Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nordic Rhapsody no. 1: Blue Moment

I'm sitting at my desk after a walk, eating a Runebergin torttu with my tea. (How many national literary figures have their own tasty treat marking their birthday?) Outside, it's one of those cold, clear, snowy days that make living up here through the winter worth it. The sun is sinking below the horizon, and it looks like the sky is gearing up for one of my favorite Nordic sights: the blue moment – "sininen hetki" in Finnish. It's an exclusively late winter phenomenon at this latitude, when the twilight sky turns a shade of indigo so deep that if you saw it in a photograph or painting, you'd think it fanciful. I won't bother linking to photographic evidence; it's impossible to capture it on film. But until you've seen it, you might believe that nothing naturally occurring could be so blue. It's one of the first things I came to love about living in Finland, and one of the rare sights that never seems to get old. (White nights are another.)

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

Six degrees

After recovering from an extended bout of illness over the holidays, I'm finally struggling to the top of the heap of work I was unable to do during that time, including a set of horn quartet arrangements of Georgian folk songs, a new version of a piece from last year, also for horn quartet, revisions to my flute and harp duo for performance next month, and starting the piece for HOL's 80th. Hence, there's slightly more time to blog.

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.