Saturday, March 28, 2009

Music of changes

Winter is in its death throes up here this week, with Southern Finland plunged into "takatalvi" or "back-to-winter" in local parlance. (As with so many Finnish expressions, the lack of foreign etymology gives it a bluntness and lack of abstraction I find appealing.) Sitting with a cup of tea after what may end up being my last woods walk during a snowfall this year, having finished a piece today, I have a few minutes of leisure time to blog. Since returning from vacation at the end of February, I've again been immersed in composition work, specifically the long-delayed conclusion of my cycle of piano preludes based on Whitman's Leaves of Grass, the completed set of which Risto-Matti Marin (link in Finnish only, apologies) is premiering in June. He commissioned the first book of four in 2005 for a concert at the Mänttä piano festival, and we've been plotting to fill out the cycle of twelve at the same festival for the last couple of years.

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

Among the leaves

I haven't been much in a blogging frame of mind lately. After Musica Nova last month, my increasing inability to concentrate on anything necessitated some time off from real life. After a brief but much needed and well-earned vacation with my wife in Paris, I returned home refreshed and ready to work again, and immediately descended into a composing fog. More on all this later. I did want to break the silence, though, to shamelessly promote the following:

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.