Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Echoes of Music Past

In the past few months, aside from not blogging a lot, I’ve had the opportunity of coming back into contact with two works that were very influential to my creative upbringing, works that I didn’t really hear for a long time, now. As if rediscovering these works, I also kept hearing things that I’d written “under their influence,” so to speak, in some cases music of mine I’d completely forgotten about.

This past weekend, I saw what is still one of my favorite operas, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, though I can’t say I’ve sat down to listen to it (much less see it) in probably a couple decades. I had discovered it through the recording at the Harrisburg Public Library when I was in high school, after my music teacher had introduced us to opera through an experience that involved first of all familiarizing yourself with the plot, listening to a recording with the score (good for a musician) and then seeing the opera, in this case in a film.

Before that, I can’t say I cared much for opera, having tried to deal with the Met Opera radio broadcasts but feeling totally lost because of the lack of the visual element and usually missing the plot synopsis given before each act by the radio host. So after being grounded a little better with my “first opera,” Puccini’s La Boheme, a bunch of us drove down to Philadelphia to see the Met on tour with Puccini’s Turandot (seeing Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli battling it out in the “Anything you can sing, I can sing higher” duet) and then Bizet’s Carmen (one of the operas I remember giving up on the year before).

I remember also reading about Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron which was actually the first opera recording I bought, the old Columbia LP conducted by Hans Rosbaud (I believe this was of a 1954 live radio broadcast performance, released in 1957 which I picked up in 1966 or so). Not familiar with Schoenberg’s language at the time, I found it a dramatic disappointment though not necessarily a musical one. It wasn’t until I started digging into Britten’s first opera that I discovered – aside from, aha! English, which I can understand – something that combined dramatic sense with appropriate music. That then allowed me to get the gist of what other composers were doing in their own languages and musical styles.

A few points struck me, while watching Peter Grimes on the big movie-screen in the Met’s HD broadcast at the local cinema:

In the first scene, the inquest investigating the death of fisherman Grimes' apprentice, the opening woodwinds clucking away personify the citizens of the Borough gossiping back and forth (as Nico Muhly described it in his essay on Grimes at the Met’s website, “like insects bothering a cow”). The questions to the witness are placed in straightforward recitative which Grimes then proceeds to answer at a slower tempo, interrupted by the lawyer continuing in his original tempo.

This musically represented the difference between Grimes’ own personality as opposed to the people of the Borough, the outsider versus his community, better than any statement that could have been sung by some character telling us “Grimes is an outsider, here: we don’t like him.” This is what writers are advised when they begin to write prose: show, don't tell.

Britten had used this device one other time to accentuate the separation between Grimes and the Borough. During the big storm, everyone has gathered at Auntie’s, the local pub, but after Grimes makes an unexpected entrance, someone tries to revive their spirits with a song, “Old Joe has gone fishing,” a round which Grimes then obliterates when he joins in, singing in a completely different key and slower tempo. On the surface, it’s as if somebody who can’t carry a tune or find a beat in a bushel basket wants to sing in the choir, but the division between protagonist and antagonist (depending on your viewpoint who is who) is musically clear.

It’s interesting that this is reversed in a climactic scene in the second act when Grimes comes to take his new apprentice out fishing on Sunday and his meeting with the schoolteacher Ellen Orford, one of two people in the Borough who wants to help Grimes, turns into a confrontation when Grimes’ temper flares: while fragments of this scene float disjointedly through Grimes’ “mad scene” in the final act, the turn-around actually comes in a sequence of lines where Ellen is asking Peter if they were wrong to, essentially, try rehabilitating him in the community’s eye: she sings long, lyrical lines, but he cuts her off with short declamatory counterattacks in a faster tempo - the reverse of the trial scene.

How many times had I used this musical trick? I thought it was my later discovery of Ives’ music and subsequently Elliott Carter’s that my interest in “contrapuntal time” evolved from, the idea of strands of music sounding as if they’re in different tempos. But perhaps it all began here, with Peter Grimes and his outsider-ness?

But this “trick” was not necessarily Britten’s own: he got it from Verdi – pick almost any ensemble in a Verdi opera where characters are defined by their independent rhythms and melodic lines – and also from Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, most obviously in the disparate worlds colliding in the opening of the third act, when the lively dance-music from inside Auntie’s pub intrudes on the slow, chilling night music of the moonlit sea interlude. Which, in turn, one could say came from Mozart’s three dance bands in Don Giovanni, each one a different dance and meter.

When I was in college, I began setting Ibsen’s drama “Ghosts” as an opera – for some reason, I had re-titled it “Through a Small Glass Darkly” until I decided I liked that title better for my next opera, and since I never got around to writing the second half of the Ibsen, it didn’t really matter. But there were several fingerprints from Peter Grimes that showed up: even though the self-righteous carpenter Engstrand is only one person, not a whole borough-ful of them, I used Britten’s nattering woodwinds and similar passages to represent the pettiness of characters like the Lawyer Swallow or the Rector Horace Adams to develop his musical characterization. In the discussion between the officious Pastor Manders and the free-thinking and strong-willed Mrs. Alving, I used differences of “perceived tempo” (keeping the actual beat the same but having it sound as if one was moving in a slower tempo, simply by expanding the pulse) to point up their differences of opinion.

