Sunday, May 21, 2017

Musical Assumption #2: Power in Music

We all have the power to create and the power to destroy. In the yard I have the power to decide which plants will grow where. I can exercise that power lovingly (as in planting, watering, and pruning) or I can exercise that power hatefully (as in digging up stumps and roots, and pulling weeds and vines). Some days I feel as mighty as nature herself, and some days I feel totally powerless.

My power in the yard is all subjective.

We talk about power in music, but that power is different from the traditional concepts of power. We certainly have hierarchies in musical relationships (consider the roles of conductors, contractors, teachers, section leaders, and the people who manage musical institutions), and we have hierarchies in volume and register (consider the contrast between the trumpet and the lute).

The "power" we encounter in hierarchical musical relationships has little to do with music. The "power" to write or play, the "power" to create or re-create something beautiful, resonant, and/or meaningful is a combination of experience, instinct, and knowledge, but it is also a kind of "dance" with the muse (which we could even call "nature").

Everyone participates in the dance, and everyone has challenges. Not everybody "dances" their best all the time, and we all have to do a combination of leading, following, and sitting dances out. As we become better musicians when we become more sensitive to others, and we notice when other musicians are sensitive to us. There is a feeling of shared "power" when we truly connect with other musicians. (I think of it as "might.")

Unlike the power struggles (and triumphs) with nature that happen in the yard, the "nature" in music is not seasonal. Frost, draught, flooding, and the onslaught of non-human creatures cannot hold power over me while I'm writing music or while I'm practicing or rehearsing (at least while I have a roof over my head).

It's a nice thing to remember.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hans Christian Andersen Stories

A couple of weeks ago I finished writing a piece for solo cello or solo viola and narrator based on "The Collar" a Hans Christian Andersen story about a collar, a garter, an iron, and a bootjack, and now I'm ready to start work on a musical setting of "The Jumping Competition." It has four characters: a flea, a grasshopper, a jumping jack, and a King, so my setting is going to be for woodwind quartet (flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon). The interesting twist here is that I am going to have the musicians alternate between playing and narrating.

I'm excited about how it will work itself out. I'll have to make maps and charts to figure out which voice does what, and then I'll need to make parts with truly functional cues. It is a nice set of challenges.

Thinking about musical stories brings me back twenty years, to the days when I used to make up musically-narrated stories with our son Ben. Ben would play the cello, I would play the viola, and we would improvise together, musically illustrating each other's contribution to the story. Sometimes we would get together with other string-playing kids, and make up stories with them. The stories usually included mystery, sadness, and scary stuff, but they almost always ended in chaos and laughter.

I'll keep you posted on my progress . . .

You can see the nine other Andersen stories I have set to music here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Good Day's Practice

A good day's practice is just rosin under the bridge.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Musical Assumption #1

I gave this title to a piece (now discarded) of electronic music I wrote for an electronic music class. I liked the title more than the piece, and the "Musical Assumptions" part of the title has a much better "life" as the title of this blog.

Now that this blog is in its second decade, I guess it is time to make, as adolescents often do, some assumptions. Here begins a series of assumptions about the musical world that might matter to someone other than me. Feel free to disagree. As my brother Marshall used to say, "When you assume you make an ass out of u and me."

Musical Assumption #1

Musicians in the 21st century can still engage in musical discourse almost exactly the way they engaged in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries when playing notated music of the time.

The instruments we play in modern times are less problematic, and we do have the undeniable benefits of climate control (heating and cooling), accessibility (the IMSLP, for example), recordings for reference and for rehearsal, ergonomic devices, indoor plumbing, comfortable clothing, instant communication (which helps for setting up rehearsals), and photocopy machines, computers, and printers.

Still, when it comes to figuring out what bowing or bow stroke to use, how to tune and balance a chord, or how to decide something about phrase direction, we are still faced with the same choices as musicians throughout time (and space). Nothing of modern life can really interfere with or add to the musical situation at hand. It is all there for us as it was for the string players who worked at Esterhazy.

