Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On the 7th Day of Christmas: Unfinished Books

One of the frequently told jokes about George W. Bush, without getting into any further political commentary, deals with the fire in the presidential library that destroys both his books, especially sad considering he had not finished coloring the one. So it was with amazement and amusement (plus a feeling this was really satire) that I read this article in the Wall Street Journal by Karl Rove about the books he and the President had been reading.

Of course, you would expect a President not to have much time to do a lot of reading much less for one to tally up, say, 95 books. What??? George Bush reads???

Biographies of past presidents like Lincoln, LBJ and Andrew Jackson I could understand, and about popular figures like Babe Ruth and even Mark Twain, along with historical accounts of past wars, even to some extent novels by Michael Crichton or stories about detective Travis McGee by John D. MacDonald – but Albert Camus’ “The Stranger”?

So I feel totally humbled by the fact the President of the United States accomplished way more reading than I managed this year!

Though I like to read, I’m not one to find a lot of time to do so, especially when I’m composing. Then my reading time is usually late in the evening when I’m surrounded by cats who are determined to sit exactly where my eyes are trying to focus or I’m so brain-dead, I drift off easily into the Land of Nod. And this year, I’ve actually done a lot of composing. And nodding.

True, during November, when I was trying to write a novel, I didn’t spend any time reading except when I was doing what writer’s lamely call “research.” Otherwise, the writing style or subject matter you’re reading will find its way into what you’re writing. So during the month of November, I picked at things like, oh... something about the history and geography of Ohio (from the 1930s) called “The History and Geography of Ohio” because one of the settings was an imaginary town in southeastern Ohio in the 1950s... or paging through some 1800 pages of two volumes of a four-volume Mahler biography (I never found volume 1 and the fourth volume was published just this spring but cost $140... I bought the others at a close-out sale for $20 each) which actually did come in useful since there were a couple “composer inspiration” anecdotes that I could make use of for one of my main characters (especially the one about the laxative...).

But there were so many books this year that I picked up to read and for whatever reasons put down and never finished. Yeah, I managed to read a war-horse like Tolstoy’s “War & Peace” again, blogging voluminously about it, but since then I just haven’t settled into one I could ride all the way to the end.

Usually, after a Big Fat Book or something very serious and intellectual, I tend to pick up something of a more popular nature or some lighter fiction, though I’m not into what most people would consider “popular” fiction. But sometimes I’ve just found it difficult to make a commitment.

One book I did finish (and in a matter of just a few days) was P.D. James’ latest, “The Private Patient.” I’ve always been a fan of hers and have read all her published mysteries even though I would not consider myself a fan of mysteries in general. My mother read little beyond the category - but she would often read 1-3 books a week - so I’d gotten her turned on to P.D. James several years ago. For some people, her style would be a challenge but what got me interested in her was a critic’s description of her style being more like Henry James. Since Henry James is one of my favorites – I’ve read all his novels (except one which was not only no longer in print but not even in the library) and some 40-50 short stories in chronological order back in the ‘80s – starting to collect her books was a no-brainer.

But there was, oh... a New York Times best-seller that sounded intriguing until I got half-way through it - Michael Gruber’s “The Book of Air and Shadows” - when I realized Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Shadow of the Wind” (one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time) did it much better. Next to it, there’s a copy of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone” - in German: thinking the writing level might be comparable to what I had managed after a few years of high school and college German, it could be both entertaining and educational, but it turned out to be just one of several miscalculations I've made this past year.

The major “non-finish” so far is Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsoled.” There was a lot to like about the book – the style, the structure, the fact it’s about a classical musician – but there was a lot that was annoying about the main character, a concert pianist who’s in town for a big concert but who seems not to realize that for several days he has not done any practicing until he’s half-way through the book - and who cannot say no to anyone who imposes on his time and good nature. At first, its Escher-like setting-twists confused me but then that became fascinating – how he’d drive miles and miles out into the countryside to attend a reception and then, walking down a dark hallway, go through a door and find himself back in the lobby of his downtown hotel. The fact he has no first name, always referred to as Rider or Mr. Rider, adds an air of mystery but more mysterious is the apparent double-life he seems to be living – a stranger to this town, he appears to be married to the daughter of one of the hotel’s senior bell-hops - and he has a son though there is a great deal about this relationship he can’t quite remember. The occasional flash-backs to his own childhood make me wonder if it isn’t going to end up that the scenes with the woman and the boy are actually going to be about his parents and he is actually the boy. With all the other turns in the story reminding me of prints by Max Escher, it wouldn’t surprise me. And so I’ve felt like I should persevere and just keep reading. But once I put it aside for my novel-writing month, I’ve been unable to convince myself to pick it up again.

And yet if anything I’ve read is structurally intriguing and comparable to some of the things I’m working on musically – let’s call them “variations on traditional forms” – this should be a must!

I had gotten a number of books this past year which are still on my “to-read” shelf:

Sheldon M. Novick - “Henry James: The Young Master
Oliver Sacks - “Musicophilia” though since I haven’t done more than the first two essays, I could’ve waited for the paperback edition to come out
Jared Diamond - “Guns, Germs & SteelANDCollapse,” both
Daniel Pinchbeck - “2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl
Doris Lessing - “The Golden Notebook” I bought it after it was announced she’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year but only read the opening chapter at the time
Francine Prose - “Reading Like a Writer” though it’s excellent to dip into for a few pages here or a few more there
Richard Powers - “The Goldbug Variations” which I’ve started twice but never get more than a few pages into it though I enjoy it (having gotten about 40 pages into another of Powers’ immense books, “The Time of Our Singing,” which I enjoyed not so much) – it’s probably more a time-commitment issue, especially after having downed “War & Peace” in a single stretch of several months
Ann Packer - “Songs without Words,” bought because of the musical title but after realizing it dealt a great deal with suicide, I figured I might wait till a more settled time in my life before breaking into this one
Mark Haddon - “A Spot of Bother” even though, waiting in line at the bookstore and reading the opening pages, it was about a man in a clothing store, buying a suit to attend the funeral of a friend who died suddenly of a heart attack, discovering what he assumes to be a cancerous lesion on his leg... as if I’m not already enough of a hypochondriac, worrying about every little change that could be dismissed as “you’re just getting older”
Randall Jarrell - “Pictures from an Institution” which could be inspiring or dangerous, considering how much of my own novel ambulates around the academic world
Virginia Woolf - “The Waves” speaking of structural wonders, I began reading this earlier in the year but had to put it aside for something else, whatever it was - definitely must get back to this

Part of the problem, no doubt, is this “to-read” shelf is beside my favorite “to-read” chair which is usually full of cats (see right) or, if not, will be as soon as I sit down. While it seems to hold three or four cats with no great sense of discomfort, it is completely impractical as a reading chair when I am joined by even two cats who want to spend quality time with me or, more likely, who want me to vacate the chair completely to them...

I suspect I will have more reading time on my hands, having just made arrangements for the first surgery in my life - fixing the pair of work-induced hernias now that the workman’s comp issues seem to be (please be more than only “seem to be”) cleared up - when I will have a few weeks’ recuperation time in February, just two months short of said hernia’s two-year anniversary. It’s very likely I won’t feel much like composing or writing then, so hopefully I can at least settle into a comfortable chair, cover my lap with something like a tray-table to keep the cats from jumping up on the incisions (ouch) and just read.

At the moment, I am wrapping up a year that began with Harold Kushner’s “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments” by reading David Sedaris’ latest collection, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” which sounds like it should be, perhaps, its sequel, suitable to end the kind of year it’s been.

And I’m also reading Vicky Myron’s story of an orange tabby named “Dewey,” a stray cat who finds a home in a small town library in Iowa. My cats love it – especially the four orange tabbies who kept looking at me like “shouldn’t you be reading that aloud to us?” until I did. They didn’t care much for the bits about the author’s home-life or her growing up, but the part about Dewey checking out the library Christmas tree seemed to go over very well with them even if they found the scene where he ran tearing around the library chased by a plastic shopping bag he’d gotten entangled around his neck very scary (Charlie and Abel then proceeded to show me how this would be acted out in the movie version, but without the plastic bag – that could be added by special affects). It made me very glad I did not, as usual, have a Christmas tree of my own.

One of the things I’ve discovered is of the two birds/one stone variety. My mother had an exercise contraption in the living room, though she was reluctant to use it. It’s a treadmill but she was always afraid she’d get stuck on it when the controls would inexplicably increase to warp-speed and she’d be hanging on to it for dear life, hair and legs streaming out behind her... It’s like taking a stroll or going for a walk but it shouldn’t really be called a stroller or a walker, terms that show the symmetry of life’s stages whether you’ve met Benjamin Button or not. Calling it a treadmill sounds so industrial but after spending a few minutes on it, watching the squirrels feasting on birdseed on the porch, I do feel something like a hamster on a wheel but without the joy. If I try to read, however, I find I can go for 30-40 minutes before I realize I’m getting tired. Reading “War & Peace” on the treadmill was a third bird, I guess, incorporating weight lifting into the exercise regimen.

So that will probably be two new year’s resolutions – read more... on the treadmill.

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On the 6th Day of Christmas: Randomness

I’m getting a little concerned: this morning, there were six squirrels around the bird feeder on the back porch. And a dove in the Japanese maple, waiting patiently. The four doe who’d been through the yard the other night (perhaps other nights as well, only I can’t see them in the darkness) had also discovered the Epimeium “Orange Queen” I’d planted under the maple this spring, its delicate, pale green leaves looking like they should’ve shriveled up and died after a frost long ago until I discovered it is in fact an evergreen. Oddly enough, the Epimeium (or Epimedium), also known as barrenwort or bishop’s cap, appears on a list of “Deer-Resistant Plants.” Well, it became a snack for these deer. Another source says “Cut its leaves to the ground in January or early February, for they will soon become tattered. Removing these old leaves also allows the new flowers to take center stage.” One chore, down...

