Monday, August 16, 2010

Norman of the Joy

This is it — the first sheet music I bought with money that I myself earned.

It has that lived-in, much-used look, what with the coffee stain and all. It cost $3.50, which, given my wages in 1976, was exactly two hours work before taxes. Since the minimum wage was $2.30/hr. at the time, one can surmise that my line of work, at age 18, was one of those in the list of exceptions. Yep, food services. Warner's Snack Bar. I misused a broom and mop, served food through a window (known as the serving window), and made milkshakes — both the thin kind and the thick kind. My mother forbade me to use the meat slicer; my hands, musician, dontcha know.

At the time I had been writing music for at most eighteen months and was eager to be find out stuff about more kinds of music than were readily available to a kid tucked into the upper left-hand corner of New England, surrounded by dairy farms and Future Farmers of America. Oh, the family had plenty of vinyl at hand; indeed, there was a pile of Build Your Classical Library records that had been purchased, one per week, at the local supermarket, for 88 cents each, in the late 1950s. The library was held together by very long screws in the corners of the sleeves, tightened by wingnuts — not the political kind — so that they could be browsed like the pages of a wingnut book. The records were rather pristine, though there had been a few — very few — family evenings when one or two of them might get put on. Mostly, though, what got put on the stereo was easy listening, religious music, Judy Collins, and Broadway Show-Stoppers. Honeysuckle Rose was a particular favorite.

I had, of course, been curious enough to audition some of the very serious orchestral music that was in the collection — but Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were the only ones I really got into — lots of flash and color, without a lot of tedious time spent on rigorous musical argument. Otherwise the so-called serious music I was exposed to was the little diluted piano arrangements in my older siblings' piano method books; and very occasionally, some classical literature arrangements that I played in my high school band. Including the first movement of Mozart's 40th Symphony! In that one, I think the trombones only played whenever there was an augmented sixth chord, which made us structural (as well as predominant — a theory nerd joke if ever there was one). I also learned a few light classics such as Poet and Peasant Overture and The Charge of the Light Brigade playing in two town bands: the Enosburg Band and the St. Albans Citizens Band.

My very favorite music from the town bands was "Red's White and Blue March", composed by my early role model, Red Skelton. I could probably write it out for you from memory right now. So there're these two seagulls, Gertrude and Heathcliff...

Note: I said "my older siblings'" piano method books and not mine. Donald and Jane didn't warm up to the piano lesson thing, nor to the violin lesson thing, so my parents gave up, and never subjected me to any kinds of formal music lessons. That was probably a very good idea — and to that end it's great to have been the baby of the family (it turns out I'm what they call a self-starter! Plus the money they saved...). Instead of making me learn things by going weekly to a teacher, Mom gave me a dime for every instructional piece in the old piano methods I could memorize and play for her. Almost immediately I had enough to buy the Mono vinyl of The Monkees second album – my first record purchase. $1.87 at W.T. Grants downtown. W.T. Grants was next door to the supermarket where our classical record library had been obtained.

I learned to type courtesy of the same sort of financial arrangement. I sure did learn a lot about Hal, whoever that was.

In high school, my band director encouraged me to audition for the all-State and all-New England music festivals. He had, as soon as I got into high school, seen the action under my chin (I guess it's called the gullet) when I played trombone, and he recognized that I had never been taught properly how to tongue notes. I was pretty much "saying" puh puh puh into the instrument instead of tah tah tah. He said I couldn't continue with the instrument unless I fixed it; and unlearning four years worth of wrong playing was pretty hard. I was grateful, though, when it came time to learn double-tonguing — ta-ka-ta-ka being far more gracious on the mouth (given that the lips were doing a moistly-farting noise into a long tube) than puh-ka-puh-ka.

By my second year of high school I was playing in the all-State and all-New England bands, surrounded by lots of very good players, and playing music that was much harder and more sophisticated than our Future Farmers of America were up to. It was in these bands that I got to experience for the first time some extended tonal works, of the American kind — Copland, Persichetti, Paul Whear, Schuman, Peter Mennin, Morton Gould among them — and these works absolutely made my ears tingle. I loved the chords and polychords and the unusual syncopations. I got my parents to buy the records that they sold at the end of these festivals so I could listen some more at home.

By the time I wrote my first piece ever — I gave it the opus number of 3 because I was trying to win the all-State composition contest, and I didn't want to appear to be a beginner — I had a sort of retinue of licks from those band pieces that I was ready to steal so I could make the transition from Gee, I wish I wrote that guy to Hey, look, it turns out I did write that! guy. The formal scheme of Opus 3 was ABCDEFGHIJKA — A though K being every idea worth stealing that I'd collected, and the recapitulation was there because you were supposed to have a recapitulation. (The A music was an F-sus4 chord held in the lower brass while the percussionists played intricate nonsensical rhythms which were too complicated for our players, anyway — except the wood block part, played admirably by a ringer (the band director) on claves). Here I usually like to add that at the premiere of my first piece ever (June 1, 1975), all the third clarinetists were drunk.

