Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Next Step

After finishing the Theme & Variations that will open this set of pieces for violin and piano, my morning started off (once it officially started, cup of coffee in hand) by thinking about the next of the pieces. (I'll save copying out the finished one until I have a day when the creative juices aren't working that well: then it's time to get caught up on the paperwork.)

A composer’s mind needs to be receptive to any number of potential “next pieces” whether there’s a pile-up of commissions staring you in the face or just the free time to be able to concentrate on something new. My problem, after years of inactivity, is now dealing with all the things I want to write, a flood of possibilities for which (a) I have no performance outlet and (b) I may not have the luxury of time that I had when I was a grad student (without sounding too ominous, I’m not referring to “number of hours in a day” but more to “number of days in a life”). I should be so lucky to live long enough to write everything I'd like to write! If I could make it to 97 like Elliott Carter (who is currently finishing up a horn concerto before moving on to his next commission), that would be fine, depending. As it is, something tells me I might make it to January 18, 2038 – that would make me 88 then: nice round number for a piano-player – because I’ve gotten tons of spam ‘sent’ on that date (hey, if I’m going to look to modern technology for omens the way our ancestors looked to the heavens, gimme a break, okay?)...

The next piece is supposed to be the scherzo, something contrasting on the lighter side but not exactly what I’d consider a fall-down-funny kind of scherzo. Back in early August, in the midst of working out the details for the Theme, I kept hearing my neighbor’s rock music with its persistent beat. Then I was listening to some Sondheim – from “Sunday in the Park with George” – and heard that same beat in the background of the show’s title song. Noodling around at the piano, I found I could use that rhythm “my way” in a series of chords using 8 of 12 pitches and then realized, in one configuration, the remaining 4 pitches spell out Shostakovich’s musical signature, D-S-C-H! Well, to me, that was funny! Especially considering the violinist-in-question is using that motive as his ring-tone. But that’s where I’d left it at the time: come back to it, later.

Just the other day, wondering how to make that rhythmic pattern work as the middle section of the scherzo, my upstairs neighbor was playing the radio uncharacteristically loud, some mellow blues song just present enough to be noticeable. When suddenly, from the next door neighbor, I heard a loud burst of rock music in a completely different key – but it was just that rhythmic accompaniment warming up, then cutting out after a couple measures. At a different point in the blues phrase, the rock beat burst onto the scene again. And that was what I needed.

Before, I wasn’t clear what the opening section of this piece should be: too fast and scurrying meant I might also write something I couldn’t play (a very serious limitation to consider) and while various possibilities presented themselves peripherally, nothing really grabbed my attention. But the idea of something bluesy (and without being something borrowed, courtesy of Ravel’s sonata) was intriguing, especially since I’m not a listener of jazz or a lover of pop music in general to know how to do that. No, I don’t want to try to write real blues, just as I don’t want to write real rock music with that beat pattern: the idea will be to find some characteristics that I can use “my way” (without sounding artificial like One Big Tenor singing Sinatra) to create the mood, even if no one else really thinks of it as blues (not my point).

Years ago, I used to hear some natural sound and would automatically wonder how I could convert that into something musical, either recreating it with instruments as a special effect for a piece I’d be working on, or turning it into some kind of motive or theme. The high-point of this happened when a neighbor of mine inadvertently backed into my parked car and while she was apologizing profusely for the not terribly severe dent in my bumper, I was more interested in getting the right amount of percussion with the brass chord for the impact and a kind of rhythmic reverb with clarinets in the lower register. If she hadn’t known how weird musicians can be, she figured it out then.

But it’s no different than Beethoven watching a man galloping by on a horse and turning the rhythm of the horse and the bouncing of the rider into a musical pattern that became the last movement of what we know as the Tempest Sonata. Composers’ minds just work differently that way: anything is creative fodder.

So the A-Section of the scherzo will become some kind of bluesy melody that, near the end, will suddenly be attacked by this rock beat coming out of nowhere, as if a mistake (oops, sorry, counted wrong, came in early...). This may happen twice (more than that spoils the joke) before the violin just joins in. Then, after we’ve gone back to the bluesy melody, the piece ends with a quiet but taunting echo of the rock beat and the violin breaks off into a sudden “uh oh,” played pizzicato.

