Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Other Side of Air: Rilke, Strauss & Me

Last Saturday afternoon, I listened to the Met broadcast of Richard Strauss' opera, Der Rosenkavalier, a major work for some reason I have never seen nor even listened to all the way through. In fact, it occurred to me, no matter how much I've heard the orchestral suites or that heavenly trio and final duet that concludes the opera, there was a great deal of music I had never heard before, especially the extended opening of Act III. And following it with the full score, I also was amazed how incredibly complex it really is, especially during much of the activity in Act I, something more easy to see than hear. And all this from a work that, completed 100 years ago (the final page of the score indicates it was completed on 26th September, 1910), was considered by many to be a step backward from the complexity of Modernism.

I was also amused how one of my cats, unused to hearing music in the house (since I rarely listen to music during times I'm composing), would walk around crying until I noticed that nothing really seemed to be bothering him: it was just as if he were singing along for his own enjoyment of it (perhaps like this ass's response to a passing trumpet player).

But Strauss's music has been on my mind – and in my mind's ear – a lot the past two weeks.

Granted, the only resolutions I've been dealing with during this time concern the harmonic direction of chords in the latest song I've been composing, my setting of Rilke's “To Music” which I began on New Year's Eve (you can read more about starting the process here).

Perhaps the big news, though, is this song cycle, rather than being called “Seven Songs About Inspiration and Creativity for Mezzo-Soprano and Piano,” now has a title. The other day, working on the final segment of the song, it occurred to me I still didn't have a functioning name for this piece when I looked down at my sketches and saw the word “air” which was supposed to coincide with a resolution to a shimmering D Major chord:

“Holiest farewell: / where the innermost surrounds us,
like the most practiced distance, / the other side of air.”

Arching an eyebrow in surprise, I realized that would make a great title.

And so now the song cycle is entitled “The Other Side of Air.”

The Rilke is the last of the songs to be composed though it's the fourth out of seven songs, the climactic mid-point (or keystone) of the cycle (or arch). It felt kind of weird, then, putting the double bar at the end of this final song yesterday, knowing not only is it not the last song (that was completed in October), but that I still have to write the first two-thirds of it (and, I should mention, realize the sketches for most of the other songs, too).

In writing most of the other songs, I rarely started working on them at the beginning: after making some kind of graph of the over-all structure, I usually started at the end and worked backwards, more or less, since I needed to know where things would be going rather than starting off and finding myself headed if not in the wrong direction, not in the best one (painting myself into a musical corner). Sometimes I wrote the piano accompaniment first or at least its harmonic structure before going back and overlaying the rest of it, working from the bottom up. A couple of them were written with the “lower” part backwards, phrase by phrase, and then the “top” part forwards.

But this one I knew was going to be a little unusual and for some reason, I began in the middle.

First of all, it started out as a “pastiche,” meaning something in imitation of something else. As I've mentioned before, from the very beginning I knew this song would be “like” the Composer's Aria in the prologue of Richard Strauss' opera Ariadne auf Naxos, his next project after Der Rosenkavalier. Not that I wanted it to sound like Strauss but I wanted it to do, for me, what many of the emotional things Strauss' ecstatic prayer to the power of music does for me. It's like saying, “I like that: how can I do it my way?”

The more I looked at the score – you can hear the aria here and download the vocal score here – the more I realized why not be a little more obvious in my imitation? If I'm using triads prolonged over several beats or measures – something I don't normally do in my typical style – why not use the same kind of accompanimental patterns Strauss (and other composers like Schubert) had used for generations?

The curious thing about Strauss' music – at least at this time in his career – is the chromatic flexibility of his lines even though the overall sound is far more “classical” than the operas he'd written before (notably Salome and Elektra, two scores in the vanguard of 20th Century dissonance and the dissolution of traditional tonality). But that classicism is often more in its texture and its dissonance is usually subsumed in the way his chords fluidly move from one to another.

After deleting over 850 words of technical detail for this post, I'll just say I saw more similarities between Strauss' sound and my own than I would have expected. And yet anyone listening to, say, the Violin Sonata I finished last year, or the rest of these songs I've been working on since then, would not likely think there's any similarity between what I'm writing now and what Richard Strauss had written a hundred years ago.

