Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Skylines

Blue Griffin Recording recently released the Iridium Saxophone Quartet's Skylines album in digital form, and my Compass is on it in a truly wonderful performance. Iridium is one of the ten saxophone quartets in on the original commission. True to form, Orchard Enterprises immediately placed static tracks on YouTube. Here you go.









Friday, August 10, 2018

It's not an anthology

... but it's cool being collected with the two H's. Whee!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Cleveland Rocks

It's not often you get asked to do a residency where they are doing six premieres of your work, but it happened to me. Once. Keith Fitch, who is all the composition all the time at Cleveland Institute of Music, invited me to do so (he had also invited me in 2009, at which time I also said yes), and he scoured my list of works for stuff they could do.

The quality of playing for mod music there ratcheted up quite a bit in the intervening time, so all the performances are stupendous. And did I mention six premieres? Well, read further, or eat a mushroom, or both.

Maria Paola Parrini chose five préludes from my list of unperformed ones, and did a spectacular job. I especially like Bump, though I don't remember writing it, and it's a dumb title. The sketch is here. Click on "YouTube" to watch on YouTube, and then click on SHOW MORE for a list of titles and clickable links to navigate from one prélude to another.





Then was the premiere of Breakdown, a piano quartet that had been commissioned by the Verge Ensemble just before they folded. There is dreamed music in this one — it's the heavy glissandi in the middle — and that dreamed music sort of takes over. The commission had been set up by Dan Visconti, who subsequently titled a piece Breakdown, and my jazziferous breakdowns are what give the piece its title.



Finally, Arabesques I Have Known, which was not a premiere, was something I wrote in order to use two toy wind keyboards at the same time. There's the green Andes keyboard, and yes, the cadenza in the third movement is improvised, as well as the melodica, which tends to do little canons with the clarinet. Because Davy. At the premiere by Boston Musica Viva, one audience member spontaneously applauded after the second movement, but that's okay. The third movement reminds Gusty Thomas somewhat of Hyperblue — all those manic unisons — and she's right. Click on YouTube to watch on YouTube, and then click on SHOW MORE for the movement list and timings.



This is the finale of Arabesques I Have Known, which has the two toy wind pianos in it, and makes me laugh every time.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Le Donne Chi Pranzano

This is my contribution to Tony de Mare's Liaisons project, in which composers reimagine a Sondheim song for solo piano. I chose The Ladies Who Lunch, because me. I believe this track will only be playable in North America.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Current colloquium rotation

These are currently pieces I play, in different combinations, at presentations and colloquia I am asked to give. You can check out a far larger collection here. Below there is a little bit of perfunctory text preceding each piece.

Martler (Étude #14, 1995-96) Beff and I were both at VCCA and I finished the piece I had gone there to write earlier than expected. So I had a few extra days to start something else, and I chose to write a piano étude. We had been listening to fragments of Martin Butler's Jazz Machines during lunches we had together, so I decided to try and emulate that piece's opening texture. I placed my hands in the low register of the piano and improvised some fast dyads and wrote them down, all the while not knowing what the piece was about. After a short while I started crossing my left hand over the right, and after I had done that a few times, I knew the piece was a crossing hands piece. Martler was our nickname for Martin then, as it is now.



Narcissitude (étude #79, 2007) I was between pieces and felt like writing an étude. I did my usual thing of asking various pianists to suggest ideas for études, and Michael Kirkendoll suggested mirror études, in which the hands mirror each other. I wrote a slow one (Upon Reflection, #78), with both hands moving slowly and mirroring each other together, but I wanted to let it rip with a fast one with an additional premise: the hands mirror each other but they are not synchronized. Indeed, in most of the piece the left hand lags behind the right by just one (fast!) note. Technically speaking, then, this is a mirror canon, and what it is, too. Check out the silly cross-hand ending.




Fists of Fury (étude #25, 2000) Marilyn Nonken had given a great recital at Miller Theater which included my first two études, and the presenter decided to give the concert the silly title Fists of Fury. In the concert, Marilyn used her fist only once, at the end of my E-Machines, and was a little depressed about her concert's name. Indeed, the NYTimes reviewer liked the concert but said it had a dumb name. So to cheer Marilyn up, I wrote her a piece with that title that actually calls for the use of fists. In it, the beginning theme of Beethoven's 9th symphony is quoted in finger-pedaled notes in the last section of the piece, and in the middle, the rise from the extreme low register of the piano quotes one my études she had played on the concert. Note this piece doesn't use the nose.




Quietude (étude #97, 2010). This is the third étude whose constraint is that it uses only one kind of chord — the dominant seventh chord (the other two use half-diminished seventh chords and major triads). I unfold them mostly in falling arpeggios, à la Schumann, but I use block chords as well, and occasionally you hear two of them at once (a polychord). I dedicated the étude to Augusta Read Thomas, a very close friend, and who had dedicated one of her études to me.




Absofunkinlutely (étude #68, 2005) One of the strands in the études is so-called vernacular styles, which began when Amy Briggs asked for a stride étude. Eventually I included bop, rock and roll, tangoprog rock, and polka as étude premises as well. This one was precipitated by yet another trip to the well of great étude ideas by Rick Moody — he suggested funk licks, and behold, this one is based on two fairly generic funk licks. It is also a slightly wild celebration of no longer being chair of my department.