But part of the problem of free-associating when thinking about “something next” are the other ideas that distract you. While I’ve been toying with finding a soliloquy in Aeschylus’ “The Persians” and turning it into a vocal scene for mezzo and orchestra, the idea of what to do with these “Pieces for Violin & Piano” became more pressing. Now that there might be time to write four, I’m not sure the original idea of a central Chaconne/Aria works that well any more. There’s a span, here, that is spoiled by placing this scherzo second: but blues and the chaconne plus the opening variations and the closing nocturne then present too much of the same mood and tempo. Maybe I still need a contrasting faster section? Five pieces with the chaconne makes it too long, proportionally, given what's already composed – it would become a 21 minute work – but if I drop the chaconne and add the faster, shorter piece, it would now be 13 minutes and that might be more suitable. After all, it’s a collection of pieces, not a real sonata.

Then it occurred to me: the way I keep hearing the chaconne, I’m thinking it should be a violin solo with orchestra – it would be easier to sustain the chordal patterns and add variety to the variations – whether it’s 7 minutes or 12. Aaaakkk, put that aside – that’s way later! Let me finish these pieces first: then that... and the scene from Aeschylus... and then...

However, given the dreary day and the chill in the air, it’s time to turn domestic, do some chores and run some errands. Blah...

Friday, September 29, 2006

Getting It to Work

Yesterday, just around noontime, despite the best efforts of the neighbor’s houndentenor and the various distractions of an urban existence, I managed to fill in the last of the missing measures for the last of the variations in what is only the first piece of a set of three or four for violin and piano. It was a quiet and short-lived celebration – after all, it’s only part of the whole work and I had to leave soon for work – but that also means I’m ahead of my non-schedule which means I might also be able to consider the possibility of four instead of three pieces after all. Being out of practice in finishing pieces is one thing, but earlier in the month it looked like it would take forever just to get this one done (and it’s only supposed to be about six minutes long). I’ve already got some ideas for the next one – even the very ending is sketched out already!! – and this one, while shorter, is also less involved.

But the process is not done, yet, since I should now transfer the sketches into something a musician could actually play from – the scribblings in my notebook are only the first step from getting it out of my head and into your ear.

Every composer – and I’m beginning to feel that I can call myself that, again – works differently and at this point in my life, it’s working differently for me than it was when I first started to write music when I was a kid. Writing about Dmitri Shostakovich as a budding young composer or about the newest prodigy sensation, Jay Greenberg, hurrying to write the music down that he hears constantly in his head, I get kind of wistful for those days, myself, when it all seemed so much easier. I just sat down, maybe at the piano, maybe not, and started filling up the page: it was nothing, then, to write a song or a short piano piece or 20-30 measures of something for orchestra in one or two sittings, usually written directly into full score without need of sketches or rough drafts or writing it out for piano before orchestrating it into its final form.

Now, it’s more like work.

I don’t even really “hear” the music in my head to begin with, any more. I hear other people’s music in my head all the time – difficult to avoid, when your job is to program and play other people’s music at a radio station which is why I'm now a Morning Composer, writing my music while the brain is supposedly still fresh and uncontaminated before I need to hear other people's music at work (though this morning the music I’d like to tear out of my skull is the song “Edelweis” from The Sound of Music, who knows how it got there in the first place) – so now, rather than downloading my own music in what seems to have become slower than the slowest possible brain-to-hand dial-up connection ever, I try to find the ideas, sort out the musical shapes and “gestures” (not as in “yeah, well, gesture this!”) – those fragmentary possibilities that could give birth to a phrase, a melody or a well-placed chord – and translate them into something that works.

Perhaps that’s why artists call something they’ve created “a work” because it’s hard work getting a work to work...

I find myself deeply involved in the “language” of my style: whether it makes me Me or whether it’s just the consistencies of a style that I’m fitting into, I don’t know yet. At times, it seems every piece is a struggle to figure this out, but I’m beginning to notice that certain aspects of it are becoming more “second nature” now, leaving me time to concentrate on things I hadn’t time to notice before. After all, if you’re struggling with noun/verb relationships, it’s nice, suddenly, to sit back and contemplate, “let’s see, if I were to use the subjunctive, here...?”

