Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Trio, a "Lost Chord" and Lots of Brahms

It’s been busy, here, at Dr. Dick Central – while I’m still finishing up editing a complete novel, “The Doomsday Symphony” (all 130,000 words of it), I’ve already begun working out some details to begin a new one. Well, not exactly “new” – it’s going to be a complete rewriting of one I completed last year, “The Lost Chord” (all 188,000+ words of it), a parody of Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol.”

I’ll get into why and how I’m going to revise it – no, ‘revise’ is too polite a word for what will be a complete overhaul, starting over, basically, from scratch – at a later time, but basically, since I wasn’t as satisfied with Brown’s novel as I was with “The Da Vinci Code” (and I’m still very pleased with my parody, “The Schoenberg Code”), I found myself less than satisfied with my take-off on it, to the point I want to salvage what I can from the characters and many of the scenes, then implant them into a whole new plot which, rather than being a parody of Brown, becomes a parody of the genre, instead.

In addition to that, I’ve started composing again, much to my surprise. It’d been bothering me that it’s been a year since I completed (but not yet finished copying) the seven songs of the cycle, “The Other Side of Air” with no new work anywhere near a back burner.

True, writing a novel might constitute as an excuse for that, but still…

At some point around last Christmas, I jotted down a few ideas for what might become a piano sonata. At the end of April, I got those out to see what I might be able to do with them. It had also occurred to me, if for nothing more than an exercise in keeping the creative muscles moving – a form of exercise – I might transcribe one or two of the songs into... I don't know - a piano trio?

In a few minutes, I was jotting down some new ideas – not for a piano sonata or a song transcription, but for a piano trio. Fifteen minutes earlier, I hadn't even thought of writing a 'real' piano trio...

On May 2nd, I began actual composition on it and in a few days had written most of the first minute of it (it took over 27 hours, by the way, to get that much composed). But then I woke up one morning thinking “ya know, the main motive of this trio sounds awfully familiar,” like I’d written it before. In fact, I had – it was the generating force behind the String Quartet completed in 2003 which also was significant in the Symphony composed subsequently which was based on the same framework (if not the same material). While that wasn’t an “arrangement” of the quartet, I didn’t want this new piece to become “The Piano Trio Version of the String Quartet .” I mean, really…

So I decided to scratch the sketches and start over.

By the next day, I had fashioned a different six-note motive which, though not as dramatic an opening, actually turned out to be more “pregnant,” more filled with potential and found, since the structure I had planned originally was still usable, I could basically plug new notes into the old rhythms and phrases, though it hasn’t turned out to be quite that easy. Plus I found a few spots – even in only the first 17 measures – that could be tweaked a little better.

After all, better now than realizing all this 170 measures into the piece and having to start over again, right?

Curiously, I find the piece is now much better. Funny how things work like that.

I’ve also been blogging about Brahms for the Harrisburg Symphony Blog. Their concert this weekend is called “Brahms Brahms Brahms” and while I joke about calling it “Brahms Cubed” (“Brahms in Triplicate” sounds too bureaucratic), it offers me – as a writer about music – an opportunity to spill the cyber-equivalent of much ink about it.

The First Symphony post is a transcription of my pre-concert talk from several seasons ago, examining what was going on in Brahms' life as he tried to write that first symphony. Curiously, I'd also posted about some comments Brahms had made to a friend of his, the closest thing we've come to Brahms talking about his "creative process" which this friend was kind enough to write down.

This morning, Stuart and I got together to record a podcast, chatting about the program. You can hear that on this post at the Symphony Blog, one of a series of podcasts or video-chats we’d tried to do for each concert (pending the reality of schedules).

This afternoon, I added a post about the Violin Concerto, too, which Odin Rathnam will play with the orchestra, celebrating his 20th season as concertmaster of the orchestra. The post includes three different performances, videos embedded with legendary performers Henryk Szeryng, Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh, each playing one movement of the concerto. That in itself was a lot of fun.

There’s also the realization that – jeez – even a composer like Brahms has his moments with self-reliance: it took him over 20 years to complete his first symphony (and 14 of those years on the work that became his 1st Symphony and then in a burst of creative energy, he completed a second symphony and this violin concerto in the same of two more years.

But the Violin Concerto – regardless how we think of it today – did not go over well (yes, Vienna loved it, but it only received due recognition after Brahms died) and Brahms scrapped his plans for a second violin concerto. When some of his friends, a kind of creative advisory board and support group, were unable to find any enthusiasm for his 4th Symphony and the Double Concerto, he also scrapped sketches he’d had for a second “double concerto” and a 5th Symphony – apparently far enough along he could play it as a piano duet for his friends – as well as another symphony (a new one or a revisiting of the ill-fated 5th?). It makes you wonder what happened to the self-reliance he’d discovered after having finally finishing that 1st Symphony – after the Double Concerto, Brahms clearly went into a creative slide (I’d hesitate to call anything that could produce those last chamber music pieces a “slump”) but he decided to write no more orchestral works. And the Double Concerto was written only 11 years after he completed the 1st Symphony – that’s not a long time, when you consider Brahms’ stature in the world!

It’s made me think about the delicate balance that is creativity and how, even with Brahms’ obvious craft and genius, he could still fall prey to self-doubts.

Part of the reworking of “The Lost Chord” is to set it at a combination writer’s colony and clinic where the hero of “The Doomsday Symphony,” Dr. T.R. Cranleigh, runs into three composers on a mission.

One is a very systematic composer (perhaps a serialist) who is trying to discover how to bring more emotion into his music.

A more emotionally-oriented composer who relies on inspiration rather than craft is trying to find something intellectual he can use to build a stronger framework for his music, so it has more to offer than just "sound-appeal."

And the third composer is searching for the courage of his own convictions to continue being a composer, almost afraid to commit to putting anything down on paper. He hopes to overcome his doubts and fears, the negativity of critics and well-meaning friends and teachers, to write the kind of music he wants to write.

So, yes, one is looking for a heart, the other is looking for a brain and the third is looking for some courage.

And not only do I have to come up with names for them, I have to find a name for the little dog, too…

- Dick Strawser

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