Violin Concerto #2 (2016-17). As composer-in-residence for the New England Philharmonic, I was asked to write a violin concerto for Danielle Maddon, the concertmaster. I always try to find screwy compositional problems to solve when I write for the orchestra, and one such problem occurred to me: how about a concerto movement where the soloist and string sections play only pizzicato? Whee! That means only the winds (and percussion) can sustain notes. So that first movement is in four basic sections: 1. establish the premise with rising pizzicato figures 2. forest of pizzicati in the sections 3. reestablish rising figures with a 3-part texture (a) long-line melody in winds b) soloist and violin sections combine into a superviolin c) violas, cellos and basses create rising lines that move from section to section, and the time between those lines gets closer and closer) 3a. transition 4. alla chitarra (like a guitar) for soloist and first violins over a pedal E. The second movement is a creamy little thing emanating from an oscillating figure in clarinets designed to be unoctatonic. The finale is a traditional barn burner in compound time that ends by bringing back the beginning of the first movement, and then leaving the soloist hanging as if it were Wile E. Coyote after the ledge he was standing on crumbles away.




Natura Morta (2015) is a piano quartet commissioned by Network for New Music for a Milton Babbitt at 100 celebratory concert. It's in three sections with the incipit upbeat gesture turned into something thematic in the middle section. Before I started writing this piece, I listened to a lot of piano quartets by 19th and 20th century composers, and was struck that so many of them were romantic, heart-on-sleeve hyperexpressive pieces, without very much lighter music at all. Since I was writing a celebratory piece, I was interested in writing something different from that, and I used that dichotomy to shape the first section of the piece: there is a light, coloristic, rhythmic music that begins the piece, but the strings, one by one, leave that music for romantic, slow, expressive music. That leaves the piano as the only one doing the lighter music. Eventually they trade gestures and at the other end, they agree on a more vernacular music. After a recapitulation of sorts, it gets loud and fast — mostly because it was written by me. For those playing along at home, natura morta means "still life".




Entre Nous (2016) is a rather substantial piece for oboe and string quartet. This is the final movement, a scherzo. All the materials come from the opening tutti, and the two-note bouncing figure that is everywhere comes out of the slow movement of Beethoven's piano trio Op. 70 #2.




Zephyrs (2013) is the first movement of Dance Episodes, my fifth symphony. At the time I was interested in trying to write music for dance — or even a full-length ballet — and this was the first thing I wrote as a way of demonstrating what I could do. An interesting thing formally in the piece is an early detail that gets exploded into its own section — that of a single note expanding into a chord via glissandi. Tristesse is the third movement, a slow, sad one, in which I imagined a solo dancer gradually joined by a second, third, and fourth dancer.





Piano Concerto #2 (2011) Rob Amory approached me to commission a piece -- my wildest dream, whatever I wanted. I chose a piano concerto for Amy Briggs, with whom I'd been working for nearly a decade. I asked Amy for a list of things she would want in her concerto, and it would be my job to make them all fit together. Her list included the opening texture of Martler, beginning in medias res, ritornello structures, textures like the Bach keyboard concertos, and jazz, among other things. I was to write the whole piece at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. The day before I left, I dreamed a late 19th century piece with chorus and orchestra with a chromatic turn on the words, "the postcards are traveling home," and since I always use music I dream in a piece if I can remember it, the chromatic turn has a big role in the piece. Thus the first movement starts with and returns to the Martler texture. The second movement is an elegy in memoriam Milton Babbitt, with the Bach stuff in the middle. The finale is the jazz movement, and has a substantial cadenza.







I wrote three piano préludes (yes, préludes and not études) for Sarah Bob. Below are early edits of a recording to come out one of these days.


Mind the Gap (prélude #18, 2012) came about because Sarah was hired to be the pianist in a recording of my Stolen Moments with BMOP, and there are a few monster solos in it. After the recording session, she said she wanted to play the first solo as a solo piece, and I said it was middle music -- it didn't have a beginning or an ending. So she said WRITE THEM THEN. I did. Ghepardo (prélude #48, 2015) has a name Sarah chose: Book V titles are Italian names for animals or insects: she choose cheetah, which is her son's favorite animal. I remembered Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom's episode on the cheetah, where the family of cheetahs mostly lounges around the water hole, only twice doing the really fast cheetah thing in action shots -- so my piece is structured thus. Wayo (#51, 2015) is a nonsense word that was spoken by Sarah's daughter (the titles of book VI are nonsense words), and is a slow passacaglia based on a 3-bar theme. The conceit here is imagining what Sarah's daughter would see and hear in her bassinet.


They are called "Mockup" on SoundCloud because the recordings are not final ones.







Etruscan March (2007) (also first movement of Cantina, for wind ensemble). This is a march movement for band.



Dream Symphony (2003) When I am asked if I ever write slow music (since I tend to play fast music for people because it has a lot of notes), I play the last four minutes of my third symphony, written for string orchestra.




Ecco eco (Étude #77, 2007) was a response to a suggestion of an "echo" étude made by Corey Hamm. Corey may have been thinking echo phrases like in Baroque pieces, but I took it literally. In the piece, chords echo, the rate of echo changes, they overlap, and sometimes there are Doppler shifts. This is a really, really hard piece.



Not (Étude #74, 2006) This is a speaking pianist étude using a minimalist text by Rick Moody. Adam Marks, a former theory student of mine, who was writing a dissertation on speaking pianist pieces (there are quite a few of them now), asked if I'd write one for him. I did. Rick's text slowly assembles the text Not happy with it, not lying down for it, written as a screed against the (W) Bush administration.