The biggest laugh of recognition – whether a “eureka” moment or LOL – happened when I discovered the first phrase of a flexible melodic line I'd improvised over a pulsating F major triad (what was to become the actual ending of the song) was made out of the same set of seven notes Strauss used at the beginning of the Composer's Aria which happened to include, as a subset, the same 6-notes that is my standard harmonic and melodic source. Not the same pitches (a different transposition), not in the same order and not even in the same relationship to Strauss' pulsating C Major triad: but the fact I had quite arbitrarily come up with something that close to Strauss – and in something that some people would say was an “atonal” context (the F Major triad aside) – just tickled the hell out of me!

Now, Strauss' aria is not quite three minutes of powerful, ecstatic singing. My song, with its longer text and structural proportions within the whole cycle, ends up being a little more than twice that long, so I didn't want to try running this musical homage full bore from beginning to end (considering the singer's as well as the listener's stamina).

The climax of the song (which also happens to be the climax of the entire song cycle) happens before the line “Holiest Farewell,” very similar to Strauss' line “Music is a holy art,” a moment of spiritual revelation. After experimenting with the ending, I decided to start at this climax whether my “hommage to Strauss' aria” would begin there or not: frankly, if I couldn't get this to work, there was no sense starting at the beginning, then reaching this point only to realize, “oh, snap! (scratch scratch scratch)”...

Since the tonal scheme of the whole song cycle – regardless of its chordal and harmonic structures – begins in D Minor and ends in D Major, the climax would be in A-flat (instead of tonic/dominant chords in traditional tonality, my triads tend to move either by whole steps or tritones: if one chord is tonic, its “dominant” is a tritone away; stepwise motion is reserved for half-cadences and the subdominant). While the other songs are “closed” in their tonality (beginning and ending in the same tonal area like most traditionally tonal works), this one, I'd decided, would be “progressive,” much the way Mahler or Nielsen had been doing with (or “to”) tonality in the late 19th Century, beginning in one key and ending in another. Subsidiary tonalities (like subdominant or mediant relations in 19th Century Romanticism or relative major or minor ones in the 18th Century) would be related by thirds: so my tonal scheme, over all, is d - F - A-flat - b - D (instead of D-G-A-D with maybe a side-step to b minor) – anyway, here I go again with the technical mumbo-jumbo. So I begin this song in B Minor, climax it in A-flat Major and end it in F Major (a tritone relation to the opening). In between, two important cadences are on D major and minor chords, so the whole scheme in this one song is b - d - A-flat - D - F which, in addition to being a smaller version of the whole cycle, is also a progression from “dark” to “light,” a tonal trick going back long before Mozart and Haydn.

So now I'm done with the song's ending but still have the first two-thirds of it to sort out: the ending gives me material I can use in the opening sections and chord progressions I can replicate leading toward the climax knowing it works, pushing it onward to the end. It's like having half the effort already done for me: just go back and fill it in (which, granted, is a very simplistic way of looking at it, but it saves me time sitting there, thinking, “oh, what would be nice, here?”).

It's interesting that each of the seven songs also “sounds” different – not so much in style but on its surface, the Rilke setting being the emotional high point of the cycle that begins with a fairly abstract Shakespeare sonnet (which is, really, a chaconne – how old-fashioned is that?) and ends with a rush of almost non-harmonic energy and urgency in Rumi's “Say 'Yes' Quickly!” The “Lazy Poet” is a barcarolle with its triadic arpeggios in the accompaniment but the call to Inspiration by Li-Po is crunchy, dissonant and almost completely non-triadic, an extreme contrast after the lushly emotional Rilke “To Music.” And yet the basic language behind it all is exactly the same – the same 6-note basis just used in different ways. Which is not very different, when you think about it, from how composers worked in the past two or three centuries to create a great deal of variety out of very similar material.

But meanwhile, the cats have begun chasing each other from one end of the house to the other, so perhaps in the midst of this chaos – if the news from the outside world isn't unnerving enough – I can find a little bit of peace to contemplate “the breathing of statues.”

Dr. Dick

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