There was a moment yesterday when I sat back in surprise at something written the day before. It’s from a “shape” that popped into my head while driving home from the station one night a couple of weeks ago.

The theme of this set of variations includes a motive based on the open strings of the violin – “perfect 5ths,” they’re called in the basic musical language. I can use these same pitches in different ways: to put them in some linear context (not that it’s much of a melody), you can turn this “shape” (from the bottom up, G-D-A-E) from 5ths into 4ths (ascending with E-A-D-G which is actually the same pitches in reverse) or, condensed into a closer framework and changing the order of them, to 2nds (D-E + G-A) or any combination or order (ascending or descending) or transposed (translated) to any starting pitch: the shape of it, the harmonic core of it becomes recognizable but maybe only sensed (or not) in different contexts. The whole point of variations is to take something and turn it into something else that is both the same and different: finding its recognizable elements and yet doing something with them to make it sound not-the-same.

(Speaking of shapes, one of the most famous melodies that Sergei Rachmaninoff ever wrote is from his “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” which is really a set of variations on Paganini’s famous 24th Caprice: and yet all Rachmaninoff did to create that tune – the famous 18th Variation when everybody sits back and oohs-and-aahs at its natural beauty – was to take Paganini’s original, slow it down and turn it upside down. It’s probably more luck than genius, but I would loved to have been the fly on the wall at the moment Rachmaninoff, with his great granitic face, discovered what he found by simple, academic manipulation. Sorry if it takes the romance out of the idea of “inspiration,” but sometimes that’s how it begins.)

So, getting back to my paltry little shape which will create nothing that people are likely to swoon at, if the violin plays this little “open-string motive” as a 2nd (say, A-down-to-G) followed by a 7th, which is a 2nd inverted (say, E-up-to-D) and plays it in harmonics, giving it a particular sound, I can support that with simple chords in the piano that would be, like, really cool.

I was looking for something I could mirror that with, having used it a few times now in different ways already, only this time reversing the role between the violin and the piano – the piano plays the “open-string motive” in widely-spaced octaves while the violin plays two-note ‘chords’ in between. Given my harmonic language, I knew there were many combinations of pitches that could “work” here: the problem was finding the one that not only worked and was most easily playable but sounded best in the context of this passage. When I was done – and I don’t remember that it took very long to come up with this – I had something that sounded pretty good. I then went on to the next bit and forgot about it.

The next day, I’m looking back over this and discover, much to my surprise, that the three lines I had written – the piano line and the two lines of the violin’s double-stops – created three distinct statements of this “open-string motive,” each one transposed to different pitches and in different configurations, but all based on the same four notes and their intervals. Wow – okay, so it’s a purely Geek Moment, but still, that was, like, really cool!

Not that anyone’s going to sit there and go “Hey, listen to that: it’s that same melodic motive used linearly in each part!” It’s nice it works in terms of the language and sounds better than maybe a dozen other possibilities I could’ve tried. But now I know why it worked better: it was more a “part of the whole” rather than just a part.

Which means, I think, that the creative process is working internally again: I’m not doing all the work myself.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Variation to Go

At the moment, I'm working on the first of three or four pieces for violin and piano. The first piece is a short set of “Theme & Variations” in an arch-like form where the 7th and last variation is a precis of the theme, more as a kind of reminiscence than a restatement. In that sense, the 1st and 6th variations become a pair, along with the 2nd & 5th and the 3rd & 4th – not mirrors or restatements, just more related to each other in some way (mood, certain motivic ideas) so the intensity builds up toward the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th but then decreases back to the opening’s calmness at the very end. The whole span is planned out so this climax occurs at the “golden section” and each pair of variations also falls into this proportional relationship. The whole piece is only about six minutes long, so the variations themselves are not fully formed, just little more than phrases, perhaps.

While it’s not tonal in the traditional sense, I’m using certain pitches that become “tonal centers” – and the harmony or melody can highlight those pitches in many ways similar to the standard tonal system of classical music. Though the chords may not sound like “tonic” and “dominant,” they serve a similar function where the harmonic motion is more or less intense, more or less resolved: in this way, I’ve come up with chord “successions” (if not progressions) that could still work like IV-V-I chords in C Major. It can also give me “deceptive resolutions” (IV-V-vi, where instead of resolving to C, it resolves to an A Minor chord, or IV-V-bVI, to a totally unexpected A-flat Major chord) once the pattern is set up enough so a listener can hear what is expected and what is not – or one possible resolution that prolongs the need to resolve followed (eventually) by a restatement of that chord succession with a more satisfying resolution.