Better than yesterday, it’s not that today was a particularly successful day, working on the Interludes: several hours spent at the piano throughout the day resulted in a lot of trial-runs for a three-measure passage but nothing so far definitively usable. Nothing on the two pages I scribbled over today looks like it will find its way into the final product, but that too is part of the process, working out various possibilities and trying others if those don’t pan out. The challenge is not to become discouraged. You have to learn how to be tenacious and just keep on going, even after several attempts may have proven unsuccessful when it’s easy to feel you’ve wasted hours or maybe days.

This afternoon, while getting my lunch ready and looking through some old papers from my mother’s desk, I found a letter written to my dad. Even though he’d been suffering from rheumatoid arthritis for over a decade, then, he still managed on good days to draw cartoons on the envelopes of some of his letters or cards, sometimes disguising the address within a caption or perhaps as part of the graphic (I doubt the post office would bother delivering things like this, today). Rather than just write a fan letter, he might create his own original card with another cartoon. Presumably, it was one such card that got him this response: short but pleasant, it reads,

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

“Dear Norm,

I got a great kick out of your card, envelope and everything else connected with your masterpiece. Thanks for thinking of us and I hope that one of these days we can give all you loyal fans a national championship.

Again, thanks. Best wishes and regards.

Joseph V. Paterno
Head Football Coach
Pennsylvania State University.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

The letter is dated January 25th, 1973.

Thirty-six years later, the legendary Joe Paterno is still the head football coach at Penn State, recently renewing his contract for another three years. For those of you “not from around here,” JoePa (as most Penn State Fans refer to him) had hip surgery a few weeks ago, but he’s in Pasadena, California, to coach his team at the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Speaking of tenacious...

Oh yeah, in 1973, postage was 8 cents.

- Dr. Dick

Monday, December 29, 2008

On the 5th Day of Christmas: Five Pieces for Violin & Piano

The plan had been to do some composing this morning and then write about the Five Pieces for Violin and Piano for this “5th Day of Christmas” post. But then the Lawn Guys showed up to get caught up on the shrub pruning and leaf-raking-and-hauling. Since they used leaf-blowers and chain saws, the noise was more than just a distraction and since there were five guys working all around the house, I felt like I was surrounded with no place I could go to get away from it.

Anyone who knows me knows I have sensitive hearing – I was told it’s called “hyperacusis” – where certain frequencies and volume levels seem intensely magnified, ranging from annoying to intolerable. It’s not everything, mostly motor-noises and certain types of fans that produce loud hums whether it’s a vacuum cleaner or a lawn mower or, ironically enough, those “White Noise” noise-masking systems office buildings use these days in highly cubicled areas like my former place of employment.

It always sounded to me like there was a loud vacuum cleaner in the next cubicle. Constantly. It was one of the reasons I have been a lot happier and feeling a lot healthier since being laid off, not having to deal with the constant bombardment of that sound. I used to have headaches every day since we’d moved in there, even without the work-induced stress levels. So it’s not surprising, even with other kinds of long-range stress in my life now, that I’ve had hardly any headaches since leaving there.

Until today.

By the time these five guys were done five hours later I had a five-star headache. Consequently, I’ve gotten no composing done and didn’t feel like focusing on writing for the blog, either. Or reading. Or much of anything else, just sitting around in a kind of glazed-over mode all afternoon. It was only by 8pm that I even started to feel sub-human again.

I had wanted to summarize what’s going on with these pieces I’ve been working on, my latest compositions. It shouldn’t seem like a big deal, five relatively short pieces for just violin and piano – as opposed to a symphony for full orchestra of nearly a half-hour’s length or a string quartet with all the historical baggage and expectations the medium brings with it. But for some reason, I’ve been working on these for a period of over three years, now.

The first one I wrote came about accidentally. In October, 2005, there was a passage I was working on for the last movement of the symphony which not only didn’t seem to fit the flow as well I’d hoped, it didn’t lend itself well to being treated by an orchestra. So I thought it might make a reasonable thing for violin and piano. So I put it aside and started that passage from the symphony over again.

Shortly after that, John Clare, a friend and former co-worker of mine, started talking about maybe doing some kind of recital with him – in addition to being a radio host and interviewer of composers and performers, he is also a violinist. I don’t remember which came first, then, the idea of the recital or the opportunity of playing something for a reception for the Volunteers’ Brunch where we worked, but since that was a few weeks away, I thought it might be cool to write something for the occasion. So I went back to that small sketch I’d started and put aside.

I began composing it on October 22nd and finished it on November 5th, a fairly short time for me, considering the symphony took two years and the string quartet, one. True, it was only a three-minute piece and fairly straight-forward. Plus, given the amount of time we had, it couldn’t be anything too challenging to learn, much less play. It was finished a week before the luncheon and I think we had two, maybe three chances to rehearse it. Not sure what it really was, I ended up calling it “Nocturne” for no better reason than it fit the mood. It was quiet, fairly simple texturally, and sounded kind of French, for some reason. It had a fluid sense of rhythm which actually undercut the existence of any sense of meter. So, “Nocturne” it was.

Putting the notes in the right place was probably harder than just trying to play the right notes. It was a challenge as we read through it, especially considering John didn’t really know what my music was like and I didn’t really know his playing. Plus I hadn’t been practicing the piano for most of the past 16 years and I was never a terribly efficient pianist, anyway.

At one point, I told him the story how the singers working on Stravinsky’s new opera, The Rake’s Progress, had come to the first rehearsal armed with metronomes – even though it was still in a very Handelian “neo-classical” style, the tempo-relationships and rhythms were not easy – and Stravinsky admonished them to put them away and just, as he put it with his thick Russian accent, “make myooooo-sic!” So John and I read through the piece without trying to count each beat and subdivision. Besides, I could follow him and like, who would know, anyway, if we weren’t playing it correctly?

When the Luncheon came, we played through our other prepared stuff for the reception – the Meditation from Massenet’s Thais, some folk-inspired pieces by Andrzej Panufnik, John’s favorite composer, some Bach – I played a few short pieces by Chopin and Schumann that I was able to get back under my fingers . I had asked for three minutes of the program so that the audience could sit and listen to a world premiere of a piece hot off the press, written by one of the company’s employees, but they were very tight on time, so we had to play it while everybody ate dessert and continued talking, before the presentations were made.

Afterward, one person came up and said they liked my piece. The next person came up and wondered when we were going to play my piece. I would say 98% of the people there didn’t even know we were playing, much less what we were playing, but hey...

At least John and I felt comfortable having done a reasonably good job with it and it gave me a chance to think that it needed more to go with it – either other movements to become a sonata or other pieces to form some kind of set. There’s a difference between a sonata where the movements are somehow more integrated (or should be) and just a collection of loosely assembled individual pieces. I thought three would be a good number, but I’d come back to it later – first, I had to finish the last of the Symphony’s five movements.

It wasn’t until mid-April of 2006, then, that I got back to the violin pieces. The “Nocturne” would be the middle of three, so I needed an opening movement of some weight and then maybe a lively final movement. I thought about four or five pieces, but figured three was more practical: time, if it was to be part of a recital, was of the essence. And if I wanted to, I could always add more to it, later.

This opening piece turned out to be a set of variations on a theme that starts off with the open strings of the violin, an inside joke for John, since we’d just been talking about how certain concertos open and then mentioning how the Berg Violin Concerto began, the violinist playing a slow arpeggio on the violin’s open strings (you’d expect either a big theme or something a little flashier than something a beginning student could handle).

By the time I had completed the opening theme, I transcribed my sketch and put the Theme up on a blog-post here.

It was finished at the end of September, over six months after I began, a long time for a piece that’s only five minutes long. But by that time, I felt there needed to be more contrast between the Variations and the Nocturne, so a week later, I began sketching out a scherzo. It had now become most likely four pieces – the finale was still just a vague image, not even really an idea at this point, something about a Chaconne. Maybe.

So I put the Variations aside and never transcribed them from the rough sketches I’d been scribbling down.

During work on the variations, an idea had come to me that didn’t fit in with this piece. It happened when somebody parked their car out front of my apartment and left their CD-player blasting, turning the car into a four-wheel boom-box. It was loud enough, the aluminum storm door at the back of the apartment was rattling to the beat. There was no one in the car and I debated calling the police: after all, the guy’d probably be gone before the cop would get there.

Anyway, I was so annoyed by this incessant beat-box rhythm that I started banging away on the piano to the rhythm but just hitting arbitrary pitches like a petulant child wanting attention. But I kind of liked the sound I’d come up with and I wondered if I could “do” this in my own all-12-note style. In a matter of five minutes, probably, I’d found the pitches that “worked” for me, created out of the same six-note set I was using as the basis for the Variations! Even funnier was the realization that a little flip gesture in the violin was based on the notes that Dmitri Shostakovich used to spell out his “name motive” – D-S-C-H (or D, E-flat, C, B-natural). Since it was the Shostakovich Centennial Year, this seemed quite an appropriate if inside joke between John and myself.