Saturday, May 27, 2017

My Naumburg speech

In 2006, I was elevated (if that is the word) to the Walter W. Naumburg Chair at Brandeis. At the time, all new Endowed Chair people were feted at events honoring them, at which the Provost and Dean attended; the Provost did the introducing, and there were refreshments afterwards. This doesn't happen any more, and I kind of wish it didn't happen then.

Nonetheless. I wrote and delivered a speech. Here's what happened.

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I don’t do a lot of public speaking — actually, I don’t do any — and I’ve certainly never been called on to give a talk before such an accomplished and erudite crowd such as has gathered here. I did read somewhere, though – or maybe I saw it on TV – that public speeches are supposed to begin with a joke. And since this is such an accomplished and erudite crowd, I realize I can’t use just any joke – all the ones I know are either beneath such an accomplished and erudite crowd, or are musicians-only. So I made it my summer project (along with a few other things) to make up just the right joke for this occasion. For such an accomplished and erudite crowd. I don’t mind saying I’m at least as proud of this joke as I am of the piano quintet and the flute trio I wrote this summer.

Before I tell it, I should let you know that the joke has been test-marketed. I was at the artist colony Yaddo this summer, and I ran it by the writers, visual artists and composers who were in residence there. Maybe fifteen percent got it right away. Another fifteen percent got it after long pensive stares. The other seventy needed it explained. The same seventy percent said it wan’t funny anyway.

I then test-marketed the joke to my Music 103 class at Brandeis. There was a 100 percent laugh response. Which goes to show you: Brandeis students are incredibly sophisticated — either that or they’re really good at sucking up to faculty.

I realize that it’s too late now to start with a joke. So I’ll just tell it, and move on.

There’s no “eye” in Oedipus.



I’m honored and humbled to be awarded the Naumburg Chair in Composition. The composers who have preceded me in it are in the history books – literally. Irving Fine, Arthur Berger and Harold Shapero represented the American neoclassical school along with Copland and they were represented in a substantial portion in the textbook I had when I took music history as an undergraduate in 1977. Fine’s String Symphony, Berger’s Septet, Shapero’s Symphony – all received serious disquisition. And I must note here that I had very significant encounters with the music of all of them as part of my undergraduate experience. In particular, I sang in the New England Conservatory chorus when it toured with and recorded Fine’s Hour-Glass Suite (I could probably write out the “White Lily” movement from memory); and I went nuts over Berger’s Septet when the NEC Contemporary Ensemble played it – I bought the score and record and studied it pretty closely on my own. Yehudi Wyner wasn’t in my book in 1977 but the work he did after coming to Brandeis – the Horntrio and the piano concerto in particular – most certainly has put him in the latest edition.

These are pretty daunting shoes to fill. By comparison, I feel like a beginner, someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing.For once I can say I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants and not sound pompous. Hmm, actually, I can’t.

I also want to say that I am honored to serve in the same program that has had as faculty Seymour Shifrin, Eddie Cohen, Conrad Pope, Allen Anderson, Marty Boykan, Eric Chasalow and Yu-Hui Chang – every one a composer of great distinction, personality, originality and imagination. Despite our program’s small size, we continue to be one of the most distinguished in the country. And the unfailing support we have had from Brandeis has been crucial in gaining and retaining that distinction.

The first Naumburg Chair was awarded to Irving Fine when I was one year old. Now I’m more than twice that age, and I am tickled to report the fact that, full circle, I am now teaching Irving Fine’s granddaughter, Nina Hurwitz, in music theory. Nina declared a music major last week, on the composition track – I wonder what it’s like to enter a building and every time be greeted by a bust of your grandfather, always with the same expression. And by the way – Nina laughed at the joke. No “eye” in Oedipus.

Many thanks to Palle Yourgrau, the first Chaired professor to give such a talk as this, for his advice on what to do in mine. I can only hope one day to know as much music as he does — he already knows at least as much philosophy as I do. I’m going to say a bit about my formative years, and sorry about this, I’m going to get a little technical on occasion. Then there will be a little video.

I want to start by relating a personal story about the beginning of my formal education in composition. I came to New England Conservatory in 1976 as a composition major from St. Albans, Vermont, deep in a dairy farming region, not exactly wild about the arts, and a city economically depressed since the railroad business it used to do moved to Canada. I knew very little music, but my ears perked up at the gentle “modern” music I played at music festivals – what I was writing in high school blithely imitated that music. When I got to NEC, I was told that composers sang in the chorus for two years, and that I would have to audition to sing a really tough piece that was being done with the Boston Symphony in a mere month and a half. It was a large atonal piece called “Chronicles” by a composer named Seymour Shifrin from some nearby college called Brandeis. In the audition I had to sightread some frightfully disjunct lines with difficult rhythms, but I made it through, and I was admitted into the chorus. Lorna Cooke deVaron drilled us mercilessly, got us to feel and sing the lines as real melodies, stopped often to tune the strange chords, and slowly whipped us into shape. It was a real challenge, especially for the voice majors who would rather have been singing Mozart arias, but the more we rehearsed, the more natural the music felt. Eventually we were ready to sing our part for the composer. A nice looking man came to a rehearsal, sat in the back and nodded and smiled while we sang, and afterwards said only, “Thank you. I know it’s hard. Bravi.”