For this piece, the tonal center is G, but for me the dominant is not the traditional perfect 4th or 5th, D, but a tritone, C-sharp or D-flat. This makes it a little tricky because the tritone to C-sharp is G which means both pitches are in the same relationship to each other which makes it difficult to move away from that to any other pitches or chords. Since the traditional system places chords built on different pitches of the major or minor scale in varying degrees of tension to the tonic (basically in the IV-to-V-to-I formula), part of the choice in finding the “right chord” or the “right pitch” here is discovering and developing similar relationships and logic in my non-traditional-sounding harmonies and melodic lines, not just throwing down pitches and chords here and there that, oh, sound pretty good I think.

So the 3rd Variation, I’d decided, would be a kind of recitative, an operatic formula where the vocal line is not necessarily melodic but is based on speech-like inflections (it developed from pure spoken lines) supported by chords that are used more like punctuation – musical commas and semicolons that only reach the final period at the end of the paragraph. The problem had been to find those chords in the right sequence and then once the framework was in place, “fill in” the violin part based on the main motivic elements of the original theme but not in a thematic way, just a linear one.

In opera, a recitative is an introduction to an aria, and so the plan was to have the next variation be a kind of aria, or at least more lyrical. But since the start of the 4th Variation is also the structural climax of the piece marking the high-point emotionally and from here, like a mirror, everything works its way back to the opening, I wanted to reverse the roles of the instruments. Since the piano starts out playing an entirely supportive role to the violin, at this point it is the piano that takes over the melodic function while the violin plays the harmonies (listen to any Mozart or Beethoven violin sonata and you’ll hear the same thing). And I wanted the piano playing widely spaced octaves with a melodic line that uses the main theme’s two basic motives but spins them out slightly differently.

So that’s where I am this morning. After spending the last two days blogging about Shostakovich, today’s the first morning I’ve had to compose since the weekend: so far, I’d sketched out the opening phrase’s melody, working out some harmonies for the main motive which can be played on natural harmonics on the violin’s open strings, and written in the mid-point’s “half cadence” and the ending’s “full cadence,” keeping in mind how this variation is supposed to fit in as the whole piece works its way back from the dominant center to the tonic center.

Back to the piano - one variation to go, please (you want fries with that?) - and the piece is done.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Update on a Cat

Just to let you know, Houdini - the stray cat who came into my life last weekend - has landed in a great home. He passed his vet's experience with flying colors (completely healthy as well as now no longer much of a ladies' man, so to speak) and found a doctor to live with, in what sounds like a very good match. He certainly knew how to put on the charm and didn't have to work too hard to convince them to adopt him. So now he's safe, in good hands and one hopes no more in need of showing off his escapist skills.

Now to catch the two wily street cats who've been coming to my back porch all summer, Farrell and Frieda. They've been showing up together every night for the past week or so, usually sitting there waiting for me to get home and feed them. Even though Farrell still tends to eat and run, Frieda has taken to hanging around afterwards and curling up on a shelf on the side of the porch after a good wash. Both of them have been pretty skittish, though, so I'm not sure what it will take to coax them in.

A neighbor called Sunday and left a message for me: seems she has a young female ("petite," probably not a year old yet) who's brought her two kittens on to her back porch, looking for hand-outs. Am I in the market for some new cats, by any chance? Well, uhm...

So I alerted my other neighbor who'd helped me with Houdini to get yet more wheels set in motion.

Meanwhile, between blogging about Shostakovich on his 100th Birthday Anniversary (not to mention looking into the harrowing events going on around him when he wrote the 5th Symphony) and a busy weekend with concerts to attend, I've been trying to get some more composing done: looks like I'm pretty close to being finished with the last variation, but then just as I say that, I'll look at it tomorrow and toss much of it out (this is part of the natural process we call 'decomposing'). Most of it is worked out "in prose," using descriptive text to remind me what I want to do musically. Perhaps tomorrow, I might post that just to let you know what's going on, here. But then I really need some music-writing software so I can post the final results or least scanning the original manuscript. Then you can see if the musical sketch bears any resemblance to the first ideas I'd jotted down. But that's part of the fun of composing (which makes up for much of the time when it isn't exactly fun).