The question, then, was what to do with this little “inspiration,” a gift – it reminded me how Henry James would talk about how the germ of a novel or short story came to him as a “gift” from someone telling him a story or relating an incident that had happened to them. So my Scherzo came about because some idiot left his boom-box blasting away on a week-day afternoon. Even oysters can form pearls out of lesser irritations.

I started realizing how pervasive this “rock motive” is, in everything around me – even in a chorus number from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George – Boom! Chick-a-boom boom Chick!

So when I got around to finishing the Variations, I took this “rock motive” and tried to work on it. There were two items: the original beat-box rhythm, but played in 7/8, not the usual straight 4/4, and then a more “melodic” one measure gesture that kept repeating but changing underneath the surface, shifting meters almost constantly. But this was going to be the middle section of the scherzo, the contrast – an interruption.

But interrupting what?

While I had recently played Maurice Ravel’s Violin Sonata on the radio with its delicious Blues movement – was that around the time Leila Josefowicz played it in Harrisburg with her Market Square Concerts performance? I know the Messiaen Variations she played was something I had to keep out of my mind while I was working on my own Variations. Anyway, I decided to do a “tribute” to Ravel by writing a “mock blues” movement, again in my own all-12-note style and in a form that was not conducive to the standard 12-bar blues form. I wasn’t trying to write real blues, just translating the surface of the style into what was clearly more pastiche than parody (though in a “classical” sense, there’s little difference between the terms).

The funny thing is, as all this started to gel in my brain consciously or not, my upstairs neighbor was playing a jazz disc one morning, louder than usual – and while I was trying not to listen to that, another car drove down my street rattling to the “Boom! Chick-a-boom-boom Chick!” motive. Aha – my interruption!

And so the movement would now be called “Blues Interruptus.”

As the blues line spun out, the pianist, not unlike a car driving by with its radio blasting, would break into this “beat-box motive.” The violinist would then play something irritably to bring the pianist back into line. Eventually the rock motive takes over and finally the violinist just joins in before finally realizing he has to bring the blues back to wrap (not rap) things up. And so eventually the pianist is subdued but not without an echo of it at the very end and a rather bluesy-sounding cadence, for all its 12 notes.

I also blogged about the blues and the intrusion of the beat-box motive here and here. Unfortunately, the simple notation “notebook” software I had freebily downloaded doesn’t permit changing meters, so I had to write everything out in 4/4 which would be more of a nightmare to count. But it’ll give you an idea.

This piece was basically done in late November 2006, about two months in the making. Then I was side-tracked by the idea of “A Christmas Story,” revising what I’d started the previous Christmas and expanding it. Then new neighbors moved in upstairs and now, it was a problem to compose and so for a while I stopped.

Then my mother died and I didn’t feel like composing at all – and going back to work on the Scherzo didn’t seem appropriate in the months afterward. Instead, I finally began composing again in the fall, with a song cycle based on biblical texts, “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” which I also blogged about here.

So once that was done, I began thinking about the violin pieces again. I had one complete piece and another one almost finished, but both still in sketch form which needed to be written out so a violinist could actually play them.

I’ve often described the process of composing a piece as being very much like planning a dinner party. You pick an occasion (what will I write this time?), invite the guests (decide what you’re going to write it for) and then plan the menu (the pre-compositional preparation). Once you’ve assembled all the ingredients, you begin cooking the meal (composing the music). While finishing the piece may be comparable to setting the table, eating the meal is more like performing the piece, but the analogy breaks down because before you get that far, you need to copy the music into a final legible form, getting it ready for a performance. This part of the process – the drudgery of copying it out (and I still do mine by hand, not on a computer which only makes it less drudgerisome) – is like washing the dishes only not as much fun. I have a sink full of dirty dishes so it’s no surprise I have a desk drawer full of uncopied but mostly finished pieces of music...

But first, before copying out the Variations and the Blues movement, I’d already been thinking about the last piece. I’ve blogged before about how the Chaconne came about and how it materialized into a piece. I’d finally begun it in late-May, 2008, and finished it on the 1st of November. Basically five months of composing. It’s a little over 9 minutes long, the most substantial of these pieces.

But now the problem was one of balance. I had four pieces – the fairly mellow Variations, the raunchy little Blues & Rock pastiche, the very mellow Nocturne and now this fairly large-scale Aria & Chaconne. Usually, the weightiest movement opens a work – though, true, Bach ended his D Minor Partita for solo violin, a series of short dance movements, with the vast Chaconne, a masterpiece in its own right. My sense of symmetry usually flows in an arch form – the largest if not the weightiest piece would be the keystone, the middle of this arch and the movements on either side of it would reflect each other – so I had the mellow Nocturne at the end, now, reflecting the mellow Variations at the opening, with the Blues Scherzo leading into the serious Aria & Chaconne. What it needed to complete the symmetry was a mirror for the Scherzo – a second scherzo.

The other thing is, the proportions of all five pieces more or less work according to the same “Golden Section” floor-plan I’d used for the String Quartet, the Symphony and even the biblical songs (see a previous post about “patterns”). Each individual piece is based on this framework and at one point I had thought to organize the Chaconne as the central panel, even expanding it after I’d already outlined it once in order to make it better balance the rest of what would probably now become FIVE pieces...

And so, having washed the dishes on the Chaconne and the Blues Interruptus movements, I’ve now started the second Scherzo.

Yesterday, I posted a little about how its form evolved, the idea of kaleidoscoping four separate, contrasting elements – at one point, even literally labeling them descriptively as “earth, air, fire and water” – and how I decided to call this one short piece – it’s only supposed to be two minutes long – “Four Interludes” and then thinking if the pitch C is the central structural pitch, not quite like saying it’s in C Major, of each segment of this kaleidoscopic treatment, I could jokingly call it the “Four C Interludes.”

And that’s where it stands. The opening scurrying passage has already been hinted at it in the Chaconne but I’ve written the first appearances of the other three “interludes,” the “suspended animation” one, the rhythmic one and the lyrical one which is where I was this morning before the Five Lawn Guys showed up to get my yard ready for winter (it looked like they’d blown several cubic tons of leaves over to the roadside by the time they were done). But at least the piece is falling together quite nicely, so far, which is much better than having it falling apart, which can still happen. How many times have I gotten to a point with some new piece I’ve started working on before thinking, “Gah! This is horrible” only to have some eureka moment when I realize “wow, this is just what it needs,” and off it goes? The best way to work yourself though a creative block, after all, is to beat your head against the wall until you break it down (the wall, hopefully, not your head). It may also explain some headaches I’ve had in the past, but not the one I had today.

So tomorrow is another day and hopefully I will be able to approach it fresh enough in the morning that I can sail right through it. Then, having enough raw material down for the first four sections, I can quickly (well, fairly quickly) fill out the remaining ten sections and not only finish the piece, but consider the whole set of now FIVE pieces not only finished but complete.

And then do the dishes right away...

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, December 28, 2008

On the 4th Day of Christmas: Another Violin Piece on the Front Burner

After waking up to find the dense fog from last night had dissipated – fog so thick, whether it inspired me to have pea soup for lunch today or not, I could hardly tell there were houses across the road if it hadn’t been for their Christmas lights – I saw four large crows in the faint light of dawn, strutting around my front yard before taking off with great yawps to disappear around the corner of the house. Four cawing birds, indeed.

Yesterday was overall a blah day. The weather was blah, my energy level was appropriately blah and anything I attempted to do met with an equal and insurmountable blahness. In the evening, I watched TV, something I have never really done for the past seven or eight years beyond catching the news, and after two hours I found myself so annoyed at the constant repetition of the same commercials or the fact that, switching over to PBS to watch a couple of British sit-coms realized for as little as I’ve watched TV in the past 20 years, I had seen both these episodes and new exactly what was coming next (as if the formulas weren’t predictable enough). So instead, I put on a DVD that had arrived in the mail that day, a performance of John Adams’ opera, Dr. Atomic. I watched just the first act but I’ll post about that later.

The chair behind my computer desk, covered with a sunflower afghan and ostensibly placed there so I’d have a place to sit-and-think when I’m writing or maybe needing to take a break to read or on rare occasions listen to a CD, is usually full of cats. In this picture, there are four cats sitting-and-thinking for me: Abel on the back of the chair, Freddy and Blanche on the seat with their mother, Frieda the fur-bearing cantaloupe, in the foreground. When I took this picture, Charlie and Max were stretched out on the desk between the keyboard and the monitor.

Much of the evening was spent in quality time with a few of the cats. While Abel, Baker and Frieda flopped into a furry orange puddle at the opposite end of the couch, Charlie, the alpha of the kitten band (had I realized this when they were born, I would have named him Abel instead), was relegated to a spot closer to the back of the couch once Max, one of the three older cats and therefore more senior than Charlie, curled up tight against my right side. But each got annoyed when I started petting or scratching the other so I tried to keep my right arm between them to more easily alternate the attention.

At one point, Charlie put one paw out over my wrist, keeping it there whenever I would move my arm. If I moved it closer to Max, his leg would stretch out to accommodate the move. But when I started to nuzzle Max’s neck, Charlie discreetly extended his claws against my skin and gently pulled my hand back. “We’ll have none of that, thank you.” That didn’t keep both of them from purring almost constantly until the couch felt like it had an automatic vibrator function.

