Friday, August 13, 2010

Processed? Or organic?

"What is your process?"

This is most effectively preceded by "An unanswerable question, oft asked of composers, writers, and visual artists."

Which is itself preceded by "I'll take What They Ask Composers for six hundred, Alex."

Alex? Hardly anybody remembers that the original host of Jeopardy was Art Fleming, and the announcer was Don Pardo — who was also the announcer for the classic years of Saturday Night Live. Classic Jeopardy seems to have succumbed in the 1970s to the glitzy Vegas-style game shows and the weird psychedelic party of third-stringers that was The Match Game. Concentration — hosted by Hugh Downs of 20/20 fame — met the same fate.

And when Weird Al parodied "Our Love's in Jeopardy" as I Lost on Jeopardy — the show hadn't aired for years, and apparently they had to bring the old set and a somewhat-widened Art Fleming out of mothballs, and Don Pardo — Don Pardo! — for the video. Because you see, the not-classic Jeopardy with Alex had not yet been invented.

And in classic Art Flemingesque Jeopardy, you didn't have to wait for Art to finish saying the answer before you could buzz in. The cocky ones pressed the buzzer the moment the answer was revealed, and before Art could even start reading the question — and the whole baby boom generation has very little memory of the sound of Art's voice without the sound of buzzer attached. Actually, it's a bell sound, but they called it a buzzer. Onomatopoeia rules.

Getting back to the main point, if there is one. The long version of the unclassic Jeopardy question is more like "A question that's asked a lot, is really hard to answer succinctly, and whose answer is different for everybody anyway." And to be completely anal about the whole premise. The question should be stated within a question, thus necessitating a riot of punctuation at the end: "What is 'What is your process?'?"

There are similar questions, and better phrased ones, in this interview. The interviewee answers them somewhat flippantly and perhaps deserves a slap up 'side the head.

Other ways the question gets asked include "where/how do you get your ideas?", "where/how do you get your chords?", "do you think this stuff up in advance?", "what sort of stuff do you listen to?", "did you know that moment was going to happen?" and "how long does it take to write something like that?" My stock answers are usually out of thin air, I make them up, yes and no, whatever I feel like, not likely, it varies. Or perhaps more pertinently, I might answer any of those questions with a question: Are you sure I'm the right person to ask?

It's a good question, though. Even though it's either unanswerable, hard to answer, or would take huge graphs and charts and research grants to answer. Hey, while I'm answering that one, you answer this one: why is there air?

How do pop tarts work?

How did they get the idea to build the pyramids?

It's marginally better to phrase the question in terms of a specific piece: how did you write this piece? How did you know to do that when it happens? Why did you start that piece that way? Would you do anything for love? Because that way, at least the answer could be told in the form of a story, and about a specific event — even though it still wouldn't be sufficient to answer the question. I woke up one morning and I had that sound in my head. I like the sound of low clarinet doing a crescendo. I wanted to create a sense of confusion. I would, but I won't do that.

Phrased in the form of a Facebook relationship status: It's complicated.

Let's just agree that creativity is mysterious. The true and correct answers? I dunno, I dunno, I dunno, I would but I won't do that. And why? Because there is no other piece exactly like this one.

So it takes a lot of story-telling to come up with a rough draft of an answer, and it has to be pretty specific. Speaking only for myself; like many, many composers, when I have to write program notes for a piece, I'll either talk about its construction (boring), or reach for delightful vignettes about the circumstances surrounding its composition (entertaining, if beside the point). But ... how did you write this piece? How, Santy Claus, how?
Northpaw (étude #12, right hand étude) Soon after I started teaching at Brandeis, Lyn Reyna — who had premiered E-Machines (#1) and Nocturnal (#3) — called me and asked if I could write a right-hand piece as a gift to her friend Barbara Barclay, who had fallen off a ladder and injured her left hand. I wrote it in my office over a weekend. It’s a slow, dreamy piece based around F-sharp and A, with a slow descent to the lowest A on the piano over a melody that stays close to the register where it begins.
Can I wake up now? My eyes have that phlegmy stuff on them. And the back of my throat is dry from the snoring.