When we play Haydn quartets that are clearly meant for the entertainment of the musicians playing them, we chuckle at the same bits of musical humor that our musical ancestors did. These "secret signs" unify our musical "species" across the centuries, and transcend cultural boundaries.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Music of Our Mothers Radio Program May 10th

Tomorrow, May 10th, between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m Eastern Time I will be one of the featured composers on a radio program called "Music of our Mothers" on WFCF, Flagler College's radio station, 88.5 in St. Augustine, Florida. You can listen to the live stream of the program through this link and read about the program on their website.

There will also be music by Cecilia Macdowell, Mercedes Zavala Gironés, Vivian Adelbert Rudow, Chen Yi, Joan Tower, Missy Mazzoli, and Nancy Dalberg on tomorrow's program.

They will be talking about and playing my set of pieces for contrabassoon and piano called "More Greek Myths."

Friday, May 05, 2017

Stefan Zweig on the writing of "La Marseillaise"

From "The Secret of Artistic Creation," written in 1938 by Stefan Zweig and translated from the German by Will Stone:
Rouget de l'Isle is not a poet proper, nor a composer. He was an officer of genius who during the French Revolution found himself in Strasbourg. On 25h April 1792 at midday came the news that the Republic had declared war on the kings of Europe. An atmosphere of drunken exaltation flooded the city. In the evening the mayor laid on a dinner for the officers. During the meal he turned to Rouget d l'Isle, to whom he said: why not write some jubilant verses, and in friendly fashion asked him to compose a song which the troops could sing as they marched into battle. And why not? Until midnight the officers remained assembled, then Rouget de l'Isle set off for home. He had fully participated in the general merriment and had drunk enough; his head rang with toasts and speeches, words such as "Allons, enfants de la Patrie!" and "Le jour de gloire est arrivé." He sat at the table and wrote straight out the required lines. Then he took up his violin and struck a melody. In two hours it was finished. The next morning at six, he went to find the mayor and presented him the finished song, the completed composition. Ignoring fatigue, and in a kind of trance, he had somehow created one of the most immortal poems in the world, one of the most immortal melodies, through sheer inspiration. it was not of course he himself who was author, but rather the genius of the hour.

You can read more about Rouget de l'Isle here.

This essay, which is part of a collection called Messages from a Lost World (published by the Pushkin Press) is outdated at times, especially when it comes to music (I don't know if anyone still subscribes to the idea that Mozart, Schubert, and Haydn never made sketches, for example), but much of it is terrific. Here's another morsel:

The true artist is then as occupied by his creation as the believer by his prayer, the dreamer by his dream. As a result, in contemplating the internal, he is unable to see clearly the external, or himself. This is why artists, poets, painters, [and] musicians are incapable, whilst they are creating, of observing themselves, still less of explaining themselves, or by what manner they have produced the work. They are bad witnesses, useless witnesses for the creation courtroom, and, like inceptions criminologists, it would be a mistake on our part to rely blindly on their testimony.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Brian Collins Interview

I’m sure that this interview with designer Brian Collins will resonate with other composers. He talks about being “different” as a child, and embracing his unique view of the world and his personal interests (reading and drawing) rather than allowing bullies to bother him. He talks about designers not merely being problem solvers; he thinks of them as “problem creators.”

Isn’t that exactly what composers do? We create musical problems, and we try to solve them in the most expressive ways possible. Collins talks about envy (and what composer doesn't carry a bunch of envy), and he talks about periods of depression being useful (if not essential) for growth.

Performing musicians do their best to identify problems in musical situations, and then they draw on the depths of their creativity to solve them. Performing musicians also create problems while they are performing (I made this crescendo, and now I have to maintain it; I need to get to another part of the bow; I have to adjust my intonation to match the clarinet; I have to match a bowing; I need to take a breath somewhere; I'm not sure where I am; I made a counting error, and now I have to make up for it, etc.), and they have to solve them on the spot, and without anyone noticing.

Composers make all those problems possible. (And some make solving them impossible.)

I think musicians (composers and performing musicians) will find it interesting listening.