Coming back from dinner tonight, I saw the flash of wild eyes caught in the headlights as I pulled up the driveway, though rather low to the ground for deer. Two weekends ago, there were four doe in the yard. Tonight, as I turned the lights toward the eyes, it looked like a deer, but a very short one. Ah, turned out she was resting in the grass: with a stiff clamber, she slowly got to her feet and stretched before I saw the other three, likewise relaxing in the grass and dead leaves behind the Japanese maple. I didn’t want to scare them off, so I just quietly pulled into the garage but then, without the headlights, I was no longer able to see them.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Today had been a less blah if still overcast and unseasonably warm day, feeling as if it was always on the verge of a downpour. Early in the morning, I had settled down at the piano to do some composing. Last weekend, I started the last of the pieces for violin and piano and while I had figured out about 18 measures of this short piece since then, the thought occurred to me, as it had done during Christmases past, to return briefly to a choral work, “A Christmas Story,” which I’d begun in 2005 then started over and reworked in 2006. This time, after jotting down a few ideas for one of the sections that came to me on Christmas Day, I thought I would try to finish the violin piece first, then come back to spend more concentrated time on the choral piece. It would be more practical, perhaps, to use this time to write some piano pieces, but I was never a particularly practical person, much less composer.

This short violin piece, however, took shape quickly: a second scherzo that’s only two minutes long, it consists of four recognizably different sections, each one cut up and interwoven to form a kaleidoscopic form shifting quickly back and forth from a very fast section to a very slow, almost static one, to another one that’s more rhythmic to another one that is more by contrast lyrical. While the static one has no sense of tempo, the other three feel to be each in a different tempo and all of them reflect different moods.

Considering how small the whole piece is, it doesn’t give each section much chance to establish itself, so it has to be a series of easily discernable fragments, creating a quirky interlude that seems not as technically structured as the first three pieces. Since the other pieces all have titles, I was at a loss how to characterize this one: originally, the scurrying first section was going to give it the nickname “A Little Nightmare Music,” though that has already been used by Peter Schickele in his catalogue of P.D.Q. Bach’s music. Once I realized this was not the predominant sound of this movement nor was the suspended, static section all that suspenseful, I thought perhaps “Kaleidoscope” might be more inclusive. Being a scherzo (literally, a joke), I thought having a two minute piece called “Four Interludes” might be humorously accurate.

While my music is not tonal in the traditional sense (if in any sense other than my own), I still wanted to have some kind of tonal organization. Tonality implies a referential central pitch, something a piece begins and ends in and to which other sections, modulating however many ways they might, in some relationship to that center. In the classical era, this might be fairly basic and easily obvious, but as the 19th Century pulled everything else apart, the sense of this “center” did not always hold, either. Though Wagner’s music might be tonal in a nominal sense, sometimes you were often at sea as to what key you might be in at any given moment in between the beginning and ending.

The tonality of a piece or a passage from it can be defined by the progression of its harmonies but in the absence of standard harmonic practice, it can also be implied by emphasizing a particular pitch, a note that might be in the right places at the right times. In this particular piece, I decided at the mid-point of each brief segment, regardless of which of the four “interludes” it may be, would be the note C, either as part of a triad (since you could harmonize a C as part of a C major or minor triad, an A minor, F Major or minor or A-flat Major triad, plus other, more non-traditional chords. One form of choral structure I had used consistently in the Aria and Chaconne was a major triad with an added tritone – a G-flat Major triad with a C-natural. Since there are fifteen of these segments, I will need that many ways of harmonizing the pitch, C...

So that’s how I came up with the title for the piece – the “Four C Interludes,” not necessarily as an homage to Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. It occurred to me, though, that the structure of my piece works in a similar way to his first interlude, depicting the sea at dawn, with blocks of recognizably contrasting elements that flow in and out of one another to create its own form.

It also reminded me one of my Facebook friends, Steve Gregoropoulos (who’d contributed to an earlier post here on his experience meeting Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter), mentioned he was looking forward to the newly released film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Britten. I joked that I wasn’t sure how well Brad Pitt would do in the title role of a composer who wrote his last works as a young man, starting with the opera Birth in Venice, not to mention one of his operas that had been turned into the movie, Grimes of the Heart, but figured it couldn’t be any worse than Sylvester Stallone’s turn in the 1997 film, Copland. Stallone must be more versatile than I would originally have given him credit for, after all those films about Rachmaninoff, also playing Elliott Carter in the 2000 re-make of Get Carter when, 50 years after the original film, people were still having trouble “getting” Carter. (Perhaps it’s time for another visit to Stravinsky’s Tavern...)

- Dr. Dick

Saturday, December 27, 2008

On the 3rd Day of Christmas: a Yard Full of Nature

Today began with news of an earthquake here in Central Pennsylvania, not an area one normally associates with such phenomena, though Dillsburg had been plagued by some in October (you can read the York Daily Record’s report here). The one this morning, occurring just a few minutes past midnight, was located about 7 miles northwest of the city of Lancaster, near Salunga. (You can read WHP’s on-line coverage here.) It was a 3.4 quake and while no damage or injuries have so far been reported, it was heard if not felt as far away as my home-town of Paxtang, just outside Harrisburg, about 27 miles from Greater Salunga as the crow drives up Route 283.

I doubt I would have heard or felt it, living six miles further northeast from there, and if I had, I probably would’ve thought the noise was just a louder than usual truck barreling down Route 81 a half-mile from my place or, perhaps, the cats getting a little rambunctious in the living room. I had passed out catnip toys last night for the batch of them, a post-Christmas treat: there’s nothing quite like nine cats on catnip to make you unaware there could have been anything remotely like an earthquake.

Back in April of 1984, when I was living in a row home in midtown Harrisburg, I felt what did turn out to be a stronger earthquake, registering 4.1. I was sitting in my living room and had heard the neighbor’s kids next door (four boys between the ages of 11 and 17) romping around as usual. They had been known to play basketball indoors when the folks were away and it was not unusual to hear one of them toss another one up against the wall. That’s all I thought it was.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Otherwise, I was thinking back to a post from Christmas Past – and the 12 Days of Theory for all those who ever studied or taught all those rules of official part-writing in an academic four-part harmonic style – I looked out this morning and saw two doves (mourning doves, not turtle doves) sitting in my maple tree. I haven’t seen a partridge (much less a whole family of them) and don’t even have a pear tree. At this point, I’d be particularly surprised to see any hens in my backyard today (there are four hens in this backyard but that’s an everyday occurance). Squirrels are the usual, here.

A couple of weekends ago, driving up to the garage around 10 at night, I saw four doe ambling casually through my yard, a few minutes later just as casually walking around the side of my neighbor’s house behind me, down toward the pond. They probably came up from the creek with its sliver of woods at the end of my road, which they could follow up from one of the back roads that still hasn’t been fully over-built yet, though it’s happening, acre by acre, development by development.

Instead of four calling birds, there’s more likely to be a gaggle of crows, sometimes a dozen, which usually means there’s a hawk in the neighborhood. Hawks have to eat, too, and while I put seed out every morning for the birds, I’ve given up trying to outwit the squirrels who’ve grown really fat this winter, something the hawk will no doubt be thankful for. Still, there’s enough left to attract the family of cardinals who, I think, nest on my property or next door, and the usual busloads of juncos, chickadees and white-crowned sparrows, the occasional tufted titmice, nuthatches and once in a while something more exotic like a wood thrush or golden warbler who seem to be there less for the seed than for the opportunity to crash into my windows.

And mourning doves. For a long time, I rarely saw any, maybe a pair on rare occasions. Then several pairs. Back in the fall – before it started feeling like winter – I counted fifteen doves scratching about on the ground after the tailings from the feeder. Sometimes they would all sit in the Japanese maple as if waiting for the squirrels to leave, plumped up on the branches like ornaments. Then days go by where I won’t see any. The cats enjoy watching the squirrels – they love the doves!

But I have some composing I want to do, getting back into an old Christmas project of yore. Perhaps there will be something to write about in a few days.

- Dr. Dick

Friday, December 26, 2008

On the 2nd Day of Christmas: A Geothermal Update

Considering this past summer I replaced the old oil furnace with a new geothermal heating and cooling system which I blogged about here, here and here, several people have been asking me how it’s going.

So far, the geothermal heating has been working just fine, thank you, aside from that scare back in November when I woke up with no heat (computer error in thermostat, not the technology).

I’ve just gone over my electric bills to compare them to last year while reminiscing over the fuel-oil bills from last winter.

Now that all of my heat is created through electricity – the water circulating through the pipes that is heated or cooled by the ground in my front yard never needing to be replenished or changed, no fuel to deliver, no additional payments to be made accordingly – I’ve compared this last bill (for November – this month’s will arrive next week or so) to the comparable one from a year ago (still with the oil-furnace) and observed a change. At first, I was thinking, OMG, look how much it’s jumped in average daily kilowatt usage, not to mention the sticker-shock of seeing a bill for $139.64! Yikes.

But wait... let’s think about this: how much of this is additional usage of electricity used to generate the heat that used to be supplied by fuel oil last winter? Let’s compare...

Now, granted, the old furnace with its 50 years of excellent service courtesy of the folks at Service Oil here in Harrisburg, was becoming increasingly inefficient. Plus there was the hope it might be able to make it through another winter. If I had replaced it with a new oil furnace and given the fact the rates are lower so far this winter than last (($3.09/gallon in November ‘07 as opposed to $3.99/gallon in March’08), I’m sure I would not be spending $457.41 in fuel oil this month (that was the lowest bill of the season, by the way: the last one was $670.49). But it would still be pretty high, especially considering much of the time I was keeping the thermostat set between 62° and 65° degrees and freezing. This winter, I’ve been keeping the house between 67° and 69° and feeling quite comfortable.

