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.

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