Then were the not enough rehearsals with the BSO and Ozawa. Hearing an orchestra in front of us playing that music that we had hitherto associated only with a rehearsal piano was quite amazing. The way the last movement moved to the final eight-note chord – an A minor seven in the men’s voices – I had the G at the top – and a second inversion E-flat minor 7 in the women’s voices was glorious. I had heard nothing like it before, and there’s no adequate explanation for the feeling of singing that note, being in the middle of the big sonority, and knowing, just knowing it is right, in every sense of the word. The week after that performance I changed my writing style completely. And the cool chords from Chronicles were still in my head and were all over what I wrote. That last chord – I’ve used it or a derivation of it at least ten times. If not a hundred.


I tell that story to emphasize how much an encounter by a young musician with just one piece can change everything. The experience I had with Chronicles and other pieces is always in the back of my mind when I teach pieces in music theory or music appreciation, and it is most gratifying when I am able to be the one who changes someone’s ideas about art, about music, or about life — with something as simple as an encounter with a piece of music. I suspect that my story of becoming a composer is very much like that of many others – you hear a piece you like, and imitate it. Then you write that piece over and over until you hear another piece with stuff you want to steal, and incorporate that, and so on. Every once in the while the encounter is so intense as to cause an epiphany. Chronicles was one such piece for me.


A few words about my DNA. There is no history of musical aptitude on the Polish side of the family. Indeed, my father was tone deaf, which made singing hymns in church something of an excruciating experience. His father grew up in Warsaw; the reason the family moved to America was that in 1918 my grandfather had a, um, difference of opinion with someone in a poker game, shot, and killed him. Shortly he was living in Springfield, Massachusetts raising a family. He scrimped and saved to send my father to Northeastern University in 1940 to study chemistry.

The English branch of my mother’s side of the family came to America in 1823, a Mr. Benjamin Hill who was brought from London to teach at a new conservatory established in Rochester, New York. His daughter Julia was a piano prodigy who toured the European continent at age 14, played for royalty and the great musicians of that time. When she turned 21, the city of Rochester gave her a piano with the stipulation that she present a free recital on it. Then she married, stopped concertizing, and began the domestic life that made me possible. Julia’s granddaughter sent her daughter – my mother – to BU in 1940, to major in vocal performance.

My parents met at a mixer, went out for two years, and my father was drafted. He spent the second world war in Burma, by his account mostly getting drunk on grain alcohol. After the war, he finished his degree and moved to my mother’s hometown to take a job at a paper mill. The two offspring who preceded me into this world were forced into piano and violin lessons, which they hated – my brother told stories of being chased across a playground because he had a violin case. My parents learned their lesson: the baby – me – would not be forced into music lessons. It was a good move.

So my sister, older by 6 years, apparently had no friends her own age to play with: she spent her play time teaching me to read music, to play the piano, and to read – I have no memory of not being able to do any of those. We had a piano in the house, and I tinkered endlessly. We also had a meager collection of classical records – just the stuff that the local supermarkets sold as weekly subscriptions to the “World’s Greatest Classical Library in Your Own Home!” Nonetheless, the only classical music we ever listened to at home before I got to college was Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and The Messiah.

For school band, I picked up the trombone and became serviceable at it without practicing much. I got good enough to go to All-State and All-New England festivals, where I had my first encounters with so-called modern music. In retrospect it was very tame stuff, but at the time it perked up my ears, simply because it was different. When I learned that our All-State festival had a composers competition with actual money prizes, I wrote a piece – my first piece ever -- for my high school band – it pretty much stole all the licks from what I played at music festivals, and it lost the competition (I got to conduct the premiere with my own high school band, and the third clarinetists were all drunk) – but I got hooked. I asked my band director, Verne Colburn for advice on where to find new strange music that I should be listening to, and he gave me his Time-Life collection called Music of Our Time. I find it hard to believe that in this day and age Time-Life would do something like that again.

There were a lot of different styles of music on that compilation, but the very, very modern pieces by Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez stood out as completely unlike everything else. I was mesmerized by them, even though I didn’t really understand them. And I listened to them over and over. Mr. Colburn also lent me his theory textbooks, where I read about some of the technical aspects of this weird music, but had no idea how to imitate it. I did some pretty serious wearing out of grooves, though.

Then came my encounter with Shifrin’s Chronicles. I knew what to do next.

My undergraduate years were spent mostly acquiring technique and learning pieces. I would listen to pieces like the Rite of Spring, Messiaen’s Chronochromie, Berger’s Septet, Davidovsky’s first Synchronism, study the scores, to try and figure out what was in them that I could steal (you’ll note this preoccupation a lot with composers. Stravinsky is said to have remarked, “good composers borrow. Great composers steal”). I wrote music by the bushel, and I wrote it very fast. Most of it was complicated, and most of it was about technique alone. Which is to say, if anyone asked me what I was trying to “do”, or what my piece was “about”, I would present a disquisition on where the notes came from.

Then in my junior and senior years both my parents died, a little more than a year apart. My mother’s struggle with depression ended when she took her own life; and my father died when the car he was driving struck a train at an unmarked intersection. In the time after my mother’s death, my father and I got much closer, which made his passing even more tragic for me. I stopped writing music for quite a while, and when I did write it came out very slowly. I don’t know, maybe I was finished with learning mere technique and now I realized that what I really needed in music was – something to say. Or maybe what I really needed to learn was enough technique to express grief.

