Monday, October 25, 2010

The Means Justifies the Ending

It was the first year of graduate study in composition. I was learning a few incontrovertible things about high-level academic programs, especially factoid #18b: the best programs have very few self-esteem issues and thus don't insist on formalities. Thus the faculty were addressed by their first names. It took a few weeks before I could ask for a lesson time with Milton without walking away blushing, and giggling.

At Beff's first full-time continuing position, her colleagues insisted that students call her Dr. Wiemann. At her current job, she is Beth.

I give my students two choices: Davy or Herr Professor Doktor Davy. I make sure they distinguish the "k" sound in Doktor from the softer "c" sound to which they are accustomed, and to roll the r's. Advanced students can call me Egrrrrrrrrrigio Maestrrrrrro.

In this grad program, I was working on a massively complicated Septet, and learning about computers and computer music. I quickly had enough computer facility to write programs in EXEC that would, for instance, type the word fuck at you if you typed the word shit. And vice versa. As Steve, the EECS student next door noted, It's just like getting your mother to say 'Fuck'. Years later, Martler designed similar programs that enabled the following exchange between user and computer: Lick. Lick? Yes. Oh.
The Metropolitan Opera was doing its first production of the newly restored Lulu, and Claudio had sufficient connections there to get those of us who wanted into rehearsals for it. He even supplied transportation. I would say I went at least five times and got to know the music very well. Twice afterwards, Claudio even had his fingers on enough strings to get us a brief private meeting with Maestro Levine, or as Claudio called him, Jimmy. Claudio wanted to talk musical stuff with Jimmy while we watched, and Jimmy was very friendly and engaging with us. He was shorter than he looked on TV.

The first time we met with him, Jimmy might have been a little tired of talking Lulu, made a big gesture with his hands at us lowly grad student composers and said: Send me your stuff! I want to know what you're writing! He was sincere, as far as we could tell, and one of us — Scott, from Pittsburgh — took him up on the offer. He sent his giant and very short orchestra piece with a structural part for the lion's roar to Levine at the Met, and, of course, never got so much as an acknowledgement. It's hard to pierce the apparatus of great thickness around people with the stature of Levine. There was no good way for Scott to put on his package "of the fifty or sixty scores Mr. Levine receives in today's mail, this one is the special one. For you see, Mr. Levine, who probably wouldn't remember me, specifically asked to see it..."

Donald Martino told a story that after he had won the Pulitzer Prize, a second- or third-tier orchestra sent him a letter requesting scores and recordings for their programming consideration. He complied, and shortly they sent his package back with a note, "We apologize that we cannot accept unsolicited scores."

The very last time we were able to get into the Met for a rehearsal was the actual dress rehearsal, and we weren't the only scruffy onlookers in the audience – there seemed to be various levels of funding people scattered about, as well as the understudies. Whenever Lulu had a very high melisma, I started to notice the same melisma happening an octave lower right in front of me – and I realized that I was sitting right behind the understudy, singing along. Later to be the one who was on the classic Lulu broadcast, and who went on to great success in the movie of Carmen. Yes, it was Julia Migenes-Johnson.

After the four or five hours of that last rehearsal, Claudio insisted we get to see Jimmy again, and damned if, all sweaty but wired, Jimmy didn't come right out to see us again. We (Claudio) had a few issues with the production: first, near the beginning of the last scene, Lulu was seen soliciting her first client, and we thought that was gratuitous. Damned if they didn't cut that out! And finally, we had an issue with Berg himself and how he chose to end the opera. Berg was wrong, and it was up to Jimmy to fix it.

Famously, the last chords of each of Lulu's three acts summarize the musical materials of particular characters — A major over an F bass at the end of act I to signify Dr. Schön, A minor over F bass in act II for Alwa, and at the end of the opera, both of those chords (duh, just move the C-sharp to C), followed by Esus4 over F to signify Grafin Geschwitz (move C to B — facile comme un gateau). Geschwitz had just been stabbed by Jack the Ripper and ends the opera by singing a last heartfelt paean to Lulu, with a vocal range that exceeds even the Star Spangled Banner. Berg wrote a soft dynamic for the orchestra to end the opera — at least he did in the short score — perhaps trying to be subtle. In the Suite from Lulu that would feel fine because it ends only about twenty minutes of music from the opera. We felt, though, that after three hours of death and deception and all the other stuff that happens in operas, that the emotion had accumulated to a point where it had to end loud, and tragic — stereotypical, yes, but in the moment it was right. Jimmy agreed. We made a difference, and Berg made a quarter-turn in his grave. Which was, ironically, more comfortable.