Rough draft of an answer: maybe it's a combination of biographical datapuzzle-solving and assignments I give myself as I write. Biographical data: I like big sharp crunchy chords like you get in a lot of Bartok; puzzle: invent a crunchy chord and make it blend with this given instrumental combination; assignment: contextualize this chord such that it sounds like an ending and not a beginning.

Composer process = complicated and boring, and I can't ever remember why I did most of the stuff I done wrote. But I soldier on. On I soldier. Le soldiering-on guy, c'est moi.

Why do Tibetan monks sing that way?
Horned In (etude #24, on horn fifths) The title is a pun on the name of David Horne, for whom it was written. This one was fun and strange to write, as I restricted the piece only to horn fifths, beginning one contrapuntal layer (on C) and eventually expanding to four layers (I thought it was like what painting with jell-o must be like). The harmony of the beginning reminds me of Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, which I tried to avoid, but didn’t. The ending returns to the beginning horn fifths in C, backward, as if nothing had happened.
By now the casual reader has surmised that either this post is pointless, or I'm creating a huge upbeat to a story that is really the main point of this post. I'll take Huge Upbeats for four hundred, Alex.
The George W. Bush presidency (ding!).

What is Fox News?

Judges, can we accept that? Ah, no, I'm sorry, you're only partly right. You needed also to include the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, Dittoheads, Monicagate, ... but I promised myself I'd keep politics out of this blog.

The answer is the upbeat.

Okay. Okay. Okay. So... Okay. Okay.

I like weird challenges, or at least unusual premises for pieces. Why? Perhaps because if a piece is a failure, I can always respond, "Yeah, but you know, it was such a weird premise. You know?" Or perhaps for more pretentious reasons: I like stuff that takes me out of my comfort zone because it makes my brain bigger. Or maybe I like stuff that takes me out of my big zone because it makes my brain more comfortable. I could go on.

Biographical data So I know the peoples at "The President's Own" United States Marine Band. I have written three wind ensemble pieces in the past ten or so years, and they've played all of them. The first one they actually commissioned and recorded. The band's Director Michael Colburn is from my little hometown in dairy country in northern Vermont, and his father was Music Man in my high school. When Michael was in high school and I was in college in Boston, I invited him to visit, and I gave him various tours of the city. By his own estimation, he was a snot-nosed kid at the time. So, for that matter, was I. Years later, he was kind enough to reenact a small part of those years for me, with raw materials I provided.

The Marine Band does just 'bout all the functionary music for the White House. To that end, they also have a Marine Chamber Orchestra. And other ensembles, and a tour, and all kinds of stuff! Including chamber ensemble concerts and jazz concerts and Children's Concerts. So Jason, also from New England, and one of the assistant directors of the band, e-mailed me last fall for some advice about a Children's Program he was up and assembling, to involve the MCO. He had a little notion that classical composers sometimes stole from each other, that he wanted to make it a focus of a children's concert, and was there any rep that I knew of that blithely did such stealing.

"Good composers borrow. Great composers steal" — apocryphally attributed to Stravinsky. I said the only kind of obvious theft I could bring to mind at that very minute was Schubert's Marche Militaire in Stravinsky's Circus Polka. Plus more recent composers stole a lot of pop music, etc. His lengthy response could be boiled down to "Hmmm." Perhaps a month later, I got another e-mail that pretty much read, "Hmmm." At this time I also remembered that Beethoven's Fifth is all over the Emerson Alcotts movement of the Concord Sonata, and I heard tell that someone (it turns out to be Henry Brant) had arranged it for band? Or orchestra? Or something?

Just before my academic winter break was about to happen, Jason e-mailed again. "Hmmm," he said. I'm still thinking about this thing. If it came to this, could you write an orchestra piece on short notice that steals something iconic, like, hmmm, the motto of Beethoven's Fifth? It pays, and we'll do the parts.