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Into Every Life a Cat Sometimes Falls

Most of the past few days’ energy was taken up by The Cat. Not any of MY cats, but a stray who showed up on my porch Saturday night. Now, there’ve been two orange tabbies I’ve been feeding for months, skittish wild cats born and raised on the streets – Farrell and his lovely sister Frieda – but I haven’t been able to get close to them. My own cats have been eagerly watching them through the door and windows: Max, a stray I’d taken in 4 winters ago; Murphy, a Russian Blue who should’ve been named Kukla, who walked up to me at a neighbor’s and hopped into my arms 11 years ago; and the now-12-year-old Sieti (pronounced c-A-t after a friend who named a dog d-O-g but which he spelled merely “Dog”) who came into the household as a kitten with her mother, Tobie, the recently retired Director of Rodent Control at a York factory, caught by a friend who thought I really needed two more cats.

But Saturday night, this guy showed up, clearly not an alley cat, and I decided there was no way I was going to let him out on the street. He came right up to me, wanted to be picked up and petted while Frieda, waiting for her dinner, stood there in absolute shock that any self-respecting cat would DO such a thing!

After checking with neighbors who might know if this was a local pet that had gotten out (they'd never seen it before), I set him up in the bathroom for the night, figuring during the day I would take him on a walk-about (he was so easy to hold) to see if anyone was looking for him or if there were signs posted. On Sunday morning, I woke up, opened up the windows in the apartment including the one in the bathroom, and went to work in the next room where my piano is. In two hours, I’d put the finishing touch on another variation for the first of these Violin & Piano Pieces – now leaving just the two related middle variations – and decided, okay, let’s get The Cat ready for his walk-about.

When I opened the bathroom door, the room was empty.

It’s not a big room even as city apartment bathrooms go so it’s not like he had places to hide. That didn’t stop me from looking in the medicine cabinet (way too small for him even if he could open the door) or the cupboard under the sink. The screen had not been pushed out or lifted up – I figured either somebody opened the screen and let the cat out (or took it) or The Cat is an escape artist and in the two hours he was left alone had figured out how to both raise and lower the screen. I knew he hadn’t gotten into the rest of the apartment somehow because if he had, there would be a lot of spitting and hissing somewhere. Nope, he was gone.

After an hour searching the neighborhood, I figured that was that, though I was concerned cat-nappers may have been going through the area again. That night, coming back from dinner and some errands around 9:00, I looked around the jungulous back yard – no sign of any cats – so I went to unlock the door. By the time I was pulling the screen door closed, there walking behind me was... The Cat.

He was back.

And of course not telling me where he’d gone or how he’d gotten out in the first place.

I called a neighbor to let her know he was back and we decided he had just earned a name: Houdini.

He’s a very nice, pleasant and friendly cat, beautifully marked and well-behaved – an intact male (not for long: he has a visit to the vets scheduled for tomorrow) with claws but he’s very careful with them, even when he’s kneading my lap. He’s a head-bumper and loves to show affection as well as receive it. Until the vet checks him out, he's still confined to the bathroom, but this time I’m not opening the window...

So, uhm... if anybody’s looking for a great pet... let me know!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Composing on September 11th

Yesterday was a quiet day. September 11th the past few years has become a day of contemplation and remembrance. Yesterday was the first September 11th in three years I wasn’t composing something directly inspired by the events of that September 11th five years ago. I began my String Quartet a few days before Sept. 11th, 2002, and completed it a few days before Sept. 11th, 2003, a direct emotional response to the terrorist attacks.

The Symphony which grew out of the String Quartet was conceived on Sept. 11th, 2003, though the actual composition wasn’t begun until the next January, once I was done with the quartet’s score and parts. On Sept. 11th, 2004, I was working on the 1st movement’s recapitulation and one of a series of passages where a huge chord from the opening, first heard as a sharp attack, is now sustained before descending into a long shambling scalar collapse, a musical image directly inspired by watching the Towers collapse – this chord, against a long-lined melodic idea in the foreground, changes over a series of restatements, each time lower in register and collapsing at a slower rate of speed, as if its being replayed in the mind as we’d seen it replayed on television time after time. On Sept. 11th, 2005, I was working on a passage from the last movement, finishing the piece at the end of January, 2006.

