Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jazz do it!

The "No pulse" buttstick was really hard to extract. 'cause, you know, the motor rhythms and toe-tappin' thing just weren't a part of serious music and I was serious composage guy. Not at all. They did not belong. Witness, say, the finale of Beethoven's Eighth. And the Schönberg Serenade.
I got pretty good at writing irrational rhythms with every imaginable tuplet, and if I had been obliged to pay for every off-the-beat note that I wrote, I would have been bankrupt early on. Nonetheless, I could vary the harmonic rhythm very nicely (note the clever use of homonyms, which is very varied), and create a good sense of pacing. Even with so much happening off the beat.

I just couldn't write music that sounded fast.

And boy, did I want to.

One friend (whatever happened to old what's-his-name? I'll never forget him) made an astute observation: Your fast music sounds like your slow music sped up. My response was probably the familiar I should probably use the bathroom now. Because I knew he was right. And I did have to go to the bathroom.

But Davy. You are well known for your headlong, eventful, riotous fast music. How can you say that you couldn't write fast music?

Well, things weren't always this way. I also used to have hair. And by the way — riotous?

I had written a monstrously difficult piece for Speculum Musicæ with lots and lots of stuff happening (a Boston reviewer said it had Roger Sessions syndrome) and what could only be described as a cavalcade of notes without end. The only "fast" music that actually sounded fast was a few brief passages with an actual pulse. The piece had a slow ending, which at the premiere sounded completely wrong. Wrong, as in stupid. Wrong, as in I should probably use the bathroom now. The Speculi programmed it a second time, for which I wrote a completely new headlong fast a-splode ending with a fierce pulse, thus recasting the story of the whole piece: it's about finding the pulse. Well, okay, I didn't say it was a sexy story. But it's better than the original story the eight soloists gradually learn to work with each other. The gagging sensation is palpable whenever I read that. The original story may have also included Tra la la at the end.

In 1988, Ross Bauer asked me to write a Pierrot ensemble piece for the group he was directing at Stanford, which he requested not be so damn complicated rhythmically because some of the group was students. Fair enough. It was a simpler piece with a few pulsed passages, and when I was looking to write music of rare excitement for the final section, out came a torrent of repeated sixteenth notes in the piano. Repeated sixteenth notes! In the piano! Repeated! Sixteenth! Notes in! The! Piano!

It seemed, uh, exciting enough, those repeated notes, and I was intrigued to think about what it would be like to write substantial machine-gun passages of them with constantly shifting accents and groupings. Downbeats might then sound like syncopations, syncopations like downbeats, and with the right treatment and attention to harmony, it could sound ... fast! So I wrote my first piano étude around that notion. My first! Piano! Étude! My!

And it sounded fast.

Syncopations? Wait ... I was the King of syncopations. All the syncopes, all the time. Le syncopation, c'est moi.

Well, gee, it's like Syndrome says in The Incredibles: "When everybody has super powers, nobody has super powers!"

When everything is syncopated, nothing is syncopated! Ah hah. The pulse isn't there to make mod music seem less serious. It's there to give the composer something against which to syncopate. Cross accents. Give the music a real life. Phrase thingies. And then, and then ...

The buttstick came clean out. When I say clean, I mean something else.

And so what did I write shortly thereafter? A 28-minute symphony without any pulse whatsoever. Not even in the scherzo — which plodded and gave the listener the impression of swimming in liquid dark chocolate. Tasty chords, many of them very loud, but not going anywhere very fast. You know when you dream and are trying to run but you don't get anywhere? That's the scherzo of my symphony.

As an official antidote to the completion of said symphony, I was writing vocalises for Judy Bettina. Since she pretty much had made Uncle Miltie's Phonemena her own — it sounds like scat singing from the polar regions of Mars — one of the vocalises was faux scat (I seem to do a lot of faux) on her and her husband Jim's name.

Hmm. Would a fake camera take fauxtographs? If I had total recall that was defective, would that be fauxtographic memory?

I knew to ask the players to swing (here's what I said: swing the eighths), that's about all. Everything else was cheap imitation. I was clever enough to give Judy leeway to make up her own scat syllables, overriding the cheap imitations that up had been made by me.

