience, we ask for their opinion, and there's a certain humility required in dealing with the reaction, positive or negative.
However, there's a line that occasionally gets crossed, against which a stand should be taken. A friend told me yesterday about this vile "review" published in a blog by a local independent newspaper (Finnish only, apologies). The writer, a local conservative politician, took Kalevi Aho to task over the Helsinki Festival performance of his flute concerto. Calling it a "crazy concerto" – it's actually a breathtakingly sophomoric play on the Finnish words for "flute" and "crazy" – he attacked the scare-quoted "music" ("musoc"?) as cacophonic and horrifying. How he arrived at this conclusion is beyond me, as the piece is question is largely quiet, meditative and highly lyrical, a gentle piece by a gentle, self-effacing man. New music doesn't get more listener-friendly than this, in the best possible sense of being thoroughly accessible while remaining challenging, invigorating listening.
But beyond that, he proceeds to engage in the worst sort of ad hominem criticism, calling into question the adequacy of Aho's oxygen intake, wondering why trained musicians are made to play such awful stuff, attacking the people responsible for commissioning it, the programmers for defiling a concert otherwise filled with masterpieces, and going on to generalize that if all new music is like this, surely the people (read: the "taxpayers" so beloved of populist demagogues) have been ripped off.
Yes, it is a man of small character who would engage in this sort of public denigration of a humble artistic offering. But it points to a larger belief in the Western world among politicians and voters of a certain stripe that, in order to debate the idea of public arts funding, art itself must be attacked, bought down, made to appear ridiculous, objectionable in its very being, so that artists who receive any kind of public stipend for their work can be labeled as charlatans, tricksters, feeding at the public trough and having a good laugh at what they managed to pull over on the unsuspecting public.
It goes without saying that I've never met anyone involved in the arts, in Finland or abroad, who thought they were getting away with murder at the public expense. Yes, I've met artists whom I thought were full of shit, and heard work whose need for being I don't understand, but not one of those people wasn't extremely serious about what they were doing, thought they had something valuable to contribute to their society, and knew exactly how lucky they were to get to do something for a living they felt so passionately about. So it's particularly galling when this type of celebration of know-nothingism attracts even a modest public platform – and lord, isn't the unfiltered sewer of the internet great for that – reveling in its ability to cause damage and bring low a well-meaning person. It's the standard conservative line of debate when they set their sights on arts funding. I like to think it's out of a feeling of jealousy of people with abilities they don't understand, and a way of looking at the world they can't access and don't view as valuable because a dollar figure can't be attached to it. No artist makes art as a way of making a quick buck; it's too much bloody work. There are plenty of other ways of making cheap money off an ignorant public. Politics, for instance.
I foster no illusions that this man has serious issues that need working out, and that his voice carries little to no weight in the world beyond his little clique of lowbrow panderers. I thank every known deity on a daily basis that I live in a country whose people, by and large, recognize the contribution art has to offer and are willing to defend it against all comers. But people of this hateful, boorish type are loud, and proud of their ignorance and intolerance, and just keep coming, and must be made to look as foolish as they are, if we as creators are to have any hope of making contact with an audience still willing to listen to us. So by all means, dislike a piece. It's allowed. Tell the composer about it, and let them tell you why they made it the way they did. Engage. Talk. Trade ideas. Then if you still didn't like it, go drown your sorrows in a beer and don't ever listen to that person's work again. But do us the courtesy of basic civility, in private and in public.
Monday, August 31, 2009
Thursday, August 27, 2009
It was an event happily populated by youngsters brought by their music teachers, as well as the Phil's more usual audience, and a few living composers as well, come out to hear the add-on pieces before the warhorse, a series of "asteroids" commissioned by the Berlin Phil to fill out a Planets evening, and a new one by local composer Kimmo Hakola. Also featured was the addition of "Pluto" by Colin Matthews, perhaps the only composer I can think of who could have acquitted himself of that unenviable task so elegantly, and without trying to out-Holst Holst. The draw for the students, I imagine, was the video projections thoughtfully provided to make the music more interesting, a concept I have yet to see really take flight in concert. Apparently designed to follow the music's atmosphere and form, the graphics had an unfortunate screen-saver-like quality that prevented them from contributing much to the performance and, judging by post-concert conversations, were generally ignored. Unignorable, however, was the incessant coughing of what seemed like nearly everyone in the audience, at three-second intervals throughout the concert. Soft sections after climaxes seemed especially attractive to the hackers – no doubt thinking they had a few more seconds to finish their fits – none of whom were apparently at all concerned with muffling their outbursts.
So in light of this, I compiled this brief guide to coughing etiquette at concerts:
Don't cough at concerts.
I also prepared a helpful FAQ to accompany the guide:
Q: But what if I can't stop myself from coughing?
A: Yes, you can.
Q: What if I'm sick, can I cough then?
A: No. If you're sick, you probably shouldn't be at a concert. Swine flu and all that.
Q: Can I cough in loud parts? Nobody can hear me then.
A: Yes, they can. See guide.
Q: Can people really hear me in loud parts?
A: Yes. Aside from being audible, the related risk of sudden pianissimo exposure is significant.
Q: What about between movements? Can I cough then?
A: See guide.
