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

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