Looking back at the months since Groff’s installed the geothermal system (including the month before it was installed, just for the usual comparison and giggles), I noticed these changes, compared to last year’s electric bills:

July 2007 = 37 kilowatts/average = $111.49 (w/old central air-conditioning)
July 2008 = 44 kilowatts/average = $143.03 (w/old central a/c - a very hot month)
- - - - -
August 2007 = 42 kilowatts/average = $120.91 (w/old central a/c - not as hot as July)
August 2008 = 28 kilowatts/average = $90.84 (the Geothermal System, w/its own central a/c technology, fully operational August 1st - the bill, unfortunately, included the last three days of July which made heavy use of the old a/c system)
- - - - -
September 2007 = 31 kwh/ave = $94.04
September 2008 = 22 kwh/ave = $80.14 (very little geothermal a/c use, just a little geothermal heat on some chilly mornings)
- - - - -
October 2007 = 26 kwh/ave = $84.28
October 2007 = 31 kwh/ave = $98.76 (started using geothermal heat)
- - - - -
November ‘07 = 30 kwh/ave = $ 92.22
November ‘08 = 49 kwh/ave = $139.64 (constant geothermal heat - interestingly, the average daily temperature was the same for both years)

So in this past month, that means I spent an additional $47.42 this year, much of which would be attributed to the increased use of electricity to fire up the geothermal “furnace” or “heat-transfer pump.”

Compared to the fuel oil bill for the same month last year of $457.51, the increase in my electric bill is 10.37% of what I spent last year on one month of fuel oil alone.

Adding up the savings from August and September and adding that to the increases from October and November, that means basically I’ve paid, for four months of geothermal usage, $19.93.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

During the Presidential campaign, there was a great deal of talk from both candidates about “renewable energy sources,” stressing solar and wind power, talking more about “clean coal” (which seems oxymoronic in so many ways) than about geothermal.

So I read this in the New York Times on-line edition last night about how these Green technologies fare during the long cold winter months.

Aside from less sunlight during the cloudy cold days of winter, it seems you’ll need to get out there and shovel not just your driveway and sidewalks but also your solar panels. They appear not to work if they’re snow covered.

So what are people doing on cold cloudy days when those panels on their roofs are covered with snow? Do they have to get up on their roof to wipe off the snow or is there a defroster that warms the panels and melts the snow which would involve additional electricity or heat which the panels are supposed to be generating?

A bus stalled in the middle of the night last winter while driving down a Colorado highway – the culprit was the biodiesel fuel that congealed in the cold weather. The bus company decided not to use biodiesel fuel between November and March.

Wind turbines can freeze up and spew large chunks of ice in all directions. Technically, they slow down and stop when they ice-up. So that means they don’t operate well during particularly cold, stormy times. This means not only are they not producing energy, workers have to suit up and go out in all manner of bad weather to fix them.

Nowhere does the article mention geothermal technology.

For those of you who might be new to the concept – and one of my neighbors misunderstood it and dismissed it, instead installing a new oil-furnace for a little bit more than it cost me to install the geothermal heat-pump (not including the well-drilling cost) – basically, water circulates through pipes buried four feet below the ground. The ground there is about 55° throughout the year, regardless how hot the summer is or how cold the winter is. This water then circulates through a heat-transfer pump that converts it into heating or cooling for my 1800-square-foot house. It needs no additional fuel and runs solely on electricity. It is quieter and cleaner than my old oil furnace, even when it was in peak condition, and there is no additional soot or greasy film being produced as has happened in apartments I lived in with other forms of oil furnaces.

By the way, a “heat-transfer pump” in a geothermal system works differently than one that takes its source from the outside air: if the air outside is below freezing, it’s not a very efficient way to keep your house at a reasonably comfortable temperature. Most of the people who groused “Bah, Heat-Pumps” were talking about air-transfer heat pumps: one website describes them as “often used in moderate climates, [they] use the difference between outdoor air temperatures and indoor air temperatures to cool and heat your home.” A geothermal heat-pump is taking it from water heated or cooled in the ground where the temperature is more or less constant.

Granted, it may not be cost-efficient to just go wild and replace that recent oil furnace, though some people are doing that in order to install a gas furnace, trading one fossil fuel for another. If you find yourself needing to replace an old system with something new, then sure, consider Geothermal! If you are a brave soul and building a new house in this economy, you ought to consider as much Green Technology in the process as you can: it may cost more up-front, but in the long run, you will save more, not to mention helping the Earth.

You don’t get it from a centralized energy-producing company delivered to your house, you don’t need to be built on top of a hot spring, you don’t need a pond in your backyard. All you need is enough ground to sink a few wells into the earth for the water pipes - my front yard has a patch less than 5 feet by 10 feet for two wells (yeah, they’re 250 feet deep, but it's still your ground) plus the trench dug up to the basement wall.

As I said before, basically I am using my own dirt to heat and cool my house.

Aside from the slight increase in electricity this is generating, my house is not producing, say, all that coal ash that needed to be hauled away (I remember the furnace of the house I spent my first 10 years in with its coal-furnace - a technology that appears to be making a comeback) or putting all the stuff you get from burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere.

I am not at the mercy of foreign oil-producing nations or of oil companies who jack up the price of gas, post huge profits, then give CEOs vast bonuses.

The only thing I’m at the mercy of is the electric company which, according to plans, is set to charge up to 40% more once the “rate caps” are lifted here in Pennsylvania. I doubt it will go up as high as fuel-oil expenses had been or might still, but of course there are still numerous ways the tax-paying citizens will be screwed, regardless.

(Don’t you love hearing at Christmastime how the big Wall Street banks, limping along on their share of the 700 BILLION dollar bailout given them by the government were still paying out hefty bonuses to their executives flying around in corporate jets? Yeah, that would test even Mrs. Cratchet’s Christmas spirit, don’t you think? But I digress...)

So I was reading the New York Times article just like I was doing during all those campaign ads and the debates, shouting back “GEOTHERMAL, you guys, TALK ABOUT GEOTHERMAL!” Jeez...

You can read the New York Times blog, Green Inc, to find out a little more about it, too. Only two posts labeled geothermal? Neither of them, actually, refer to the kind of system I have installed in my house! Hmmm... (By the way, here is another New York Times article about a highly efficient form of design, a “passive house” built in Germany.)

So, Merry Christmas – and whatever technology you use, I hope you are staying warm and healthy and happy.

- Dr. Dick

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

'Tis The Season, Chestnuts and All

During the Arts Season which nominally runs from September to May, orchestras and chamber music groups give concerts throughout the year – not including those that offer summer performances as well – but choirs for as long as I remember present two programs a year: one around Christmas and the other in the Spring. Because of the popularity of Christmas carols (that you hear only once a year), it’s pretty unusual to hear anything non-Christmassy on these December concerts. The problem for me over the past two decades or so is that the December Concert has often become an excuse for singing nothing but arrangements of carols, classical or popular, from “Joy to the World” to “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” Rarely do you hear a major work associated with the season, religious or otherwise. The biggest challenge in programing these concerts is just trying to come up with something new and different without repeating the same old/same old year in/year out. Of course there are also budgets to contend with: many “major works” would require an orchestra which would need to be paid and this is often unrealistic and prohibitive.

This season I limited myself (by choice) to two choral concerts. The first, with the Alumni Chorale of Lebanon Valley College conducted by Gregg Mauroni, offered something I thought I’d never hear in this area from an amateur group: a program of works all by living composers, American and British! As well-intentioned as it was, it also lacked a certain variety, perhaps because many of the composers were writing in very similar styles, none of them terribly modern but with sufficient harmonic spice to offend anyone who hasn’t gotten past Rachmaninoff yet. The chorale was certainly enthusiastic in their performance and the audience seemed genuinely supportive of the idea, so perhaps this is a good sign for Classical Music of a more recent vintage. The fact that none of them were really arrangements of popular Christmas carols and songs meant much of the music was unfamiliar, so this was a pretty bold concept. I thank them for not only doing it but doing it with commitment as well as enthusiasm.

When I looked at what the Susquehanna Chorale was going to perform – the last of the holiday season’s concerts – familiarity was, for me, going to be an issue. Handel’s Messiah, at least Part One, the “Christmas Portion.” Now, this is great music but over-familiarity can be daunting. On the other hand, how long has it been since I’ve heard it performed live? And performed well? For that, I suspect I’d have to go back to a Carnegie Hall performance with Richard Westenburg and Musica Sacra about 30 years ago. On the other hand, with 18 holiday seasons behind me in public radio, I had heard enough of Handel’s Messiah (the famous bits, at least) to think I could retire it for a while, not because I find it over-rated or boring, just over-done.

But here was a live performance by a group I have always enjoyed and admired – even when they do the requisite cute stuff in their Spring concerts – and if I was looking for a “major work” to hear on a Christmas program, they don’t come much more “major” than Handel’s Messiah.

I’m not sure how many years ago I’d heard them do Benjamin Britten’s cantata Saint Nicholas, about the original saint before Consumerism turned St. Nick into Santa Claus. This is a work I’d actually heard live several times – one splendid performance in a New York City cathedral back in the late-70s – and I enjoyed the Susquehanna Chorale’s performance as much for how well they sang it as for doing it at all.

Now here I was, sitting in the balcony of Camp Hill’s Trinity Lutheran Church last Sunday afternoon, listening to them sing Part One of Handel’s Messiah – speaking of chestnuts – with soloists from the chorale and a string orchestra. It filled the first part of the concert – it would be about an hour long, after all – and when it was over, I turned to N and said “remind me that I’m in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania...”

