Friday, May 30, 2008

Genesis: Where to Begin?

At a concert earlier this season, a blog-reader asked me “where do your ideas come from,” talking about new pieces and how they get started. It’s not, of course, an easy answer and then there are also ideas that never become new pieces but perhaps are filed away for future use - or not.

In the past, thinking about works I’ve already written, there’s been no real pattern to the genesis of a new work. Many of the works I wrote in college or grad school were simply because I felt like it. Some were assignments, but generally I would be reluctant to include them on any list of works. By assignments, I mean the kind where my teacher, Sam Adler, would say something no more precise than “Write a piece for two instruments” which immediately sets up a set of problems that need to be solved; the next assignment was to take that and add a third instrument of a contrasting nature to make a trio, which then creates a different set of issues to consider, not the least of which is taking a piece that’s supposed to be complete and yet turn it into something else. In that case, I wrote something short for two woodwinds, full of chatty, back-and-forth counterpoint like a two-part invention by Bach; then to turn it into a trio, I added an arching, much slower melodic line for a viola (which placed it basically in the middle of the registers of the other instruments).

When I was at Susquehanna University, being at the time the only student composer in the music department, lots of my friends asked me for pieces they could play on their recitals which meant I got a chance to hear a lot of my music performed, a great plus for a growing composer. Though the offers became fewer as I moved through the ranks of grad student to faculty member to, eventually, private citizen, the string quartet premiered in 2004 was written simply because Joel Lambdin asked me to write one for his Harrisburg Players Collective (not that it was simple to write or simple to perform).

The symphony, then, started falling into place even before the quartet was finished: I kept thinking how “symphonic” this material was – not necessarily the quartet itself but the structure I was using for it. This might be no different than a composer in the 19th Century using a standard four-movement “form” (or series of forms) for one medium and then using the same basic “form” in a different medium. The idea wasn’t necessarily to “arrange” the quartet for orchestra, which has been done numerous times enough, but to take some of its surface material but mostly its structure and “explore other possibilities.”

After taking two years to write a symphony that is not likely to be readily performed, the set of violin and piano pieces came about for more practical reasons. First of all, I had come up with some ideas while writing the symphony’s final movement that didn’t seem to work in the context. As I started playing around with it, it sounded like it might make a good violin and piano piece. Since John Clare had been asking me about doing some performances together and he was always interested in composers and new music, I thought this material might work for a violinist who was not a virtuoso and a pianist who was, like me, to put it mildly out-of-shape in more ways than one. That did not mean it would have to be a simple piece, just focusing more on what we as performers could bring to a piece, lacking rapid-fire fingers or killer technique.

From there, after it was done and I’d gone back to complete the symphony, it felt logical to add a few other pieces to the Nocturne: would it work as part of a sonata? Or just a bunch of pieces? Would there be any continuity between them (a sonata) or would they be separate entities (a suite). Eventually, there were two other pieces: a set of variations to open with a contrasting scherzo to follow. But the scherzo should be in 2nd place, since the mood was too similar between the variations and the Nocturne. But the Nocturne wasn’t satisfactory as an “ending,” sonata or no sonata, so that was how the Chaconne got started – as an idea back in 2006 but which fell off the back-burner until this Spring when I started thinking “okay, how do I realize this idea?” The premise is only a proposal – now it needs to be turned into music. How do I do that? That’s what was going on, quietly or overtly, since I finished the songs, Evidence of Things Not Seen, back in February and that was the primary focus of my vacation last week.

Other things come into my mind at different times and I think “oh, that would make a good piece” or “I’d like to write something like that”, variables that might start flowing after hearing another piece or a performer or even just an instrument.

The piece that got me out of my long 16-year “writer’s block” was a work (still untitled) for violin and orchestra that sparked when I heard a performer playing a particular passage in a standard repertory piece I’m not really all that fond of. Yet I decided it would be cool to use that sonority – my way, of course – to conclude something that could be equally poetic and at the same time virtuosic. That languished for a while until I recalled the opening of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion, a book I’d never finished reading. Once past The Lord of the Rings, I can’t say I’ve ever cared much for his work but his description of how the world was sung into creation was so beautiful, how could it not be set to music? But it’s not a very practical piece, aside from being very difficult, given the fact it’s about 12-15 minutes long: where do you program it in this concerto-driven age of jet-setting soloists? At least it got me out of my doldrums and got me composing again, so in that sense, the six months spent working on it were worth it.

Practically every time I hear an English horn, I think “jeez, I’d like to write an English horn piece” – after that violin piece was done (which included a prominant part for the English horn), I’d started another one for English horn and orchestra but only got about 5 or 6 minutes of it down on paper. The possibility of writing a string quartet that might actually get performed drew me away from it, and I’ve just never gone back to it since.

Sometimes, I’ll hear a piece by a composer I admire – this has happened recently while listening to Henri Dutilleux, Jennifer Higdon or Elliott Carter; in the past, it would’ve been Britten, Penderecki, or Michael Tippett; even earlier, Bernstein, Stravinsky or Vaughan Williams – and wonder “how did they do that?” and try to figure out a way I could in fact do that (or something like that) in my own style. Actually, a certain passage in my symphony was inspired by hearing a passage in the finale of Mahler’s 1st Symphony and I wondered “how could I do that ‘my way’?” You sit down and work out what it is they’re doing and then translate it into your own voice: it’s not plagiarism and it’s not imitation, really: composers have done it for centuries (for instance, Bach arranging and then absorbing Vivaldi, checking out the latest trends). It’s “study” and something that shouldn’t really stop just because there’s a degree hanging on your wall somewhere.

Another time, I was sitting in the audience for a performance by Concertante, during the opening work on the program, adapting Haydn’s Symphonie concertante originally for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon – not to forget the orchestra – for a string sextet. Haydn breaks his quartet up into two duos – pairs made up of the upper voice and the lower voice or pairs made up of like instruments (strings/winds). Considering their “1+5 Project” of new works where one player is featured in the foreground, I started seeing several subdivisions within the sextet and how this might play out over the extent of a piece: recurring sections for all six interspersed with solos (cadenzas) for each of the six, plus pairs (which could be pairs of violins or a pair with a viola and a cello and so on), a standard string trio (one of each) or even two string trios split antiphonally down the center with 2 violins and 1 cello answering a trio with 2 violas and the other cello. Then there would be a string quartet (while the other two players catch their breath from just playing their duo, let’s say) and on and on. The potential is mathematically exponential, I guess (if that’s the appropriate term), but it’s a way of playing with the possibilities of combinations within the group and using it to create a structure – subforms within the overall span of the piece.

Should I ever get around to a piece like that – or apply it to some other kind of ensemble – I could say that work came about simply because a “problem” presented itself and the challenge of finding a solution resulted in a piece. That’s another reason the new violin and piano piece is going to be a chaconne: the problem of working out the harmonic issues in my style requires one set of solutions, the practicality of it requires another.