Geoffy and I were once suppering at the Quarterdeck Restaurant, and somehow we got the idea to make a binary list: Davytudes that end loud, and Davytudes that end soft. The classic setup of two columns on a napkin from so many movies — or maybe from one — revealed that soft beat loud by a large margin. One wonders what the focus group would think, and what conclusions they would make. We also wondered what was for dessert. Alas, the fateful napkin will not be available for purchase at auction.

Loud endings are confident. Soft endings are cop-outs.

Huh? Where did that come from? Actually, I've heard that from exactly one composer, who will remain anonymous. In his defense, however, it came in a grad seminar as rigid philosophical positions were being staked out, and that one hadn't yet been taken.

Hmm, the more I write about grad seminars here, the less flattering they look. All in all, they were good — they made my brain expand sideways, though it never got any taller.

A number of years ago, and not long after I had become a professional teacher of composition, an old friend had sent me some cassettes of his music, which I listened to in as fastidious a way as I could, given the width of my brain. Since I was a newly anointed full-time composition teacher, it was hard to switch off composition teacher mode when I wrote him back for the feedback that he had requested ("I'm curious to know what you think" he had said, which with the burden of life experience I now know always includes the understood but unwritten ending "unless there's anything you don't like").

One of the things I wrote was "at least half of your pieces don't end. They just stop." The response was predictable: "What do you mean by that?"

Wow. Composition teacher mode means you have to splain stuff. You don't just proclaim it. Oh, right. I'm not European.

In retrospect, I should have just said it was all great and please sir may I have some more. Instead, I had to gather statistics from the unused portion of my brain to say what I meant: "By which I mean your pieces stop. They don't end."

Realizing my tautology (yes, my ology is very taut — even self-taut), I added "it doesn't feel like the musical thoughts, whatever they are, are completed. There's no inertia that I can sense. Things feel like they end in the middle of something." Aw, man it's about feelings? What's up with that?

In May 2003 Amy was airing out part 2 of the 'tude recording project on the AmerKlavier thing that DePaul University was putting on. That's not a typo, and every time anyone said AmerKlavier out loud, an angel got schmutz on his wings. I came out to do the Amy 'n' Davy show and introduce the two dozen 'tudes she was playing. Much of the audience was faculty and piano student types, and they got to ask questions after the show. One of them remarked, "some of the études don't seem to end. They just stop."

Luckily, I had exactly two feet, giving me an extra one for the shoe. I acknowledged that some endings felt weak but not necessarily wrong (parents always love even their ugliest children), I said it was a fair criticism, and if he would identify one such ending, perhaps I could explain why he was wrong, or why I was wrong, or how Amy could play it differently such that it ended in a way that was satisfactory.

He zoomed in on Wiggle Room, (two YouTubes, here and here!) and I agreed that the ending had seemed unsatisfactory. This is the one that, as Amy's original idea, takes off on the texture of the WTC 1 C minor prélude, and in recognition of Bach, leaves tempo, articulation, pedaling and dynamics to the performer.

Looking at the last four bars (here you are informed that the excerpt is © by C.F. Peters), I could explain what characteristics this passage has that signify that it's over!

  • After covering much of the piano, the range contracts to a very tight space, as in the beginning, where it lingers for two bars.
  • The right pinky is obliged to sustain a B-flat for almost four bars — the longest sustained note of the piece.
  • The left-hand wiggling gets antsy and syncopated, and slowly, then quickly, descends to the bottom of the piano, thus doing a space-opening gesture that should scream I'm ending, dammit!
  • At the last attack of the piece, the space-opening left hand ends at the low B simultaneously with the sustained B-flat moving, in a voice-leading way, to another B.
  • The opening-up to that wide octave should sound like a resolution, and make the B-flat sound retrospectively like a leading tone to B.

