Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Your regularly scheduled program

My feverish son is home for a couple of days, which means that my studio is keeping its nighttime job as his bedroom for the moment, leaving me with a bit of time to read and blog. I should be reading Mahler, but I got sidetracked by my wife's gift of Anthony Bourdain's latest, an all-too-absorbing account of his post-fame life. As an enthusiastic home cook and armchair food critic, I just can't resist this stuff. No, I won't be auditioning for Finland's upcoming version of MasterChef, though less due to of lack of time than out of a proper sense of shame at the raised eyebrows from my degree supervisors should I choose to go on a reality show instead of finishing my thesis. Also, I couldn't hack the restaurant lunch shift challenge.

I've also been distracted by my addiction to news, and yesterday this story about a study on the usefulness of program notes was the source of much online chatter. In that charmingly sensationalist manner of much latter-day American journalism, the headline boldly announces that program notes aren't helpful in experiencing music, which of course makes me bristle as a freelance program annotator. Based on the actual conversation about the study, it would seem that the conclusions it reaches, and the implications thereof, are far more prosaic and diffuse. I can't access the full study from here, but it seems to me that it shows largely that purple prose about an isolated passage of music isn't helpful to 16 undergraduates in Arkansas with no musical training, far from a black-and-white assertion that program notes are a hindrance to the enjoyment of music. Far more interesting and complex would be to hear how different types of program note affect the experience of music for different types of listener, the content-vs-context part of the equation. That's something I find more fascinating than the reductive approach seemingly used here. Any takers?

However, critiquing a study I can't read in full isn't my purpose. I'm more reacting to the radio conversation than anything else, and am sure the full study is far more nuanced. The real point is to address in some way the various functions program notes can have for the people involved in the creation and reception of music. It's a difficult balancing act, what to say, how to say it, which aspects of a piece to focus on, which to leave out. It goes without saying that you can't ever say everything about a piece in a program note, no matter how much space you're given. The type of piece – contemporary or classic, warhorse or historical curiosity – as well as the intended audience also influence what can and should be said. Writing about music that is familiar on some level to most listeners changes how you can approach it to a program note. An unfamiliar or brand new piece requires a different tone.

All this is obvious, but I think of program notes differently depending on which hat I'm wearing at the time. Of course, my most extensive experience wearing any of them is with new music. However, as a concert-goer, I tend to glaze over and snore whenever anyone writes about structure, form, thematic development, or focus too closely on tiny details of material elaboration. Likewise, I chafe when composers talk endlessly of philosophical mumbo-jumbo that has precious little to do with the actual sounding experience of the piece at hand. (Kyle Gann mercilessly parodied this type of note in a post a few years ago, though I regret his use of a Finnish-sounding ersatz composer name, as program notes here tend to be humble, self-effacing and overwhelmingly focused on formal aspects rather than airy-fairy post-structuralist aesthetic ideas.) Tell me a story about the composer's life while writing the piece, though, and I'm yours. I could care less about motivic elaboration in Julian Anderson's Symphony, but I loved finding out that the compositional process was catalyzed for him by viewing an Akseli Gallèn-Kallela painting of Lake Keitele at the National Gallery in London. The fact that I had a similar experience with that same painting only adds to the piece. Did knowing this create expectations about the music? Sure, but I would have like the piece regardless, and only found this tidbit clarified some of his choices for me. In the local context of Finland, that information would be helpful to a lot of people, since pretty much everyone knows that particular painting (and would dearly like to see it come home, I think, but that's another story).

Dealing with an older, more widely known piece, I don't want to read about the thematic processes at work in Mahler's second symphony, but knowing that the sacred atmosphere of the end was so important to him that he went and bought a set of church bells for the premiere is the stuff of listener dreams for me. In short, I don't want to be guided through the temporal process of listening to the piece, to be told what to listen for and when. That does ruin the experience for me as an average listener, to be walked through it in a linear fashion, because it disrupts the non-linear, atemporal aspect of music's communicativeness, the way it bombards you with meaning and experience on so many different sensory levels, independently of temporal flow, creating associations through memory and subtle triggers of pitch, rhythm and timbre, leaving some things unsaid. What I want to know is what the piece can be said to mean. I don't care that it may not mean the same thing to me, but I want to know what someone thinks of it. It's not that I need to be told how to think of it, but I appreciate having a window into the music from someone else's perspective. Having a foil against which to form my own opinion is helpful to me, as I suspect it is to many others.

And that's really what a program note is, a window into an artform that many people have difficulty approaching and orienting themselves within because of the temporal nature of the experience. Give me something to hang onto, an idea to give me some direction, not as to the structural detail of the piece, but to what the piece is trying to articulate – assuming it's trying to be articulate.

Which is why, as a program annotator, it drives me into fits of blind rage when composers refuse to say anything about their pieces, and won't supply information to those who try. Don't want to say anything about your piece? Fine, but let others write about it as they wish. (You may laugh, but I've seen program notes stating plainly that composer X doesn't describe their music. Now that's unhelpful, and frankly lazy on the part of the annotator. What's the composer gonna do, sue you for writing something about their work? Respect the creator, but also respect the listener by giving them something to chew on.) If I'm writing notes for an orchestra concert and can easily access your score and a recording, I'll of course give your piece a hearing and come up with something on my own that's meaningful to the average listener – always my intended reader when I write notes. But if I'm writing an entire festival book and have 70 words to devote to your piece on one concert? Sorry, but you're S.O.L. If you refuse to provide me with material, I won't write about your piece. To suggest that music can't be encompassed in mere words is simply facetious. If a listener wants to know what you think of your piece, wants to get to know you through means other than hearing your music, why would you deny them that opportunity? It seems niggardly, a hoarding of meaning unto oneself, and makes no sense to me, unless non-communication is your goal, which I sincerely doubt.

I might as well come clean and say that, as a composer, I consider program notes extremely important in the compositional process, a part of communication that I'm unwilling to forsake in the name of not shaping people's opinion. I consider them so important that I frequently write them before writing the piece. It's odd, I know, but it helps me form an idea of what I want the piece to be. I edit them as I go, but reducing what I'm trying to say through the piece to a short text helps crystallize the ideas for me. If it's such an important part of my creative process, why would I suppress that to the listener, placing on them the sole responsibility of figuring out something I barely understand myself? Of course I'm trying to shape their opinion of the piece. I want people to like my music. I like writing, and on my better days I'm pretty good at it. I think long and hard about what to say about my pieces, and what I think people would like to read about them. I fancy that people read them, enjoy them, and it adds to their experience of the piece and helps them get a little more into it, and a little more out of it. I've been won over by a program note before, why shouldn't others? A tune I might otherwise consider schlocky may be more palatable if I knew the composer had just become a parent. I know the feeling that brings, why shouldn't I relate to that in a piece?

Ultimately, though, my window analogy holds up. That's all a program note really is, a glimpse into the world of the piece, and no more relevant to the experience of music than that. It can be helpful or not, depending on the individual listener as much as on the note. You can write whatever you want, but in the end listeners can't be told what to think about a piece unless they let themselves. But to deny the importance of program notes, or worse, to reduce it to an equation free of context, if x then y, is simplistic. Not that the above study does that. It's more of an effect of the reductive tendency of media exposure than any conclusion the study itself reaches, a point alluded to by its author, and unfortunately glossed over in the editing. I'm sure some people find program notes a hindrance, just as some people find filling out a few questions with the goal of better governance intrusive. But I'd wager that, in this age when musical literacy and familiarity with the repertoire are declining even in highly literate places like Finland, audiences will appreciate any lifeline thrown to them in their attempt to orient themselves within our work. And I will always be happy to throw it to them, in any form they find helpful.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Out of time

Well, I'm back. I've been home for about a week now, but now I'm back mentally as well. Not much of what I've done over the last six weeks or so has been restful. Between planes, trains, cars, visits, endless jet lag and intermittent work of various kinds, I can't really say I've had much of a holiday. Nevertheless, my mind's been disconnected from its daily grind long enough that I'm starting to chomp at the bit of my viola concerto, still worried about it, still just cautiously feeling it out, but it's a good place to be in right now.