I’m not a “professional” composer - defining the term as doing something for which I get paid enough to live on, much less just getting paid for the work I’m writing. Having friends ask “if you write me a piece, I’ll play it” is not the same thing, since composers do, like normal people, need to eat, pay the rent and put a little aside for things like, oh... manuscript paper (or these days, computer software) much less retirement. I have gone and written several pieces for groups that, by the time I’ve finished the piece, have become defunct or, for reasons of programming philosophy, are reluctant to do a new piece, especially by a composer no one will have ever heard of, which spins off the old conundrum, if you have no experience how do you get a job to get experience?

I’d received one commission in my life so I can’t say I’m an expert on the premise.

Sometimes, a commission will just be a blank check: “write something, I’ll pay for it.” More often, it will be for a specific performer or occasion. Granted (no pun intended), a commission can set the parameters for a piece – not just who or what it’s written for, but its length, perhaps even its content or even the nature of the piece. The amount of the commission can also determine how much work a composer might put into it: if someone pays you $5,000 for an unspecified piece, chances are a composer who needs to pay the bills is not going to write something like a full-scale opera that could take most of a year or more of his or her time: I don’t know anyone who’d willingly agree to live on $5,000 a year, these days.

Very often, that amount of time spent writing it is not going to be comparable to a living wage, given the amount the commission might offer. After all, how do you put a value on art? Especially art that hasn’t even been created, yet?

Over thirty years ago, I heard Elliott Carter tell the story how his most frequently performed piece then (and probably still), the Variations for Orchestra of 1955, had been commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra for a certain fee (off-hand, I forget the amounts, now) which, when he figured it against the amount of time it took him to complete the work, came to something like $0.25/hour, well below the minimum wage for 1955. (The original punch-line, however, was the blue-haired matron who stood up, in her furs and jewels, to ask indignantly, “Mr. Carter, you mean to tell me you write for money!?”)

My lone commission was for a choral work to celebrate the 125th Anniversary of my alma mater, Susquehanna University. I still recall the morning I got the phone call, asking me about writing a piece for them (in fact, I took the call in the room I’m writing in now). Eventually, a fee was offered, no specific details other than the fact it should be written for their choir and wind ensemble. I submitted a proposal, something I had just begun working on, hoping to finish it in time for a performance that fall. A couple of busy months went by, work was going well, but I still hadn’t heard anything from the university about my proposal, so I contacted one of my former professors to ask him if he could track this down. Well, it seems, with the impending summer and someone’s retirement from that committee, my proposal was never acted on. In a few more weeks, I was informed my proposal was not suitable for their needs, the text I had submitted was “theologically unsound” – biblical selections “On the Promise of Christ’s Healing” but with no further explanation – and a suggestion that I should perhaps set the newly minted Lutheran translation of the standard Te Deum text. This gave me only a few months to come up with a whole new piece. While there were other tribulations leading up to the premiere (mostly centered around my being treated as a dead composer rather than a living resource for the performers during the rehearsal process) not to mention the problem of setting a text that had all the poetry of a football cheer (“You are God. We praise you.”), basically I ended up making a little over a $1.00/hour only because I had so few months to write it rather than the larger expanse of time. Whoever dreams of becoming a composer – or any creative artist – isn’t doing it for the money, I assure you. But then, I knew that going into this dream in the first place.

When I was teaching at UConn, things began slowly to shift in the world of American Contemporary Classical Music: before, composers had to teach at universities in order to live – I remember Charles Whittenberg, a very fine composer who also taught there, bragging in a self-deprecating way that on his income tax returns he had listed himself as “composer” and yet he made only $427 from his music that year (not counting his salary as a professor which was filed under his W-2) – but gradually more composers began to receive enough commissions on a regular basis they could devote their whole time to composing. This may seem a fallacy in the same way that not every kid who wants to rise up out of the ghetto by becoming a basketball star is going to make the kind of money Michael Jordan was making: not everybody is as talented or as prolific as composers like John Corigliano (who now teaches only because he wants to, not because he has to), John Adams or Jennifer Higdon.

Christopher Theofanidis wrote a piano piece for Tanya Bannister (she played it at her Market Square Concert program in January and WITF broadcast it earlier this month) that was commissioned for a special 50th birthday celebration – the first performance was a more intimate setting than the average concert, so the problem here was writing something to “fit” the occasion but would have legs, so to speak, on the recital platform. So he decided to compose a set of four contrasting pieces, not in the manner of Robert Schumann but comparable to his collections of “character pieces” like Kreisleriana or Carnaval. He chose the title “All Dreams Begin with the Horizon,” a very evocative title to be sure – in fact “where do your titles come from” is another FAQ for many composers – inspired by a series of dreams his father’d had decades before the composer was born (“all of which came true, he said”), dreams which all began with a view of the horizon and opened up from there.

Which is a very good place for a dream to start: it’s like a flat, blank canvas to a painter, onto which you place... well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Now the question is, How to begin...

Dr. Dick

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Breaking through the Cloud Cover

Sometimes, creativity can be as unpredictable as spring weather in May: rainy days may outnumber sunny ones but even on a cloudy, on-the-verge-of-a-dreary day, the sun can break through, burn off the day’s damp chill so those seeds you’d planted a week ago, wondering if they’ll ever start to germinate, suddenly sprout.

It may not have been the most productive 8-day weekend (though not the worst of past birthday vacations, either), but as I start shifting my lifestyle schedule to see if I can compose in the evening as well as in the early morning hours, on Tuesday night (Day 7) I finally made that breakthrough discovery how I can implement the basic structural idea for this new piece. By Wednesday morning (the last day of my vacation) I had worked out enough of the requisite variables to see yes, indeed, it does work – and now the composing process can actually begin.

This is a part of the process often referred to as “pre-compositional” or as a friend of mine at UConn used to call it, “the laundromat phase.” He could work out the structural details and other “figuring” while the sounds of washers and dryers blocked out other distractions. For me, great stretches of uncomplicated, undistracted (and ideally very quiet) time are very important, even though it might look (and feel) like nothing is getting accomplished. Sometimes, going for walks might help, if nothing else to rid the brain of the daily distractions that keep it from focusing, behind the scenes, on the creative work at hand.

My distractions the previous weeks were, the stress of daily life aside, focused mainly on imminent change, since I’ll become the new Afternoon Guy at WITF (giving up my evening time-slot) until we hire and train a replacement for John Clare who’s relocated to San Antonio. Losing a friend was one thing, though at least he got me started on Facebook where it will be easier to keep in touch (and speaking of distractions, yet another way to waste tons of time on the internet - thanks, John...).

One of my primary concerns about having to go to work earlier is losing that fresh, morning time to compose. After the long hiatus of not composing for some 16 years, I have fallen into the schedule of writing in the morning then going to the station in the early afternoon. Will I be able to work in the evenings? Will I be too brain-dead to function creatively? I’d forgotten that when I was teaching at UConn and faced with 8am theory classes, all of my composing was done in the evenings, often till late at night, after a full day’s teaching.

One of the ways I like to refocus energies is simply to read a book. Ordinarily, as much as I love to read, there isn’t much time that I can dedicate to it beyond a few pages (or maybe even a few paragraphs) before I go to bed. This may be, while looking through a list of 1,001 books to read before you die and discovering I’d read 118 of them, I can’t really remember much about many of them – the barrier of years aside, sometimes it just goes in one eye and out the other.