Amy was interpreting the ending — absent any Davynamics — as a fadeaway gesture. It was beautifully subtle, even if the left-hand thing wasn't. And the resolution to the upper B was perhaps too subtle. There Amy decided to instill an equally subtle crescendo to the last moment, and emphasize the octave. All in attendance were satisfied that it was now a suitable ending.

You will note in I-Chen's performance, it ends forte with the resolution slam-dunked. Both approaches work.

My first exposure to the chamber music of Dvorak was at a concert in San Francisco, and I fervently hope it will be my last. For you see, the finale of the piece I heard ended no fewer than five times.

I've also been fortunate to hear, in concert, plenty of modern works that kept ending. Over and over again.

Thanks to the magic of the radio format, pop songs don't have to end. Like old soldiers, they can simply fade away. Grad seminar or no grad seminar, I say that's a copout ending. Though I guess it creates work for arrangers when groups tour and need concert endings for their hits that do the fadeaway. Within that tradition, such as it is, however, there are some tunes I know of that are constructed such that they can never end — the harmonic progression ending Borderline, what with its cleverly placed secondary dominants and all, can never finish. Thus it has to ride off into the sunset.

My much-maligned-by-me first symphony ends big and thick and loud. Not because the piece demanded it. But because George Rothman asked me not to end it slow and soft. Opposites attract.

How can a composer get an ending wrong? So far it looks like pieces either don't end at all, or they end too much. I see the seeds of a trashy novel here — The Quartet That Ended Too Much. Can Dvorak realize the folly of his ending philandering and choose only one of them? And the right one? What will the other endings do when he rejects them? You won't be able to put it down; but you won't be able to sit through it, either! Ironically, it's a never-ending story!

Okay, yes, it's really aggravating for the composer to tell you he's finished and then to keep going. I've sat through my share of speeches that do the same thing. Poems, too.

Speaking of poetry, I have encountered more than a few poems with punch line endings. And then I cried. Aren't we all like that after all? It made me think of my mother. Perhaps we can agree that the problem with such endings is that they are too obvious — they don't leave any of the work of thinking to the reader. I wonder if there are endings analagous to punch line endings in music.

Well, okay. Sticking Shave and a Haircut at the end of a piece. But that's a joke. It could be irono-funny. More likely, it'd just be dumb. And so totally eighth grade, dontcha know.

Perhaps the endings are too heavy? Too downbeaty? How about an example of a very heavy ending, then? The Beethoven 5 — it's both Teutonic and its homonym, too-tonic. This heavy ending, though, feels earned, especially when taken in the context of the entire symphony. First there had been the seeming ending of the first movement that is hijacked by thirteen hammered Neapolitan and then thirteen hammered applied diminished seventh chords, going off into la-laville, thus making the movement's actual ending seem a bit weak in comparison. Plus, there's all the stuff that happens in the movements that follow, which seem — at least to ol' Ludwig — to require an ending heavy enough to stomp out all dissent — and that includes Neapolitans and diminished sevenths. That ending is so heavy that it seems overbalanced if the fourth movement is played by itself.

Okay, so endings have to be scaled to their pieces. Fair enough. A 40-bar prelude doesn't get a 30-bar ending. And you don't start pieces with the end. Or do you? Is there a piece of music with a structure similar to that of the movie Gandhi? It starts with Gandhi's assassination, then does glacially paced stuff for three hours, and when you finally wake up and the assassination scene happens again at the end, you know what's going to happen. Ah, foreshadowing. Perhaps all music contains in its beginning the seeds of its endings? Just like life contains the seeds of death?

Nah. Cosmic doesn't work here.

As Bobbie showed us, endings of pieces within larger collections of pieces can end weakly, as questions — a little bit like chapter endings in novels prepare the subsequent chapters. That is, they can end such as to defer to the later movements for the real, stronger endings. Which also makes such pieces a little harder to excerpt. Who claps when a piece ends on the dominant seventh? That's right — only squirrels do.

And as theorists say, some of whom were in the same room as me when they said it, much of the music of Brahms doesn't end until there's a cadence in every register. And presumably a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot.

Since the ending is the last thing you hear in a piece (uh, by definition), it's pretty memorable when the composer gets it wrong. So what do endings do anyway? Other than the tautological answers, that is.