I responded with a lengthy e-mail. "Hmmm." Plus I had a pretty full plate for the vacation.

Puzzle-solving But given that I might just be asked to write a piece that slyly quotes Beethoven, my mind started generating scenarios where that could happen. Just in case. Meanwhile, I was hard at work on a third flutude. Then a movement for four 'cellos. Then a piano trio movement. When vacations arrive, I am not slow. It's hip-hip-hip and away I go!

Biographical data Mid-flutude, Jason said it was a go. The parameters (deep breath):
  • Biographical data Five or six composers will be represented and performed, and the children will be given clues on stylistic traits unique to each composer.
  • Biographical data Later, other pieces by the same composers will be performed, and the kids will have to take what they've been told about composers to identify which piece was by whom.
  • Biographical data One of the composers will have stolen Beethoven's Fifth.
  • Assignment That's you.
  • Biographical data The piece we will do of yours to represent your style is the first movement of Stolen Moments, with a full chamber orchestra string section in place of the string quartet for which it was written.
  • Assignment Your new piece should be stylistically similar to Stolen Moments.
  • Assignment And steal Beethoven's Fifth.
  • Assignment In an artful way.
  • Biographical data Bye.

Puzzle-solving Stolen Moments was a piece commissioned by the Kaufman Center (Merkin Hall) as a "response to jazz" for their classical-meets-jazz series. That piece itself was a gigantic puzzle-solving expedition, as I was expected to write jazz, in several of its incarnations, inside my own "serious" style, for woodwind quintet, string quartet, and piano — and no improvisation. Whoa, talk about brain a-splode. The part Jason was going to play had plenty of piano-centric stride in it, as well as jazz inflection from every pore and orifice. Whoo doggies! How can I write a piece that is similar yet different? And for ... orchestra?

Assignment Design a compositional context wherein the Beethoven quote — three repeated notes followed by a long note a major third lower — is organic.

Assignment Write a beginning not quite like any orchestra piece you've heard. It must involve the piano.

Assignment It's got to have that Davy-jazz. You know, for kids?
The Third, Man (étude #15). When it became clear that this collection of études was getting pretty serious, I decided to put a little organization into the collection, and resolved to write a bunch of them on intervals, as in the first book of Debussy études. I started by writing an etude on thirds, since I liked this title. This is one of the few slow, dreamy ones. It’s just one-part, then two-part, then three-part counterpoint, all in thirds (both major and minor), and a little near-quote from Claire de Lune at the end to close it off. The recapitulation in this piece coincides with the completion of the bass’s descent to its low note, C.
Biographical data So I finished the piano trio movement in four days, to which I had allotted a week of my vacation. The new orchestra piece: two weeks, plus the extra three days if needed, to write, orchestrate, and copy the piece, Puzzle-solving to last about five minutes. You know, for kids?

Monkey wrench Monkey wrench? Is that even a category?

Monkey wrench While writing the piano trio and gearing up for the new piece, I dreamed about writing the new piece. That is, I was sitting at the piano, putting my hands on the keyboard, and writing down what I liked.

Aw, man. Dreaming about a piece. That's another complication. Man ....

I have a rule about music I dream. If I dream it and remember it, it goes into what I'm writing. It's a dumb rule, but it's a rule nonetheless. And I dreamed about sitting at the piano and coming up with a chord progression to use for this piece — not even a real tune. Man ... Not only is that kind of a boring dream, but it ... adds more stuff.

Biographical data What I remembered from the dream was the sound of the chords and, more specifically, my hand positions on the piano as I came up with them. I also remembered that these chords were destined for the brass section. So, soupir, dutifully I went to the piano and plunked out the chords based on the hand positions in the dream, and what came out sounded different from how it sounded in the dream. Man ...

Puzzle solving So the first sketches for the new piece were a working out of those hand positions — two or three notes in each hand, in the middle register, so that they sounded like something I would write. And that involved something like composing. And as I wrote these down on my custom oblong music paper, I had no idea how or where any of this stuff would happen in the piece — just that they would, somewheres. And the melodic line has only pretty small intervals — whassup with that?