After two emotionally charged works, I just wanted to write something more lyrical and not involved with any kind of programmatic intuition, so the pieces for violin and piano are a kind of a break for me, a chance to work on some more abstract details of my style, for one thing.

I spent the morning trying to keep my thoughts about the day out of the music, working out another variation for the first piece and coming up with some good ideas. Yeah, it was a productive day for the little bit I got accomplished, but inch by inch, I’ll get there eventually (insert comment about a journey-of-a-thousand-miles here).

This variation is supposed to be a longer, sustained line in the violin with arpeggios in the piano, but using the term ‘arpeggio’ advisedly because that refers to a typical major or minor chord that’s “strung out” note-by-note. My chords are really “pitch aggregates” of six or seven different notes and won’t sound like any major or minor triad you’re familiar with, nor do they move from chord to chord the same way. However, they do have their own way of moving – harmonic progressions and all that – and while they don’t have tonic centers and submediant and dominant relationships to a tonic chord in that sense, they need to flow in a way as if they did. So what I’m doing now is working out what set of notes best follows this set of notes. But to make sure I end up where it needs to be headed, I’m actually working backwards from the cadences, the chords that end each phrase. Once I have the background, then I can put in the foreground, the melodic line.

Doesn’t that work against the natural order of things? Well, only from the sound of it, because the background still needs to sound like the background. Yet it’s what’s driving the foreground: if I wrote the melody first – without any awareness of the harmony – it’s actually harder to find the right chords and then it ends up, often, not being what I had in mind after all.

Think of it this way. Very often, a painter (at least, one from the Old School or perhaps a modern one working in a realistic style) fills in the background before putting the main figures in the foreground, if there’s a concern for symmetry or proportion, so that everything balances. A writer working on a narrative story usually has an idea how it’s going to end, then spins the plot out (with perhaps many stops and side-trips along the way) to get from the opening to the conclusion accordingly: it doesn't mean you the reader know how it's going to end - more like when you get there, it all makes sense.

A composer who writes in the traditional “tonal system” – what musicians call “Common Practice” or the “classical” style that predominated from 1600 on – has certain “received traditions” which have become second nature. What composers choose to do with those traditions creates each individual’s style. They don’t have to think where they’re going: they’ve pretty much determined that subconsciously and a melody can be created by itself that would fit that system almost automatically.

The essentially non-tonal system I’m writing in doesn’t have those traditions and pre-conceived “givens.” But I still have to get from Point A to Point B by moving my chords forward and I’m trying to discover ways I can do that that fit the same kind of logic the Old System has. Or rather, finding the same kind of logic that drives the Old System, too.

If you think of the music’s form or structure (which could be a simple ABA-form or a symphony) as the skeleton of the piece, the harmony which makes the structure “move” is really like the body’s muscles. And then the melody, if one is using melody in a broader sense than “tune,” is like the skin, supported by the skeleton and the muscles. Yeah, I know it’s simplistic but maybe it’s not all that obvious to the casual listener. What you notice (and judge a piece by) is often just the skin-surface but it might be more satisfying because everything underneath the skin is working well to support it.

So I look out my studio window this morning and see the Neighbor Dog looking back at me from his. “How’s it going, Woofgang?” I ask... “Rough!” he says...

Yeah well, I gotta get back to the piano.

Friday, September 08, 2006


Composing the past few days has been a challenge. Living in the city (such as it is) offers its own distractions and urban noise. I am lucky (blessed) with an apartment in a solid house (even if the landlord’s waiting for a killing frost before harvesting the grass in the back yard) where I can’t hear the blastoid sound-system in the house next door. There are quiet neighbors upstairs who work during the hours I compose: they don’t bother me, I don’t bother them. Actually, with the little amount of time spent chasing pitches on the piano, I’m not even sure they’re aware of me that much.