I am proud to say that once the list of what endings do is finalized, notarized and certified by the composer commissions of at least fifty countries, I will be the first in line to write an ending that does something else. Because, you know, that sort of thing is one hundred percent perspiration.

In another blog post, I said that I do the two endings: the fadeaway and the a-splode™. In Davyworld, they both release a tension of sorts, accumulated by what happened before. Fadeaway is letting the air out of a balloon slowly, hopefully without the squeaky sound; a-splode™ is letting the air out of the balloon by popping it, thus making a big noise.

Thus perhaps at DePaul, Wiggle Room seemed still to have the fingers closing the aperture of the balloon with the air still in it. How did I get to this crappy metaphor? It's, like, even worse as a simile.

So, is the ending of a piece the strongest cadence? The largest release of tension? The resolution of all tension? The rhythmic nexus? The ultimate release after the structural downbeat?

I am pleased to offer the answers to these gnarly questions: Depends. Depends. Depends. Depends. Depends.

That's right. It's context-dependent.

And can a piece end convincingly if it's clearly in the middle of something?


Cosmic question: if my piece ends convincingly, how do I get the critic to write It left me wanting more!?

For some reason, I'm feeling really self-conscious about how I end this blog post.

Aren't we all like that, after all?

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Amy's Tango CD drops Tuesday. Excitedness abounds.

Yep, I've got a piece on it, and so does Beff. We wrote our tangi in 2003, and mine became the last 'tude, alphabetically speaking. I listened to the whole thing again yesterday, and it's smasharifically ingustatorial. Amy's playing is terrific, and of course it has that great Judy Sherman sound. I love Hayes's almost-a-tango, and Lou Harrison's tango, and the odd Rzewski Steptangle, and, and ... 

Significantly, every piece sounds different, which is as it should be. And just 'bout every piece sounds like a tango.

Go and buy it. I can wait.

'Lude Behavior

The colony hop continues on apace, and I have made it about halfway through my time with the butter balls. All is quiet, and some is wet. There is no want of vowels.
Incredibly, and just 'bout without warning, however, all the 'ludes that will ever be in Book I have been written — as of yesterday. Which means there now exists both a 'Tudes Book I and a 'Ludes Book I. If I were to meet both of them in a dark alley, I'd be scared that the 'Tudes would kick my butt; after which the 'Ludes would kick the 'Tudes's butt and rip it/them to shreds and then smile innocently. Sometimes the truth is the best medicine. More rarely, it tastes like Pixy Stix.

As detailed here already, one of the 'lude rules is to "reference" other music — usually that means to quote it, but I left myself some wiggle room to be able to say a 'lude has the odor of a different piece of music. Which is a little gross.

One fundamental tenet is thereby proven: at artist colonies, Davy writes crazy fast.

Here's the list of 'Ludeness, so far. As promised, all the titles are palindromes. Music that is referenced trails each entry in parentheses. Because, you know, why wouldn't it?

  • Moody, My Doom (#1, 2010, 2-3/4') to Rick Moody. (Bach "Little" C minor prélude)
  • Never Odd or Even (#2, 2010, 3-1/2') to Karl Larson. (Debussy Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum)
  • Too Hot to Hoot (#3, 2008-2010, 3') to Tony de Mare. (Beethoven Für Elise)
  • Pull a Wall Up (#4, 2010, 3') to Geoffrey Burleson. (Scriabin Prélude Op. 11 #6)
  • No, It is Opposition (#5, 2010, 2-1/2'). (Scriabin Prélude Op. 11 #15)
  • In a Regal Age Ran I (#6, 2010, 4'). (Bach WTC 1 Prélude #8)
  • Dr. Awkward (#7, 2010, 3'). (Chopin C minor prélude)
  • So Many Dynamos (#8, 2010, 3'). (Bach WTC 1 Fugue #10)
  • Puff Up (If I Puff Up) (#9, 2010, 3-1/4'). (Bach WTC 1 Prélude #9)
  • Air an Aria (#10, 2010, 3'). (Bach WTC 1 Prélude #6)
Thus. Davy is a 'Ludite. Next up: who knows?

As to titles for Book II. Perhaps anagrams that are a puzzle. Perhaps acronyms that spell words of unusual pungenceness. Perhaps all ten will have the same title. But one thing is for certain.

It will totally kick Études Book II's butt. Then it will smile.