I hate to go all musoc.org on concert-goers, and love and defend all attempts at audience building and outreach, but something's gotta give. I've had several concerts in the past year utterly ruined by this bad habit (and that's what it really is), the most memorable being last year's celebratory performance of Elliott Carter's Symphonia at which a patron judged the appropriate moment for a single hack to be three seconds before the end of the final movement, which had spent ten minutes wafting gently upward, disappearing incrementally like a vapor trail into a single pianissimo piccolo note. Seriously. It's disrespectful to the players, who are giving their all, and to the other audience members who paid good money to sit and listen to you cough. Stop it. Right now.
Anyhoo, Holst. As I said, I know The Planets extremely well, every rhythmic punch, every tutti brass chord, every bit of percussion glitter. With the exception of "Saturn". That was the one movement that didn't really speak to me when I was younger and fancied myself an old-fashioned Romantic. I used to routinely skip it, preferring the more obviously directional, big-line, big-event forms of "Mercury" and "Jupiter". The subtleties of the slow, static processional of "Saturn" were utterly lost on me, to the point where I'd forgotten how it ended. So I got out my score again today for a listen, and was transfixed by the simplicity of what Holst achieved in this piece. The planing whole-tone flute-and-harp chords of the opening, whose unvarying voicings nonetheless seem to shift in the light, the simple rhythmic intricacy of the syncopated climax, further distorted by the resonance delay of the tubular bells, making one feel thoroughly ungrounded in the pulse, the magnificently patient working out of that initial treading theme, it was all a revelation brought about by familiarity breeding contempt.
Most striking was the ending, a shimmering field of uninflected, rhythmicized yet pulseless, completely diatonic loveliness whose existence I had somehow overlooked, ever so slightly linear in its drive toward the final cadence, but sustained by nothing other than its unchanging orchestration. The line between the final minutes of "Saturn" and John Luther Adams' In the White Silence, another piece I've been studying lately, is short to the point of non-being. It's as if Adams took a chunk from the middle of Holst's texture – before it resolves, however inconclusively – and stretched it into the infinity the aesthetics of Holst's time would have frowned on in a concert piece. In a similar vein, I've been working with Mahler a lot lately, and the end of Das Lied von der Erde strikes me as occupying that same category of late Romantic invocations of an otherworldly stasis that would have to wait for a movement like minimalism to truly reach its potential, rather than remaining the inklings they are, a vision of a time to come reached by the logical, linear temporal drive of the nineteenth century. Mahler as proto-minimalist? I may be lost in my research, but it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to me. Hmm...
So Holst, Mahler and Adams are now on my desk as I start sketching my upcoming "concerto" for horn and strings, a piece that doesn't seem to want any fast music. I'm not quite sure what the result will be, but with this combination of disparate models, I'm kind of looking forward to finding out.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Nonetheless, I'm wading in as best I can. The source texts, which I chose from a small selection given to me, are psalms from a newish translation of the Bible. As best I can tell, it seems to be one of those modern, plain-language versions that treats the texts less as poetry and more as document. It's so far creating problems with meter and flow, trying to create a simple, single-idea musical world that both keeps the words as clear as possible and, more difficult, illuminates them through a setting that's more than just functional. The excerpts I'm working from also don't contain an "Alleluia!" or "Amen!" to work towards as structural goals, so I'm having to get creative in the treatment of the lines to create a form that works.
It's a completely different way of working with text for me, top-down, as it were. Usually when I set a text in a choral piece, it's because I had a flash of music for it the first time I read it. In fact, I find it very difficult to approach words that aren't backed up by that spontaneous feeling of just how I want to treat them. The add wrinkle of setting explicitly Judeo-Christian words has me at a bit of a loss in the sincerity department. So for inspiration, I've been turning to what is probably my favorite collection of psalm settings ever, by the Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek.
Kreek is a much beloved figure in Estonian choral music, a Bartók-like composer/musicologist who painstakingly collected and documented hundreds upon hundreds of his homeland's folk tunes, with a special emphasis on religious folk melodies, which formed the basis for his own arrangements and original settings. His Psalms of David (Taaveti Laulud) were encountered early in my tenure in Finland, when I joined a tour of Germany with the Sibelius Academy chamber choir. The music was all Finno-Ugric, and in addition to current godfather of Estonian choral composition, Veljo Tormis, four of Kreek's psalms were on the program. I'd never heard of him or his work, but immediately fell in love with his settings, all the while trying to get my tongue around the language.
The tunes, while modal, aren't specifically or self-consciously "folky". The harmonies tend toward diatonicism, but the various pedals and held-note textures create a web of gentle dissonance that creates interest without drawing attention to itself. The unusual emphasis on the low end of the choral tessitura is a marked feature of Kreek's choral music, featuring multiple divisi rather than the standard SATB configuration, no doubt to take advantage of those wondrous, dark Estonian alto and bass voices, for which their national choral sound is justly famous. The sopranos tend to be added only for a bit of brightness here and there, with the main weight of the music placed in the middle and low registers. The female voices are frequently silent or limited to the melody, with the divided men's choir providing a rich harmonic palette.
There's also the way his tunes wend their way through the often-asymmetrical rhythms of Estonian so naturally, fitting the cadence of the words like a glove, treating them polyphonically, but allowing the tutti choir to alight in unison on the most meaningful words, highlighting their significance in the structure. (It must be said that Estonian is a singularly singable language once you get past the vowels, much more so than Swedish, with its general thinness of hard consonants for rhythmic emphasis. Ever heard Estonian bossa nova? Now that's a treat.) Above all, the object lesson for me is the way Kreek's settings seem to exhale the entire text in a single breath, one long melodic gesture that carries the words along to their conclusion, no matter the rhythmic hiccups. It's deep, expressive, moving music. If I manage to reach that level of simplicity and directness, I'll consider it a job well done.