It turns out I didn’t have to wait very long for my answer. When I got to graduate school, Berg’s opera Lulu was being produced at the Met, and Princeton grad students were allowed to sit in on the rehearsals. I made it to six of them, getting to know this glorious opera really well, and in the last rehearsal, I had my epiphany. At the end of the opera, Lulu is forced to London to escape the law and becomes a prostitute. Her three clients are played by the same singers that played her three now-dead husbands, and the music associated with those characters returns. If you know the opera at all, you know that her third client is Jack the Ripper – yet he looks like Doctor Schön, the only man Lulu ever loved. While the gorgeous “love music” plays, Lulu and Jack yammer about the price of the trick. The many layers of meaning and irony to this scene and the music itself somehow overwhelmed me, and when the opera finished I was so full of emotion that I literally could not move for several minutes. My compatriots seemed to be similarly effected, as the car trip home was uncharacteristically silent.

For a graduate seminar on the opera, I analyzed the “love music” which I just mentioned, and found it to be so tightly constructed that you could bounce a quarter on it. Moreover, the melody was written simply by repeating, several times, the rhythm that is associated in the opera with death – yet Berg’s treatment of the melody with the accompaniment made it sound anything but repetitious. What I think seeped in gradually from listening to this music was a sense of how counterpoint works in music, most specifically what is called in music theory the “fourth species” of counterpoint. Put simply, a tone is stable with its surroundings, and sustains while the surroundings change, thus making it unstable, or dissonant. The tone then has to move in order to fit with the new surroundings, which then change again, etcetera. Imagine by analogy being in a space and being comfortable, and the space itself changes to something forbidding, and you don’t belong. You have to move to where you belong. The continual artful use of such a device is part of what makes great music move, and is a big part of what gives it, for me, affect and expression. Berg had figured out how to get that affect in an atonal context, and I thought that was revolutionary.

I know it’s boring to talk continually about acquiring technique, but this was a big one for me. Without technique it’s hard to say anything with eloquence; but technique by itself is worthless if an artist has nothing to say. Meanwhile, while I was figuring this stuff out, everything I wrote for the next ten years bore the unmistakable imprint of Berg. Within a few years I had written an elegy for strings for my parents that worked – I had learned how to write good slow music. It is the first piece I wrote that “worked” from start to finish without any dead moments. Now I just had to figure out how to write music of other speeds.

After graduate school I did crap word processing jobs and wrote very little music. I had decided not to try for a teaching job, but then another Brandeis connection comes in – a job landed in my lap. My friend Ross Bauer, with a PhD from this department, was leaving a lectureship at Stanford for another job at the last minute, and he recommended me to replace him for a year. I was offered the job on my 30th birthday, and I decided to try a year of teaching to see if it was for me.

I think you know what the answer was. By virtue of having to figure out pieces of music in order to teach them, I rediscovered stuff I hadn’t thought about for years. Since I was engaged with music full time, I was drawn back to composing in a big way. Soon I wrote a big Romantic symphony that all my friends called “Berg’s Third Symphony” – my friends aren’t very subtle – and when I finished, another Brandeis connection came calling: Rhonda Rider, who used to be the cellist of the Lydian Quartet, got her piano trio to commission me. I don’t know why, but the music that came out had an unusual rhythmic freedom, very strongly referencing the rhythms and gestures of be bop and even of rock and roll, yet harmonically it sounded like me. I had figured out how to write fast music. Moreover, it was fast music with fourth species counterpoint. With this piece I think I found my voice – at age 33. 33 is the number on the Rolling Rock bottle. Coincidence? I think not.

I’ve brought the story up to 1991 and don’t have much more to say about my development as a composer. I have been constantly looking for new challenges, and ways to grow as a composer, and I’m fond of saying the only way to do that is to approach each new piece as if I don’t know what I’m doing. Because, as I have found out the hard way, convincing myself I know what I’m doing leads to laziness, sloppiness and to repeating myself.


Speaking in such abstract terms about music, which is already abstract, is getting tedious, I think. Rather than talk a lot more, I’d like to share with you a teeny sliver of my music.

I have several parallel strands in my output – there’s the serious, long pieces; the not as serious serious smaller pieces; pieces for children; and a whole mess of piano études. Piano etudes are for me sort of a compositional playground. I enforce very strict rules when I write one: it must be written quickly (within six days), have no a priori ideas about its form, and something once written down cannot be revised. An etude is by nature an obsessive piece, so by trying to do as much as I can imagine, and quickly, that is about just one thing keeps my chops sharp. And because the pieces are written so quickly, I feel like I can have as much fun as I want. And explore different aspects of piano virtuosity – make no mistake, these are really hard pieces. Some things from the etudes have made it into my larger pieces, but I’d have to do another technical disquisition to say what.

To date I’ve written 73 piano etudes. More are on the way. I’m going to play the 14th, called Martler, on a video screen for reasons that will become apparent.

Traditionally etudes are about some particular aspect of piano technique – parallel intervals, pedaling, broken chords, particular accompaniment figures, specific fingering patterns – and one class of etudes is about crossing hands. It’s not uncommon to find piano music in which the right hand plays an accompaniment figure and the left hand switches back and forth between bass and treble, thus crossing over the right hand. Probably the most well-known crossing hands piece is found in the movie of The Music Man in the scene that sets up the song “Goodnight My Someone”.



I wrote Martler at an artist colony. Both I and my wife Beth were resident at the colony, and we showed each other our sketches daily. On the second day of writing my piece, Beth suggested I slyly quote something I might have played when I was in a rock band in high school. I protested, but I liked the challenge of sneaking something nearly incongruous in there. So I quoted “Smoke on the Water” and hid it within some long notes in a very busy texture, and I showed it to Beth. She said the quote should be more obvious. Well, I couldn’t take my really subtle quote back – remember, the rule is no revisions – so I then made a second, more obvious quote. It is okay for you to laugh if you recognize it.