Curiously, it was one of these scenes that I had copied out and actually sent to Britten in 1971 when I was thinking about emigrating to England and hoping perhaps to study with him or work for him (in much the same way he wanted to study with Alban Berg in Vienna). I got a very nice reply back from him which remains one of my treasured possessions: he was very kind in advising me how difficult it was in England to make a living as a musician though he would make every effort to meet me and offer what help he could, but “you must remember how very busy I am,” not saying “yes” but not saying “no” either. (At the time, he was perhaps already working on Death in Venice and, little did I know, the next year putting off heart surgery for fear of not being able to finish what would become his last opera: I keep the letter in my vocal score of that opera.) So here I was, fresh out of college and either going to Eastman or to England, but I wasn’t strong enough, money aside, for the unknown adventures that awaited me if I decided on England. Whatever may have happened to me there, it would be a different me sitting here now, and that game of “what if?” was something occasionally playing through my mind while watching Britten’s opera.

There was another moment that sent me into a swoon of recognition: when the men of the Borough leave to go to Grimes’ hut in Act II, Ellen Orford, Auntie and her two nieces (who usually sing as one voice just a little apart) are left behind to sing a quartet of rapturous beauty, full of freely interweaving, high arching lines with close harmonies producing delicious dissonances that resolve amazingly. The emotional impact of this music – which I had forgotten about – was something that I imitated in my Requiem: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed (which was also hugely influenced by his War Requiem), in passages in another opera, The Trojan Women, and frequently in instrumental music as well, in sections of the more recent String Quartet, the Symphony and now the climax of Evidence of Things Not Seen which I’m the process of realizing from sketches, where it’s more the solo voice sliding through the instrumental harmonies and rubbing up against them before their resolution. In fact, thinking about this piece, I would describe the voice part, singing against standard triads in the orchestra, as singing practically every pitch except those in that triad, something Britten often did not only in Grimes but also in Death in Venice. And so the influence persists and this continuity from the past (in fact, following a long hiatus, connecting my present with my past) was comforting.

These cribbings might be more integrated into my own style now, more successfully than some imitations I had committed in my earlier works when, infatuated with this piece or that piece, I went less for the detail and more for the overall effect, writing something that sounded a lot like Vaughan Williams (I had fallen in love with his 5th Symphony) or Bernstein (mostly his Jeremiah Symphony and the Chichester Psalms) or, in a more short-lived sense, Stravinsky (primarily Les Noces).

Sitting at the Kimmel Center for a concert by to the Philadelphia Orchestra – I had gone to hear Jennifer Higdon’s “The Singing Rooms” – I confronted another one of these past voices while listening to them play Bernstein’s first symphony, his “Jeremiah Symphony.” This is a work I also had not heard much in the past 20 years, maybe once or twice but not really “listened” to the way one sits in a concert to actively involve yourself in the music. Though I can’t recall too many specific moments where it cropped up in my own music – beyond, at least, the Requiem – I recalled several unfinished works or projects where I borrowed this bit or patterned something after that bit. I think mostly what I was recalling was how much I was listening to this piece then, back when I was in high school and college. But the elements I cribbed or that inspired me to write certain passages in the Requiem, oddly enough, where those more exotic details that define Bernstein’s sound as a Jewish composer – scales and turns of phrase borrowed from Jewish cantillation, the liturgical chant of the Temple, and dance rhythms (especially in the middle movement, “Profanation”) that prove Bernstein was Jewish and Saint-Saens, in his Bachannal from Samson & Delilah, was not. Not being Jewish myself, I had to laugh a little at this borrowing which has nothing to do with my own heritage, wondering how this made my own music sound.

Listening the other day to an interview with Elliott Carter in which he talked about his early influences from – surprisingly, I think, for most listeners – jazz, I suddenly realized I can hear this translation that continues to resonate in the music he’s writing now, getting ready for his 100th Birthday this December. And I wonder if a composer ever escapes these early influences or how he (or she) transforms them (or not) into what becomes an original voice?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Evidence the Piece Is Done

There’s a kind of exhilaration when a composer finishes a new piece, mixed with a sense of farewell laced with the realization of course the piece is never really done. In my case, the song cycle “Evidence of Things Not Seen” has only reached the conclusion of the First Step: the sketches are done. There’s still a lot more to go and the next process needs to be started immediately before it gets side-tracked: realizing the sketches into a more final form that gets it closer to the possibility of being performed.