Judging by the collection of performance videos on YouTube, these songs have acquired a viral popularity in the choral world despite the hurdle of an obscure and difficult language, which speaks loudly to their musical merit. Therefore, I humbly offer some psalms for your summer morning before I go make omelettes:
The King's Singers, doing their best with the pronunciation:
And the one piece that makes me cry without fail:
Monday, July 6, 2009
As Midgette expediently points out, 'classical' music (to use her preferred anti-elitist terminology) is "responsible, like any field, for some singularly vapid outpourings."
How very true!
Now if you'll excuse me, I have another wailing infant to deal with.
UPDATE: One of the reasons I didn't bother addressing their points is that 'musoc' was obvious Sohothedog bait. I'm pleased to see Matthew Guerrieri – who's wicked smaht, and way more articulate than me anyway – enter the breach and prove my intuition right. You get the feeling he wrote it while cooking a seven-course meal and analyzing the recession, too.
Friday, July 3, 2009
Performance order for Leaves:
Book I (2005)
- Lingering last drops
- Sparkles from the Wheel
Book II (2009, premiere)
- The voice of the rain
- On the beach at night
- A noiseless patient spider
- Thou orb aloft full-dazzling
Book III (2009, premiere)
- Out of the rolling ocean
- Song of the universal
- A clear midnight
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
I bring this up as a segue to a topic that's been much on my mind in the last few weeks. More and more people have been asking me lately if I miss Canada, and whether I plan to go back there someday. I suppose it's because people see me putting down roots in Finland, developing something of a career, having a family. The latter question, about my possible return to my homeland, isn't something I can answer at this point. It's not in the cards at the moment, but it's not possible to rule it out, either. But I always answer the former with a smile and a "Not really." And it's true for the most part. I get to see my immediate relatives once every couple of years at the most, and we correspond via e-mail and Skype regularly, so the contact is there. I left Canada so long ago, almost fifteen years now, that I have very few friends there, and no professional contacts to speak of. Everything that's most important to me – my work, my wife and son, my closest friends – is here. The weather in Finland is more or less the same as where I grew up in Québec's Eastern Townships, and though I miss certain things, like real Asian cuisine at affordable prices and beer that doesn't taste like gym socks, on the whole I don't miss Canada all that much.
The thing I don't usually tell people about is the rare occasion when I do find myself missing it, in a way that cuts much deeper than simple nostalgia for bygone things. The most desperate occasion relates to the final stages of composing my four-seasons choral cycle Shiki for HOL in 2006-07. It was in late February of a dark winter, toward the end of an extraordinarily busy season of writing, teaching, and festival management. I was already worn out, and was trying to finish the four tape preludes to each setting of a seasonal haiku by Santōka Taneda. The preludes are very simple, almost documentary-sounding concoctions using only three elements each: the sound of water, a field recording of birdsong, and a lightly processed acoustic sound from a variety of metal instruments like a waterphone, a prayer bowl and a Christmas angel bell thing owned by my wife's uncle.
For the birdsong, I used a species local to southern Finland at the start of each season: blackbird for spring, thrush nightingale for summer, hooded crow for fall, and Bohemian waxwing for winter. I wanted them to sound as local as possible, with one exception. I found an old LP fragment of the wail of a common loon, and decided to adapt it to fit in the background of the fall prelude. It was intended as a kind of private joke, a tiny, wistful reference to my fervent belief that one's national identity can't ever be fully suppressed, no matter how one may thrive in a new pot.
The loon's wail is a haunting thing, speaking of still, misty lakes and vast spaces, a sound most Canadians are familiar with from birth or soon after. It's not that they're everywhere, it's just that the wail has become something of an anthropomorphized sonic currency (as opposed to the literal one), a patrotic emblem of the sound of Canada, heard everywhere in NFB films and mini-documentary ads about Canadian heritage. When I was a kid in the 70s, there was a fashion on CBC radio for long, static nature soundscapes – I think my fascination with nature imagery and structural stasis can be traced back to these – many of them inevitably containing a loon wail, that ever-so-evocative aural calling card of the True North. So I messed around with the sound file, adjusting the EQ, copying and reshaping the sound; there were only a couple of wails, with the ultimate effect of the constant pitch shifting and elongation to create diversity of material making it appear as if the call were being warped, becoming more distant and alien to the sonic landscape.
What I wasn't prepared for was the effect my semi-casual compositional decision would have on me psychologically. When I uploaded the sound into ProTools the first time, it hit me like a sword through the ribs, making me more homesick than I'd been in years. That forlorn-sounding wail engendered a bone-deep feeling of loss that had nothing to do with childhood or a long forgotten meal or seeing old photos of family. Or rather, it had everything to do with it, and nothing at the same time. The loon's call, despite being just a bird call, and in reality no more expressive in human terms than a tree or a blade of grass, a thing that just was, sounded like everything that was most Canadian to me, and in an instant I felt more alone, further from home and more alien in my adopted land than I ever had before. I keep trying to come up with a less melodramatic turn of phrase, but the truth is that my soul ached for my country in a way I have difficulty overcoming even as I write about it two years later. I sat there, alone in that darkened studio, tired, stressed, embarrassed at my tears and relieved that nobody was there to see them. They were brief, in any case.