I’d wanted to reread Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus – I’d started the new John Woods translation a couple years ago and had to put it aside – but it took too much concentration and I opted for something easier, more direct in the line of story-telling, dragging out another new translation waiting for just such an event, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s version of Tolstoy’s War & Peace. Ultimately, I decided on Harold Kushner’s Overcoming Life’s Disappointments which I finished on Monday, but that will be a whole blog-post in itself.

Needless to say, thinking about dreams and how they have a tendency not to come true – dreams here in the sense of life-goals, what we want to be when we grow up kind of dreams – then ultimately the affect those shattered dreams can have on how we view ourselves in an age when “you don’t win the silver, you lose the gold,” generated a lot of off-line thinking and had, overall, a very calming effect on what I can only describe as a stressful couple of months.

But I also found myself at my grandfather’s desk, slowly working on the score for the songs I’d recently completed, and copying over, once again, the opening setting of lines from Hebrews 11, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

The new piece was to be nothing complicated, just another piece for violin and piano. It was meant to be the last of a set that included the Nocturne which John Clare and I had performed in 2005, and two companion pieces written a year after that – a Theme and Variations which would be the opening piece and a light-hearted little scherzo I called “Blues Interruptus” which I’d blogged about before. Curiously, these last two pieces are still in the sketch stage – the Variations haven’t been written out in standard notation yet and the scherzo still has some finishing details that need to be filled in (it had been derailed by distractions from new neighbors just as I was completing it, followed by my mother’s death, when composing anything just didn’t seem suitable, much less a light-hearted little scherzo). Whether there are four pieces or five (another short, fast movement might work for the overall balance) ultimately, the ending was going to be more serious and fairly substantial, capable, like the others, of being performed on its own but still working into the overall fabric of the others (less, I think now, of an issue). I figured 8 minutes should be about right.

I had envisioned it as a chaconne, thinking how I would work out the harmonic pattern and how that relates to the overall structure. A month ago, I had scratched down some ideas, mostly text, and came up with a graph of the form, at least potentially.

When you put “chaconne” and “violin” in the same sentence, the inevitable result is Bach – and how ironic, as I work on this piece, I end up replacing John Clare as the pre-concert presenter for Odin Rathnam’s three century survey of solo violin music, ending with the Chaconne from Bach’s D Minor Partita, one of the greatest works for the violin (with or without further accompaniment) and the most familiar, if not the greatest, example of a chaconne.

Basically, a chaconne is a type of variation-form: rather than a theme in the bass (called a passacaglia) that repeats over and over with melodies and variations unfolding over it, a chaconne uses a harmonic pattern, often a very simple one involving a descending bass line that articulates a movement from tonic gradually to dominant, then back to tonic. Having played the cello forty years ago and twice had to play the Pachelbel Canon – which is really a chaconne – the idea of playing the same thing over and over (and over and over) again bores me to tears (listening to it is bad enough), so I decided I didn’t want it to be too literal.

Now, given my style which makes ‘free’ use of all twelve pitches (but is not serial and not necessarily atonal, either) - you can read more about that here and here - I wanted to create a harmonic progression that involves both standard triads and non-standard “trichords” (three-note chords that are not standard major or minor triads but could be built on other intervals than the third), moving in degrees of tension to cadence, ultimately, on a major or minor chord. But I also wanted each statement of the harmonic pattern to be “in a different key,” in a way, not repeating the same pitches. So the pattern needed to be open-ended and yet there had to be some sort of resolution at the end which would give it the same sense of closure you get in tonal music.

Tuesday night, then, I felt I was ready to sit down and schlog through a bunch of potential six-note sets (collections of pitches that can be used in any order or combination), ending up going back to one I’d used prominently in the string quartet and symphony. This set will give me a major and a minor triad a whole step apart; its complement (the other six pitches) will give me a major and a minor triad a tritone apart. But this time, I’ll use them differently than I did in the earlier works (keeping in mind the 4th sections of both works are also free-wheeling chaconnes).

When I realized that I’d already been there/done that, it occurred to me that was no reason not to do it again: after all, Bach wrote many chaconnes just as Brahms would later use the approach (either as a passacaglia or a chaconne, which by then had become almost interchangeable) in different works, like the finales of the Haydn variations and the 4th symphony, to name two. There are other ways to solve the same problem, just as I had taken the possibilities I hadn’t followed in the string quartet and applied the same structure to the symphony.

After a few hours of fussing, similar to other hours spent with the idea of not necessarily being productive, I came up with first one detail that worked and then another. How to “articulate” the progression so it made sense in nine chords, still sounded like it went somewhere but leaving it open so, in fact, the next statement of the pattern could resume, basically, in a different key; how to distinguish it, with a climax on the fifth chord, so that it’s more than just a movement to the dominant, then back to the tonic.

The idea of writing something that, because it uses all twelve notes constantly, sounds “atonal” to someone not used to the style but would use a kind of tonic-to-dominant motion means I’m going back to what drives that motion in standard tonality: not the fact they’re basic chords in a C major sequence, but because they follow a pattern of relative tension and release, things that underlie much of Western art music regardless of style or surface language.

So I thought, this time, I would try a “deceptive” resolution – like going from a D Major triad to an F major triad – which sets up the next half of the phrase to both resolve the tension to an extent but still continue pushing it forward (since it’s not closed, overall, by returning to D Major). This constant pushing away from and always returning so immediately to the same D Major chord, say, is what I find so boring about the standard form, locked in to simple four- or eight-bar patterns that takes a genius like Bach to circumvent. Not being a genius like Bach, I need to look elsewhere for my solutions to “variety” within a scope of overly obsessive “unity.”

So I had a progression that, by itself, seemed to work: it was satisfying and had potential (how I use it in the composition will be another issue). I ran it through the nine different pitch levels each pattern would require to make “tonal” sense of the combined statements, each phrase climax being on a chord that has at least one common tone with a D major or D minor triad. But since this pattern resolved, more or less, to a minor triad, I had to make sure I could end up in D major at the very end which would require a subtle change in the pattern: would it work, or would it involve just saying “oh, the heck with it, I’ll just write what sounds good once I get there”?

To do that, then, undermines the whole concept of organizing the pitches in the first place, if I’m just going to write what “feels good.” Beethoven, writing in a tonal idiom, was more organized than someone who just sits down and writes whatever comes to mind that sounds good.

Since it was getting late and I was feeling tired, I put it aside. The next day, I returned first thing in the morning – now getting to bed earlier, I was at the piano not long after 7am – and continued working out the different statements. This was a fairly mechanical process, like copying out a phrase first in E major and then in G Major. And then I was at the end: here we go.

No, it didn’t happen that easily: it was not mechanical. Nor was it arbitrary. What was sounding reasonable did not work with any logical, technical explanation. I tried to find ways of making it work, but it involved going outside the single set of six notes I’d been using consistently all along. Some were too remotely related to work and the ones that were close enough, technically, didn’t sound good.

Then I realized by switching two trichords around, I had a connection with that deceptive chord that used the same original set - eureka! That’s what I’d hoped for in the first place. Better yet, since this is the climactic last statement of the pattern, it created something different in that deceptive triad which points up the change and its imminent resolution (sort of like listening to Ravel’s Bolero until, near the very end, he swerves off onto a different chord than the one he’d been drumming into your head through the whole piece, what should be one of those wow moments).