But the dog in the house on the other side has become an issue, now. Perhaps I didn’t notice him that much over the summer because – while he was growing up from a whining puppy to a full-blown über-doberman I now call Woofgang Windbag – the studio I work in is the only room with an air-conditioner in it, so when I’m working there, the a/c is usually at least on “fan” (nobody likes slaving away over a hot piano). I really wasn’t conscious of the houndentenor until cooler weather began to prevail. Even though his back yard faces the walk-way beside my house, there’s a 6-foot fence to separate us and he's inside, I can hear him loud and all too clear.

Yesterday was a major performance. With the renovations going on at another house directly behind mine (and great weather to be working outdoors), porch work meant lots of hammering and sawing. This, normally, does not bother me, unless the workmen decide to blast a radio loud enough to be heard over their buzz-saw. These workers are relatively quiet compared to others who’ve worked on houses in the neighborhood, so that is good news. However, the doberman, sensing someone might break into his house, barked most of the morning (perhaps he thinks they're drug agents: he keeps saying "nark! nark! nark nark nark!").

It was a great performance of “Der Woofenschmied” except it really wasn’t what I wanted to listen to that morning. If that wasn’t enough, the brown-and-tan dustmop living on the other side of the block was outside much of the day, barking back at both the carpenters and the doberman. It was like listening to a dozen takes on the “anything you can sing I can sing louder” duet from the end of Wagner’s Siegfried but with a soubrette hopelessly miscast as Brünnhilde.

I got one chord done, out of four hours of work.

Eventually I just gave up and wrote a post for Dr. Dick’s Blog called “The Virtue of Dissonance” since one of the things I’d been dwelling on, between barks, was how to control an increase of tension in the harmonic progression when your basic musical language is already built on harmonies replete with tritones and major 7ths (“that would be ‘dis-harmony,’ wouldn’t it?” as one of my co-workers said after hearing what I thought was a particularly stunning chord in a work written by a composer who had the audacity to be both still alive and under 35).

Today, however, was easier. Perhaps it had something to do with regulating union breaks (do watchdogs have unions?), but other than one stretch of fairly continuous 28 minutes, it was moderately quiet, hammering aside.

And so I was able to get a few more chords written today, filling in the details of a 12-bar chord progression that is the first variation in the opening piece I’m working on (at the moment, still unimaginatively titled “Four Pieces for Violin & Piano”). I have spent the last two months working out the details of the theme which did not (as you can tell) come easily. The last and shortest of the variations was written, however, in two days, but then it was basically a precis of the theme, a kind of recapitulation. Now that the first one is done, I may go directly to the 6th Variation which is essentially its structural mirror rather than continuing chronologically. But I’ll leave that for the weekend.

Still, looking at the amount of time spent on this so far and a potential performance date in January (mercifully postponed from November), perhaps I should change the title to “THREE Pieces for Violin & Piano”? Good to have a goal, though, rather than just writing and writing until I get it done. Otherwise, I may never finish it. The more solid a foundation I give the opening of the piece – he says with a knowing snark of a smile – the easier the rest of it should go, right?

But now that I’m done for the day, I can get ready and go into the station. I will no doubt walk past my neighbor’s yard on my way out and let out a joyful “Sing it, Woofgang!” And he can spend the rest of the day barking to his lungs' content, at least until The Man gets home from work and all is well with the world. I’m just hoping The Man will be spending a lot of quality time with The Dog this weekend: I have a lot of work to get caught up on!!

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Ernesto’s Rain & the Way of True Art

It was a long, gray day, waiting for Ernesto’s rain to stop. I couldn’t get much composing done this morning, distracted by the rain dripping from the broken gutters of the neighbor’s house, especially when it would overflow and hit the trash-can lid tossed along the back of the building. My upstairs neighbors and some friends sat out on their balcony (right over my studio window) telling stories much of the morning: she has a distinctive flurry of a laugh that sounds like a violinist playing a descending scale with down-bow staccato (badly at that). Curiously, she laughed at almost every line and even though I couldn’t make out the words that were spoken, I knew they had reached the punch-line when her laugh reached its highest point and had the longest downward range. Then someone else would tell a story and the process would repeat. I rather missed the houndentenor...