“Amateur” is a word usually used to describe a lower-level of proficiency than “professional” when really the only difference is that professionals are paid and amateurs do it for the love, not the money (“amateur,” from the Latin root “amo, amare” - to love). In many cases, given the economic rewards of being an artist, professional or otherwise, it is either do it for the love or not at all, but that’s another topic.

So here is a high level of accomplishment with the intonation, diction, clarity, articulation and precision one expects at the best professional levels. This is not easy music to sing, especially the long running 16th note passages difficult enough for a single voice but which often come out sounding like “ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha” with a splatter-gun effect of approximated pitches when sung by a choir. Not this time.

Though the soloists were listed as members of the chorale, I would have thought they had been brought in just for the performance. But I was assured they are, in fact, regular members of the choir. Some notable highlights in the soloists’ performances were the vocal flexibility in those 16th-note passages sung by both tenor Franklin Osenbach and bass James Hamblin, countertenor Robert Laird spinning out some of the long notes in his upper-register and the clarity, spot-on intonation and effortless high notes for both sopranos, Lynlee Copenhaver and Elizabeth Schoenfelt, especially the latter’s radiance in her aria, “Rejoice greatly.”

Watching Linda Tedford, their conductor since she founded the group in 1981, there is a minimum of fuss from the podium, an economical style that doesn’t get in the way with lots of hand gestures or physical exuberance (which would describe the way many people conduct, myself included), yet never holding anything back from the final results. The hardest work has been done in rehearsals: if they hadn’t figured it out by now, coaxing them isn’t always going to work at the concert. It may be a very “classical” approach but one that doesn’t overlook the heart of the matter – making compelling music.

All of this combined to create an over-the-rainbow moment when I couldn’t believe this was an “amateur” group in Central Pennsylvania.

There were, unfortunately, a couple of moments that brought things down to earth and the realities of a live performance anywhere. One was the absence of the bass player listed in the orchestra personnel, making the ensemble a little lighter sounding than it should have been, especially in the recitatives. The other was an unfortunate disconnect between the lone cellist and the organist that happened a few times during the aria, “Rejoice greatly,” for whatever reason (distance between the players; the organist not being able to hear the cellist; sight-lines between the conductor and the organ, placed behind the chorale; all of the above). But otherwise, I’m sitting there not only enjoying myself – an unexpected delight, given my Bah Humbug scarf – but marveling in what I’m hearing, speaking of “Rejoice greatly.”

As tired as I might be of hearing Handel’s Messiah, I could only wish they were doing it on the installment plan with Parts Two & Three in the Spring. Linda told me afterward she’ll be doing the whole oratorio in the spring with the choir at Messiah College. I suspect I will be there.

Meanwhile, best wishes for a very happy holiday, whatever you observe at this holiday-busy time of year! May your life be filled with love and joy, good things and great music throughout the coming year.

Merry Christmas,
Dr. Dick

Monday, December 15, 2008

A New CD of Elliott Carter's Music

If Thoughts on a Train had a Pick-of-the-Month CD, this would be it. An all-Carter disc from Naxos with eight short works (each between 2½ and 6 minutes long) and two rather more substantial pieces (12 and 14 minutes long, respectively), it is an excellent collection from Carter’s most recent catalogue, five of them composed in the last decade, the earliest dating from 1984 when he was a mere 75 and when most people would have been enjoying their retirement.

There are solo works for flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, violin and cello but also two concerto-like works: one for piano and 18 instruments (“Dialogues,” written in 2004) and another for harp and 7 instruments (“Mosaic” from 2005). The excellent performers are members of the New Music Concerts Ensemble based in Toronto and conducted by flutist Robert Aitken.

If you shop on line, take note of this special offer. And as they say on television, “but wait, there’s more!”

I hadn’t been aware of it when I snatched it from the racks at my local Border’s store, surprised (and delighted) to see it in stock, but it also contains a DVD with a 22-minute documentary that includes part of an on-stage conversation between conductor Robert Aitken and composer Elliott Carter recorded at the Toronto performance in 2006, as well as the concert’s performances of “Mosaic” and “Dialogues.”

Carter’s music is often regarded as formidable and forbidding, terribly complex (so complex that some critics have said you’d need a slide-rule to appreciate it) and as challenging to listen to as it is to play. Granted, it’s not easy-listening and it may be challenging and off-putting on first hearing for its lack of stylistic familiarity, but like any music that you leave your mind open to, it speaks more directly to the mind and heart than a lot of contemporary music of the past fifty years if you approach it on its own terms. If you’re looking for tunes, no, it’s not going to work, but then there’s very little on the opposite end of the spectrum with its simplicity of minimalism that would attract you, either.

There are a few points this DVD-interview-documentary point out that I think might help someone approach this music. First of all, Carter is a comfortably amiable man who is fascinated by the music that is the result of the process, not by the process itself, where it comes from. Aitken points out that in all the years he’s known and worked with Carter – this concert was Carter’s sixth visit to Toronto and the New Music Concerts series – “not once had he ever complained about the metric relationship between one tempo and another,” what most performers consider the most problematic issue in figuring out how to play his music (the transition from one tempo to a successive tempo is called metric modulation but often he’ll write two simultaneous tempos where the parts may be written out in ratios of, say, 5 notes to the beat in one part to 7 notes in another). “He’s more concerned with the color, the dynamic and the meaning” of the music rather than all these other, more technical details.

Being a flutist, Aitken had, on several occasions, asked Carter about writing something for solo flute. Acknowledging that Carter’s style requires counterpoint, he still pressed the idea on him. Even though Carter hemmed and hawed, Aitken suggested “why don’t you write the last movement for the Bach Solo Sonata?” Three week later, Carter called him and said “It’s just about done.” It was inspired by a Petrarch sonnet and entitled “Scrivo in vento,” loosely translatable as “writing in the wind,” serendipitously premiered by Aitken on Petrarch’s 687th birthday, not far from where the poet lived.

There are other literary allusions in Carter’s works, at least in their titles: speaking of “Winds,” he explains he had already begun working on his Concerto for Orchestra when he started to read the poem by St. John Perse entitled “Winds” (Vents, in the original French) and Carter said it struck him “this is so much like what I’m writing, I thought I would shape the piece similar to the poem,” though the idea for the music existed before he had read the poem.

Asked what he was reading now, Carter replied “Rabelais. I’ve never read him before and I’m finding it surprising and very entertaining.” In Old French, Aitken asks? “Well, I have an edition that is Old French on one side and New [Modern] French on the other,” though he can understand much of the Old French fairly well, except some of the “rather indecent words” are not very clear. “You know them in New French?” Aitken chides him as the audience laughs. Carter replies with his own laugh, “more or less!”

For a piano piece written for Peter Serkin, he was inspired by the memories contained in Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” (or “Remembrance of Things Past” in the old translation), a chapter called “Intermittences of the Heart” when the narrator, as a child, recalls his grandmother and all the kindnesses she had done for him, especially that one magical yet disappointing summer they went to the beach at Balbec. The memories are brought about by buttoning his shoes which she used to help him with (“in those days,” he explained, “they used to button their shoes”) and he thought these associations – this beautiful paragraph that goes on for pages and pages – was suitable for a piece of music, “not,” he concludes, “that it actually buttons the shoes...”

The conversation about “Mosaic,” the most recent piece on the program (written the year before this concert) is also insightful for anyone who thinks of Carter as a purely abstract intellectual. It wasn’t a pre-conceived form: “you have to allow the composer some freedom, you know - I don’t know why I wrote it that way.” Designed to feature the harp, that was what he focused on, but he knew “there were these poor people [the other musicians] who ought to have something interesting to play, too... I hate to have all these people sitting around not doing anything and I like to give them something that will entertain them or interest them to play – that’s something in my mind, too, like many other nutty things.”

You would think somebody who writes music as precise and detailed as his music is would be very strict about how a piece is performed. But he say “there’s Hamlet which can be interpreted in 20 different ways, perhaps, but it’s still Hamlet.” The variables and possibilities of interpretation intrigue him: the score is basically “a message to the performer of certain intentions of the composer’s imagination: the performer then has to add his own imagination.” Of course he wants them to play it as closely as possible to the score as he’s written it, but “I do think even so it’s possible to have it interpreted in many different ways.”

And where does a new piece begin for Elliott Carter? Surprisingly, much the same way one would have begun for Beethoven. Often, he says a new piece comes to him “when I’m walking on the street” (this, by the way, from a man who was 97 at the time). He thinks about texture, how the instruments might sound together – maybe there’s some literary idea or association that gives him a spark, but not themes, at least not themes as people normally think of them today (a very 19th Century concept). Carter deals more in “fragments of themes,” a few small shapes he might expand into longer and longer lines. But basically, he admits “I think it’s different each time.”

One of the technical problems in writing for the harp, getting back specifically to the new piece, “Mosaic”, is the fact this is basically a diatonic instrument in a chromatic world. Unlike the piano which has strings and keys for every pitch in the chromatic scale, a harp would be too vast and cumbersome an instrument for that, so it has strings only for, basically, the white keys of the piano and then a series of pedals bristling around the base of the harp, foot-level, for each pitch. The D Pedal, for instance, will affect all the D Strings on the harp and depending on whether the pedal is up, down or in the middle will determine whether it will be D-sharp, D-flat or D-natural. Consequently, playing something that is as intensely chromatic as Carter’s music involves a lot of fancy foot-work.