And yet it was the same set of notes that I’d been using all along! I didn’t even have to fudge!

So when I tranpsoed it to resolve to the D major chord at the end, I realized it will, in fact, work. Now the composition can begin.

Of course, it was the last day of my vacation and there would be no time to do any more work that day, but at least the pre-compositional phase was over and now I can concentrate on filling in the rest of it during those times I do get to compose when I’ll have less time to focus in the midst of the distractions of reality.

A couple days ago, all I had was a pile of bones. Yesterday, after the skeleton of the piece had been arranged and connected – leg bone, thigh bone, hip bone, how the pattern would lay into the structure – the muscles were now in place and ready to go, how the music would move from one point to the next, giving it a sense of direction, just as bones aren’t going to do much without muscles to guide them.

Now all I have to do is add the rest of the body – the tricky part: crafting the skin, getting the blood to flow and, with any luck, blowing life into its soul so it connects with the performers and the listeners.

It could take weeks or months, depending on the time I can focus on writing it and how successfully that time works. But it’s easier when I think the piece is essentially “composed” – other structural and musical ideas already jotted down are like a collection of body-parts ready for use here or there – so that now all I have to do is fill in the notes.

- Dr. Dick

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Le sacre du nettoyage au printemps

Ah, the Rite of Spring Cleaning... with its culminating sacrificial dance of the Chosen Furball.

No, no cats were harmed in this annual event, though several were traumatized by the appearance of a rug-sucking behemoth imported by my friend N who volunteered to do the dirty work since I cannot abide the sound of a vacuum cleaner. Fortunately this one was not nearly as loud or piercing as the ones I have to contend with at work when the cleaning crew comes in during my shift three nights a week, nor is the frequency nearly as annoying as the white noise [sic] noise-masking system that runs 24/7 whether I’m the only person in the building or not (that it even runs during a power outage only confirms my belief it is, in fact, controlled by an alien life-force).

All but one of the cats spent the afternoon hiding in various locations or scooting from one hidey hole to another depending on the progress of the vacuuming. Murphy, who normally cannot abide the kittens, was happy enough sitting around watching the proceedings, perfectly content to ask “Can we let that thing run all the time?” The house, then, would once again be hers.

So after the spring cleaning was done, I saw the black Chinese wool rug I’d put in the living room last year look as bright and beautiful as it did the day I bought it, now free of the overlay of orange, white and gray cat hair it automatically attracts. The cats, checking it out after the noise and the dust settled, realized they have their work cut out for them and I’m sure, in a few days, will be exhausted by all the shedding they’re going to have to do to get caught up.

Last weekend, we managed to get three more book cases assembled (purchased in early November and merely awaiting the right moment in our busy schedules) and so the past few days, I have slowly been working my way through boxes of books as yet unpacked since my mid-November move. About half way through the boxes, I see the book cases are already more than half filled. Hmmm...

The kittens, of course, have turned a year old – officially 13 months last week. I rarely get a chance to catch them all in one picture from the time I aim the camera and the flash actually works. The photo on the left was taken when they were one month old and the one on the right was taken just a few days ago. The occasion was the discovery of a centipede on the flagstone floor of the foyer which immediately got their collected attention. That’s Baker looking up as if to say “Izza bug, you mind?”

The downpour the other night finished off the clematis on the front porch, leaving only a few hardy blossoms where once there was a mass of 110 pale lavender and white flowers. On the other hand, the new peony is blooming for the first time (see below), a brilliant white variety known as “Shirley Temple,” though why, I have no idea (I expected it to break into The Good Ship Lollipop when the first bud opened).

Seeds have finally germinated and I have another crop on the way of “Moon Glories” (night blooming morning glories with brilliant white blossoms 6" across) and regular morning glories (“Scarlet O’Hara” already sprouted, “Heavenly Blue” planted a few days later lagging appropriately behind). I’ve thrown in some white marigolds and black pansies plus a few other seeds for summer flowers which, hopefully, will not be eaten by the resident rabbits. If anything needs propitiated, by the way, it’s the resident rabbits in the back yard...

Well, I hear a cat shedding in the living room, gotta go...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On the Verge of Vacation-Time

Today would be a good day to sit and read, if I had the time: perhaps tomorrow, when my vacation officially begins, I can do that, except I really want to spend the time writing down some sketches for a new piece or copying the score to my songs, now that they’re complete. Coming home from work later than I’d care to usually means I’m too brain-dead to concentrate. The cats also want to spend their time with me which usually means Murphy is kneading on my chest and either Max or Blanche is spread out on my lap, making it difficult to see the book, proving the old saying “You make a better wall than a window” or however my mother used to say her mother said it. (Door? maybe it was door, not wall...)

And then trying to get deeper into Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus is a bit of stretch on short bursts of reading time, trying to sort through the philosophical arguments of Good versus Evil that I’m mired down in, now. This would be my third time starting the book, having completed it only once (and that almost 30 years ago) but you can’t really read just a few paragraphs at a time. I think also the emotional stress it creates is not good for me, at the moment, so I’m putting it aside (again) for now. I’ll get back to Schlepfuss’ exegesis on the existence of evil when my life is a little less stressed.

Another book I’ve wanted to re-read is Tolstoy’s War & Peace. I have two new translations, one by the English writer Anthony Briggs which I’d bought before I’d read much of the criticism about it (like having low-class Russian soldiers chattering away in out-dated Cockney slang that in itself needs a translation in the footnotes) and the much-anticipated, long-awaited translation by the team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (I’ve enjoyed other translations of theirs in recent years) but now I’m getting bogged down by reading all the original French which had always been translated in the other copies I’ve read. Tolstoy writes much of the aristocratic dialogue in French since at the time, between 1805 and 1812, most of the Russian aristocracy did not speak Russian themselves - so since my French is nearly nil, I find myself dozing off after breaking my concentration to peer down at the footnotes for the translations. In the past few days, I’ve gotten just 46 pages into it – only 1167 pages to go...

Even with the rain and other events of the past week, though, it has been relaxing at the house, despite the cats’ best efforts, watching spring unfold. Some of it was sad - finding the first wood thrush I’ve seen here in years, dead on my back porch after having slammed into the picture window; at least the little yellowthroat warbler managed to recuperate and eventually fly away, with or without a major headache. I decided to plant a few things down in the Great Bare Patch between the Japanese Maple and the Kousa dogwood, transplanting some moss, some of the old-fashioned bleeding hearts that are growing fairly profusely in some areas of the yard, not to mention a few violets. I was thinking of planting some may-apples and other shade-loving plants there, too. Good thing I didn’t – Thursday, the guy who does my lawn mowing came by and, great job that he always does aside, mowed right over them, so I’m back to a nice brown patch of bare earth...

My mother had transplanted a rhododendron from her parents’ yard back in 1970, after they died. I remember this plant from my childhood and the story was it had been transplanted from their first home when they moved in 1946, whenever it may have been originally planted there (their first home was purchased in 1919). So regardless, it’s a fairly old plant. Much to my mother’s disappointment, it’s never really done well here, perhaps too shaded to produce lots of flowers, some years barely noticeable at all. This year, it’s spectacular, as you can tell by this picture I took a couple days ago. I can’t tell whether it’s actually a rhododendron or an azalea...