Writing an appallingly virtuosic piece for crossing hands means that there is not only musical structure to think of (by the way, the two dueling tonics of A and E-flat are suggested by the first two sonorities of the piece, which fly by like the wind), but also the ballet of the hands themselves. So it ends up being a very visual piece. It is a real treat to watch an artist of the caliber of Amy Dissanayake play this piece – I have been very lucky to find players of her artistry who like to play my music, and who can pull it off with such fierceness. You will note that about two-fifths of the way through Amy stops looking at the music and plays from memory. Amazing. The video was made at the American Academy of Arts and Letters after Amy had spent three grueling days making a CD of 22 etudes of mine, all of them with similar technical demands, and she did this performance because the recording engineer asked to watch the piece being played.



By way of conclusion, I simply want to say, somewhat tautologically, that I want to make music that is everything that it can be. I’m sure my colleagues share that philosophy, and it has been my teaching philosophy as well. My new goal in life – now that I wrote my joke – is to write something so good that the next Naumburg Chair says in his or her speech that it was one of his or her formative pieces. Or at least that he or she could bounce a quarter off of it.


I want to thank Marty for hosting this event, and Rick Silberman and Trudy Crosby for taking care of the logistics. I also want to thank Adam for giving me the courage to wear this tie. I want to thank Brandeis, for throwing wonderful undergraduates into my classes and for the support and space it’s given me in the decade I’ve been here. The last ten years have been the most productive and exhilarating of my life. I’m honored to be awarded this Chair, but still I ask for your patience with me. I’m still learning.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Midlife on the edge

I believe I was four years old — meaning it was 1962 — when the rules of life were read to me. I didn't understand at the time that this was the only time I would hear them, or even what the rules of life meant. I was pretty busy filling a little pail with sand and then emptying it, and figuring out which shoe went on which foot. It might also be noted here that I didn't know the names of colors yet (I failed those first few quizzes in kindergarten the next year), so any of the rules of life that included a color in them zipped right over my head. For all I know, a Blue Christmas is included in one of the rules of life, and if so, I've had only part of the life for which I was destined.

I hadn't remembered that I even knew the rules of life were until my first midlife crisis. I was 42, and the most outwardly outward sign of said crisis was the fact that I had recently purchased Elton John's Greatest Hits. Elton John! I always hated Elton John's songs in high school, with the exception perhaps of Levon, and to a lesser extent Bennie and the Jets — not that I actually liked the song, but I could play the opening couple of bars at the piano, and that always made me instantly popular in high school. Yes, popularity was simple — and fleeting — in those times. And there I was, with Elton John's Greatest Hits. Which, all these years later, registers zero plays in iTunes.


And our band The Silver Finger had Levon on its playlist. People never danced to it, because, you know, Elton John.


One of the rules of life was there will be exactly one midlife crisis. I mean, how many times can you buy albums from your childhood with music you didn't like? It turns out that's not a rhetorical question. The answer is almost five.


So about a decade later when the second midlife crisis kicked in — this one was milder than the first, and I already had a whole buttload of CDs with shitty 70s music — I was a bit amused. Amused, too, that I recognized that it was another midlife crisis. Hey, I had German measles when I was 5 and red measles when I was 16 — if there can be two measleses, there shonuff can be two midlife crises, right? I think the chief activity of this particular one was wondering how many other of the rules of life were also wrong or even misspelled. At this point, I also remember that the rule of life riding a bicycle is like riding a bicycle was there just so there'd be something meta and silly in the list. And when turning left in traffic, be sure to leave room for others to go around you is apparently one that's not on a lot of other peoples' rules of life list. In the second crisis, I do remember spending a lot of time wondering whatever happened to cereal boxtops? Caused in no small part, I guess, by the fact that I don't eat much cereal.


Beff probably said it best: You should never be the Chair. That has nothing to do with anything, but it can't be said enough. Actually, it's a nice mantra. I was the Chair once, and it was positively just about the least good year of my existence. Worse than red measles. Except no year-long scarring on my legs.


That does it. You should never be the Chair is now a rule of life, officially. Something needs to hold the place formerly occupied by riding a bicycle is like riding a bicycle, and this is it. Now when some well-meaning person at work turns on the guilt machine, I can fend it off with my rule of life.



Accolades do not cause midlife crises. That was not an official rule of life (in 1962 I didn't know what the word meant, so it's possible it was supposed to be one), and as it turns out, it's a good thing. Because I currently am going through the third midlife crisis, caused in no small part by an accolade, and it's the sort of accolade that is a kind of hump that sharply divides your life into my life until now and the rest of my life. No one said accolades didn't speak in vague and generic terms.

This crisis is kind of a happy crisis, as it turns out. The hump aspect has caused me to look back, mostly in soft focus, at the teachers and colleagues that had no small part in enabling the accolade. One of the first things I did when the accolade was made public was to write to my high school music teacher, Verne Colburn simply to thank him. And I was surprised as I was writing it just how many details I remembered from those four years. It turns out much was retained from the years 1972-76, even in soft focus. It turns out "thank you" takes two single spaced pages. Yes, that's a rule of life.



Here is a picture from 1974 — staged for the newspaper — of Verne handing me a $50 check as my prize for playing the first movement of the Gordon Jacob concerto — Verne was actually the accompanist in the performance — as Cindy LeBlanc, Steve Rainville and Bob Barker — also owed 50 bucks — look in in wonderment, and probably no small shock, at the gold rope that inexplicably encloses my left shoulder. Which probably has something to do with why it looks like I don't know what to do with my hands.