Then along came the Itzkoff-Shapiro-Rider trio, who persuaded me to use my Fromm commission to write them a piece. I started work on it at the Bellagio Center, without a clue as to what piano trio writing was if it wasn't Haydn or Beethoven. I realized that this was the first real chamber music I had written — that is, music not to be conducted — in, like forever. How do I write something fast that won't give the players fits trying to stay together?

Gee, Davy, you sure are dense. Use the damn pulse, f'cryin' out loud!

I had started my time at Bellagio by writing my second piano étude, sort of a supercharged version of the first one. I wrote it outside, and enjoyed watching and listening to the birds flying over Lake Como. One flock of them flew overhead in perfect formation, and then split into two formations when one bird apparently miscommunicated, and then got right back together. It was a cool visual effect, and it made me think that something similar would be good for a piano trio. Start everybody on unisons and have the unisons break apart into counterpoint and harmony. And then get them back together. Repeat. Stop.

Yes, this was the beginning of my jittery unison period. Or more precisely, my jittery unisons breaking apart and coming back together period. The jubaacbt period, as it were.


The rhythmic strategy then was simple meters and fast syncopations against them. And in writing music that was truly fast, I figured out ways to get the meters and accents to interact to make that headlong fastiness that is apparently part of my brand.

And how did the players describe the piece once they'd learned it? "It sounds like the dark side of jazz".

Jazz has a dark side? Jazz? Has? A Dark? Side?

Well, there's the beginning of Caravan, and, and ...

This trio, eventually called Hyperblue — I called it that because it felt like blues recorded at 33 and played back at 78 — yes, I am old enough to make vinyl references, and I'll do it whenever I want to — got a great performance that yielded a recording that was, for a while, my greatest hit. Apparently I'd done something that people thought was original. And dark. And really fast. And "jazzy".

So quickly my brand was becoming jazzy guy.

And when jazzy guy started at Brandeis, it was suggested that he would be the perfect guy to give independent studies in jazz composition to students who'd been asking for them. Whoa, I accidentally find the, um, dark side of jazz, and for violin, cello and piano!, and suddenly I'm qualified to teach jazz comp? Hee hee, that's funny.

I gave the independent studies. I had no idea what I was doing. Syncopate more! I probably said a lot.

For you see, jazz bears the same relationship to jazziness that truth bears to truthiness. And don't get me started about cats and cattiness.

At the American Academy in Rome, when we were putting together the composer concerts, it was decided that there needed to be more stuff with clarinet and more with voice. So I did a go-to to my go-to guy Joe Duemer for a few tailor-made — actually, poet-made — texts on an emergency basis. Emergency only in the sense that the performers would probably like to have their parts well in advance of the show. Almost immediately he came through, and just as almost immediately, I embarked on some songs for voice and clarinet.

They were great texts, but one was particularly irksome to me (even to the point of being irkful) — called Burning Woman Blues. Containing the text of unusual irksomeness How can I be holy/When I feel like this/Oh how can I be holy/When I feel/Like this like this like this like this?

Uh huh. I put myself in weird challenge mode, improvised some generic blues licks, and lo and behold, I managed to shoehorn some of them same blues licks into my song and shape them such that it still kind of sounded like me. With the clarinet doing a kind of compound line that had a faux bass line embedded. So here I was, doing an ironic take on the blues — thus beginning a tug at the Shun Vernacular Music buttstick. I was sure that pretty soon vast riches would await me. Real riches, metaphorical riches, either would be cool. Hey, even Ruffles have riches.

As long as I don't somehow acquire the bluesy guy brand. That one out for which I am not cut — I never pay more than a dollar for sunglasses.

For my next trick, I responded to a request for a celebratory piece for the 50th anniversary of Brandeis with a piece that used jazz chords, but with hyperfast Davy licks and no actual jazziness. That's right. Call me hyperfast Davy licks guy. Jazzy is so seven years ago.

Then of course, Geoffy suggested I write him a 'tude on fourths, and as an extra added bonus, I could up and reference modal jazz. Uh huh. Reference, as in, footnote it? Sure. Incidentally, what the heck is modal jazz? Oh, I'll bet it's got stacked fourths and stuff, right? Hence the premise of the 'tude? Okay, I'll write out the swing eighths so it looks way more complicated than necessary (mwa ha ha!) and so it'll look like a whole bunch of extended passages in Carter's first string quartet — which definitely do not swing. Geoffy called it McCoy Tyner on speed.