Update October 25. The 'ludes are now Peters pieces. Edition Peters 68329a.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cross Training

Potty training.

Bring out miniature commode, sit your child on it, give lots and lots of encouragement. You're getting so big and grown up! More encouragement, more encouragement, and fecundity!

Stand up and look what you made! Look at that big doody!

This is the most beautiful doody in the world. You made that!

I reiterate my original statement, and for the record. This is beautiful doody, and you made it! Bigger doodies lie in your future.

There are times when this is exactly what teaching composition is like.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Due grandi gusti

“In both the arts and sciences the programmed brain seeks elegance, which is the parsimonious and evocative description of a pattern to make sense out of a confusion of detail.” (E. O. Wilson, Consilience, p. 239)
“Can the opposed Apollonian and Dionysian impulses, cool reason against passionate abandonment, which drive the mood swings of the arts and criticism, be reconciled?” (Ibid, pp. 235-236)
“…even the greatest works of art might be understood fundamentally with knowledge of the biologically evolved epigenetic rules that guided them.” (Ibid, p. 233)
Do you write rationally or intuitively?

Wait. You opened with three epigraphs. I’m not answering your question until you acknowledge the epigraphs.

I opened with three epigraphs. Do you want to know why?

Am I supposed to answer two questions now?

Do you always answer questions with questions?

Wait — what?

We are both Davy. Which one of us is the id, and which of us is the ego?

Does it always have to be just one or the other? Id/ego? Rational/intuitive? Plain text/Italic?

So which one am I?

Um, you are Italic.

No, I meant, id or ego? Am I Davy’s id or his ego?

I have a better question. What does E.O. Wilson mean by parsimonious in the first epigraph? My dictionary says it means stingy or frugal. And what are epigenetic rules?

He means efficient. Behavior that is hard-wired as compared to culturally programmed. “Proliferation” of detail would be more elegant than “confusion” of detail. Wait — I’m asking the questions!

You are?

Stop it! Okay, that Apollonian/Dionysian thing. Since you are I, I know you’ve gotten this question plenty of times. Where do you stand on the great divide between, as Wilson pretentiously puts it, cool reason and passionate abandonment?

Do you want to know how I usually answer that question?

Soupir. Please.

Okay, I’ll start, as I usually do in this space, with a seemingly unrelated tangent, let that drift into an anecdote or two, then utter some nonsense syllables not derived from words in Sanskrit, move to an awkward segue, then poof! an answer will have already emerged.

I find it fascinating to read the various discussions on the interwebtubes about teaching composition. There’s at least one really big one of these every year. It usually starts either with “what can be taught?” or “can composition be taught at all?”, and commenters stake out their positions with rigid philosophical rants and/or touching anecdotes. I only bring this up, because I love, love reading the heartfelt anecdotes about how composition teachers changed everything for me, of course composition can be taught, responded to in the next comment with one word:


Talk about your binary arguments.

By the way. I’m a composer. How do I pay the mortgage? I teach composition and theory. If composition can’t be taught, then I’m a fraud. So you know on which side my mortgage is buttered. And what’s with the silent ‘t’ in ‘mortgage’, anyways? Is the first half of the word the French for dead? (Yes: dead pledge)

Just a brief response, then on to the point. Ideas can’t be taught. The history of how ideas, once had, have historically been treated in pieces of music — that can be taught. Integrating someone else’s parallel solution into the specific problem at hand in a new way — fast and loose whether that can be taught. Creativity in the most primal sense can’t be taught — either you have ideas or you don’t — but being creative in the general sense can be taught. The composition teacher assimilates a body of existing solutions in order to bring the appropriate ones out when they can or might be helpful to a student in a similar situation. Boy is that generic.

Channeling a dead inventor: I teach the ninety-nine percent perspiration. Also known as chops.

The answer is: they’re both right.

In my undergraduate years, I had a colleague who had a big pile of great ideas for pieces, each with long and entertaining explanations of how the piece would go and what it was doing. He never wrote a single one of them. He was one percent guy.

Still ninety-nine percent won’t happen until one percent does.

Just like you can’t swim in the pool until somebody unlocks the pool room.