I have resisted the urge to write to others to thank them, as it turns out the list is pretty long, and at a certain point it starts to look creepy.


Another rule of life was you can take as long as you want to get to the point, and a lot of posts in this blog, including this one, have happily followed that rule. There has been no grudging following of that rule here, not ever, never.



And so without the benefit of an actual segue, we come to Paul Lansky. That took a while, didn't it? Paul is getting the same accolade, and for all I know he's pretty busy doing the soft focus thing, too. The it's about time thing truly applies in this case, though it's rarely expressed in italics. And we go back to 1980, the year I entered graduate school.

Put as succinctly as possible (too late), Paul singlehandedly transformed computer music from squeaks, squawks, and long passages of amoebas arguing to something living and breathing and with a sense of humor. He gave personality and humanity to computer music, and I know, that hardly sounds like me talking there. But his music is personal, has a unique voice, and is instantly recognizable as his. What's more, when he got tired of doing computer music — upon which his reputation was based — he simply walked away from it. Wow.


And the first time I met him I remember rather vividly. In January 1980, Mac Peyton advised me that I should visit Princeton, where I'd applied for grad school, saying it might increase my chances, and piling on guilt for not already knowing that. So I hastily covered myself in polyester (being allergic to wool is a bitch) and took the train to Princeton, with a new fresh recording of my Dylan Thomas setting for baritone, two trios, and offstage horn that wasn't in my application. I don't remember much about my half-day spent being a nuisance in the music building, except when I met Paul. The first thing he said was, "I feel like I know you already, since I've listened to your music." Slobbering slightly, I told him I had a new tape for my application, and he said, "let's listen." He liked it, and made special mention of the offstage horn (I did not know at the time that he had been a horn player, and that he sometimes got paid for playing horn).


At the time I was writing a bigass septet that I thought would be played by a Boston group, and it was complicated and notey and full of instrumental tricks lifted from Martino scores. And when I took the computer music course taught by Paul my first semester, one of the first things I did was to make a squeaky squawky computer representation of the opening of that weirdly complicated septet. It had all the notes and rhythms in exactly the right place, and it sounded like really big amoebas arguing and throwing dishes at each other. Paul's wry comment about the realization? "That's not your piece."


At a later stage in the writing of said septet, I took it into lessons with Milton Babbitt and with Paul. I showed a big chart of pitch fields, motives, and long range voice leading to Milton, who said, "This tells me everything." I showed the same thing to Paul, who said, "This doesn't tell me anything." This was exactly when I knew I had chosen the right graduate program.

For my next trick, I decided to try and demonstrate that if choirs sang in tune, they would go out of tune — a tautology that Ezra Sims was fond of. With the computer, I had, for the first time, micro-control of pitch; thus did I take a few tonal chorales I had written for my sister's church choir, and programmed them in such that fifths and thirds were pure; over the course of just eight bars, the chorale, having pure intervals and being perfectly in tune, went flat a little more than a quarter tone. When I explained this and played it for Paul, he said, "I don't think you're doing what you really want to do."


He was talking about my turgid and notey compositional work of the time. And it's the wisest thing a composition teacher said to me. About fifteen years later, I realized he was right. Because Davy is a slow learner. You're not doing what you really want to do.


Since I had demonstrated facility with the computer — I learned the EXEC and EXEC2 macro programming languages on the IBM 3081 available to us all — I soon became Paul's teaching assistant when he taught the computer music course. Of course, a lot of the programs I wrote simply typed a naughty word back at you when you typed their names, but eventually I got good enough to write a program that would move the cursor in a search to the correct place rather than refreshing the whole screen and moving the cursor — one that Paul asked for, since he did a lot of work from home on a slow modem.


And slow. Computing was slow and cumbersome then, but at the time we didn't realize it because it was cutting edge. In the first class I TA'ed, Paul showed us how to do LPC -- linear predictive coding, it turns out (what did you think it meant? Lollapalooza Pooping Constantly?). Our minds were selectively blown by the power that it gave you to change pitch and speed independently of sampled sounds. But the sampling itself was cumbersome, and using LPC was also cumbersome — since the only storage option for such stuff at the time was very large digital tapes, upon which we would put our data, and then truck over to another building entirely for playback to see if what we tried worked. Making microadjustments meant another trip to return the tape, changing some numbers, getting the tape back, repeat.


Given all that, Paul's Campion Fantasies, which were quite recent, and available on vinyl, were miracles. While the rest of us were busy giving voice to amoebas, Paul was busy making beautiful and nuanced music. This track here was one I listened to over and over, being as I've always been a big fan of tight scoring. It was probably the first piece of electronic music I heard about which I didn't immediately think Boy that must have been a lot of work. And hey — here is Paul doing Whitacre before Whitacre was doing Whitacre. Being that said Whitacre was 8 years old at the time.




One of the other movements of this piece has an incredible moment where you hear the words "But still ... but still but still ..." where there is an opening up of ... well, of something I won't try to mansplain. Paul simply called that movement an apotheosis of the comb filter. Yeah, he was doing études before I was. And it's about more than comb filters.


One of our graduate colleagues had a Commodore 64 that he brought to our rented house once so we could play around with the goofy speech synthesis program. We played weird games wherein we would type numbers and use them as parts of words (for instance, fornik8 and 0-bber took my jewels), and then we got the brilliant idea to use the robot voice as the message on our answering machine.


You've reached 609-448-9214. Davy is bouncing on his bed. Martin is doing LIMEY things. Beth is playing with the cat. Please leave a message.