During my travels I was gifted with three wonderful performances of pieces from the more meditative side of my output, from three very different groups, one in Japan and two here in Finland. (The Helsinki Chamber Choir concert featuring my ad puram annihilationem meam and an amazing premiere by my colleague Sampo Haapamäki can be streamed online here until August 11th.) All three were prepared to a very high technical level, and the performers gave deeply committed interpretations, letting the long phrases breathe fully, feeling the weight of the pauses, paying full attention to the sound of each note – in short, taking their time.

I'm used to having to do a certain amount of work with performers to get them into the temporal feel of the music, the way it flows through time. There's a tendency to rush on from one idea to the next in Western music, and it always takes awhile to overcome that deeply ingrained impulse to always press onward. It's particularly problematic in pieces like the ones mentioned above, where boxes with pitches and approximate time durations vastly outnumber notated rhythms, and the long boxed figures and fermatas, even the pauses tend to go by much more more quickly than I'd planned. One could say it's my fault for not fully notating the durations I want, but the notation I use in such cases is only meant as a guide to the proportional values of the gestures. The real point of the exercise is to get the players to feel the tension of the moment, to relax into the beauty of a texture, the feel the rightness of moving forward into a new section or gesture, independent of any specific temporal duration. In most cases, it's simply a matter of drawing people's attention to the pauses, getting them to count out the durations and feel how long ten seconds really is. Once the performers catch on, it's rarely a problem. The feel and pace of the music are established, and the interpretation grows in leaps and bounds. Case in point is the Helsinki Chamber Choir, now on their third performance of ad puram, and the piece just keeps getting more expansive, more centered, its fragmented structure more cohesive as a result.

So imagine my surprise when, after my sole rehearsal with the Japanese musicians who played The wine-dark sea, I suddenly realized I hadn't had to go through that routine. I hit me on the trip back to my hotel that the issue of pauses or phrases "breathing" hadn't come up at all, everything had just flowed the way I'd signaled through the notation. There were other small issues to deal with, the normal things one faces in coaching a performance like tone quality, dynamics and articulations, but the temporal unfolding of the piece wasn't one of them.

Don't worry, I'm not going to make any broad-brush statements about the Japanese mindset and how they have a natural appreciation of stasis and repose – especially given the head-spinning speed at which Tokyo operates. Although I've been fascinated by Japanese culture for a long time and done my share of study on it, I don't know it intimately enough to make such claims. But there did seem to be an unspoken understanding between the players about how the piece should go, how long a pause should last, when the next event should occur. The product of good rehearsal, no doubt, but there was something in the room, a feeling that ran deeper than simple professional musicianship, an attitude of rightness about how things should proceed that the players brought to the piece independently of my notational choices. I don't think it's going too far into generalization to note that Japan's culture has, of course, been shaped by Buddhism, and Zen in particular, whose values have affected my attitude toward time as well. And even Tokyo, whose activity level never seems to be at less than fever pitch, somehow manages to room for genuine peace and reflection in its hectic, multi-layered design, such that passing through a gate into someone's tiny garden completely transports one out of the urban condition and into timelessness. (I was lucky enough to be staying in such an oasis)

One of the few books I've made time to read this year is Time by Eva Hoffman, a thought-provoking if not especially rigorous or cohesive essay [pot, meet kettle] on how various cultures construct and experience time. Although concerning a culture unrelated to Japan, this passage did jump out at me (italics mine):

"[...] in each culture, the temporal order is so deeply bound up with the wider matrix of values, with the conception of the human and its place in the cosmos, as to be tantamount to an existential topography. For the Balinese, a sense of spacious stasis is clearly foundational, and infiltrates every aspect of life in ways which seem very opaque to an outsider."

If this is true – let's say it is for now, I'm not convinced it's that simple – and cultural constructs of time are binding and so deeply ingrained that getting outside them requires a supreme conscious effort, it may go some way toward explaining why Western performers need to make a conscious effort to surrender to stasis in a piece, whereas Japanese musicians do it more instinctively, despite their training in Western music. By the same token, in striving for timelessness in my music, am I fighting a losing battle with my cultural conditioning? It certainly feels like that sometimes, as I struggle to hold back the pace of events, restrain the development of a pitch field, relax, enjoy a sonority, a chord, a pair of oscillating notes.

I've been aspiring to the condition of timelessness for as long as I've been composing, but the conscious act of abandoning linear/teleological time in my music took two acts. First, I stopped wearing a watch. It was driving me crazy, making me segment up my music and count every bloody beat and subdivision, using it to clock through every bar and phrase, trying in vain to get every gesture timed just right. Second, I joined a choir that performed a lot of Renaissance polychoral music. As I got into that repertoire, the way it ebbed and flowed without regard to barlines, settling where it wanted to, forsaking harmonic tension and resolution for modal euphony, I began to see a way out of the temporal labyrinth I'd constructed for myself in grad school, a way in which I could free myself of counted, segmented time, harmonic development, form – in short, step outside measured time. The pieces where I've managed to do this, to create stasis without any conscious exercise of will or discipline on my part are generally the pieces I consider my best work, the ones where effort and ordering of time give way to artless flow. I wonder sometimes why I bother with striving, except that artlessness isn't something you make happen, it happens on its own, independently from, perhaps even in stark opposition to creative will.

This is all by way of noting that the tension between striving and stasis seems to be coming to the fore in my latest piece, the much-maligned viola concerto. True artlessness has so far seemed to me like a world apart from that of ordered musical time as we understand it in the Western sense, a place outside pitch sets and formal development, rarefied and unyielding to invitations to blend into a symphonic discourse, like a noble gas. I've had to give timelessness its own space in order to let it fully expand. But this piece is different, wanting, demanding to contain both, not only as part of its formal course, but also in the relationship between the solo viola, which is always seems to be trying to crawl out of its skin, constantly pushing at its harmonic surroundings with new pitches, and the orchestra, which so far just wants to be. It's a fascinating tension, one I can't say I've seen much in the concerto format, but one I'm keen to explore and see how it pans out. More rambles to follow on related topics, this is one blogging idea I'm not planning on letting go of for a change.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Old dogs, new questions (and mixed metaphors)

It's fitting somehow that my hundredth post, whatever its significance, should fall on this particular topic. For the last couple of weeks, I've been swamped with freelance work writing the program book for the Viitasaari Time of Music festival this coming July. I've had performances there the last three years running, but haven't been able to make it up for reasons of travel and childbirth, so I'm looking forward to a few days spent with family and colleagues and some music.

The guest this year, whom I've been getting to know via what I could hear of his music, as well as via e-mail, is Italian composer Marco Stroppa. It's funny how you can come to someone's music as a total neophyte and, charged with writing a profile of their life and work, and program notes for their concerts, you become an ardent defender of their views. I think it's incumbent upon program annotators to become champions for living composers in a way. It's not that you have to suspend your critical faculties per se, but that in order to write a convincing piece about someone for what is essentially a marketing tool and not necessarily a critical document, you need to become passionate about their work.

I admit it wasn't as difficult to become sold on Stroppa's ideas as with some other composers, since his music is very coloristic and follows a rhetorical course I can identify with. It's very much in the tone of French spectralist music à la Murail, Grisey, etc., but more satisfying and intricate on the melodic level to my ear. However, I might not have thought too hard about his ideas had I not been doing this job, just lumping him in with the post-Messiaen school of the late-twentieth century. But I found myself writing quite forcefully against some of the criticism, or perhaps misunderstanding, I had read and heard about his work, principally concerning the relative simplicity and spareness of his chamber music as opposed to his larger ensemble works. I personally had no problem with the difference in tone, and in general prefer more intimate expression in chamber music. But whereas I might otherwise have simply overlooked the disparity in tone and complexity, it became one of the central points in my profile of him. I found myself needing to understand where he was coming from, why his music is the way it is, which should be of principal concern in documenting an artist's work rather than how it fits into a certain aesthetic tradition. It also helped that Stroppa was extremely communicative about his ideas, and refreshingly unpretentious and un-technical in describing them given his background with Ircam and that circle, where French philosophical obfuscation and techno-geekspeak seem to dominate the discourse about music. Maybe it's because he's Italian. In any case, while my heart still lies very much with American music, the continental European end of things gives me more food for thought in the wake of this assignment.