Thinking back over the months it took to gestate, then the five months and eleven days it took to compose it, it’s not easy realizing how much time it’s taken to create about fifteen minutes of music. When I think there were times when I didn’t feel the urge to write or got bogged down in the mechanics of a passage that was taking forever to figure out as well as quite a few times I just couldn’t write even if I wanted to (my work schedule, getting hit by a flu-bug), I still have more time to compose than some of my friends do. Talking with a former-fellow-student from my Eastman days, now teaching at a major American music school, I mentioned “I can only write a few hours every day” rather than really concentrate on it for five or six hours like one might for a ‘real job.’ He paused and said with a kind of awe in his voice, “You write every day?” Then I realized, of course, he can’t. Because he’s teaching, sitting on committees, dealing with departmental business and academic bureaucracies, the only time he might have to concentrate on composition is during the summer. Suddenly I felt much better...

There is nothing like reality, though, to bring one back to the land of the living. Having put the pen down after saying “that’s it,” I realized – sniff sniff – the time was well overdue to clean the cats’ litterboxes. And so we continue.

Some of the mechanics of the process this time were slightly different: I did not put “the double bar at the end of piece,” thereby proving the work is now complete. I did that on September 13th, 2007, when I started it. After working out some pre-compositional details (before I realized it would become part of a piece, much less this piece), I wrote the ending first. So I knew where it was going which then gave me the courage to start from the beginning.

It’s designed as seven biblical texts laid into an on-going set of what I initially thought might become variations. This particular aspect of it didn’t materialize quite so directly, but the “variation process” is still there in the way the work unfolds. But the mirror element of the structure was implicit in that beginning and ending (or vice-versa) so I found myself, rather than starting at the opening and working my way to the end, going back and forth to wrote the parallel segments of the mirror: after the closing epilogue or postlude and the opening prologue or prelude, I went from the second text to the sixth text, the third text to the fifth text, the interlude between the third and the fourth texts to the parallel interlude between the fourth and the fifth texts before writing the central panel of this arch-form (the keystone, if you want), the fourth text.

While it’s all parallel in that sense, it’s not exactly perfectly symmetrical like a “well-rounded” archway because my dividing point is based on the Golden Section. That means the climax of the piece, which happens in the fourth song, is not quite two-thirds of the way through, not half-way through. It would make for a lop-sided arch but it’s not a visual arch that I’m going for. The proportions may not exactly be obvious to a listener. It’s only in hindsight you might be conscious of the passing of time and how you’d react to its various structural divisions along the way.

The process, then, was working from both ends toward the ‘middle.’ The goal had been to finish this fourth text – setting the lines beginning “Let not your heart be troubled” – on February 23rd. This was neither arbitrary nor having anything to do with deadlines or impending performances. Since it was setting some of my mother’s favorite Bible verses and the work came together, starting to take its final shape, on what would’ve been my mother’s 88th birthday, I wanted to finish it on the first anniversary of her death.

When I finished the one interlude (between texts 3 and 4), I should’ve gone immediately on to finish the parallel interlude (the one between texts 4 and 5). I had sketched out everything except these “cascading tissues of sound” that are part of the background texture when I thought, considering how time-consuming it can be to come up with hundreds of notes in 30 seconds’ time, if I can’t finish this element of it, I should move directly to the central text. I can finish that before returning to the purely mechanical process left to go in the interlude.

Technically, then, the real creative work was done as of February 18th when I completed the passage “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” The remaining five days could be spent on this background layer: if I didn’t reach the goal, it would be less of a deal. It was understood this could still be one of those things that can be “filled in” in the process of realizing the sketches which doesn’t seem to be as much rationalization as you’d think.

Of course, I knew what would happen. I either needed long hours of schlogging to work my way through this passage or several days with fewer hours so as not to become so mentally fatigued from working on 145 pitches distributed among three voices over a span of about eight measures! Things bogged down and the concentration would not hold. By the time Saturday the 23rd rolled around, I needed just another hour or two to finish the last few notes, less than a second of music. But it was all down on paper by noon on the 24th: not too bad, considering.

The problem is, now that I’ve finished writing a piece, I’ve started thinking about “the next piece.” I don’t want to start concentrating on anything else now except realizing these sketches into a final full score. But the three violin-and-piano pieces need to be finished, left hanging since December of 2006, and I’ve been toying with a series of shorter piano pieces, like a set of preludes or something. Back in January, I got some ideas for a work for string sextet but nothing that couldn’t wait till later: I may take a few days, jot down some ideas and a few plans to put aside, something I could come back to in a couple years, for all that matters. There are also ideas for another symphony but I need to hold off on that since it’s too unrealistic right now, especially given the one I finished two years ago is still sitting on my shelf: again, jot down some thoughts and maybe it’ll gestate on its own till I have time or reason to come back to it. (And did I mention that novel I still want to write?? Sheesh...)

It is kind of exciting, needless to say, to have ideas in my head at all, considering how many years of my life there was nothing, a span of perhaps sixteen years where I wrote nothing and had no plans. So it does make me feel a little better, maybe even a little more secure about being a composer: self-confidence is a delicate commodity, amidst all the issues that one has to deal with.

But for the moment, after a busy week at work (101 hours over a two-week pay-period and that includes a day off!), there are other things that I need to get caught up on. One of which – sniff sniff – has to be done before company walks through my door... but then, that’s an on-going chore when you share a house with lots of cats.

- Dr. Dick