Friday, May 30, 2008

Genesis: Where to Begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Dick

No comments:

Post a Comment