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.