I write this just to make a small point about how sonic memory strikes at the most unexpected times, and carries with it a sometimes overwhelming weight of associations. It also forms the core of what I'm writing about in reference to Mahler, the ways in which landscape and social memory are manipulated into anthropomorphized beings, and the effort it requires to see past that to the truth of the human-nature relationship. A bird's call, through the careful manipulation of memory, upbringing and national sentiment, can cut through distance and years in a second, reconnecting one to a lost past, a wealth of feelings long suppressed, and undermine one's very notion of self and place. I've since come to love living in Finland more and more, and rarely if ever have those pangs of homesickness, since my home is here in an increasingly real sense. But one's ultimate sense of home can never quite be done away with, and reasserts itself at the strangest times, as I discovered.
So do I miss Canada? No, not really. Except when I do. Happy Canada Day.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
So imagine my delight at getting to write something this far-reaching for him. That he learned and made it through a solid hour of challenging, largely brand new piano music would have been enough. But that his performance was formally integrated, poetic, colorful, and energetically focused from beginning to end was more than any composer could ask for. Much of the last book of four pieces has only existed for a few weeks, and he played the new ones with total command, especially my sprawling prog rock tribute Song of the universal, which takes off from the texture of Chopin's "Ocean" étude in C minor and doesn't let up for ten minutes. Every time I thought his energy would give out, he just got better. Then for good measure he came out and played August Stradal's Himalayan transcription of Liszt's Les Préludes. One hell of an encore. The radio broadcast is Thursday, I'll post a link for it when it becomes available on demand.
In all, it was a great experience to bring to fruition a project like this, and getting to work with someone with a similar taste for large-scale forms. Over the last week, I kept thinking back to a comment made by my former teacher at Stony Brook, Perry Goldstein. He'd just heard my first tape piece, and quipped, "Wow. Even when you're working in electronics it's epic!" It's true. I have an unfortunate tendency to think in epic terms when I start composing, and it gets me in trouble occasionally when a piece runs over length. (On the other hand, nobody's ever complained about not getting their money's worth when they commission me.) What starts out as a few minutes of music usually ends up being a cycle of some sort, lasting twenty minutes or more. I had a great conversation about this at the festival with Kalevi Aho, a composer with a similar tendency toward big statements.
Even in grad school I wasn't much good at the seven-minute piece, preferring to work in large, multi-movement or multi-sectional forms. Not that all my work back then was particularly successful – and I went through a period a while back of writing shorter pieces while trying to figure out some aesthetic problems – but I think my formal predilections were evident from the start, if not as well executed as I would have liked. Now, however, I finally feel like my chops are able to keep up with my ambitions, and am consistently happier with some of my longer essays. I still have trouble with the long line of musical argument, the large-scale symphonic logic popular hereabouts, but I'm getting better at stringing smaller things together into a convincing narrative, I think, and creating a kind of formal unity through juxtaposition of disparate things rather than linear development.
Another pleasant aspect of the week was the festival itself, ostensibly a celebration of the piano with some chamber music thrown in. As a composer, I often find myself on the outside looking in at new music events. There's a level of appreciation of certain aesthetics that I just can't get to, a taste for some types of music, notably loud, noisy, grating ones, that I can't cultivate no matter how hard I try. I thought it was a phenomenon restricted to composer circles that I'm not really part of. Imagine my surprise to find a similar underground cult in the piano world, devoted to extremes of virtuosity, sound production, technical execution and stage flair. The organizers and performers in Mänttä, vibrant and driven people, with a few exceptions all quite young, had prepared a program very much by and for piano enthusiasts, exploring corners of the repertoire I'd never really paid much attention to. The taste for the epic was much in evidence, case in point being Henri Sigfridsson's titanic undertaking of playing the complete Transcendental Études of Liszt in one sitting. Not all of it was to my taste, but I couldn't help noticing that the proceedings were colored by something all too often absent from new music events: a relaxed sense of fun. There was pure joy in the air at all the concerts, a feeling that radiated off the stage, joy at the chance to play, at taking on huge, risky, virtuosic pieces, joy at making music together. It was infectious, and my window into this little corner of piano geekdom gave me a vantage point from which to appreciate the goings-on of a passionate community in my business, but outside my field.
One reads frequently in newspapers abroad of the miracle of the Finnish music system. The same questions keep coming up. How do they do it? Why are there so many musicians here? What's their secret? Let me tell you: the summer festivals are a huge part of it. In few other countries that I know does a resource like this exist. At the beginning of June, music in the cities ceases completely, and the musical lifeblood of the country rushes out to the extremities, with almost every one-horse town hosting a music festival of some sort. The locals are intensely devoted to attending, the organizers extraordinarily competent at putting together big programs on limited budgets, with the result that people get to hear music being made on the highest possible level without having to go far for it.
On the last night in Mänttä, I commented to festival director Niklas Pokki, who helped build the festival from the ground up eleven years ago, that I was still unsure how I'd managed to become a professional musician, given that nothing like this festival existed where I grew up. I never heard a professional orchestra until university, despite being an hour from Montreal, nor a real professional performer on any instrument. (Niklas mentioned that one of his primary motivations for creating the festival in his hometown was a similar musical starvation as a child.) I somehow stumbled into being a musician despite the disadvantages of no early training and limited technical abilities on my instrument, probably due equally to stubbornness as much as whatever talent I may have.