Puzzle solving What does any of this have to do with quoting Beethoven and referencing jazz and stride piano?

Puzzle solving The wind players are going to be people who've Biographical data played my music before. So I can Puzzle solving go to town (not On the Town) with their parts if need be. Not much known about the string players, save in a Haydn(!) concert I'd been to a few years earlier, and they sounded quite good.

Assignment Put together a unique beginning involving piano, jazz-inflected piano-dominating DavyMusik and brass-dominated dream music. Make it seem like they always belonged together.

Okay. Okay. Okay. So ... Okay. Okay.

Puzzle solving First gesture of the piece: the piano strums a chord on the inside of the piano (like an autoharp!) and the string section sustains the same chord and crescendoes — as if it emerged from inside the piano. Whoo doggies, needed medical help for my arm after all the back-patting on that one.

Assignment Get the repeated-note idea into the piece as soon as possible.

Puzzle solving And that string chord crescendoes to another chord that seems to have clarinets trailing off of it, playing repeated notes at different speeds and getting softer, as if the notes broke off of the second chord. My other arm needs medical help. Then repeat the gesture with different chords (the slow beginning gambit!)

Assignment Establish the jazzy thing, dude! Decide if it's an intrusion or brought in organically, or, you know, whatever.

Puzzle solving Let the meandering autoharp chords continue for a while, and then have the brass enter in a rising handoff line in swing eighths that seems to spawn the stride piano.

Puzzle solving ... whose first lick is cut short by the winds doing the Beethoven lick backwards — long note followed by three short repeated ones.

Assignment What about that dreamed music?

Puzzle solving Let the stride go on for a while and suddenly cut it off, using three quick repeated notes without the trailing fourth note. Trumpet note hangs over.

Puzzle solving ... and morphs into the beginning of the dreamed music.

Puzzle solving. Oops. Misfire. What's wrong with me? This music sucks.

Assignment Make it work.

Biographical data Time to enter all this into Finale and check out the timing. Oh, and Happy New Year! Bonne année! Puzzle solving During this part, I had to lengthen several of the beginning bars to get the effect I wanted. The sketch is now out of date. And out of mind. Soon you die ...

And back to the seam where it is that which I left. Puzzle solving *soupir* the dream music isn't ready to happen. Assignment Make it ready. While you're at it, get those brass in on the repeated note thing. Puzzle solving Ooh! Ooh! Have a counterpoint against the brass in tutti pizzicati in the strings, and have a brass instrument meet each note and do some fadin' repeated note thingies. And ooh! Accumulate the gestures — more and more, until the dream music seems to have to emerge, as a release in tension.

Puzzle solving Gee, after all that activity, a brass chorale like I dreamed is going to seem pretty disappointing. Assignment Make this not disappointing Puzzle solving by counterpointing the brass against a jazzy pizzicato bass line — thus also implying some sort of relationship to the stride music, and ... ooh, if I'm not careful this could start to sound like it came out of West Side Story. Not for the Jets, or for the Sharks, but for the Third Viennese. Wow.

Assignment Time to get your Beethoven quote on. All the balls are in the air. Puzzle solving Make the three-note repeated figure a hot potato that migrates from section to section, never with the long note attached. Finally, make everybody do the three-note figure and the long note. Quote achieved!

Puzzle solving Quote achieved. Now what?

Biographical data Time to make some dinner and get all this stuff into the computer.

Assignment Finish the piece. Puzzle solving Why not make the quote also a recapitulation? That will make people trying to graph the piece's form go totally bonkers.

Thus after the quote, the autoharp effect é in ritorno. If I had a third arm, it too would need medical attention. Assignment This time, why not make the stride music seem to emerge organically rather than simply start? Puzzle solving by turning woodwind tremolos into measured tremolos into sextuplets into scales into jazzy licks into ... stride! I'll show you mine if you show me yours.

Assignment Now end it. Puzzle solving by isolating some two-note licks from the stride music and building chords on top of them, and one last rising brass lick. Where's that fourth arm?