The one remaining peony – a red one – has come back again, but no buds on it this time, just a few spindly leaves. This too is an old plant originally from my grandmother’s garden, though from a set of peonies my mother remembers growing up with as a child in their back yard. They were well established by the time she was 5, from what I can tell in some family pictures, so this is an old peony, the original stock at least 89 years old.

By the front porch is a clematis – the variety is called Nelly Moser (why I remember that, I don’t know) – that goes fitfully from year to year, sometimes a dozen flowers, sometimes a couple dozen or so but never too many at a time. Last week, I noticed it was covered with buds from top to bottom (also unusual) but when I took the 3rd picture of it this morning, I counted 110 open blossoms on the vine, from top to bottom. In the back yard, there was a more typical dark purple clematis but it died a slow death over the last few years and didn’t come back two years ago. Last spring, I replaced it with another similar vine which so far is doing nicely - it usually tends to bloom later and longer through the summer. It’s not at a place where I can see it from the house, though, but perhaps by the time I set up the back corner of the porch, it’ll have grown up over the railing.

Last Wednesday, as I was leaving for work, I looked down at the pond and saw three egrets. We often get the typical common egrets here but these looked larger. I couldn’t tell from here if they had black legs or yellow legs and I can never remember which means what. I guess it wouldn’t be a great white heron since they’re basically resident only in the Florida Keys though this one was photographed on Staten Island, so who knows.

Still, if this is the common egret, then from this distance, it could’ve been what I saw.

In the past, I’ve seen some kind of white egrets (that looked smaller than these) both here and all over Wildwood Lake in uptown Harrisburg. On City Island in the years before the baseball stadium and all that development, I’d seen birds like Night Herons and Least Bitterns as well as egrets and once a Great Blue Heron, not quite as close as the time when I was a kid and my dad dragged me along fishing to the Chesapeake Bay one morning, leaving in the dark of night to be there by daybreak: paddling along in a boat, we rounded a clump of grass and reeds and there was this Great Blue Heron - just huge – only a few feet from us. We both froze: in a few seconds, he gave a great yawping honk and took off with a roar of wings, skimming across the bay to a spot a little further out, just close enough so we could see that he was catching fish and we weren’t. I think I was 10 then, and wearing my J.S. Bach sweatshirt...

Other birds I’ve seen in the past few days, in addition to the catbirds who are now nesting in the mounds of forsythia, would include the bluebirds and a nuthatch out front; I hear the wrens but haven’t seen them anywhere, though I keep looking. They might be nesting in the yews or arbor vitae at the lower end of the house where it’s difficult to see them from the bedroom’s bunker-style windows.

The other day, there was a commotion of crows, lots of cawing and a great deal of motion as I looked up to see what was going on, perhaps a dozen of them outside my bedroom window by the big maple. Clearly they were upset about something so I peered out the window and saw a large red-tailed hawk on the ground that was being continually dive-bombed by them - one even hit it on the back of the head. While I’m no fan of hawks, still, I felt I should try to rescue it or perhaps rescue whatever it was it had caught. By the time I ran around to the side of the house, it flew off over the back of my neighbors’ yard, a squirrel tail trailing from its talons. I had wondered if it had caught a baby crow or maybe the ginger cat from the neighbors-across-the-street though that would probably be too big for this particular hawk.

In the days since then, I haven’t seen as many squirrels on my back porch and I wonder which nest this one had been from: there’s one in the oak tree east of my property, but most of the squirrels I see come from my north-side neighbor’s cherry tree, whether they nest there or not. My back yard is fairly overgrown with tall trees and lots of shrubs the birds can go hide in, but the front is wide open, making anything crossing from those neighbors easy prey to hawks. But they need to eat, too, so I try to be philosophical about it, reminding myself that Nature for all its beauty is often violent and cruel.

Meanwhile, the groundhog, a true DIY kind of guy, is renovating his burrow, throwing more dirt up on my porch: who needs a back-hoe? I remember when we first moved in here, my mother had borrowed a live-trap from somebody and caught the first groundhog who was burrowing in this spot, and she hauled this snarling and hissing mass of fur and teeth down the road to the stream about a half-mile away and let him go. Our one neighbor laughed when she told him about it – “He probably beat you back to the house!” I wonder if this one, whom I call LowPax Louie (or is it Louise?), is a direct descendant of the one Mother had attempted to transport?

Time to get to work – last day before the 8-day weekend of my vacation!

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, May 18, 2008

My Dad's Birthday

This morning, I realized, in the midst of the drilge of a steady rain, today would be my father’s 90th Birthday.

How does one mark a milestone like that? It is still difficult to imagine him as anything other than the man crippled by rheumatoid arthritis for the last 22 years of his life, a disease that had set in when he was still in his mid-40s.

Many of the photos here in the house, though, are from times before he became ill, when I was still a child, helping me think back to better memories.

This photograph, one of my favorites, was taken two years before I was born, when he was 29, recently moved into the house in Paxtang, their first home, playing a Hammond Organ that was a brand new addition to his life. It amuses me to realize that one of the pieces of furniture I had to dispose of last spring is the chair seen in the foreground: after 60 years or more, it had long outlived its usefulness but still, it was difficult to let it go. I still have that lamp, btw...

In addition to being a respected merchant in uptown Harrisburg, manager of Greenberg’s Boston Store at 3rd & Verbeke, Dad was one of the better known “cocktail organists” in the area. He was not really into classical music, though I still play from a collection of popular works by Chopin he had bought in 1944 – it’s sitting on my piano now, and it’s on the music rack of the piano in my profile photo, taken when I was not yet a year old.

My dad played for various restaurants and clubs – I remember the Blue Mountain, especially – and, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, even had his own radio show when I was a child and allowed to stay up on Wednesday nights to listen to it, just 15 minutes broadcasting live from the Blue Mountain Hotel (now, Felicita). It didn’t phase me, having a dad who had a radio show: didn’t everybody’s dad have one? Funny how I should end up spending 18 years of my life working at a radio station. On Wednesday nights, my dad took requests from the audience and played them on his radio program; for 18 years, I’ve taken requests from WITF’s radio audience on Wednesday nights.

He didn’t read music – after I started taking piano and theory lessons in 1st Grade, he would often ask me what note this one was, three ledger lines above the staff – and had learned to play the piano by putting his fingers into the slots where the keys would go down on an old player piano. When he was in elementary school, he walked into an assembly program (as I remember the story) and everybody was already singing “Happy Birthday” to one of the teachers. He slipped over onto the piano bench and began to accompany them. One of the teachers asked him how he knew what key they were singing in: he just knew. That was when they realized he had perfect pitch - the ability to identify a pitch just by hearing it.

And yet, without any musical training – the best piano teacher in town, Mrs. Mullen, didn’t want to give him lessons because he had a talent she thought classical training might spoil it – he could listen to a song and play it back, harmony and all. Quite literally, if he asked someone to “hum a few bars” of something for a request, he could continue in the key they were singing, then play the whole song complete with all the chords.

After twelve years of piano lessons, then four years of college followed by two graduate degrees, and having composed operas and symphonies and string quartets – I still can’t do that!