So I took two summers of composition lessons from John Heiss. He charged $50 in 1979 dollars in 1979 and $50 in 1980 dollars in 1980. I was working on my thoughtful work for violin and piano. Now imagine I had begun the piece with this self-enclosed phrase to the right — it has had articulations, dynamics and other symbols removed for the sake of clarity.

You don’t have to imagine it! It’s what I had actually begun the piece with! It’s a sharp chord in the piano with the violin sustaining the top note of the chord, breaking into an angular yet turgid tune, ending with the agogic accent while the piano arpeggiates and sustains another chord.

As gestures, the phrase is unremarkable. It’s a typical short-breathed piece-opening gesture, and the phrases that were to follow were longer. That’s a very traditional and generic way to describe it, and it’s a pretty common opening gambit. If you were the composition teacher looking at this phrase, what would you notice about it?

I might comment on the wedge gesture and the registral span of the violin’s melody and ask if the composer really wants a beginning with such a big playground (not much room to expand). As an extension of that question, I’d also ask the composer to explain the dramatic leap of over two octaves. And I’d probably comment that the lengthening and registral widening happening at the end of the phrase is an effective cadence.

I would not ask the composer how he got the notes. Unless they sounded wrong.

But since I was the composer, and I thought I should be trying to squeeze as much music out of as few materials as possible, I cared where the notes came from. You can see in this phrase how much I cared: it’s the same thing three times, expressed differently each time, and not insignificantly, utilizing the entire chromatic. That “same thing” is a musical unfolding of five-note chromatic collections: the violin from C (up) to E, the first chord from E to G-sharp, and the ending chord from G-sharp to C. It was the way I worked for this piece, and for only this piece, and I was curious about what I could do with such a rigid and clusterful way of squeezing out the notes.

Did I expect the listener to discover and go ooh ahh about all that stuff the first, second, or tenth times around? I can’t speak for 1979 Davy, but he would have probably said a listener would note a consistency in sound, without remarking whether that consistency in sound was good or bad. But 1979 Davy definitely noted that the “bounding” intervals of those chromatic collections together spelled an augmented triad — of which there are only four distinct ones. Move that triad up by half steps a few times and the fourth time you’ll be back at the original augmented triad, while also having traversed the entire chromatic on the way.

The cool reason in 1979 Davy thus made such a chromatic journey structural: divide the piece into five sections, each governed by or derived from an augmented triad, successively higher chromatically until there is a return to the opening augmented triad thingie — thus a musical return of sorts built into the underlying structural process.

Eww. 1979 Davy uses structural process. Don’t worry, he’ll get over it.

Then the sections morphed into theme and variations: a theme does that entire chromatic traversal. Each variation isolates one of the triads, thus together representing a slower traversal of the same stuff. Okay, fine. That’s just a distant view or road map of a maze not yet constructed, nothing wrong with any of it. The ninety-nine percent has yet to come.

Thus that first phrase — the opening, but not all of, of the theme.

The musical and gestural shape 1979 Davy gave to that theme was increase of density, volume and register (an embryonic manifestation of Davy a-splode™) and a sudden calming sostenuto to end the theme. For that calming, the cadential chord reveals the skeleton of its harmony, the G augmented triad. Cool reason said this was an appropriate closure — a perfect manifestation of the underlying structural process.

Thus did I bring my theme and probably a bit of the first variation to John Heiss for fifty 1979 dollars (earned in nineteen 1979 hours working the circulation desk at the 1979 NEC library) worth of sage advice. There was plenty of commentary, as we read through the theme, about gesture and register, “good idea,” “this sounds a little off,” “this could be longer”, etc. When we got to that cadence chord ending the theme, John Heiss out-and-out said “this ending is wrong. You have to change it.”

All my explanations about Brazil — sorry, I mean where the notes come from — to explain why that chord was right were unpersuasive. Because with the evidence of the piece, what was called for musically at the cadence was not what 1979 Davy did there. And the evidence stacked up against me(him(it))? Quiet music morphing into sturm and drang music, very active, wide registral span, lots of very low stuff in the piano. The cadence, though perhaps rhythmically right, was too thin. After all that chromatic stuff spanning so much register, a middle-register symmetrical chord played softly was not rich enough to let the piece exhale. He was at least ninety-nine percent right. My assignment: fix this and bring it back.