It sounded really dumb, just the kind of dumb that grad students think is really funny. Shortly thereafter, we got a string of messages left on the incoming message tape. Hee hee, hee hee it's just Lansky. I wanted to hear it again. *click* Hee hee. Lansky again. *click* Hee hee. Hee hee.


Soon after we had gotten a cat (it was an abandoned cat given to us), we discovered or rediscovered that we were all allergic in varying degrees. So when Paul came to visit us once, we were complaining about sneezing and sniffling, and Paul told us One thing you don't do is you don't rub them in your face. It was very good advice.


Paul's kids (Jonah and Caleb) were very small at the time, a fact that most people attributed to them being very young, and he brought them to the end-of-school-year picnic and softball game the department always had. I recall having to pitch to a very small Lansky in one game, and of course you want the kids to get a hit. He hit the ball maybe 6 feet, and I made a special point of fielding the ball badly and throwing to first base wildly so he would get on base. I think Paul must have liked that, or at least I hope he did. I also think he scored.


For one semester, I was the worst ear training teacher ever for Paul's theory class, and to that end, I got to see him teach a few classes. He was relaxed and straightforward, with nary a Roman numeral as far as the ear could hear. There were lots of what-ifs to show why the final composer choice was a good one. And, well, I teach theory that way, too. Except for the part about the Roman numerals.


I always looked forward to the first lecture in the computer music course when he described what sampling was. He would gesture at one of the speakers in the classroom, speculate what it would be like to have the ability to write down the exact position of the vibrating part of the speaker as fast as 28,000 times every second, and then be able to recreate that sound by spitting those numbers back at the speaker. And then he explained Nyquist frequency as being like the wagon wheels in old Westerns that seem to spin backwards. Brilliant. And since LPC worked a lot with formants, he explained how formants are how we understand and differentiate vowel sounds, and he did an ee-ow-oo-oy-oo-ee thing with his own voice to demonstrate which partials were being attenuated when he changed the shape of the inside of his mouth. Indeed, he made a cassette of himself doing the same thing, every once in a while interjecting oo-eee-oh-oh-ah...eleventh partial ... ee-oh-ee-oooh-ee...thirteenth partial .... which, if it were a commercially recorded piece, I would buy it.


In one of our lessons, and apparently after a long slog with a complicated dissertation, Paul got all cosmic and asked me, "What would your music be like if you didn't have octave equivalence?" I was silent just long enough to make it look like I had some idea what he was talking about, and said, "It'd be different. That's for sure."

At the end of my stay in Princeton, I established a dossier in the office, just in case I ever wanted to apply for a teaching job. I asked for letters from all of the faculty for the dossier, and Paul's came in pretty quick. When I was about to embark on the four unpointful years of part-time word processing jobs for hardly any money, I checked with Didi Waltman in the office about the dossier. She said Yes, and here's your letter from Paul. She looked over it, and nodded, and nodded, and remarked, "Ooh. 'a natural rapport with students!'". So yes. I guess Paul wrote me a nice letter.


Paul and I kept in touch — we always had lunch when I was in town for whatever reason, and that was perhaps a good thing. Because, you know, I had a dossier, and suddenly I found myself with a teaching job, and Paul gave me very good advice on negotiating salary — twice. The teaching jobs really wanted me to have a doctorate, and for that I needed to write a dissertation. Which I had done once, really crappily. The reader I had inherited was a sumbitch, and had no helpful hints about how to write a dissertation that he would like. He simply said no, not really, don't think so, this sucks. So you see I was at loggerheads.


And then out of the blue, Peter Westergaard and Paul wrote me and offered to lift me out of the diss doldrums, calling my situation in the letter Poor Fit With Reader. And by the way, they did that, too, with Beff, who had the same reader and the same problem. So Paul was my new reader. He, too, admitted that what I'd written sucked, but he actually told me why, and how to fix it. Woo hoo! I needed a thesis (facepalm) and I couldn't just describe things and let all my observations just evaporate. So he suggested a thesis, I ran with it, and I wrote my fucking dissertation. I'm pretty sure I would not be typing this as a doctor if Paul and Peter had not intervened.


And in the meantime — several of the chapters of my dissertation became lectures in theory classes. Indeed, this post and this post are adapted from things in my dissertation. Thanks, Paul. Dissertation: born, 1989. Filed, 1996. R.I.P. And the sumbitch? No hard feelings (not really). In gratitude, I promised to let him know he was a stud at least once per year for 16 years — which was the time from matriculation to Doctor — and I did.


Ever since we killed off the diss, Paul and I send music to each other (I have a lot of CDs from him in my collection and he probably has every one of mine) and we make nice comments about it. We have a mutual admiration society going, and I especially like listening to (and watching) the percussion ensemble music. It's inventive and fun, and, if I may, efficient. I have used the online videos in my orchestration class.


And then I was paid the ultimate compliment: he dedicated a piece to me (I had dedicated Scatter to him in 1991, so in this case, I still win).





Our most recent encounter was lunch two years ago in Princeton, where Beff and I had come for a thing with the Institute for Advanced Study. It was good to see him for the first time in quite a few years, and we asked him to pose with John Phillip Sousa, which I had procured from the US Marine Band. I'm glad he obliged. The reason he looks so relaxed is that he is mere months from retirement.

And now the accolade. I'm thrilled to share it with my teacher, my mentor, my dissertation reader, my friend. It's about time. When I wrote him to congratulate him, he responded, simply, I'm proud of you.


Thank you, Paul.