I was also listening a lot to Chicago's second album, (thanks, Jane) and they dug sharp-nine chords. I played a band piece in all-State that loved them, too, and loved moving them in parallel. So for my F-music or G-music, I wrote a trumpet solo for Tom Chevalier over those chords. I do not remember the name of the composer from whom I stole that idea.

By the time I knew I wanted to become a composer (mid-June, 1975), I started seeking out modern classical music to see and hear what I was supposed to be doing. I got a NY Phil Hindemith album and wore the grooves off of that one. My band director lent me a Time-Life series of records that got me into Boulez and Babbitt(!), there was the Glenn Gould Hindemith album, I got a harp concerto album with Rodrigo, and the local public library had the Ives Quarter-Tone Pieces and New Music from Australia on Odyssey Records.

The interwebs had not yet come to St. Albans. Or to anywhere, for that matter. So that's all the new music I had access to. This was my world.

During the summer before I started college, my dad was going into Burlington for a doctor's appointment, and I came along. I thought I'd better learn some serious music theory before enrolling at a Conservatory, so I talked Dad into giving me a ten-spot to buy a theory textbook at Bailey's Music Rooms in downtown Burlington. And while I waited in the doctor's office, now carrying around a white music paper notebook, I started reading through the textbook I had procured.

The textbook was Leo Kraft's Gradus, which came with an anthology of musical examples. One thing I liked about it was that it looked ahead at post-tonal and extended tonal music every once in a while just to show that the rules weren't all that different. For me the bonanza was being able to see, right there on paper, just what notes were in some of those really crunchy chords I dug — plus I got to see how they fit in with other crunchy chords.

One of those looks ahead involved — you guessed it — Norman Dello Joio's third piano sonata. The first page of the sonata was in the music anthology, and in the textbook there was a brief synopsis of how the composer wrote it. There was lots of stuff that was attractive, to a geeky kid who still had his hair, about this single page of piano music. First and foremost, it was very pretty music, extended tonal, contrapuntal, no harsh dissonance. Secondly and even foremore, it was simple and easy enough for me to hack through at our piano. I could study good phrase construction, a good registral plan, and how the cadence is constructed (and different from the weaker cadences that precede it). I don't recall if Gradus identified the music as the theme that was the basis for several subsequent variations; but it did reveal that the source of the opening melody was a Gregorian chant. And further, that the chant that Uncle Norm had used was a Kyrie that was printed in the textbook's music anthology.

This was an attractive way to write a piece, thought I. Of course I thought it. I had hair. Kraft probably expected a lot of kids taking theory to do exactly what I thought about doing next: go into that same music anthology, take, and rhythmicize a different Gregorian chant, and write appropriate similar harmonizations of it.

So I up and appropriated a Gloria, and you'll never guess what I did next.

This white music notebook spends most of its life in a box in the attic. Today I brought it out to see if what I remembered about my assignment to myself was accurate. It does do as Uncle Norm did: it begins with a melody by itself, which is joined, before it is finished, by the melody in another voice. And it gradually thickens the texture, much the way flour thickens gravy.

Actually, not at all in the way flour thickens gravy. But thanks for playing our game.

The page has several things on it that I hadn't remembered. First, I called it Perspectives on a Chant. Vomitorium, anyone? Secondly, you can tell I was serious about composition, because it has an opus number: Op. 18 No. 6. And it identifies when I wrote it: August 21, 1976, 1 am to 3 am. A.M??? Really?

This notebook that I was carrying around with me also identifies my other favorite stuff to steal at that time. It's Op. 18 No. 7, a 3 voiced fugue on an arbitrary subject, composed at the church picnic, August 22, 1976 (also my father's 55th birthday). The Hindemith imprint is very deep. Obviously I was a big fan of the multi-fugue movement in the third piano sonata.

In red ink, the book also includes, among many other gems, Op. 18 No. 3, the classic Two-Part Invention written in the waiting room of Dr. Madison. Classic.

I do not remember why I wrote in pen and not in pencil at this time.

After the summer was over, my mother took me to Dowling's catalog store to buy two pieces of luggage, using the money I'd earned at Warner's. There was very little left after this purchase. Turns out, though, I could put stuff in the suitcases that I would bring to college.

And when those suitcases were emptied and their contents put in their appropriate dorm room places, there I was, walking the streets of Boston for the first time. I walked into Carl Fischer Music on Boylston Street and saw Uncle Norm's piano sonata on display. On display! And I bought it, using the rest of the money from my summer making of milkshakes. Of course I wanted to see what other cool stuff there was in there that I could steal.


For those of you who haven't kept up with the underlying subject here, this post is about using models to teach composition. Writing a piece, and especially starting a piece, is a pretty open-ended Aaarghmachen thing. I learned a great deal by using Dello Joio as a model, since it helped me to write a piece that was at least about something. The piece — not a great one. But an important one. Because it helped me write the next piece.