Biographical data After ending it, I realized it was too short, so Puzzle solving I added more. E-mailed the score and PDF to Jason. Less than 48 hours later, the check was on the back porch, in a FedEx envelope. Sweet. Time from beginning the piece to score delivery: eleven days. Duration: 5 minutes.

Biographical data Beff also finished a sizable piece on the same day. Assignment for both of us: take something from and make it the title of your piece. Puzzle solving Beff's piece is called Winter Weather Advisory. Mine is called Current Conditions.

Puzzle solving What can I do, professionally, with a 5-minute orchestra piece, once the premiere has happened? Assignment (still pending) add three more movements to it that also quote old music, and artfully. Title of final collection: Scare Quotes. Fifth arm, anyone? Biographical data Well, at least the New England Philharmonic has programmed the piece, without any help from me. Maybe five-minute orchestra pieces is the way to go?

Biographical data That's my process. For this one piece. And I'm a-stickin' to it.


The Children's Concert happened in May at Northern Virginia Community College. Jason had written a masterful script, with all kinds of detail. He wanted me in on the show, and I agreed — I drove to DC, stayed with the Colburns, bought them some Famous Dave's Barbecue, and got ready. I had told Jason I owned a blue wig. His response was "Hmmm." ... "I'll work it in."

The concert had an extremely complicated setup, so bear with me. It was framed as a Music History Mystery. Somebody has stolen Beethoven's Fifth Symphony! Using your music sleuthing skills, help us figure out who!

Instead of a real program, everyone got a clue book and a pencil. Inside were suspect pages for the six composers who may have had a motive, and the ability, to steal the Beethoven symphony.

There were suspect pages for Bach, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Bernstein, and ... moi. Educational aspect: teach about music history and historical styles with examples and then a quiz.

The show was divided into two halves: the first half, and the second half. The first half happened first.

Jason was outfitted with a wireless mic. The acoustic shell, such as it was, was white. Jason comes out, introduces Beethoven's Fifth, the orchestra starts, and after 20 seconds the lights go out, screams, music stands get toppled. Jason apologizes, and says they'll start again. The players object. We don't have the music. Jason realizes he doesn't have his, either. Jason decides they have to go back in time to ask Beethoven about it. And while the orchestra plays the beginning of the Fourth Symphony, time montage appears, projected on the acoustic shell.

Still with me?

Beethoven appears, in silhouette on the other side of the acoustic shell, with a cartoonish Viennese accent. Long conversation about the symphony and the possible culprits. Music is played by all six of the possible culprits, and Jason describes what makes each one unique: as he makes his descriptions, his words appear in a PowerPoint presentation on the acoustic shell. Intermission.

I was in the balcony in a box (so to speak) with the Colburns, and my old ka-ching friend Carolyn Davies, who has moved to the DC area. For the second half, though, I had to go backstage. Because I had lines. Lines! And a blue wig.

And, of course, the score to Beethoven's Fifth.

Jason started the second half by reviewing. Then, in random order (known in advance), other pieces were played by the same six composers. I was fourth. As each piece went down, the PowerPoint part of the acoustic shell displayed stuff that was happening, as suggestions for the Clue Books.

After all six had happened, Jason announces to the crowd that they were now ready to solve the mystery. While he's talking, I, in blue wig, sheepishly try to sneak the Beethoven 5 score back onto Jason's stand. Jason sees me, takes off the wig and exclaims "it's David Rakowski!" and my startling visage appears on the acoustic shell. I apologize to Beethoven, let the audience know that they had just heard a world premiere, and excuse myself to go to the bathroom. Concert ends with a proper performance of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth. I spend a small eternity afterwards autographing clue books from fans whose height averages four feet.

My triumphant day ends with eight hours of driving. Beltway, 95, NJ Turnpike, 287, Hutchinson Parkway, Merritt Parkway, Wilbur Cross Parkway, 84, 90, 290, 495, 117. The glamour never stops here in Davyland.