The real reason for this post, though, is to ponder briefly the integration of old information and new information. I've been kept away from my viola concerto (or more accurately, my pile of disconnected viola concerto sketches) for a couple of weeks. So far, as usual with the early stages of a piece, it's not going very well. I usually liken the beginning stages of a big new piece to the early rounds of a boxing match. It may surprise some people who know me, but I love to watch boxing. Despite the brutality, I find it fascinating how the competitors circle each other strategically, throwing out a punch here and there, feeling the other guy (or girl) out, testing for points of entry into their defense. Smaller pieces don't cause me quite as much anxiety, nor do even bigger pieces where I'm working within a very limited pitch world. When I decide to go completely diatonic, I can churn out huge passages of music in a very short time. (I'll write more about speed later this week.) But this piece is a very different animal.

Part of the problem is physical and psychic exhaustion. It's been a long, busy season of work with no real focus. My non-family life for the last six months has consisted of a multitude of different tasks: teaching, editing, writing, composing one smallish chamber piece, and dealing with performances and the energy and career fallout that result. (The dirty little secret of finding whatever small measure of success we're allotted in our lives as composers is that what having an active career does most noticeably is limit your ability to compose.) So I'm tired, and looking forward to a trip to Canada with my family for my son's first birthday, followed by a few days in Japan for a performance.

But there's another layer to the difficulty in this particular piece. As I mentioned earlier., I've been sketching this one off an on for years and thought I had a good handle on it. But it turns out much of the concept came to be when I was a very different, much less self-assured composer – which is saying something given my general insecurity about my way or working. But I've come to accept and integrate certain latent tendencies in my music in a much more thorough manner, and as a result my older concept for this piece is falling apart before my eyes, everything once again open to questioning.

The biggest problem for me is virtuosity, a necessary element on some level in a concerto, specifically perceptible virtuosity. I kind of sidestepped the issue in my horn concerto by writing a horn part that's extremely difficult for the performer, but not in a visible way. There is no fast passagework, very few dramatic registral leaps, none of the stuff that usually brings audiences to their feet. It's more of a virtuosity of tonal control across a huge tessitura, as well as endurance. But the viola piece seems to want a certain amount of pyrotechnic display, and passagework of this nature is, I think, largely a function of harmony. Look at any great concerto, and the most virtuosic passages have a strong harmonic underpinning. Of course, in a good concerto, the passagework will also have a very strong melodic profile, if a disguised one. Look at the fast movement of Walton's viola concerto, for instance, how his scalar passagework picks out all the right notes, forming a kind of meta-melody supported by the orchestration. This kind of melodic virtuosity is the kind I'm most interested in, the type Mozart specialized in, where the volley of notes never loses the singing thread. Compare a Mozart concerto with, say, Spohr, and see how quickly the melodic coherence in Spohr's figurations dissolves. This is a problem with too many contemporary concertos, which are full of rhythmic and technical flash, but contain no fundamental melodic impulse. Having realized that my music's main animating force is heterephony, not harmonic rhythm, this is a major stumbling block so far. How to overcome that hurdle without devolving into simplistic pseudo-minimalism? How to have a perceptible virtuosity that is primarily melodic in nature without the harmonic underpinning?

A side-issue of the virtuosity question is fast music. Although I'd written some fairly successful fast music in the late nineties, I started questioning the need for it soon after. Why must a piece contain fast music? How much should there be? Is it really necessary to write fast music? It always seemed that the composing of fast music was 1) a sort of macho proof of chops, not an a priori rhetorical necessity of good music ("You've gotta write fast music," one of my early teachers told me, as if it were gospel), B) a knee-jerk response to the Western fear of stillness, and C) a way of filling time when you run out of ideas. Furthermore, much of the fast music I hear in contemporary works tends to be based on one of two things: dead rhythms from a previous aesthetic era and repeated notes. The "new notes on old rhythms" issue is one I've written about before, and is a blind alley as far as I'm concerned. There is no way of reinvigorating straight-up 6/8 and have it not sound like some lumpen redux of Beethoven. So if one wants to create a sense of fast, regular forward rhythmic drive, minimalism's repeating pulses seem to be the answer, but how far can one take that before it becomes impersonal, in a piece with a solo instrument that begs to have its personality unearthed?

How much fast music is also a question, as in how much fast music does it take to create a sense of dramatic realization in a piece? My horn concerto, with its predominantly static textures until the last two or three minutes, was an attempt to take on that issue. It turns it doesn't actually take too much fast music to make a piece rhythmically satisfying if you put it in the right place. I was unsure of how it would work at first, but on the day I finished the score, I heard a radio broadcast of Anders Hillborg's flute concerto, which features about 15 minutes of daringly slow, simple music, capped off by a lightning-fast, two-minute coda, and it's devastatingly effective. Nevertheless, in a 30-minute piece like the one I'm taking on, one needs to increase the proportion, especially if you don't plan to put the fast music at the end.

Perhaps the problem that's the most difficult to nail down is the temporal dislocation of a lot of the material for the piece from my present outlook. I'm a different composer than I was in 2003, more sure about certain things, less sure about many more. There are fewer certainties, nothing I can take for granted anymore as being "right" in terms of the decisions to be made, only gut feeling to follow. The first few minutes of the piece haven't changed much, and the concept is still solid, and indeed looks forward to some of the ideas I worked out in my chamber music over the intervening years. The end is still open (I'm toying with the idea of writing three different codas, which can be chosen in performance depending on the mood of the soloist and conductor), but the section that precedes it has been carved in stone since the beginning. To complicate things, that section features material I wrote in 1996 for a piece for wind orchestra, a great idea from a very naive young composer's piece, captivating in itself, but inarticulate within its larger context. It's an odd thing to try to integrate very old ideas into a new piece, to try to re-imagine the material, fix the things that went wrong without overcomplicating it in its new version. But looking at the idea, it's the most "me" of any music I wrote previous to settling in Finland, and not so different from the stuff I've been working on recently. In fact, one could say I've spent the last 15 years trying to recapture the spirit of this bit of music.

Over the whole project there's a heavy sense of awareness about the whole thing, as if this piece has to be the statement of a career, a manifesto or sorts, of everything I hold dear. Some would say I take too much weight on myself, and should just lighten up. I'm fully cognizant of the arrogance of the idea. In a decidedly marginalized art form, who really cares what I have to say in the public sense? And yet, I'm offered this huge, rare, precious public opportunity, and one cannot help but feel the pressure of it, to create something that people won't mind being locked up in a room with for half an hour.

I no longer believe in the masterpiece meme at all. Although I'm a passionate advocate for the orchestra as an institution and mode of expression, and love hearing it and writing for it, I'm more and more aware of the tendency toward conservatism inherent in the medium, the restrictions that rehearsal time place on composers trying to innovate, the need to hew fairly closely to tradition in the interest of not pissing off the players and conductor. While I find the limitations stimulating, making difficult things sound good on the cheap with notational tricks, I understand why some composers chafe at them. I have loved the concerto format for as long as I can remember, and yet when it comes to writing them, I find I have no aptitude for, nor interest in the standard tricks that make a concerto "work". So I'm not trying to write a masterpiece in the common sense of a work that lives up to the greatness of an arbitrary "tradition". But I am keenly aware that on some level this piece is a masterpiece for me in the old meaning of the word, a piece where one gains a degree of mastery of one's craft and integrates many strands of inquiry, and god, do I have a lot of those.

I do take too much upon myself, but from here it seems like everything I've done for the last ten years, the stylistic disjunctions, the foray into total stasis, the landscape music, the heterophony, prog/art rock heroism, has been directed toward this piece as the crucible for it all, and I can't stand the weight of it.

So I'm going to tour the world for a few weeks, and will hopefully come back lighter.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Have You No Glass?