As he said, even though it took less time to write this piece than many other pieces of comparable length (“why, I couldn’t tell you”), he was “trying to keep the lady from pedaling on every note.” To which Aitken responds with a chuckle, “You did a very bad job, I have to tell you.”

“Well, it’s almost as if she’s driving a car,” the composer replies. If it made it difficult to play, you wouldn’t know it from the performance or for that matter, from watching the video.

The only problem with the video, though, is the frequent reliance on kaleidoscopic special effects playing on the title, “Mosaic.” The video for “Dialogues” is just straightforward and therefore less distracting to the music. Not, however, a big concern considering the quality and seeming effortlessness of the performance along with the opportunity to hear and see a piece by a composer like Elliott Carter. There is something about having a “document” like this interview, however, that is so incredibly special. What would our appreciation be of, say, Beethoven’s or Bach’s music if we could have a video of an interview with them, watching and listening to them talk about what inspired them, what they thought about when writing the music we know, and discovering in general just what normal people composers really can be?

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Extracts transcribed from the interview between Robert Aitken and Elliott Carter produced by Moving Headshot Productions, Inc, from the Naxos CD/DVD “Elliott Carter 100th Anniversary Release (which is not called a “100th Birthday Release” because, recorded in 2006, who knew for sure, you know...)

Concerts with Carter: The Birthday Celebration Continues

Since I was unable to attend any of the concerts this past week in New York celebrating Carter’s 100th Birthday, I was glad to receive an e-mail from my friend Dan Guss (on the right in the photograph taken by John Clare last January when the Pacifica Quartet played the five Carter String Quartets in one concert), especially about one program I didn’t even know was happening, an all-Carter concert that took place in Zankel Hall the night after the official 100th Birthday (Zankel Hall is a smaller recital hall in what would be the basement of Carnegie Hall: real estate being what it is in New York City, these days you either go up or down if you’re going to build an addition...).

UPDATE (12-16-08): Here is Steve Smith's review in the New York Times.

Here is Dan’s report from the festivities which he has allowed me to share with you:

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On his actual birthday, in the main hall upstairs, the Boston Symphony had celebrated by playing the NYC premiere of his "Interventions" for piano and orchestra (Barenboim as the pianist, Levine conducting), completed in 2007, and they had rolled out a huge birthday cake afterwards, with a sparkler in place of the customary 100 candles... Carter mimed swiping his finger through the frosting and tasting it... he was clearly in good spirits.

But [the next] night, as part of the "Making Music" series, where composers are present and interviewed during the course of a concert of their music, he sat on stage before the start of the concert with Jeremy Geffen (Carnegie's Director of Artistic Planning) interviewing him, and one could see he was wearing red socks. My first thought was to flash back to the musical "Damn Yankees", where the character of Mr. Applegate (a/k/a the devil, a role I played in a summer camp production at the age of 11) wears red socks, the only betrayal (at first) that he might have something diabolical about him (that, and being able to snap his fingers and light peoples' cigarettes). But then I decided that, for my 100th birthday, I want a pair of socks just like that.

[There's a women’s group, “The Red Hat Society,” partly inspired by the poem “When I am an old lady, I will wear purple.”] A friend of mine who is an active member told me about it, and it has turned into something of a national movement. Well, recalling that last night, I decided that there are three charter members of "The Red Socks Club" [not to be confused with a certain baseball team – ras] only one of whom is actually alive (much less actively composing): Elliott Carter, Leo Ornstein and Irving Berlin (the latter two will receive their membership posthumously, of course). And we have a pair on order for Milton Babbitt...

Carter seemed to enjoy himself last night. He told some amusing stories, including one about how Nadia Boulanger, upon hearing he was going to hear Salome that evening and didn't know what to expect, took down the orchestral score from the shelf and played and sang through the entire thing at the piano, interspersing comments about how ugly it was ("C'est terrible!") while her other students waited outside and wondered what all the noise was about.

There were a couple of moments that actually made me laugh out loud. In one of them, he referred to the Ravel Duo, which he studied in preparation for writing one of the pieces being played that evening (Duettino for violin and cello, given its world premiere), as being a piece that was very good... mostly.

Even better was the moment when Geffen recalled to him his attendance at the New York premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps back in 1924, which he has acknowledged was what made him want to be a composer. Geffen mentioned that a large portion of the audience walked out that evening, and questioned Carter about why he found that attractive.

"Well, you know how young people are," Carter quipped.

And then, Geffen cheekily asked him how he felt about all the appreciation he had been receiving over the last season of celebratory concerts. Carter's response: "Well, you know, after experiencing the opposite for so long, I begin to wonder if somehow I had made a mistake." And then went on to say it was gratifying nonetheless.

He didn't reappear on stage for a second interview before the second half of the concert, but filmed interview segments were shown periodically throughout the evening, obviously done at different times (here he seemed to be in his late 80s or early 90s; there, much closer to his current age). But they served to humanize the instinct behind some very abstract music, as he explained how (for example) the flute was a woman and the cello a man (Enchanted Preludes) [the work was commissioned by Harry Santen as a tribute to his wife, Ann, both ardent supporters of American music - ras]; how he was interested in the challenge of balancing the harp in an ensemble (Mosaic, here given its NYC premiere); how, as Stravinsky once said, the music is about the music, and that he doesn't strive to convey emotion, although he assumes it's in there; how various dedicatees influenced his choices (many of the works were homages - Lutoslawski, Boulez, Calvino, etc.) and so on.

It really would have been a good program for people unfamiliar with his music, as it tried to provide a frame of reference. But, of course, the hall wasn't full (though the concert still was well attended), and those who came were the converted anyway.

There were eight works on the program, only one of which (Esprit rude / esprit doux) I had heard before. There were nine players in total, four of whom played in many of the pieces (cellist Fred Sherry, clarinetist Charles Neidich (once my downstairs neighbor) and violinist Rolf Schulte each played in five; flutist Tara Helen O'Connor played in four). One piece (Mosaic) required a conductor, Donald Palma.

The oldest work on the program dated back to 1974, when he was a stripling of 65, but most dated from the last three decades:

Canon for 4 (1984; fl, cl, vln, vc) [dedicated to Sir William Glock]
Enchanted Preludes (1988; fl, vc) [birthday present for Anne Santon]
Duettino (2008; vln, vc) [homage to Milton Babbitt]
Mosaic (2004; fl, ob, cl, vln, vla, vc, cb, hp) [influenced by Carlos Salzedo]
Con leggerezza pensosa (1990; cl, vln, vc) [homage to Italo Calvino]
Gra (1993, cl) [80th birthday present for Lutoslawski]
Esprit rude / esprit doux (1985; fl, cl) [60th birthday of Pierre Boulez]
Duo (1974, vln, pno) [dedicated to his wife, Helen Carter]

The oldest work was the thorniest; there's something to the idea that his more recent music is a little more transparent (though he's having none of it).

As I listened, I realized something that hadn't quite hit me before: there are certain instruments I like more than others, and when he uses them, I like the piece more than those of his when he doesn't. Those instruments include flute, clarinet and harp. So I found a lot to like on this concert, in that the flute is used in four of the pieces, and the clarinet in five (the harp was only in one, but it was featured). At one point, it also occurred to me that some of the music reminded me of Webern, with some of the rests filled in.

All in all, whether one liked the music or not, it had a tinge of historical import about it, as did Thursday's BSO concert, which dragged out until nearly 11:00 p.m. despite there being only about [appropriately enough] 100 minutes of music. It opened (late) with Barenboim and Levine performing the Schubert Fantaisie in F Minor for piano 4-hands (Barenboim upper, Levine lower), which was sort of slapdash (Levine's performance with Kissin only a few years earlier was more deliberate). There followed one of the best performances of Beethoven's C Minor Piano Concerto I had ever heard. Lots of applause, a long intermission, then the Carter work... and by the time they started Le Sacre, it was later than most concerts let out. Excellent performance of that, too (and I was sleep deprived going into the concert, and stayed awake for everything), and quite different from the Boulez/London and Salonen/Los Angeles performances I've heard in the last few years.

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Dan and I have been close friends ever since we met in the mid-70s at the University of Connecticut where I was on the faculty and he was a graduate composition student and teaching assistant. I was amused by Dan’s response to the Duo for Violin & Piano which he felt was the thorniest (and oldest) of the pieces on Friday night’s program. While I imagine it will be a long time before anyone comes up with “The Most Relaxing Elliott Carter Disc Ever,” it took me a bit to warm up to the Duo after a first hearing back when it was new, but with repeated listenings, it quickly became a piece I could say I loved. Even today, it’s probably still my favorite work by Elliott Carter. On the other hand, I also remember another of our teaching assistants who dismissed the Duo as “the most obvious piece Carter ever wrote”: certainly it was less technical than the 3rd Quartet with its two duos each playing a different number of movements (if I recall, they were both on the same LP). But I’ve just heard “Mosaic” for the first time and find it a very striking and completely different kind of work, whether it’s a more distilled or transparent style or not (I’m not sure I’m buying that concept, either). There’s a new recording of it on Naxos with several other pieces which I’ll blog about it, with any luck, later today or tomorrow.