But imagine being a child in a town like this, who gets to hear high-caliber performances early on, be inspired by it, and with access to a system of music schools whose primary purpose is to identify talented kids and get them playing. The educational system here does have its advantages, but if you ask me the real glory of the Finnish musical world is the summer festivals, which reach out to "real" people, as opposed to industry insiders in the city, bringing good music, old and new, to their communities – affordably – and embed the art form in their lives. Seriously, can you imagine many places where an unknown composer would get a platform for a 60-minute piece on a small town summer program? That's why classical music survives here, and will hopefully continue while other countries, beset by endless budget cuts and philistinism, slowly strangle the life out of their music.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Not losing a beat, I managed to crank out the last bars of the remaining piece from Leaves of Grass ahead of a preview performance on Tuesday, leading to the big premiere on June 27. I hit the "Send" button, breathed a massive sigh of relief, and poured myself a generous drink. Sipping my gin and tonic (Hendricks, in case anyone cares), I thought about the things I needed to get done in the coming days when a certain chain of events started earlier than expected, and led to my best coda ever:
We named him Oliver Ralph (see this post for pronunciation guide). I've had about as much excitement as I can stand. (Photo by Esko Kallio)
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
"I continued feeling the music in me as alive in itself, a substance that would go on living beyond itself, something yet to be born. But another tendency operated. As often as not, I consciously and determinedly frustrated this afterlife by going in a direction completely opposite to the qualities and characteristics of the last work done; I had a positive abhorrence of merely replicating what I'd already written, of falling into the habit of repeating gestures, figures, designs. In this I was fully aware I was rejecting outright a process of self-replication I heard and saw all around me in the successive new works of composer colleagues [...] for whom self-replication had become a way of being and functioning. I marveled that composers and artists of the avant-garde persuasion had fixated on self-identity via single, consistently recognizeable style-idea as his or her trademark and signature."
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Make no mistake, it doesn't seem that he was treated unfairly during his career, or maliciously sidelined in favor of composers writing in a more fashionable aesthetic. He was granted, and took notable advantage of opportunities that most composers would love but likely never come close to. He got high-profile gigs writing for major musicians, and had champions. It just seemed that the critical reaction to his music never appaeared to lose a snide edge, as if it were completely acceptable to respect his craft, but poo-poo his musical language. I find this tends to happen to composers who hew more closely to traditional practices. It's much easier to compare a more mainstream-sounding piece to the centuries of canonical works it resembles than it is to dissect the work of a more sui generis artist, one with a less palpable connection to the canon of their discipline. With music like Maw's, that dared to go up against the weight of tradition explicitly, it always seems much easier to declare a piece overlong, sentimental, retro, or simply a flop.
Maw's music is indeed well-crafted, dramatic, logically constructed, brilliantly orchestrated stuff that generally stays close to the linear drive of the fin-de-siècle music it most closely resembles. In my limited experience with his work, it was always satisfying, rewarding listening, with no holes or obvious compositional flaws. It's good music. But it's not just good. It's surprising. And that's the highest compliment I can pay any music. Even in Maw's most conservative-sounding pieces, you can hear a composer straining against the boundaries of his technique, always mining his material for hidden corners of expressive meaning. It's abstract, but never impersonal or rhetorically generic in the way that a lot of contemporary heart-on-sleeve music can sound, and I always got the impression that, whatever the dimensions of the piece, formal decisions never came easily for him. His pieces take surprising turns, carrying one off in unexpected directions that nonetheless make the journey more interesting, kind of like taking time on a long road trip to take the slower, but infinitely more scenic route down a particularly lovely bit of coastline. Such moments in Maw tend to be genuinely touching, deeply moving, not in that saccharine, sentimental neo-Romantic way, but proceeding from a place of dramatic and emotional honesty, a kind of rigorously prepared artlessness, that enabled him to get away with it. Indeed, there was nothing "neo" about Maw's music, if by that prefix we mean the revival of an idea whose time is gone. He was the real deal, a man practicing a tradition that never died. Many of the obits also reflect this.
It all speaks of a composer willing to take risks, to always write at the outer limit of his technique and dramatic concept, and it's the trait that I find makes interesting most of the music I really value. Creating big, logical forms is a great thing, and admirable thing, but the willingness to defy logic, to suspend the working out of a large-scale idea for a dramatic side trip – a single chord, a fragment of melody that seemingly doesn't belong, a tiny, gentle interlude – that may technically weaken the structure, but nonetheless adds untold dimensions of emotional weight to a piece, strengthening its argument. Although Maw tends to be mentioned in the same breath as Bruckner, I find his outlook to be more of a piece with Mahler, a similarly risk-taking composer. Both tended to grapple with big ideas, sometimes at the risk of formal cohesion, but if you can deliver an argument with sufficient expressive weight, it makes more superficially integrated, organic music seem ascetic in comparison. As I recently told a student who asked me about some of his music, I'll always respect well-made, tightly woven music – even to the point of jealousy – but music that assumes a great degree of structural and expressive risk is the stuff I love.
