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!