Another fond memory – when I’d go into New York, I’d stay at Dan’s apartment in upstate Manhattan and at the time, one of his neighbors was a young clarinetist named Charles Neidich. I was very impressed: I’d heard him playing with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. In the past, there had been new neighbors who would assure me, when I told them I was a pianist, “oh, I love classical music, you can play all day, if you like” who do not realize “playing all day” is not the same as “practicing all day.” Especially if they’re expecting Beethoven and Mozart and I’m composing my own music instead. So here I was, listening to Neidich practice the Weber Concertino (as I recall) and thinking after a couple hours, “okay, I think I’ll go out for a walk, now.” After hearing him most recently performing Carter’s “Gra” for solo clarinet and the new Clarinet Quintet written specifically for him, I can’t imagine what it would be like for his neighbors to have been listening to hours and hours of his practicing Elliott Carter. Except for me – I would have preferred that over Weber any day...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Elliott Carter Begins His Next Century

Elliott Carter is probably (and rightly) tired of answering questions about what it feels like to be 100. He says he's just going on day by day thinking about the music he wants to write today and the next day and the day after that.

So yesterday, knowing there were things on-line about Carter’s birthday I wanted to hear, I finally broke down and bought some new speakers for my computer, to replace the two sets the kittens had chewn through in the past, particularly Freddie the self-appointed Director of Wireless Technology (he has also chalked up several mice – not the usual ones you’d associate with cats – a couple of power packs, an old headset which I was going to throw out anyway, an antique high-intensity lamp from the ‘70s plus various phone cables).

New speakers allowed me to partake of two things last night: doing more than lip-reading the Charlie Rose interview with Elliott Carter, James Levine and Daniel Barenboim, recorded before the Boston Symphony performance at Carnegie Hall of Carter’s new “Interventions” for Piano and Orchestra, which aired on Wednesday. And what WNYC was broadcasting on-line, called Carter@100.

I managed to get through the whole evening without getting the wires chewed (more discreet placement seemed to do the trick, placing them in areas the cats are now too big to get into: in the past, when I had a wire-chewing cat, someone told me to rub a paprika-and-barbecue sauce mixture on the wires which, aside from being quite the antidote to the usual eau de cat-litter box, the cat developed a taste for, sitting there licking the wires clean and eager for more...)

At the moment, I don’t have time to write a more extensive post * (as one expects here...) so I’ll just point out a few links:

The New York Times article which, this morning, included a photo taken on the stage of Carnegie Hall with the composer, conductor and pianist and a huge 100th Birthday cake (fake, it turns out), also includes a side-bar (on the left) with a three-minute excerpt from Interventions as well as bits from the interview audio between Daniel J. Wakin and Elliott Carter.

It’s easy to imagine the composer, bombarded by requests for interviews from everybody on the planet all asking the same questions over-and-over again, getting exasperated, here – at one point, he loses his cool when asked “what it is about your music that appeals to such top-level interesting musicians” and responds “because it’s top-level music, what else could I answer?!,” softening it with a chuckle – that Wakin concludes the printed interview,

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With the interviewer out of the apartment, Mr. Carter was heard on the other side of the door saying to an aide, “I’ve got to rest a little after this nonsense.”

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Anthony Tommasini’s New York Times review of the concert describes the work as well telling the story that Carter, having been commissioned for a piece to be played on the occasion of his 100th Birthday, finished in and had the score to Levine by May of 2007, wanting to finish it right away rather than put it on a back-burner since the event was a year-and-a-half away: after all, Tommasini says, “who could count on his being around and active on his 100th birthday?”

Tommasini also points out what it might have been like if Beethoven had lived to see his 100th birthday rather than dying at the age of 56, what music he may have heard – attending the premiere of Tristan, for instance – well, let’s forget the fact that Beethoven was deaf if we’re going to play “What If...?” – and then ends the article by saying, after Carter returned to his seat to listen to the orchestra play Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, “surely, Mr. Carter was the only person in attendance who had also heard the Carnegie Hall premiere of the piece nearly 85 years ago.”

Steve Gregoropoulos, in writing his reminiscences of attending masterclasses with both Messiaen and Carter in 1978 – when both composers turned 70 – also mentioned that “someone who was 5 years old when Beethoven died would only be 91 when Elliott Carter was 5 years old (and lots of people live to be 91).”

NPR's All Things Considered had a great segment on Carter's Birthday with lots of great comments and reminiscences, not to mention the usual side-bar of goodies! One of those includes another 3-minute excerpt from Interventions, starting at the beginning.

Carter has always been more regarded and more frequently played in Europe than in America: here’s Anastasia Tsioulcas’ article from the British magazine Gramophone which I’d seen before but just located again this morning looking, of course, for something else: it’s called “Who Gets Carter?”

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Listening to Terrance McKnight on WNYC last night, the evening dedicated to Carter’s birthday, I expected in the first hour, called “Elliott Carter: the Early Years” to hear music Carter composed before he developed his signature voice in the 1950s but instead heard music by composers who would have influenced him – Ives (something from 3 Places in New England, though I didn’t catch the back-announce), Stravinsky (the 3 Pieces for String Quartet, not the Rite of Spring which he heard in Carnegie Hall which prompted him to decide on composition as a career), some innocuous cello and piano piece by his future teacher Nadia Boulanger (composed in 1915 which was so annoying, I wondered how she could go on to become the inspirational teacher she would become – what talent was exhibited in this piece was thoroughly pedestrian compared to the music her sister Lili was composing), and then, for some reason, Samuel Barber’s lovely lyrical Violin Concerto – all of it – which though lovely and lyrical and probably more fashioned to the kind of listener who’d be tuning in to hear some pleasant classical music while watching their fishtank after a hard day’s work, had nothing ostensibly to do with Elliott Carter, the topic of the program. The fact that it was composed during Carter’s early lifetime doesn’t make it topical. So I switched over to watch the Charlie Rose interview instead.

The 8:00 program, billed as a tribute to Carter, brought in as guest Nadia Sirota, the over-night host on WNYC, who is also a violist and, as daughter of composer Robert Sirota, someone who grew up with all kinds of modern music in her life, including Carter’s. There was music by Conlan Nancarrow – some of the fascinating player-piano pieces that explore the same kind of temporal relationships that Carter would start exploring in the ‘50s – and some fascinating music by 14th Century Flemish composer Johannes Ciconia with a “choral“ piece in which the vocal line is sung in several different tempos at the same time, just to prove that Elliott Carter’s use of contrapuntal tempos is neither his own idea nor something even relatively contemporary.

There was, as well, something by the Grateful Dead since Phil Lesh of the band has been very public about finding inspiration in Carter’s music and that both found Jazz from the ‘20s and ‘30s to be a major influence. Carter often talks about how the band would set up a steady tempo and then someone, say a clarinet, would improvise a line that had little immediate relevance to the going tempo (it always makes me chuckle to hear something in one of Carter’s String Quartets where the cello plays steady beats exactly like a jazz “walking bass” while one of the other instruments starts a riff that just takes off in complete independence from that pulse).

And finally there was also some Carter – an excerpt from his String Quartet No. 1 and Fred Sherry’s performing the Elegy from 1939 (ooh ooh, incidentally, the same year Barber wrote his violin concerto) which has become known through a version for viola and piano or for string quartet or string orchestra (where it does sound like Carter’s own version of Barber’s Adagio for Strings). The story goes that it was originally written for a cellist – Carter couldn’t remember who or for what occasion, if the Elegy was specifically dedicated to someone’s memory – and the manuscript had become lost. But Carter wasn’t pleased with the viola version and Fred Sherry, a frequent performer of Carter’s music, was hoping somehow, during the last decade, to talk Carter into reconstructing this early work. And in a couple of days, he did, going back to a style he had not composed in for some fifty years to try remembering a work written perhaps 60-65 years earlier. (On the station’s website, it was billed as “a new Carter work written specifically for him” – no cigars, there: it would be a revision of an old piece, not a new one.) They then played it. Okay.

At one point, McKnight and Sirota, in their pleasant bantering, pitted something by Philip Glass against Carter’s Duo for Violin and Piano, both works composed around the same time to highlight the fierce dichotomy between “Downtown” Music and “Uptown” Music in the ‘70s. Downtown was the hot-pot for the new Minimalism while Uptown was the cerebral intellectual stronghold centered around Columbia-Princeton and the followers of Schoenberg and Webern. The competition was very fierce and only now, as a new generation of composers and performers manage to enjoy both without feeling the need to be either/or about it, music in New York may be becoming more “Midtown” by compromise. But it was a very real divide, back in those days – I lived in NYC between 1978-1980 and I can attest that it was just as bitter then as Blue States and Red States are today. (Incidentally, I did more than just live Uptown...)

Eventually, they got around to playing the premiere performance of Carter’s Clarinet Quintet which had been completed in September of 2007 and played at Juilliard in April 2008 (I loved how Carter, in his conversation about it, had fun with how long ago that seemed, hearing it now: “and I’ve written several newer pieces since then,” he added with his impish chuckle). It was great to hear it again – for the third time, actually: they played it twice at the premiere, before intermission and again afterward, following a conversation and show-and-tell with the composer, the performers and the dean of the school.

And that was basically it after another performance of Ives’ 3 Places in New England (complete, this time).

Most of the music that I would have wanted to hear – music BY Elliott Carter – was going to be played on Sirota’s overnight show, segregated into the X-Rated Hours after midnight when the listenership is so low, statistically, who cares if you offend people with modern music, though I’m sure her regular fans are probably not likely to be those wanting to hear Pachelbel’s Canon to wile away their insomnia. But I digress...

So, tonight, after I get some more copying done on my Aria & Chaconne, I’ll sit down and listen to some of Carter’s own music to begin the celebration of Carter’s next century.

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Incidentally, I want to acknowledge Meredith Heuer who took the photograph of Carter in my side-bar - I've seen it everywhere but rarely credited.

* Okay, so it's 1,853 words...