I've been reluctant in the past to take on so-called "big ideas" in compositional debate, mostly because I like to do my thing and be let alone, and generally only come out swinging when some camp or other tries to deny my right to do that, or the possibility that an opposing aesthetic may actually have something to contribute. My deepest aesthetic convictions are private and instinctive to the point where I find it difficult to articulate them, hence my blogging silence lately. But in one of the recent articles on Maw, I found a big idea I'm happy to sign on to:
"What I want to do is sing the great song of our existence on this planet[...]" "It's a ludicrous ambition, but it's one of the few that are worth trying."
Rest well, Mr Maw. I and others will do our best to carry that torch.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Saturday, March 28, 2009
I admit to a certain amount of trepidation in returning to this project. The first book was hell on wheels to compose. At the time, I'd virtually shut down, afraid to put a note on paper because I hated the sound of everything I wrote. I didn't even manage to write all four pieces in time for the premiere. I ended up giving an older piece from 2003, Rain/Fall, a new title and including it in the set – though in fairness that piece had always been intended as part of this cycle, I just hadn't thought I'd ever get a chance to write it all. I labored over the three I did write fresh for the better part of six months and was, for a while, only mildly satisfied with the results, although people seemed to like them. (As a side note, pianist Matilda Kärkkäinen performs the first book this coming Tuesday, an experience both timely and educational for me.) Having more fully embraced certain tendencies in my writing since the first set, most especially the minimalist ones, I anticipated a significant stylistic disconnect between the older pieces and the newer ones.
So on returning from Paris I steeled myself for what I expected would be a tough three months of work, trying to finish some 30 minutes of piano music, already a difficult proposition, while balancing everything else. To my surprise, I've had nothing but smooth sailing (knock on wood). In the last four weeks, I've managed to get four of the remaining eight done, although two were already laid out in sketch form in late 2007. Maybe I've become less critical of the choices I make, more accepting of the stylistic melting pot I'm drawing from. A huge range of stylistic ideas is even appropriate, considering the breadth of Whitman's output, and the variety of poems I chose as background material. Overall, the new pieces are pretty consistent with the first ones, despite the strides I've made in integrating certain new aesthetic ideas. Looking at the result of the piece I finished today, it also seems that I wasn't quite done with the key of E-flat.
There's a sense of anticipation in getting to complete a huge project that I never seriously contemplated until relatively recently – though the idea for it was sparked when I moved to the US in 1995 and discovered Whitman, after a mostly French education to that point. The music is new, but the ideas have been cooped up in my head for years and are fighting to get out. I'm excited about this piece, about getting it done, and I think that excitement is manifesting itself as an unusual ease of composition. Unlike other recent pieces, I also have quite a luxurious production schedule for this one, which reduces the stress factor considerably and makes decision-making less laborious.
There's also a feeling of compositional momentum gained in the last couple of years. For the first time ever, I'm hitting a comfortable stride in my production where the work feels neither too easy nor unnecessarily difficult. One of my former teachers, Dan Weymouth, once warned me about thinking I had it all figured out, that too much ease could be a sign of suspended critical faculties, but this is something different. I'm working well because I like the music I'm writing, and it makes the process fun. I think this momentum is also a product of many years-long projects coming to fruition over the next year – compositional, professional and educational – and some new things starting. Really though, there's no substitute for forming a habit of regular production, however you define that according to your own work habits. Doing a lot of work makes it easier to do more work. Having reasons and time to do the work helps even more.
All things being equal, it looks like I'll have the two new books done in good time, with the process thus far more enjoyable than for any piece I've done in the last year and change. And finally getting to clear this huge tree of a piece out of my mental forest will make room for much new growth. I just have to wait out the snow now.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
It's HOL's new release on Finland's Alba label, Lehdellä – Among the Leaves, the product of three-odd years' work, not counting the composing time for all the music. (The CD will be up for sale through Alba's online store soon.) In addition to my own settings of Octavio Paz and Santōka Taneda, including my much-blogged-about but never heard Shiki (Four Seasons), the CD also features Alex Freeman's and Juho Miettinen's evocative, jewel-like settings of the early Finnish modernist poet Aaro Hellaakoski, as well as a tiny piece by Jarmo Parviainen, HOL's conductor in the 1950s. I'm extraordinarily proud to have been involved in this project, not least because of the high quality of the singing, production, and sound engineering.
It's also a community effort in a very real sense. The visual design and translations all done pro bono by members of the choir – the advantage of singing in an amateur group is that its members have useful real-world professional skills – and most of the photography was done by our multi-talented director, Esko Kallio. There's scarcely an unfamiliar name in the production credits. The essay on the music, written by pianist Risto-Matti Marin (whose own new release on Alba appears today), is wonderful. Rather than edit together a bunch of disparate composer-written program notes and self-inflating biographical material, we wanted a text that would draw all the music together into a seamless whole. Risto-Matti's introduction, instead of dwelling on how the music sounds, how it behaves, how the words are set, gets into the trickier territory of what it all means, that crucial larger context for juxtaposing all these contrasting approaches to choral setting. It doesn't hurt that he knows me, Alex, Juho and Esko very well. The end result is a product that glows with the love and attention given to it by the people who made it.