In the intervening time, I tried a myriad of rewritings for that cadential chord — first just shifting the notes of the triad in register, which solved nothing; chromatic five-note chords like the first chord, but they sounded wrong; slow arpeggiations of all those chords, which sounded wrong; the entire chromatic collection, which sounded way wrong. My final solution was keep the chord and add to it the notes of the beginning augmented triad area (the C augmented triad) and futz with where to put them in register, and voilà! A new cadential chord that filled the bill. It had a rich low bass note and an open sonority, perfect to accompany canapés, pasta salads, and Davy a-splodes™. I thus brought it back to 1979 John Heiss with the pride that is always accompanied by a shit-eating grin.

He liked the chord, and he said it worked. Then he said something that I thought was curious: did you hear the chord or did you rationalize it? I wasn’t quite clever, or ballsy, enough to respond with my own question: if it works and you agree it works, why would it matter? Instead, with all the shit now eaten, I remained tight-lipped. He looked at and played the chord again, discovered it had the notes of two augmented triads a half-step apart, and declared You rationalized it.

Aw man! You got cool reason in my passionate abandonment! Oh yeah? Well you got passionate abandonment in my cool reason! Oh, wow, mmmmm! It’s two great tastes that taste great together!

The real answer is I rationalized a dozen or more solutions and I went with the one that felt best. Two great tastes.

Ba! Cam! Nu! Oy!

Before this duo I had been writing very motivically for years, always thinking in terms of creating beautiful things by solving complicated puzzles. I also liked the sound of violin harmonics. I had not yet had Buffalo wings.

In the years that followed, I thought I had come up with a perfect working method for getting the notes. Thanks to an old Martino article (The Source Set and its Aggregate Formations), I had discovered the world of all-combinatorial hexachords and the trichords that loved derived them. I liked being able to control the entire chromatic in this way. I liked the way the trichords sounded, I liked the way the hexachords sounded as chords, and the puzzle solver in me liked getting from one chord to the next using just a few possible steps from what I had set up as a complex-sounding yet simple-to-operate system of moves. I felt I could be pretty free with how much I used of each possible rationalized harmony or harmonic area I was in, had figured out ways to monkey with internal counterpoint to sound like real voice-leading, and I also liked the puzzle-solving aspect of sticking with the system and getting it behave a little like traditional harmony. Mind you (and I always do), the underlying chart, such as it was, was always close at hand, and the only deviations I allowed were flour in the gravy — extra unjustifiable notes that were there to thicken.

So the extra notes were there for me, if I needed them, in thickness and in health.

And I could hold my own in any conversation about modulating from B hexachords to E hexachords either by deriving them trichordally, or by isolating shared pitch sets. I just hardly ever got the chance to do so.

I eventually abandoned those complicated a priori thingies — my last all-combinatorial hexachord piece was my second piano étude — in favor of a much freer, chartless way of working. I’m pretty sure that any listener would not be able to tell where that break is, since rhythm, texture, voice-leading, etc., stayed pretty much the same. It’s just that I made a clean break with the justify this note buttstick that had been the underlying assumption of most graduate seminars I’d done. And it felt like I got to be so much more spontaneous when writing. Though I admit it took a few years finally to wash away all the guilt about being so spontaneous.

So instead of concentrating hard on getting the groups of notes to resemble other groups of notes in my pieces, I think very hard about musical things. Phrase lengths, texture, register, cadences, breathing, space, and long-term narrative, for starters. And recontextualizations — framing music already heard in a different way so that it sounds and functions differently. I never would have done that while I still had my charts.

As a variation of something I said here previously — getting rid of the charts was like the first time I went around Rome without my trusty Italian phrase book. Having finally learned my own language, I started speaking in it. Though my Italian still kind of sucks (il mio Italiano ancora assai succhia).

So when I get that question about whether or not I am an intuitive composer — when I am finally finished rolling my eyes, I say that it feels intuitive when I write, but I know that the choices I make have been conditioned by a lot of exposure to other music and by what I have learned by writing a lot of music. I then note that for me the best intuitive composers are the ones who know a lot about music and a lot of music. I get passionate abandonment in my own cool reason and vice versa. Yummy! — that’s the most rational way to put it.

I also happen to like the feeling of not knowing what I'm doing. Because it's one hundred percent perspiration.