One time, when I was living in New York City during a time my father’s health was rapidly declining and he was no longer able to play, I was playing piano for ballet classes and practicing late one evening. Dick Thomas, who ran the New York School of Ballet and is the father of actor Richard Thomas, came in and jokingly said, “play Melancholy Baby,” but I realized I couldn’t remember anything past the first phrase of the song. I had grown up listening to my dad play hundreds and hundreds of songs but I never heard the words and never really knew the titles – but very often I would hear something years later and think “I remember Dad playing that!” So when I wrote to him, joking about Melancholy Baby, he got out an old list he’d kept of the songs he knew by heart and there, at #1,000, was Melancholy Baby.

We also had a baby grand piano (you can see it in the background of this photo) which my folks had purchased for their new house in 1947, trading in my maternal grandparent’s old upright (purchased in 1919 – I still have the stool and use it today for my own upright piano). By the time I arrived, the organ and the piano were set up side-by-side: Dad would sit at the organ with the keyboard of the piano to his right so he could play harmony and bass on the Hammond and the melody on the piano. (It was an idea he’d gotten from hearing an incredible musician named Al Rondo: he would be surrounded by four different pianos and organs – he was also blind, btw.) I started playing the piano standing with my butt propped up against the organ bench (since there was no piano bench, in this set-up) so my feet could reach the damper pedal. It was such an odd adjustment to go to my piano lessons up the street with Mildred Goho and sit down on an actual piano bench.

I never did learn to play the organ: I simply could not coordinate my hands and feet and keep my backside on the bench! And yet my dad could play two instruments at once. Great peripheral vision? Well, it probably helped he didn’t have to sit there, eyes glued to a score since he couldn’t read music anyway...

When I was a child, I learned to play the Nocturne in E-flat, Op.9/2 by Chopin from this collection he’d bought when he was in the Air Force. I don’t know if he ever tried playing any of it or why he’d bought it in the first place – “Chopin To Remember,” it was called– but he always loved having me play this one piece. I would trot it out for visitors or when we’d go visiting friends who had a piano. I never really practiced enough to actually become a pianist, though at one time I had enough technical ability to get through Stravinsky’s Three Scenes from Petrushka, no mean feat (but that was 30 years ago): when I was 6, I’d already made up my mind I wanted to become a composer because, then, nobody else would know if I was making mistakes.

After I’d written a piece for orchestra, it was my dad who talked to another merchant and musician in town who also played percussion in the Harrisburg Symphony, Al Morrison, who told him to bring me in to a rehearsal to meet the conductor, Edwin McArthur. He invited me to attend any rehearsals I wanted to and took the piece I’d composed called, unimaginatively enough, “Concert Piece,” and performed it with the orchestra at a Young Person’s Concert in 1964. My dad, being the good salesman that he was, took me around to lots of radio stations, since he knew many of the DJs. He called friends of his at the Patriot-News, the local newspaper (then and now) who took pictures and did an interview for the front page of the paper the week before the concert. The Forum was packed, with people filling in the aisles, the biggest crowd I’d ever seen at the Forum, all because of my dad’s efforts.

A few months ago, I went to see the Met Movie-cast of Puccini’s La Boheme and found myself sitting next to Al Morrison who could be in his late-80s or 90s now himself. I told him the story of how he introduced my dad and me to McArthur and he remembered that, asking me if I was still composing. For once, it didn’t bother me, sitting next to him during the broadcast as he hummed along with so many of Puccini’s wonderful tunes. It was just nice to reconnect for that moment with someone from my dad’s past, and my own as well.

The only surviving member of my dad’s family is his youngest brother, Donald, who’s now 82, I believe, and living in Florida.

My mother’s sister, Clara, just turned 90 this past March and I haven’t been able to get in touch with her since she’d recently moved and I don’t know which of these addresses, phone-numbers and e-mails is the current one. She said she’d call me when she got back from Thailand where she went in January to visit her son who lives in Chiangmai. She was pushing 90 and flying to Asia!

And there was e-mail recently from my older brother who just moved into a new home up in the Finger Lakes, including a photograph of his new grandson born in April whom he was holding in his baseball glove. Life goes on.

I think I'll go play some Chopin...

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

On hearing the world premiere of Carter's Clarinet Quintet

A week ago, John Clare and I went into New York City for a concert. It seems a long drive just to go to a concert – for me, at any rate: for John, having New York this close makes it a frequent destination. He blogged about it here (and discretely took some photos which he posted, too). We left Harrisburg around 3:00, got within shouting distance of the Lincoln Tunnel a little after 5, got out of the Lincoln Tunnel somewhere after 6:30 (sigh), found a parking place by 7:00 and barely had enough time to grab dinner before heading to the concert with a minute to spare at 8:00. Then turning around, we were back in Harrisburg around 2am. And why, you may ask?

This was no ordinary concert: it was the world premiere of the Clarinet Quintet by Elliott Carter with the legendary Juilliard Quartet and no less than Charles Neidich (whom I used to hear practicing years ago when he lived in the same building as a friend I would be visiting on my trips into The City then), a clarinetist who’d already inspired Carter to write a concerto for him.

As a fan of Elliott Carter’s music, this may not have been the “Must See” event hearing all five string quartets in one evening was, three months earlier (and then blogging about it), but it certainly was an important opportunity to hear a new work – twice – and to hear the composer talk about it in between performances. Considering Carter is 99 and the piece is barely seven months old – as he said, “and to think I have pieces that are even younger than this one!” – how many times will you get to hear a world premiere by a composer still writing as he pushes 100?

Ever-smiling and jovial, he seems the personal opposite of the complicated music he composes. However, as you become more acquainted with his music, especially the pieces he’s written in the last 15-20 years or so, you realize how much of this is simply intellectual and artistic curiosity blended with a sense of whimsy if not obvious humor. There are so many things to mention, here, but this is not complexity for the sake of being complicated: the sound he wants to achieve is very clear in his mind, the method of accomplishing it is complex only because it cannot be realized in a more traditional way.

Last Tuesday, the quintet was performed first - followed by a solo work from each individual performer – followed by an on-stage conversation between the Dean of Juilliard, Ara Guzelimian, and Carter with the musicians ready to play examples, and then the second performance of the quintet.

The first question was, after noting the long associations with the performers (the Juilliard Quartet had premiered most of his quartets, going back to the ‘50s with his 2nd Quartet), what inspired him to write a piece for clarinet and string quartet.

Carter looked at Guzelimian for a moment and said quite genuinely, “Well, I really don’t know.” Perhaps we were expecting some long convoluted technical exegesis from this man, considered “the greatest living composer” (certainly by seniority and accomplishments alone: it could be said with certainty he is “the oldest living composer still writing”). He continued that it was the sound of the clarinet and how it would work with the sound of the quartet – a fairly basic inspiration, perhaps, but nothing technical, all about how it sounded, nothing different, perhaps, than what might have inspired Brahms to write his Clarinet Quintet (for Richard Muhlfeld) or Mozart to write his (for Anton Stadler).

(Curiously, these are both late works also: Brahms was 58 and coming out of retirement for a series of pieces for clarinet; Mozart was 33 and writing about two years before his death – even combining those numbers doesn’t equal Carter’s age when he wrote his Clarinet Quintet!)