Ironically, I was trying to work out a chord progression with an increase in harmonic tension, creating chords that opened up in range and density, followed certain patterns and fit the outline of the melody I’d worked out for the opening of this first variation (now that I’m finally done with the theme itself). When I found the chord these resolved to, I realized I had essentially mimicked my neighbor’s progressive laughter in the way it rose in register, expanded in range and increased in tension till it too resolved in a cascade of giggles. Not that I want to make this variation the equivalent of “Adele’s Laughing Song,” but still, it amused me to realize we were both going for the same thing: a progression of increasing emotional involvement that reached a logical resolution with its release of tension. That is what “harmonic motion” is all about.

On my own for dinner tonight and forced to go out into the unending drilge – worth it, though, to fill up Darth 4Door with gas at $2.09/gallon (courtesy of the Giant, redeeming their bonus points) – I decided to try the Thai restaurant on the Carlisle Pike (Market Street in Camp Hill). I hadn’t been there since it reopened some time ago under new management as the Thai Palace (I can still remember when it was a Roy Rogers) and it had been years since I’d had Thai food, anyway. I ordered the Chicken with Peanut Curry which I highly recommend: if you’re cautious about spicy Asian cuisine, they can adjust the heat on a scale from 1 to 10 and my waitress recommended starting at 4: it was very tasty but still easy to manage. (The very first time I had Thai food was in New York eons ago, at the suggestion of a friend who claimed to be fully conversant with Southeast Asian cuisines. I ordered something called Chicken pa nang which I loved though it was way too hot for my virgin flight. My friend held up a little round shiny red object as if to demonstrate, popped it in his mouth but as it apparently turned out to be a tiny bombshell, he quickly ripped his glasses off as tears streamed down his face and, I was sure, steam poured out of his ears, just like it would in the cartoons.)

It was a very multicultural way to spend part of the Labor Day Weekend, eating Thai food, listening to something reminiscent of Rachmaninoff on the sound system that then gave way to a guitarist playing a very Spanish tango, while I read a few more pages from Naguib Mahfouz’ “The Beginning and the End” (which I thought I’d read before but perhaps had not), the Egyptian author who’d just died last week at the age of 94.

The story, set in 1933 Cairo, begins with three young brothers facing life after the sudden death of their father. The eldest son, Hassan, a school drop-out, is lazy and is not prepared for the idea of actually having to earn a living to pay his own way. Apparently he sings and plays in a “back-up” band for a largely out-of-work popular singer in Cairo named Ali Sabri. He meets the singer at the coffeehouse one morning and the “master” is bemoaning the fact that all the little independent radio stations have been replaced by a single national station which has basically squeezed him out of the competition.

— — — — —
“But what do we hear on the wireless nowadays? Nothing of value. Just yelling, not singing. If the station were really aware of art, I should stand next to Um Kalthum and Abdul Wahab [two of the leading singers in Cairo at the time]. Even Abdul Wahab himself is often afraid that his voice might fail him. So he avoids the kind of singing that requires long breath and, under the guise of innovation, divides up what he is singing into short parts. Then he uses musical instruments to camouflage the weaknesses of his voice. Here is how he sang ‘Ya Lil’ in his last performance.”

He coughed before he started to imitate Abdul Wahab’s singing of ‘Ya Lil.’ When the waiter came with the nargileh [water pipe] and coffee, he was busy singing...

When he finished, Hassan’s companions cheered. He inhaled a puff of smoke without paying attention to them. Then he whispered to Hassan, “They admire my voice and not my art. Now, listen to the same [song] as it should be sung.”

His singing filled the small café. The proprietor raised his head from the till, half smiling, half objecting. Master Ali Sabri finished singing and returned to his nargileh. This time he intended to thank the company for admiring his singing. But silence prevailed, interrupted only by the gurgling water in the phial of the nargileh. The master frowned.

“That,” he said contemptuously, “is the way of true art.” ***
— — — — —

Next to my table, there was an ornate hand-carved wooden boat, perhaps a replica of a royal Thai barge, large enough to form the base of small xylophone-like instrument. There must have been something similar near the front door because someone who’d just come in was trying to play “Chopsticks.” How droll. Not realizing the pentatonic scale of most Asian cultures does not include some of the pitches needed to play this simple Western tune, there were a number of stumbles before the person finally – finally! – gave up. Fortunately, no one applauded.

*** Quoted from Chapter 11 of “The Beginning and the End” by Naguib Mahfouz and translated by Ramses Awad (originally published in 1949, the English translation published by Doubleday in 1989).