Vappu, or May Day, is traditionally a labor holiday in parts of this continent, with parades and political speech. However, in Finland it's a day of fun and frivolity, the latter of which I appreciate, while avoiding the local manifestation of the former. In the spirit of the occasion, I offer a sub rosa exchange picked up on yesterday's wires, with names redacted for security reasons. (Hat tip to Capt. H below for the title.)

Dear Member [sic] of the XxxX teaching staff,

Apart from the academic overkill of 'Love To Love You Baby' and 'I Feel Love' by Donna Summer, 'Music Is The Answer' by Danny Tenaglia, and 'Out There Somewhere?' by Orbital, did you or did you not (either directly or via one of your associates) also infect the minds of Our Youngest and Most Innocent with the 1987 CBS recording of Philip Glass' "Akhnaten" (M2K 42457)? Think carefully before answering, and please be honest.

If 'yes', you have left behind something we don't need, at the nearby Auditorium. Please pick it up (either directly or via one of your associates) at the Xxxxxxxx Academy Command Centre ("Reference Library", 5th floor). Note that we are closed on Kaatripäev (1.5.), and close already at 4pm on Walpurgisnacht (this Friday). Apart from that, normal visiting hours apply.

We would like to remind you that we know where you live and we have eyes on your kid.

Most kindly,

capt. H.
Xxxxxxxx Academy Library Command Centre
The "Stiftskapitel Modernismus" Project
Star Year 20100428-1346

The ominous reply:

From: M.
To: H.
Subject: RE: Have You No Glass?

Dear Sir,

You have in your possession documents of a classified nature belonging to one of our associates in the Minimalist Underground, an off-book government-sponsored organization. How they came into your possession is irrelevant. Failure to immediately surrender the aforementioned documents back into our possession, and to sign a non-disclosure agreement restricting your rights to divulge any information contained therein, will result in the severest penalties, as detailed in Minimal Law no. 413, Par. 48b, Subsection 4. Previous violators have been subjected to days of continuous diatonicism, in accordance with approved interrogation practices. The results have not been pretty.

Our Dear Leader will personally collect the documents in question on Friday by no later than HH:MM local time (GMT +2). Until such time, the documents shall be kept secure by you in a non-recyclable plastic pouch, vacuum sealed and date-marked, with such mark's authenticity to be notarized. Failure to do so will result in penalties under ML no. 418, Par. 15, SS 4'33", or the so-called "Reich treatment".

Finally, as neither you nor any of your associates have ever been to our Headquarters, we doubt the veracity of your surveillance claim. However, given the events of the past weekend, if you would like to remove our firstborn from our care, we will not stand in your way.


Mxxxxxx Xxxxxxxx
Committee for Minimalist Re-education
Finland Chapter

Followed the next morning by the offender's panicked missive, and the organization's response:

From: N.
To: M.
Subejct: please read this

Dear M.,

Please understand this is highly confidential. I need help.

Today I received two extremely ominous messages. Curiously, they were brought to my attention by one H. , and - ever stranger - they seem to be picked up from your FaceBook pages. The documents concern a recording of the "opera" Akhnaten by the "composer" Philip Glass, a CD which apparently has been found in the auditorium where I gave a lecture last Friday. The tone of the documents was nothing short of threatening, and they contained hideous accusations and insinuations. M., you know me and my music. You know that I am not now nor have I ever been a Minimalist! My 'Urbaner Nachtstück' contains a dodecaphonic inversion canon! The only phase shifting in my music has been the result of the bloody violinists not managing to stay together! I don't know where the measure repeat sign is in Finale! I. I was. I was. I was educated. I was educated in. I was educated in the. I was educated in the Xxxxxxxx. I was educated in the Xxxxxxxx Academy. How dare they! How dare they! How dare they! How Now?

M., I'm afraid things look bad for me. Because it's true: I did in fact play a bit of that Glass "opera" during my lecture but this was only to demonstrate that it's nothing more than brainless disco music with lyrics in Akkadian. I'm afraid there's more. In April, 1987, I paid a short visit to Glass's studios in New York, precisely at the moment when they were mixing the said CBS CD. But I swear this was only because my then girlfriend needed to use the bathroom there. OK, I might have talked a little bit to Mr. Glass. Yes, I might even have written something about that but this was largely incomprehensible, in Finnish, and in a musicology students' magazine. They can't have found about that, can they?

I'm scared. They mentioned the Reich Treatment. I believe that's the one that involves Reed Phase. That would be the end of me. Please help. What should I do? Should I do as instructed and pick up the CD from the Xxxxxxx? Or do you think it's a (pitch class) set-up?


From: M.
To: N.
Subject: RE: please read this

Dear Brother,

Your worries are well-founded, but ultimately groundless. Had you still been involved in minimalist-type activities, or any other activities that could be construed as aesthetic threats toward the dominant national order, you would indeed be in line for serious penalties. However, given my status as double agent within the administration, I was able to convince the authorities that you have, in fact, reformed, that your modernist credentials are valid and your convictions deeply held. There was some doubt, but I was able to make them believe that you pose no threat at this time. Your earlier public flirtation with forbidden stylistic elements and pamphleteering was, they came to accept, a youthful indiscretion.

As to the return of the incriminating documents, I believe it to be safe for you to meet with the contact for the Row Police who has them in his possession. The Reich Treatment (known to include, but not be limited to the playing of Four Organs at high volume) will not be applied to you, as you have confessed to your earlier failings and have come to accept the Truth of the Old Order (equally truthful in retrograde inversion, if almost unrecognizable). This extreme form of interrogation is reserved for the unrepentant. However, if you still have concerns for your safety, I can and will make the meeting tomorrow and return the evidence to you, whereupon I highly recommend that you destroy it for the sake of our personal safety, and that of the movement.

Fear not, young soldier, the Revolution is at hand. Glorious will be the fall of the Old Order, and history will sing our praises in four- to eight-bar repeating modules for all eternity.


Mxxxxxx Xxxxxxxx
Co-chair, etc.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

America's Next Top Model?

April, the cruelest month indeed, as per my last post, has found me busy with all manner if productive if not actually germane tasks. The main thing I should be turning my attention to at this point is "the big one" I referred to obliquely in this post. Despite my excitement, I've been somewhat reluctant to speak of it to anyone except my family and some colleagues, mostly out of a sense that to say it is to make it real. It's a 30-minute piece for the Finnish Radio Symphony, to be premiered in 2011-12 in Helsinki's new concert hall, which is starting to resemble something other than the hole in the ground it's been for years. It's the biggest, most high-profile gig I've ever been offered, exactly the type of commission I've been hoping for since I was a lowly undergrad dimly aspiring to be the next great orchestral master. I had almost total freedom of form and instrumentation, so I suggested a viola concerto, a piece I've been thinking about and sketching on and off for years. It's everything I've ever wanted as a composer.

So naturally, I'm absolutely terrified, and am looking to all manner of distractions to keep from thinking about it. Luckily, the semester is winding down and students require paper input, lectures need refreshing, and new music needs to be listened to. I have a sheaf of choral pieces coming up for publication next month and the score and parts of Northlands to clean up for submission to various places, and the editing work, normally a task I despise, is somehow a welcome occupation right now. Anything to keep me from having to look at that blank score page, with only the viola's opening minute of solo music written down.

Another thing I've been spending time on is the search for compositional models for the piece. I never usually go with a single piece as lead inspiration, probably partly out of fear that whatever I'm writing will too closely resemble my object of admiration, but more out of a magpie-like tendency to collect a lot of disparate ideas at once, sorting through them over time through the act of putting my piece together. For Northlands, it was a range of things from Icelandic folk songs to Sigur Rós, Vaughan Williams, Mahler and John Luther Adams. This time, though, the pickings are a little slimmer. It might be that what I'm planning is a more abstract, more stylistically unified piece than Northlands, less palpably connected to other types of music, less a narrative of changing styles and modes of expression. Above all, it's going to be more closely connected at the rhetorical level to the concerto tradition than its predecessor for horn. Why this should be is unclear. The viola has just as little history as a concertante soloist as the horn, and just as slim a tradition either to be bound by or rebel against. I think that's why I went with the idea: it's a totally open field, nothing to stop me doing whatever I want.