Because so much of his music reflects human personality traits – the 2nd Quartet in particular – whether it is conversational or argumentative, Carter was also asked if the individuals he was writing for inspired anything in the piece: was it, basically, a portrait of the intended players?

Again, he paused and looked quizzically at the dean and said “I didn’t have a picture of them on my desk while I was writing it, no,” but that basically the musical characteristics were the result of composites of performers over the years.

That being said, the work is less involved than a typical Carter conversational piece: rather than pitting each player with each other in various combinations, though this happens on a more microformal level, it is more the clarinet as one entity and the whole quartet as another, neither for or against each other. One of the most memorable “sounds” are the extremely long (and I mean extreeeeeemly long) tones Neidich would sustain against what the quartet was playing. In the conversation, Carter explained that, in an orchestra, a clarinetist can sustain these long pitches, so he wanted to use that in the background, here - and then he asked them to play this passage, starting at a certain rehearsal number “and just keep going until Charlie falls over,” or something like that. Through the magic of circular breathing, Charlie did not in fact fall over, but it was amazing to hear these two different sound layers and how they intersect in the piece.

On the more technical side, he mentioned how the opening notes of the first clarinet solo – or rather the intervals they formed – are the basis for much of the piece’s language: he asked Joel Smirnoff, the first violinist, to play another passage which was basically the same intervalic structure but inverted – a minor 2nd becoming a major 7th, a minor 3rd a major 6th. This chain of intervals, in one form or another, permeates much of the language that defines the individual roles within the ensemble.

Then he added, “though this is not something most listeners are going to hear - I don’t think anybody would actually hear that - I certainly can’t...”

Even as a composer, I would have assumed Carter would be able to hear something like that and that I, not being able to, was therefore somehow lacking. That it could be comprehended without being analyzed - the way one can appreciate poetry without knowing exactly what every word means - is one thing, but for a listener to hear a passage and know what it was, technically is another. Perhaps this music, which so many complain about must be written with a slide-rule, doesn't really need to be listened to with one, either.

Another hallmark of Carter’s style is the juxtaposition of layers of what sounds like different tempos, resulting in some very complex-looking cross-rhythms, trying to write this out in a common-denominator tempo rather than telling the clarinetist to play it with a metronome marking of quarter-note = 127 and the quartet to play it at quarter-note = 142 or something, just picking numbers at random.

(To explain, a slower tempo might sound like 1/4-note = 60 and another, a faster tempo might sound like 1/4-note = 120, but all that would be is a series of quarter notes moving against a series of eighth notes, something you hear all the time in Bach. In Carter, it’s more like 5 notes against 7 rather than 1 against 2, something that just looks horrendous to someone used to playing in a more four-square single tempo all the time.)

But here, he also said something that intrigued me: the way he works his intervals out, planning out what the possible pitches might be at any given point, if pitches coincide in a way he doesn’t like, he just changes it!

As complex as his music is, it is still the sound that is the determining factor – not the system, not the rules we associate with this presumably strict style. True, the premise of Schoenberg’s 12-tone style serialism, at least as practiced by a lot of his followers, is full of rules and regulations, but nothing much different in context than you would find in tonal music of the 18th and 19th Centuries (or for that matter Palestrina’s “species” counterpoint). Schoenberg may have devised an approach to music to help him approximate the sound in his inner ear, but it’s quite possible many of his devotees in the ‘50s and ‘60s allowed The System to rule what they wrote rather than the other way around. Carter doesn’t do that: he manipulates the system his own way – often, it’s more a starting-point than an end from a means – as if Beethoven could be sitting there to tell us, “Well, according to the rules, it should’ve been a B-flat chord, but really, I thought the G-flat chord was much more exciting.” (Though actually Beethoven, asked such a question, would probably just say “What? Who cares?!”)

Though I doubt Carter’s Clarinet Quintet will nudge Mozart’s or Brahms’ off the stage any time soon, it was a beautiful piece, given its own context (not to compare it to what we normally think of as “beautiful” with Mozart or Brahms), and remarkably clear and unfussy, that bit of stylistic clarification that happens with maturity.

When a friend of Carter’s was asked how the composer can be writing so much when he’s in his 90s, the interviewer was told “By now, he’s got it down.”

Another thing I’ve discovered, reading through what text is included in his “Harmony Book,” is that he is less concerned with ALL the possibilities a few notes might yield. Rather than exploring all the combinations these pitches might yield, how many new chords might be created by adding one or two additional pitches to it and then playing with all the intervalic possibilities, he tends to work with a couple of basic building blocks which contain the most variety within the fewest notes. In that sense, it’s like returning to the same friend and still finding new ways sound can be expressed from that friendship (much in the same way no less than Arnold Schoenberg once told his students “there’s a lot of good music still to be written in C Major”).

In between, each of the five players performed solo works by Carter, short pieces that might be difficult to fit in on a standard program but create a fascinating bridge from the complexity of the quintet with a sound-world challenging for a single player. In many cases, different characters appear in a solo piece as well: a high lyrical line interrupted by rapid or abrupt or declamatory notes in a lower register. In one solo violin piece, a third layer was added with sustained double-stops (two-note chords) in a middle register. This is no different than Bach writing a melody in one register against an accompaniment in another in his solo Sonatas and Partitas for the violin – or writing three-voiced fugues for an instrument with only four strings.

Some of these individual performances were more successful than others. One had to wonder, since the program had first been announced with only the quintet, if these were some kind of last minute addition. Not that these players, at this level of awesomeness, couldn’t handle the challenges. But it sounded like Joel Smirnoff, the 1st violinist, and Joel Krosnick, the cellist, were not quite as comfortable with their pieces yet or maybe had not gotten back into them after an absence. I didn’t know them beyond having heard them maybe once years ago, but they sounded scrambled or unfocused for some reason, like they were working too hard (yeah, the music is hard, but...). Perhaps, I was thinking, they are not as successful a piece as one might hope.

Meanwhile, Neidich played “Gra” which he’d been playing for a long time (and recorded it on the Bridge label), with all the flare as if he were a clarinet choir all by himself, but it was 2nd violinist Ronald Cope’s performance of a work written for the Juilliard Quartet’s founding 1st Violinist, Robert Mann (who was also in the audience) called Rhapsodic Musings (RM = Robert Mann, get it? And the pitches D & E, Re and Mi (R&M) are Frequently Heard Pitches within this short work) that was the most compelling, singled out not only by the audience’s applause but also by the composer’s remarks after intermission. Concluding the first half was the violist, Samuel Rhodes, playing a piece composed for him that was, by contrast, quiet and sustained that I wish could have been more, but then the nature of the piece suited both the instrument and the player.