In a way, it's appropriate that my first commercial recording is this one. My very first piece was for choir, and it's always been to the choir, to voices and text, that I've returned over the years when I wanted to figure out something about my music, to push myself in a new direction. It's also important that this release is done with this choir, the one that commissioned, protected and performed my music when few other people were interested. They've played a central role in my career thus far, not just as a composer, but as a total musician. It wasn't until I joined them that I realized just how much I'd missed performing in an ensemble after I quit the horn – the social, collective side of music-making – and I think I've become a better composer as a result of having this group as a performing outlet. They've been my workshop, my promoters, and best of all my friends for the last six years. I've been lucky to have some unbelievable professional opportunities come my way since I started out on this path, but this is without a doubt the best thing I've ever been part of.
Monday, February 9, 2009
I should add the disclaimer that Juhani is a close friend and colleague, so anything I write about his music is obviously going to be heavily biased. His opera, if that's what it really is, has a bit of a history, and took far too long to make it to the stage in any form – we got to hear the middle act of three. Flash Flash is a crazy piece of work, not so much "about" Warhol as it is set around the idea of him. It's written in just intonation, highly rhythmic, and highly lyrical, with heavy use of stage projections and lights. It was populist high art, manic and meditative, tasteless and touching, superficial and probing, all at once. Although rooted in pop idioms, one never lost the sense that it was all being guided by a highly-trained, intelligent hand, much like Warhol's art. That it managed to walk that line so well is a part of its success as a piece, I think. Above all, though, it was human, and grounded in a heartfelt emotion that seemed to resonate deeply with the audience.
What struck me most was the sense of occasion about the performance, that rare feeling of being witness to something important. It's the word I kept coming back to, and the one I used in describing my reaction to Juhani afterward. It's important music, not just in terms of what it accomplishes vis-a-vis its interaction – or lack thereof – with the conventions of the operatic genre. (It has more in common with the passion play than grand opera, really.) It's important to Finland on the local level, and to the continuing development of its ever-expanding, ever-diversifying musical tradition. It's comforting and thrilling to know that there's someone in this country writing music like this, music that sounds like nobody else's, yet is still very recognizeably Finnish in its sense of craft and architecture. It's a small community here, where everyone basically knows each other and their work. Our community just got a bit richer through this new niche in our art form. Let's shine a light on it, and get it to the stage in the form it deserves as soon as possible.
Saturday, January 31, 2009
The aspect I love most about blue moments – and this is what sets the experience apart from white nights – is their evanescence. It only lasts a few minutes, so you have to be out at the right time to see it. There's a paradoxical quality to the moment, in which one perceives an extraordinary, deep, deep calm, and at the same time, the sky seems to to be trembling with potential energy. It's moments like these, hovering on the edge of non-being, in which the linear flow of time that shapes our days and lives seems to slow and even stop, that most fascinate me in nature, and in art. Not coincidentally, those are the precise values that inform much of the art that inspires me, especially Japanese art forms like haiku poetry and sumi-e painting.
Form, linearity, architectonics: these are strong, beautiful, admirable things, and led to some of the greatest art humanity has ever created. But the spontaneous capturing of that fragile, exquisite moment, and the feeling of stillness and utter peace and boundless energy that accompany it, the telescoping of the experience beyond its natural duration, making eternal that which is transient, these goals will always be much more interesting to me than another masterful essay in the ordering of time. Time flows by itself without our help. Stopping it would seem to be a much neater trick to pull off.
A few years ago, I was tasked to write several classically structured 5-7-5 haiku for a Zen aesthetics class. The goal of the exercise, as with all Zen arts, is to be spontaneous yet controlled, to freeze the import of a moment in time through the free, yet studied and rigorously prepared use of minimal materials. The problem is, after the first couple of attempts, self-consciousness tends to take over, and you find yourself trying to outdo your earliest poems in the Zen-ness of their content, leading to kitsch. Try though I might, I couldn't come up wth anything better than my first haiku, so I only submitted that one, which I now offer here, whatever its value. Then I'm going to go out and have my moment.
bare winter birches
twilight sky unearthly blue
evenings not yet come
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Since everyone else is weighing in on the matter of John Williams' inaugural composition/arrangement (bizarre category there, I tell you) Air and Simple Gifts, I feel I ought to add my two cents. While I found the treatment of the Shaker tune itself skillful but too close to the Copland original to be able to set itself apart (I guess that was the "arranged" part, pace Copland estate?), the tone of tender aspiration in the outer sections and general absence of breast-beating triumphalism were a welcome touch. The addition to the ceremony of any classical music, especially the intimate medium of a small chamber ensemble, was classy in the extreme, though I think an equally Copland-tastic piece for the same combination, like my pal Alex Freeman's lovely Intermezzo – the Copland thing is his descriptive, by the way, not mine – would have fit the bill better for being a fresh take from within the same aesthetic, instead of the rather pale echo we heard. Was Jennifer Higdon booked? The Obama campaign used Judd Greenstein's beautiful piece Folk Music in an online venture, was an occasional arrangement/excerpt of that not thought of?
Anyway, the choir piece is going swimmingly, thanks in large part to the experience with O Night! at Christmas. The performance, after a rocky rehearsal, went extremely well, and made its effect in much the way I'd planned, although the choral mass was even thicker than I expected. The sequence of stops Susanne designed for the performance had to be cycled through much more quickly than I anticipated just to be audible over the voices during the first half of the piece. The data absorbed from the event was invaluable in planning its successor, Love is little. The main difference between the two is the absence of the organ (duh), by which I mean the effect of the constant registration changes and subsequent resonance patterns, and the progressive crescendo, were pretty much all that O Night! was based on. Any time I felt the texture becoming impenetrable, I could throw in a new spatializing effect with the multiple choirs or call for a new stop sequence on the organ to alter the timbre. Thin gruel to feed a piece on, really. Without the instrumental backing, it makes it much harder to define and shape a saturated diatonic space in the same way. A relentless crescendo is out of the question, as there's a dynamic wall forty-odd singers just can't go beyond after a few minutes. Thus, I'm paying far more attention to contrast between soundmasses and harmonic emphasis within the 6-tone diatonic pitch collection (E-flat major with no D), as well as military-grade strategic deployment of new elements, in this new effort.