And yet, I'm still casting around for ideas. The viola repertoire has yielded up some useful models, first among them the Walton concerto. This piece has been a particular favorite since my horn-playing days. (That should have been my first inkling that perhaps the career of orchestral brass player wasn't for me.) Even if Walton's wistful tunes and heady harmonies aren't your style, if nothing else the piece is a valuable lesson in how to orchestrate a viola concerto without burying the poor soloist. It's worth nothing that Walton drastically revised the orchestration many years after he first wrote the piece. Especially telling is his reduction of the number of upper string desks playing at the same time as the soloist. Also a productive study has been Luciano Berio's Voci (Folk Songs II) for viola and double chamber orchestra, a marvelous, lyrical, tragically underperformed piece.

Other than that, it's been slim pickings. Not that there's a dearth of viola concerti, just a dearth of interesting music in the genre. I've never found the sainted Bartók concerto to be a particularly convincing piece in any of its completions, and while many of the other viola concertos I've listened to have their moments, they don't ever seem to take flight as soloist vehicles, to gain the lyrical and technical brilliance that seems to come so effortlessly to the violin and cello, no matter how dull the music they're playing may be. (I'd love to hear violinist/composer Grazyna Bacewicz's essay in the genre to see how it fares, but I can't get hold of it in any form, print or audio. If it's anything like her contemporaneous Violin Concerto no. 7, it should be quite a ride.)

A significant part of this problem may be the viola's dusky, muted tone, which may explain the general tendency of viola concerto composers to go with the more soulful, intimate side of the instrument, sometimes at the expense of drama. Walton certainly lays on the bittersweet, but also manages to write highly convincing technical passages that show the instrument's timbre off at its best, in whichever register. Another reason for my lack of interest in the viola output is form. Far too many are either multi-movement pieces in that traditional three-plop service, to borrow a culinary term, of fast-slow-fast or something close thereto. What I have in mind is an episodic single-movement form, virtuosic neither at its start nor probably at the end, but definitely in the middle, which leaves me with precious few options. Feldman's gorgeous but decidedly un-concerto-like The Viola in My Life IV doesn't really seem to fit in anywhere. Finland has produced a surprising number of single-movement viola concertos that deal with the issue in vastly different ways. My former teacher Eero Hämeenniemi's piece mostly eschews the virtuosic for a quiet polyphonic dialogue. Jouni Kaipainen's concerto actually integrates the viola's projection problems in virtuosic writing into the work's narrative, playing on the lack of communication between soloist and orchestra, only allowing the viola to peek through the dense texture at the end. Kalevi Aho surmounts the difficulty by pairing a highly virtuosic viola part with a tiny chamber orchestra that sounds full without beating up on the soloist.

Stuck for models of virtuosity matched with strong formal structure and audibility of the soloist against a full orchestra, one of the pieces I recently latched onto as a subject of study is William Schuman's Violin Concerto. Dimly aware of its existence, I stumbled across it only recently after reading this review of a performance in New York. Schuman isn't a composer I'd previously paid much attention to, though many people I respect admired his music. I'd only known him through his ubiquitous New England Triptych, in the repertoire of every college band Stateside. I was expecting something similarly quaint, and so was unprepared to encounter the brawny, ballsy Violin Concerto head-on. Having listened to it several times over, I'm more and more convinced that it's the great overlooked violin concerto of the twentieth century. It's everything a concerto should be: lyrical, heroic, dramatic, insanely virtuosic, dazzling in its orchestration. Why people aren't lining up to play it is beyond me. Attuned to a certain anti-New World prejudice in the Eurocentric classical music business, especially where warhorse orchestral genres like concerti and symphonies are concerned, I naturally assume its greatest crime was to have been composed by an American, but that's not the only problem with it. It does lack a certain catchy tunefulness that seems to get concerti their spot in the hall of fame. Despite his strong lyricism, Schuman doesn't possess the melodic felicity of say, Barber, to name a contemporary whose contribution to the genre is played all the time. The orchestral part sounds ferociously difficult, which is probably another strike against it, but no more so than Sibelius, Walton or Szymanowski's First, all of which get played regularly, and are terrific pieces to boot. All in all, the Schuman concerto would seem have crowd-pleaser written all over it, and yet it's obscured in history and performance by mediocrities like the Tchaikovsky, endlessly trotting out glitzy new orchestrations of the same banal themes, developing nothing, going nowhere.

Most shocking about the Schuman concerto, though, is its form. Judging by what I read, this aspect of the work gave Schuman the most trouble, going through several incarnations from its premiere in the '40s before reaching its final version in 1959. And you can hear the years of thought that went into it, for there's nothing obvious about this piece. No three-plop concerto, or my cop-out single-movement landscape alternative, it's a complex, surprising two-movement piece with – here's the kicker – no slow movement. Both movements are highly episodic, share a similar dramatic charge, and have slow, lyrical sections, but neither indulges in long flights of slow romantic rhapsody. Schuman isn't afraid to relax the texture and let the violin sing out, though, by any means. In fact, I think where his concerto stands out above other pieces in that mid-century American style is in its willingness to allow simplicity and directness into its post-Hindemithian contrapuntal framework, shunning the restless, perpetual polyphony of lesser talents for something more intimate and emotionally complex. Nobody's sissy, Schuman is nobody's curmudgeon, either, avariciously covering the windows of his edifice to keep the sunlight and fresh air out. There's a surprising degree of humor, too, as when the first movement suddenly veers into a circus-like, tongue-in-cheek music, itself skilfully hinted at earlier, and lurches to a hasty close. Just when you think Schuman might have succumbed to an easy, throwaway ending to satisfy the gallery, the second movement opens with a chorale of dense, loud, oracular chords that emphatically state, "Do NOT underestimate me. This isn't your grandma's concerto." The end of all ends hits like a tidal wave, perfectly prepared but totally unexpected, satisfying and cathartic but never cheap. In all, it's a great piece, invigorating, overwhelming and touching in equal measure, deserving of a place in the standard repertoire and unjustly neglected.

As one may expect from the effusion of gonzo prose above, I'm waiting impatiently for the score of it I ordered (along with the magnificently tragic Eighth Symphony) so I can tear it apart and see what makes it tick. I may have found what I was looking for for my own piece. I have no doubt my viola concerto will sound nothing like Schuman in the end, but the formal working-out in his violin concerto is addictive and intriguing, and its lack of obvious solutions combined with passages of simple affectiveness is something I wish composers, myself included, would try out more often. Tough nut to crack, but I'm looking forward to it in the extreme.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Irony, thy name is Eyjafjallajökull

Here in Tampere, Finland, the eruption of a volcano in Iceland caused the cancellation of my flute and piano suite titled... wait for it... Ash-Wednesday. Add me to the list of the "little known" musicians affected by Mother Earth's bout of indigestion. Still many good things left to hear at the Biennale, though. And I did get to jump in a frozen lake at 9 am. So life is good.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Album of the Year!

"Lehdellä–Among the Leaves" voted Choral Album of the Year for 2009! Congratulations to HOL for their hard work!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Spring cleaning of the mind

"If you have time this weekend," said Hedi on her way out the door to Estonia with the baby, "It would be great if you could vacuum." That's how all this started. I pulled the damn vacuum out of the closet.

For the past two weeks I've been basking in the warm glow (read: total exhaustion) of a really good premiere. The piece in question was, of course, my horn non-certo Northlands. Tommi was amazing, soldiering through the piece's technical difficulties – mostly the extreme endurance and tonal control the piece requires – without even breaking a sweat. That his performance was also warm, intimate, and touching is as much as any composer can reasonably ask for. The 19 players of the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra also poured their hearts into the performance, after overcoming the surprise of having to shift stylistic gears so many times in the course of one piece.

The best part of the process, as always for me, was that magic moment when the orchestra as a whole suddenly figures the piece out, how it works. This stage comes just before the premiere, and is preceded by 1) an initial, stark shock of terror brought about by confronting the sounding reality of the music you'd only previously heard in your head, at which the inexperienced panic and the experienced confront with grim determination; 2) the critical period of micromanaging dynamics, articulation, and the many cool things you put into the score that simply don't work, and 3) the cautious hope that your piece may not, in fact, be a steaming pile of excrement.