So thanks to Geoffy's influence, jazzy Davy was back, Whack-A-Mole like.

I still didn't know much of anything about jazz, though. To be fair, I did listen to Weather Report. Which I know some would say is not jazz, but fuchsian. I also visited record stores that filed Earth, Wind and Fire under jazz.

Amy played the fourths-'tude, which is probably what prompted her to ask me for a stride 'tude, whose story is detailed in this post. To achieve this challenge, I actually had to go out and learn something about jazz. So that after some immersion in James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, I was ready for my Davy-ironic take on the genre.

Geoffy countered with gimme some bop. (I listened to much piano bop)

Amy countered with gimme some tango. (I bought two tango CDs)

Rick Moody countered with gimme some rock 'n' roll.

Geoffy and Rick Moody countered with gimme some funk.
Geoffy countered with gimme some clave.

Rick Moody countered with gimme some prog rock. (I hit my head on the table).

Okay, I'm Davy-ironic take on vernacular genres guy. Try putting that on a business card. And the Shun Vernacular Music buttstick? Clean out. In a manner of speaking.

Luckily ironic vernacular genres was mostly limited to 'tudes, where people would like them. Well, okay — and a piano concerto movement. I had arranged four of those genre études for band, which the Marines peoples played in the City of Broad Shoulders. And stride? Fantastic for piano. Really, really goofy-soundin' for band.

So imagine my surprise when I got an e-mail from Greg Evans, asking if I'd be interested in a commission to respond to jazz with string quartet, woodwind quintet, and piano. He was the director of Merkin Hall, and putting together a season of various takes on jazz; I would write the closer for the whole season, representing the classical composer's take on notated jazz for non-jazz players.

That's a remarkably specific premise, no?

The performers were all superstars, so it was certainly an attractive proposition — and in exchange for half a year's mortgage payments!

Wait — what does "respond to jazz" mean?

Beff posited slyly that perhaps it was like Norton in The Honeymooners: First you address the jazz. ... Hello, Jazz!

And Greg — why are you asking me? I suck at teaching jazz comp!

He said he had been watching and listening to the YouTubetudes and he liked how I responded to each weird genre challenge (he forgot to say I did it ironically), and he thought it'd be cool for me to do the same with a full-length piece. Carte blanche.

Okay, okay. I liked the weird challenge, and the prospect of entering the gap between jazz and jazziness: it was time to do jazzness. There's no "I" in jazzness.

So I did the Davy-mélange of stride, swing, fugue, blues, tango, and bebop and stirred to taste. To my taste. It was really hard. And really fun.

Wait — tango isn't jazz, Davy. It's Argentinian popular music descended from the habañera. Well, Tony was going to play a tango set on this concert, so I wrote a tango. Because in is what I desperately wanted to fit. That, and it's fun typing the ñ character.

Another worthy colleague called the stride piano writing "Art Tatum on an overdose of LSD." So I've gone from McCoy Tyner to Art Tatum. Not bad.

And other than my car being totalled — as it was parked and I was 20 miles away — while I was in town for the premiere — it came off pretty well. Even Gunther Schuller liked it. As did Yehudi Wyner, to whom it was an 80th birthday gift.

So, to sum up: jazziness begets more jazziness, begets disastrous independent studies; second jazziness begets ironic takes on vernacular music begets jazzness. But wait. There's more!

As detailed in this post, a bunch of fabulous military musicians wanted me to steal Beethoven's Fifth (now there's a premise) in a piece that would be stylistically similar to this responds-to-jazz piece, for a children's concert. Stylistically similar because they were going to play an excerpt from responds-to-jazz and then later the new piece, and the kids had to be able to identify the broad strokes of the style.

The broad strokes of the style? When did I become pretentio-man?

So out popped a strange hybrid orchestra piece with stride piano, dreamed music, modernist inside-the-piano swipes, and a big honkin' Beethoven 5 quote. What am I going to do with that piece? Why, surround it with equally bizarre siblings, of course. Especially since I get to use the title Scare Quotes.

Or How about a little fire, Scare Quotes?

So at the moment I'm stuck with jazzness in my brand. And since my secret identity is still serious composer guy, I still feel a teensy bit of guilt about how much fun the jazzness music is.

Well, I guess that's just another one that's going to have to come clean out.