It's all relatively new territory for me. I've done single-harmony, single-dynamic pieces before, with diatonic pitch sets. The most extreme is Sakura (Cherry Blossoms) from my choral cycle Shiki, which uses a single F-minorish sonority for some five minutes, very softly, and relies on a constantly shifting surface to create form. The bald, obviously scalar diatonicism I'm working with at the moment is something it took me a fairly long time to be interested in, surprisingly. Minimalism wasn't something that came easily to me. A long string of teachers had little good to say about the aesthetic, and it wasn't until I came to Finland and gained a measure of creative independence that I realized I was, in fact, very much a minimalist in many ways, and had been from my earliest sketches and pieces. I'm ashamed to admit to some very loud, very ignorant statements in the past about a music I have since come to adore. (It's like that, isn't it? You spend years railing against something you secretly know is part of you, suppressing the evidence and acting out, until you're caught in a Minneapolis airport restroom foot-tapping Clapping Music with the guy in the next stall.) Still, total diatonicism isn't something I've ever been comfortable working with until now. It's very liberating to be in such limited, rigorously defined territory, having your decision-making curtailed in this way. It forces one to think differently about the way one handles material and form, and invites creative solutions to a new set of pitfalls.
Of course, starting a new piece, and the accompanying fear of the blank score page has me finding all sorts of things to waste time on. Today I got it into my head to listen to a bunch of Michael Colgrass on the CMC's Centrestreams. Colgrass was an early, if minor influence on me, dating back to my participation in a performance of his enormous wind orchestra piece Winds of Nagual during my time at UMass-Amherst. I remember admiring the way in which he juxtaposed or superimposed radically different stylistic elements in his music while maintaining a sense that it was all goal directed, rather than done just for the fun of crashing those things together – although there's certainly an element of fun in his work.
While rocking out to the strains of his clarinet concerto Arias, I checked out Colgrass' website, and the item that caught my eye (under "Writings") was a letter exchange with a young composer, in which Colgrass offers some sound advice regarding finding one's voice, surviving as a composer, and the difficult relationship between composing and teaching. (Steve Reich offers similar thoughts in his collection Writings on Music.)
Here's the six-degrees thing: the young composer in question is David Maslanka, with whom I had a similar correspondence in the late nineties, just after I moved Stateside. (I'm fairly sure that a couple of excerpts in a similar section on Maslanka's own website were from letters he wrote to me during those years.) David was, and is, one of the best, kindest, most generous people I have ever known, an earthy, non-aloof mystic, a shamanic personality who loved life and people and art, and made you love them too. I haven't been in touch with him for lo these ten years, but his words still ring in my ears as I work.
David came to UMass during my first year there to supervise a performance and recording of his wind ensemble piece Tears, which I played in, and gave a couple of talks and private meetings for students. At the time, I was just beginning to compose, and was completely taken by the way he seemed to recognize no boundary between composing and living, how deeply he felt the need for communication and community and accessibility in his work. He was very patient in dealing with his young admirer – truth be known, it was the first instance of hero worship I've felt toward another composer. A letter from him was always an event, sure to contain valuable advice not just on composing, but on being a composer, living the life of the artist as opposed to just doing the work. He was one of my earliest guides on the path I was about to embark on, both professionally and spiritually, and his experience helped me chart a course through the thickets of grad school, aesthetic dogma, career options, learning to be myself as a composer – still working on that one – and, most importantly, how to live it all in a way that worked for me, independently on what others told me I should want or reasonably expect from my life and career. He always had kind words about my music, and occasionally some hard criticism that forced me to re-examine my ideas. I took some of the advice and it improved my music and working methods. (His mantra of "Write what you know, then write what you don't know" became one of mine.) Other comments I thought about and then ignored, because what I'd done just seemed right to me, no matter what anyone said, also a valuable lesson.
The point of this ramble is that it's eye-opening to be able to trace the oral lineage of the wisdom David imparted on me from Colgrass, a composer I like, who likely got it from some other figure I'd have great respect for. Although he was only the first in a line of composers to offer me guidance in this way, in many ways he had the greatest impact on me, and advice from subsequent mentors has tended to be along the same lines, which I suppose shows that I seek out this specific type of person rather than that all advice is the same. I hope I get the chance someday to pass on these thoughts and be of help to someone else. Maybe I already have. I certainly don't have it all figured out, but I've made some headway, thanks to people like Colgrass and Maslanka, who were willing to take the time and effort to help someone with less experience in life come to terms with what they wanted to do with themselves. This, I think, is the fundamental difference between teaching and mentoring. One treats the student as an object to be filled with ideas. The other deals with him or her as a person already full of ideas who simply needs help in bringing them out. While both are valuable and necessary in learning to be a composer, it seems to me that the teaching of the whole person is the most rewarding of the two experiences for those involved.