After all that, once everything is worked out and the players have had the piece in their ears enough to pick out the thread (or lack thereof, in some cases), there's an audible, palpable instant in which the piece just seems to lift off the ground, finally running under its own power. It's a moment that always brings a smile of mixed relief and utter joy, one which is more perceptible in orchestral music than in chamber or choral music. I think it has to do with the intense nature of orchestra rehearsal, and the way in which composers participate in that process. With other types of music, we generally come into the preparation of the piece at a much later stage, when most of the technical work has already been done and all that's left are small corrections and interpretation work. With the orchestra, though, we're generally in the room for the entire thing, from the bloody carnage of the first reading to the final product. (I actually went home and cried after the first reading of my first big orchestra piece.) It's thrilling and soul destroying in equal measure, a combination that takes chunks out of my life expectancy, yet which I find intoxicating. Some types of music-making can be more rewarding – I think here especially of working with amateur choirs, and feeling the singers develop a sense of pride and ownership of a piece during the longer rehearsal process. But there's never been a greater thrill for me than working with an orchestra, and as I find myself moving into a phase of writing a lot of music for the medium (more about that anon), I'm reminded of why I wanted to do it in the first place.

The reception of the piece was more positive than most anything I've written. Rather than being put off by the stylistic shifts and, let's face it, the length – 26 minutes is awfully long for a horn concerto – people seemed invigorated by it. The reviews were equally positive, although the recurrent criticism of my polystylistic pieces – too many ideas – came up again. It's almost always a minor comment buried in a generally approving context, but it's irksome nonetheless. First off, it's an easy line to write if you're looking for something to critique: too many ideas, the piece might have been better with fewer of them. (I always hear Tom Hulce's Mozart in my head asking, "Which few did you have in mind, sir?") I imagine the obverse, too few ideas, plagued the early minimalists just as much. It's a critique that deals with a surface aspect of the piece that's generally immaterial to the average listener. Really, if too many ideas were a legitimate weakness, the Rachmaninoff 3rd piano concerto wouldn't be so popular, would it? Second, with regard to my music, it's patently inaccurate. Unfortunately, one needs to go beyond the surface to see it. The stylistic spectrum in my pieces of this type is just an illusion. All the surface mannerisms are derived from a single cell or collection of them. I've always said I'm a mainly tonal composer who thinks like a serialist, and it's true. I'm fanatically obsessed with motivic derivations, something I think I absorbed from studying Mahler, who similarly used motivic and gestural connections to bring a sense of unity across the wildly diverse range of styles he appropriated for his works. So the thought that I have too many ideas crowding into a piece is just wrong. There is always and only one idea. Everything else is smoke and mirrors.

All that said, it was a terrific experience all around, one of my best premieres ever, and I hope there will be more performances. The piece, especially in its pop-influenced slow movement, achieved a balance between simplicity and density, and extroversion and naive intimacy, that I've been trying to strike for some time. Returning to Earth afterward has been a process of some weeks. My mind has been cluttered lately, as has my work desk, which goes from spartan cleanliness to slovenly disorder as each new project progresses. As I had multiple things going during the Northlands process, it got even more cluttered than usual. CDs, photocopied journal articles, books, scores, score printouts, bits of text for choral pieces, and magazines all pile up until the table's legs are the only visible sign that something is supporting the whole mess. If one's environment is a reflection of one's mental state, I was in a state of total mental chaos this past month.

So after breakfast I decided to honor my lovely wife's request before digging into the pile of articles I'd successfully avoided yesterday. She should have known better than to ask me to accomplish a simple household chore. There's a line of manic obsession that runs in my family, especially as concerns house cleaning. With the exception of dishes, I can't do just one small thing. I get into these fugue states in which everything has to go, the dishes, the laundry, the dusting, vacuuming,you name it. Dusting the office/baby's room turns into a blur of desk-clearing, filing, organizing of receipts and general mayhem. "Gee, those hall-of-fame wine bottles from dinner parties past are taking up a perfectly good shelf on the bookcase, I should move them to the top of the case and make room for all my library books..." "Hey, I never moved the Post-Its from the library copy of Strickland's minimalism to my own copy, I should do that and return it..." And so on.

The end result is a clean house and a clean desk, with all the scores I need to steal from study for my next piece laid out, all the Mahler articles I need to get through before Easter put together, my materials for my next analysis class unearthed from the heap. It's a dusting of the mind as well, a product of the scattershot Zen discipline of maintaining my household from time to time, the quiet pleasure derived from doing a simple task with a predefined goal. My mental slate is cleaned and wiped down, purged of all thoughts from previous projects, ready to take on something new.

So what's next? The Big One, that's what.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A family affair

I'm getting ready to leave for Kokkola on Wednesday for the première of Northlands, and with my family away visiting grandparents and the house empty, I'm more at leisure to put down a few thoughts. I just spent a week doing little more ambitious than answering e-mails and playing with my son. After months of being constantly sick while still trying to meet deadlines – thanks to my little mobile virus incubator – it's been a relief to feel energetic again, and to be able to use that energy for things other than work.

The project I just finished is a chamber piece for Hedi's next doctoral concert, which features a setting of a poem by composer George Rochberg's son, Paul. It came about in the kind of odd series of six-degrees coincidences I love, and which form the backbone of most of my pieces, especially vocal ones. I'd planned this piece for years as part of my ongoing collaboration with flutist Hanna Kinnunen. It was originally supposed to be a cycle of miniature songs, settings of Japanese haiku from various periods I'd collected in English translation. But when it came time last spring to start at least thinking about the piece while working on other things, I had clear ideas about everything except the vocal part. The poems, while beautiful and moving, just didn't sing to me. Stuck, I put the idea aside, more out of necessity than frustration. My son was born just as I'd finished my last big project of the spring, and my attention was going to be focused elsewhere for a while.

We ended up spending three nights in the hospital after the delivery, in a private family room with a dedicated pediatric nurse helping to talk us down during the day. (This is the sort of warm-fuzzy experience of new familyhood the Nordic countries' medical systems specialize in.) Isolated in that surprisingly quiet ward for a few days, with little to do during down periods – I was too wired and stressed from the birth and the previous weeks' work to sleep much – I whiled away the time reading Rochberg's recent memoir, Five Lines, Four Spaces. I'd always had a fascination with Rochberg's music, and more so with his writing. I first encountered him through his series of essays The Aesthetics of Survival, and found his polemical, uncompromising embrace of his individuality a balm for my worried mind. I'd been wrestling with the macho culture of academic modernism for a couple of years, trying to figure out how some of its ideas could fit my music without driving out the lyrical sensibility I figured out early on was the best, if not the only thing I had going for me as a composer. Rochberg's thoughts on composing, teaching, artistic voice and sounding musical surface reassured me that, while my music was far from trendily kickass in terms of expression, what I had to say had value, and should be pursued.

But where Aesthetics focuses purely on the composer as individual in the world, Five Lines is a much more personal, if still musically centered piece of writing. For obvious reasons, I found myself especially drawn to the brief passages in which Rochberg touched on the subject of his poet son's untimely death from cancer at the age of twenty. Lying in bed with my own newborn son sleeping a few feet away, I was moved by the pain in Rochberg's words as he dealt with the subject in a away that suggested a loss he would never recover from, a grief that was still fresh and undiminished after forty years. Equally enlightening was his discussion of his conversion from twelve-tone composition to his more aesthetically open later music. I'd always suspected the popular tale of his rejection of twelve-tone orthodoxy following his son's death was oversimplified, a Hollywoodized version of the more complex reality pounced upon by detractors and supporters alike. His apostasy to the academic modernist cause could be pooh-poohed away by claiming he'd been overcome by grief and fallen off the true path. Or it could be justified in terms of his having found the twelve-tone language insufficient to express himself after so great a loss, necessitating a turn toward a more emotionally generous music.