Again, it was an all-Carter evening, not everybody’s cup of java, in a packed theater, met with enthusiasm and enjoyment. It might not be the same, hearing one work in the context of the usual, more traditional concert program where a daunting work like the Concerto for Orchestra, perhaps (a work I’ve never warmed up to, though I bought the full score at the Juilliard Book Store in January, hoping to come to terms with it), might not please an audience there to hear Mozart and Beethoven. But it is a style that has its own integrity – and, the more I hear it and hear Carter talk about it, the freedom to be nowhere near as didactic as it might look on the page. And it’s one closer to my own mind’s music. Like friends of mine who’ve followed Carter’s music over the last 30 years, I find myself liking (on first hearing) more of his latest works more readily than some of the works he composed 25 to 50 years ago, the string quartets aside. Even simplified, his style is still more complex than most of what is being written today, but you know what? I don’t care – I like it, and if it speaks to me, that’s all that matters.

Dr. Dick

Monday, May 05, 2008

Ah, Springtime!

Sunday was just such a beautiful sunny day. It’s days like that that make this my favorite time of year: cloudy, rainy, chilly, damp days like Saturday, not so much.

There have been Mays in the past where we might have 4 or 5 days with sunlight, the rest if not outright rain, then always the grim possibility of rain. April Showers bring May Showers... and still, by August, we’ll be in a drought. It happened several times back in the ‘80s, not something new with all the political buzz-words of today’s ecological scene: the effects of Global Warming did not begin just when somebody coined the term.

Unfortunately, most of the flowers I enjoy have already faded in between the April Showers. The mounds of forsythia in my back yard were brilliant yellow for about two weeks. My neighbor’s magnolia made it worth while to stand on my drive-way and take deep breaths to savor its aroma, always more striking late at night when I arrived home from work, but barely for a week. The neighbor behind me has a flowering cherry tree that was brilliantly pink for the past week, but yesterday morning much of that corner of my yard was covered with what looked like pink snow as the petals faded and dropped.

This is the time of year, too late now, I think of trees and shrubs I’d like to plant in the yards – Redbud, Mock-Orange, another pink dogwood, perhaps. I look out and see the leaves coming out on my Japanese Red Maple and wonder how much longer I’ll have it – when we planted it in 1960 or so, we were told it might live 25-30 years. This year, there are a number of seedlings that survived the mild winter here in Central Pennsylvania, so I will transplant them to a bare patch of dirt that swings around behind the parent tree and the Kousa Dogwood (a shapely oriental variety with ivory-colored flowers that come out later in the season: it’s leaves, the first to show, are just now beginning to develop) so that perhaps, when the time comes, there will be other trees there to replace them.

When I was a kid and, like any teen-ager, detested the weekly ritual of grass-mowing, I joked that, if it were my house, I would plant trees all over the place, kill the grass and turn it into a woodland setting. My mother and I seriously thought of getting something called “Meadow-in-a-Can” and spreading the seeds out across the dry, sun-baked front yard where the summer grass was green only over the septic tank. It seemed such a waste of water to refresh the dandelions and plantains that proved far hardier than grass. A can of such seeds apparently was introduced in 1982. I remember, in the early-80s, walking past a house on one of the back country roads where a friend of mine had once lived but was now apparently empty, and seeing the whole back yard ablaze with cosmos, coneflowers, milkweed and numerous other colorful wildflowers. (Here's a forum about the topic, posted by someone living in New Jersey: some interesting things to consider.)

I was delighted, last week, to discover a New York Times article about a guy who hasn't mowed his yard since the Kennedy Administration - 45 years ago! He is an advocate of moss instead of grass, and moss is something I have in a number of places around my back-porch. There are areas where I don't need it, so I'm going to take a shovel and scoop it off, then transplant it to the Great Big Bare Spot between the maple and the kousa: perhaps it will take hold, there? I do not water my grass (it needs to be seriously reseeded and fertilized, anyway) but this article says a moss lawn “needs ‘a fraction, one percent or less’ of the 10,000 gallons (beyond rainwater) that the E.P.A. estimates a suburban grass lawn drinks annually.”

Of course, the soil here is barely that – mostly shale and in dry spells, back-breaking to dig in. I planted a little garden last spring but what didn't die for lack of drainage, the rabbits mowed down - all the seedlings, the ferns pruned back to the point there was nothing higher than an inch or two. They apparently dislike bleeding heart, either the old fashioned variety which is thriving all over the place, or the pure-white variation of the standard form blooming under the maple (see photo). The pachysandra that I added where it had once flourished has held its own if not actually started spreading but I notice other patches nearby are now dying out. The new clematis, replacing one that had died after 40-some years of inattention, seems to be thriving, so far. The old one out front with its light and lacy lilac flowers is back for another year (it must be about as old) and covered with buds. The lone surviving red peony, from the original stock my grandmother had planted in her first garden in 1919, has finally sprouted but this time with no buds.

Yesterday, I put the flamingo out – Floyd, a genuine cast-iron 1955-era Florida souvenir, not your (sniff) plastic, corner supermarket variety – and now the bench is back under the tree. There hasn’t been time to go running around to the usual nurseries – some of which would involve too much gas, as fuel hits $3.59-3.64 here – and at this point I’m not sure This Old Back, still a bother, is up for a lot of digging and planting (though, as usual, a friend will be doing most of that for me again this year). Perhaps later today, if I can lug a few planters and pots around with the help of my little red wagon (a hand-me-down from my brother who got it new, like, 65 years ago), I will plant the moon glory seeds (night blooming morning-glory-like vines with brilliant white flowers 6" across) for the back porch.

One of the things on the agenda is making daily use of the treadmill, currently housed in a corner of the living room and looking out on the back yard. It’s great to put bird feed out in the planter and watch them flock to it – the bag of seed lists 10-12 different birds that would be attracted to it and I get 8 or 9 of them, though the most frequent visitors, not mentioned by the seed company, are the squirrels (not even flying squirrels). The chipmunk (or chipnun, as the case may be) has resurfaced after a long hibernation, making use of the luxurious abode created by Low Pax Louie under the one euonymous and behind the iris. Louie himself has yet to be seen, not even surfacing on February 2nd, but his handiwork was much in evidence last month after he opened up the holes I’d filled shut and soaked until the plug became hard as adobe. It’s amazing how much used cat litter you can pour down a groundhog hole...

Later this morning, then, I hope to spend a little time sitting on the bench, reading, back permitting – though the book I’m currently trying to put a dent in, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, may not be the easiest spring reading material, now past the introductory chapters (a literary schlog in the best of times) of this fictional biography of an imaginary composer and now into the section how music came to be his calling. (At the moment, there is his first music teacher, a native of Ephrata PA with its description of a musical system that evolved around the cloisters there!) This will be my third time starting the book: I'd read the whole thing when I lived in New York City in the late-'70s, and started to read James Woods’ new translation when it first came out but, due to one thing and another, put it aside more out of time than interest. We'll see what happens this time around: since it was such a major facet of Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise, it seemed appropriate to reaquaint myself with its details.

Yesterday, I also managed to catch two of the year-old kittens on the blue recliner: Baker had been firmly settled into the chair but Guy decided he liked that spot, too, since he curls up their frequently. Little brothers can be so annoying...

There are other things I need to tend to, also, vying for my time: having finished the short score draft of Evidence of Things Not Seen, I started the full score of the song cycle yesterday before I decided it was too beautiful outside to work inside: then it occurred to me, my old copying desk, a draft-table I’d bought at a Connecticut tag sale in 1975 for $5 is still in the basement. Maybe I can set it up in the sequestered portion of the back porch and work there?

Dr. Dick