But Rochberg goes to great pains to make the point that he was already moving away from the strictures of twelve-tone writing before Paul's illness. In short, the move just made artistic sense to him, and the coincidence of his loss was just that. Shattering and life-altering, to be sure, but not responsible in itself for his aesthetic choices, only perhaps a catalyst for a shift that had already taken place in his mind. I find myself much preferring his version. In the popular tale, Rochberg is a victim of circumstance, reactionary, a hollow vessel through which the music pours, unable in his grief to control his baser (or nobler, depending who you ask) impulses, letting his emotional distress control the shape of his art. In Rochberg's own telling of it, though, he retains agency over his art, making decisions about it, reacting to the changes in his life, incorporating them and allowing them to shape his language, but still acting consciously to determine the outcome and its meaning. This, I think, is the more courageous path, to exert one's will upon one's material and yet allow it to take the shape that makes the most sense.

If that shape includes a Beethovenian/Mahlerian set of variations, as in the String Quartet no. 3, so be it. And what a movement it is, a core of pure, unadulterated tonal loveliness in the midst of a work that is otherwise tough, thorny and tense. The miracle of it, though, is that it manages to be so without coming off as nostalgic. It is most definitely a look backward, but one gets the sense that the gaze is not a longing one, wistful for a bygone time. Rochberg's isn't trying to revive tonality with that movement, in my view. He means to honor it, display its undiminished beauty, like polishing off a prized, long stored-away antique and putting it on the mantelpiece. See, see how lovely old things can still be? It's not a new introduction of tonality. It's the last truly tonal piece anyone would write.

There's a sense of loveliness amid strife about much of Rochberg's music. Reading his words, I came away with an impression of a sensitive but unsentimental man, one of essentially positive character, who had simply seen and lived too much awfulness to not let it infiltrate his artistic expression. His wartime service would have left a lasting mark on him, and if that alone had rendered it difficult for him to give voice with the clear-eyed optimism of a Copland, the death of his son certainly would have made it impossible. Dying as he did in 2005 at the height of what he saw as his country's jingoistic decline, it's easy to imagine Rochberg indulging in bitterness. And yet, at the core of even his toughest, most strident works lies contemplative beauty in one form or another, the tonal oasis of the Third Quartet, to return to a previous example, or the amazing, extended four-note fantasia for the horn section in the middle of his storm-tossed Fifth Symphony, a beauty that requires its dark surroundings for its protection, but also that it might speak more clearly through the contrast. It is an unforced, inborn beauty inherent in his character that no loss could strip away, but perhaps is rendered all the more intimate and touching by loss.

Reading Rochberg's descriptions of his son's poetry, testimonials from Paul's teachers and mentors of his being a prodigy, it's easy to come away from it thinking him simply a proud father fondly recalling his lost child's exploits. Lord knows I think my son is the most brilliant, most advanced, handsomest child in creation. (I happen to be right, though.) So I was quite unprepared to encounter Paul's work in the raw. Several weeks after writing this post quoting one of Rochberg's thoughts on artistic voice, I went into school to check my mailbox and found a very kind letter from Rochberg's widow, Gene, thanking me for my brief attention to her husband's words. A friend had mailed her a printout of my post. Through subsequent correspondence, I came to know her as a classy, highly cultured lady of the type of refined, gracious manners one rarely sees these days. One day last September, I found a large padded envelope from Mrs Rochberg in my mail, containing a book of Paul's poetry she and her husband had had published at their own expense. I sat down and read.

Although I have yet to get through the entire book, I can say with some confidence that the kid really was that talented. Having read – and written – a lot of bad teenage poetry in my time, I found none of the usual self-loving gaze in Paul's work. His images are terse and diamond-bright. There's not a word wasted or overwrought in his poems; they're almost haiku-like in their conciseness, another aspect that made the shift from the Japanese idea easy. Sensuality is handled with surprising maturity. There's the same sense of meditation amid frenetic energy and angularity as in his father's music, and again sometimes the beauty is allowed to stand on its own. The poem I chose is one such example:

There is a world
That is only dreamed
When your eyes
Are a thousand stars

Reading it, and the romantic, surreal images of the subsequent verses, I forgot completely about the Japanese texts, knowing I'd found what I wanted. It reminded me a great deal of Octavio Paz, another favorite poet of mine, and the talk of stars, sleep and night was all it took to make the shape of the piece clear. Mrs Rochberg graciously gave me permission to use the poem – it may have been her wish in sending me the book, and for that I thank her – and the result will be heard next month. It's a very simple form, a rustling, nocturnal prelude for alto flute, viola and zither, followed by a song for mezzo-soprano. The soundworld is of a piece with my three previous pieces involving a flute, sitting contemplatively on the tonal/atonal fence. In a hat tip to Rochberg, the music is largely twelve-tone, a fact you wouldn't notice if I didn't point it out, though it draws more on the lyrical Japanese-influenced chamber works of his later period than on his earlier twelve-tone pieces. As an added bonus, it's being premiered on a program with Rochberg's lovely flute-and-harp duo Slow fires of autumn, a major influence on my series for flute and plucked string instruments. Feldman's ghost circa The viola in my life series also makes an appearance. (I've been describing the piece to friends as Rochberg and Feldman having a very quiet, good-natured disagreement about aesthetic values.) The piece also showcases the new five-octave chromatic zither Hedi is having built and will unveil this spring. It's a major advance in the development of her instrument, and I'm honored to get to write for it first.

All in all, it's been one of the most rewarding projects I've had lately. The intersection of the musical and the personal, work and family, the intimate and the universal, of so many lives in so many different places and time periods, is one of the greatest things art can bring about. I wish George Rochberg hadn't had to endure such pain. I can only hope I did his son's work justice, and that it honors both their memories.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

[Ahem] Toot, toot...

Tomorrow night kicks off a surprising number of performances of my music in the coming months. I have to say I'm rather humbled by the interest. For anyone who'd like to come hear something:

Feb. 18 at Feeniks Club, 10.00 pm: The Golden Horns, sandwiched into their usual fun, wide-ranging program, give the first performances in Finland of my antiphonal fanfare Anthem II, as well as a set of four Georgian (as in "Republic of", not "State of") folk songs I arranged for them last year. Both pieces are being released on their new CD this spring.

March 13: Tommi Hyytinen (of Golden Horns fame) gives the world première of Northlands, for horn and string orchestra. The performance is in his hometown of Kokkola with the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Juha Kangas.

March 21: The Olaus Petri Church Choir and Peter Peitsalo give the première of my new psalm setting, Sion, prisa din Gud (Zion, praise thy God), as well as a repeat performance of Du kröner året (You crown the year).

April 8: My long-time collaborator, flutist Hanna Kinnunen, gives her fourth doctoral concert at Helsinki's German church. The program features the première of A world only dreamed, for alto flute, viola, mezzo-soprano and chromatic zither, to a text by Paul Rochberg (son of composer George), as well as works by Takemitsu and Rochberg himself. Violist Riitta-Liisa Ristiluoma, mezzo Jutta Seppinen and my lovely wife Hedi Viisma, who commissioned the piece, fill out the ensemble.

April 15: The Helsinki Guitar Duo perform The wine-dark sea on their concert at the Tampere Biennale.

April 17: Also at the Biennale, flutist Mario Caroli and pianist Keiko Nakayama perform my T.S. Eliot-inspired suite Ash-Wednesday, in a huge program featuring works by Sciarrino, Jukka Tiensuu, and my teacher, Veli-Matti Puumala.

May 10: Risto-Matti Marin gives the first complete performance in Helsinki of my hubristic, hour-long piano prelude cycle Leaves of Grass at the Sibelius Academy, in association with the DocMus department.

May 11: Accordionist Veli Kujala performs my Zen-quiet being the pine tree on his final doctoral concert, again at the Sibelius Academy. This piece has a rocky history of either being performed in a great acoustic but not making it onto tape, or being recorded in a terrible space. Hopefully this time we'll get both in order. Also on the program is my great friend Juhani Nuorvala's deliciously titled accordion trio What's A Nice Chord Like You Doing In A Piece Like This?

May 25: Hedi gives her second doctoral concert at Helsinki's beautiful Temppeliaukio Church, performing A world only dreamed once again. The program features Finnish and world premières of chamber works for chromatic zither by Märt-Matis Lill and Ilari Kaila, as well as Hedi's own arrangements of chamber works by Debussy and Ravel. The concert will be recorded for broadcast on Finnish radio.

June 21: The wine-dark sea receives its Japanese première in Tokyo, on a concert of Finnish music by Ensemble Nomad. I very much hope to make it over there.

July 12: The Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival hosts the world première of pine tree, dreaming (being the pine tree II) for string sextet. The Enesco Quartet does the honors, with Aurélie Deschamps, viola, and Tomas Djupsjöbacka, cello.

July also features a performance by Nils Schweckendiek and the Helsinki Chamber Choir of ad puram annihilationem meam, a piece they continue to make entirely their own, once again with dancer-choreographer Nina Hyvärinen bringing her quiet grace to the proceedings. Details when the program is published.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Details, details

"It looks very... brave," said my friend, referring to my recently completed pastorale-concerto for horn and strings, Northlands, which he'd just done me the favor of proof-reading. (I have a limited ability to see mistakes in my own work, so I send my orchestral scores to this eagle-eyed friend, who can look past what's there and divine through sheer observation of compositorial quirk what should be there. It's quite an amazing ability, really, one I wish I had.)

His comment struck me as a milder version of what I'd been thinking myself, staring at that score, which is that I'd completely, finally lost my mind. He was probably referring to the blatant stylistic schism that happens halfway through the piece, where long-held chromatic clusters and unrelieved tension in the string mass give way suddenly to pure, unadulterated D major, and a literal pop song for the soloist, later turning into straight-ahead, 8-bar G major pop progressions at the end. Although that was in part intentional, the two poles had started out being more blended. Over time, though, as these things tend to go and one sees the potential of the ideas evolve, the tonal material all ended up on one side of the central agogic divide of the piece, with the atonal stuff on the other. It's an odd piece that way, risky from my perspective, but one I think will ultimately work. I do admit that I'm curious as to how the final effect will be perceived: is the progression from one to the other organic, or will the rift turn out to be a jarring one? (I hope it's the former.)

Whatever courage may lie in that act of stylistic juxtaposition, my friend may also have been referring to the score's general lack of what's become one of the bugbears of contemporary compositional practice, a vague catch-all term I have yet to see conclusively defined, yet which seems to trip up many a well-intentioned composer when its absence is perceived by others: detail. I should probably admit that I hate the word and its use in application to music. It tends to be used as a cudgel to beat down music perceived as insufficiently crafted or manipulated, formally naive, rhythmically unchallenging, or lacking in visual complexity on the page. The category of "detail", a term casually thrown about, is usually used to confirm that, at the very least, if a piece is "detailed", the composer has passed the test of Protestant work ethic, having obviously slaved away writing down tons of notes, or made a beautiful, eye-catching score, or kept all his/her instruments busy with figuration, guaranteeing that the players will have to practice hard. So venerated is the idea of detail that it has become an independent compositional virtue, praiseworthy in its own right. I once had a highly respected Canadian composer note positively the orchestrational detail in one of my pieces before proceeding to denigrate every other aspect of it, stylistic, aesthetic, rhetorical, formal, and question how I'd ever gotten into a doctoral program writing this kind of backward-looking drivel. At least it was detailed, though. In a more positive experience, I once asked a teacher of mine in the States if I should send my saxophone sonata to a competition that specifically forbade the inclusion of audio of the submitted scores. I thought it was weird that the judges didn't want to hear any of the pieces, the sounding result being the point, or so I thought. (Ah, the naïveté of youth.) He responded that, yes, I should, because the level of detail in the score would be obvious and get the piece noticed. I sent it in. I didn't win anything.

And yet, if pressed, I bet neither of them could narrow down exactly what "detail" is, and why it's so valuable on its own that music perceived to be less detailed looks poorer in comparison. I've been puzzled by this question not only because it's an issue I struggle with on a daily basis both conceptually and notationally – how much is too much? too little? – but because I'd always firmly believed that the working out of a piece on whatever level, harmony, rhythm, notation, orchestration, is entirely contextual, and the degree of detail depends on the needs of the piece, the performer, the occasion. Even those factors aren't real arbiters of detail. One of my most complexly-notated choral pieces was written for amateurs, one of the simplest, for professionals, because the pieces just needed to be that way. Many of my "undetailed" pieces are among the best I've written, far higher in my affections than the sax sonata mentioned above. (I wrote that one in part to show I could do the academic modernist/serialist thing, and make it sound better than the people being held up as models for me at the time. But I still like the piece and very much wanted it to be the way it is.)

Some of my favorite pieces by others, some minimalist, many not, are marked by a lack of perceived detail. Would we describe a Morales motet as lacking in detail? Definitely not on the contrapuntal level, but on the level of dynamic shaping and registral variety, probably. We can rant about historical notation practices all we want, but the visual appearance of Morales doesn't in the least alter the music's quality. The same could be said for a Mozart piano sonata with infrequent dynamic markings, or a recent post-minimalist score dealing only in white notes. Is Bach's first prelude from WTC detailed? Not especially, no. Is the quality of that piece versus the time that probably went into composing it – I'm guessing minutes – a subject of debate? Detail is not a marker of craft, or work ethic, or sophistication, or experience, or quality. It's a marker of detail, period.

All that said, the category of detail, despite its slippery-to-nonexistent definition, has a you-know-it-when-you-see-it quality to it. I have a natural penchant toward more detail rather than less. But here I sit, staring at my score feeling vaguely uncomfortable, despite a couple of moments where all 19 string players go off on their own tangents, at how much of the piece just seems to hang there, a field of footballs on the page, no dynamic shifts, no change to the harmony, no variety in the notation, little inner motion within the textures... no detail. Some little solo bits and boxes over the top make it less unrelievedly blank, but overall it's a series of static fields, with little to no bass function, and the strings shift around in masses rather than sharply defined lines. When it gets rhythmic at long last it just sort of chugs along in unison eighth- or sixteenth-notes, not trying to get anywhere or develop, largely dependent on the horn for whatever direction it acquires. If it's brave at all, it's perhaps because I strung out the uneventfulness over a longer span of time than I normally would, in order to make the somewhat naïve conversion to all-out pop music at the end more dramatic. I meant it to be this way, and yet I find myself sincerely hoping it's all going to work out the way I intended, and that the devil is not, in fact, where he is said to be.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Among the stars

Tomorrow I'll be attending Finland's annual Emma gala, where HOL's recent CD release "Among the Leaves" is up for classical recording of the year, the only choral CD selected. It's quite an achievement for an amateur group to even be nominated in such company as Pekka Kuusisto and Soile Isokoski, especially for a quiet, reflective 60-minute program in which not much happens. Unlike the North American recording awards like the Emmy and Juno, the Emma tends not to go with the splashiest or most complex new orchestral work, but the recording that represents the richest addition to the recorded classical literature. Last year's winner was a CD of contemporary music for solo viola da gamba. So we'll see what happens. Whatever the outcome, it calls for some serious partying.

Update: As we kind of expected, we didn't bring home the prize. (And due to the virus currently violating my body, no partying was done.) The statue went to another Alba CD of symphonies by the recently departed Finnish composer Pehr Henrik Nordgren. However, the nomination itself was a strong vote of encouragement to amateur musicianship, and the heights achievable by people through their passionate dedication to what is, for all intents and purposes, just a hobby. It was a fun event, marked by an obvious slant toward the more commercial forms of music in terms of the number and somewhat redundant variety of awards presented in the popular categories. But being included at the party is always nice, as noted by presenter Kare Eskola in his invocation of the devoted listeners of "that art-shit" (a line that's funnier in Finnish). Congratulations to HOL for all their hard work!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cry me a river

Serious posts, soon, I promise, but a quote from this article pricked my irony meter this morning (italics mine):
"Written in 1981 for six soloists, chamber orchestra and live electronics, it is the first major work he wrote using the electronic-music institute in Paris, Ircam. But it has rarely been performed, just a few dozen times."