Thursday, July 21, 2011


Beff and Martler and I shared half a house in grad school. One late afternoon, as Martin was at the piano writing, and I was in the dining room, Beff returned from a graduate seminar, looking haggard and frustrated. Martin asked how the seminar went.

Beff said, "I just can't get any empathy for my point of view."

I responded, "I know exactly how you feel."

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Eight is Enough

"Be sure to get Seven Days."

Or so says Beff when I go to Hannaford's on summer Wednesday mornings when we are in Vermont. The fact that I put Seven Days in Italic clues you in that it is the name a publication (and not a local disease), and yes, one that does not strive for the least common denominator — if it did, it would be called One Week. Stretching the joke much too far, it's also not called One Hundred Sixty-Eight Hours, mostly because the title would have to be set in type too small to be seen from a distance.

The publication is a weekly — or a seven-daily — which serves as the local alternative weekly. I guess. It's free, it reviews stuff, and it tells you all kinds of things that are going on around town that seven three hundred sixty-fifths of one trip around the sun.

While looking through the reviews and advertisements in One Hundred Sixty-Eight Hours last summer, Beff encountered mention of a new restaurant given the silly name Chow Bella, on Main Street in St. Albans, which seemed to be geared towards foodies, especially those that love misspelled Italian food. Since it's in the very town where I grew up, we were (or I was) interested to try it at least once. And so we did.

Ooh, it was so shi-shi that it had a live pianist! But not just any live pianist — would you believe Verne Colburn, my band teacher in high school from thirty-five years ago? Woo hoo! Now that's bringing it all home — literally. And unfortunately, that meant I did more listening to the cocktail piano than is ever customary in such situations. I seriously wanted to ask Verne if he could play one of the Schönberg chamber symphonies, but I doubt there's a lead sheet available for those, even all these years later. And I did intend to digest my food.

I looked around the cavernous bare-brick, old wood of Chow Bella, and it didn't seem familiar. Before the shopping center two miles north of town drove all the commerce (and Quebec license plates) out of downtown, my mother used to take me downtown often for her various nefarious shopping purposes, and all the usual shopping places had disappeared long ago. Fishman's Department Store with a lunch counter? Gone in 1975. Rixon's Pharmacy? Actually, still there. But we didn't shop there.

Finally I realized. This is Doolin's! That is, this was Doolin's. Or more precisely, this is the building in which Doolin's was located! Verne confirmed that when I asked him.

And what was Doolin's? In my memory, it was a fairly large store where ladies who smelled of potpourri and had hats with lace on them hung out and bought stuff, mostly as gifts. It was also the coolest place ever, because it had suck pipes. At the cash registers, often a receipt and a bunch of your cash would be put into what seemed like a mini-time capsule — or a giant aspirin with a rubber band around it — a door would be opened on a length of exposed plumbing at the end of an elbow joint, and there would be a Perot-like sucking sound. A minute later, the pipe would be opened again to another, softer, sucking sound, and there, magically to a six-year-old, would appear another mini-time capsule with a certified receipt and correct change.

I loved the suck pipes. They were the coolest thing in my life until JC Penney opened in Burlington and it had escalators. Doolin's was also one of the few stores in town without a Nous Parlons Français sign in any window. I only add that detail because I think it's fun typing the "ç". Whee! (yes, it's true; in northern Vermont, the sound of a tire deflating is "Çççççççç....."

So what did Mom do inside Doolin's? Well, they sold potpourri (obviously), Wedgewood, tchotchkes (we didn't call them that), and fabric, and patterns. A large corner of the store was dedicated to fabric and pattern books, and I was frequently sat down at the pattern book table to amuse myself while Mom decided what to get.

Mostly, she got patterns. And material.

Then she brought them home, and she made stuff on the sewing machine. Using the material.

Material. Kind of a generic word when you think of it. Despite the Madonna song. Clothes are made from materials. Are cars? Buildings? Computer programs? Molecules? Symphonies?

Now is your chance to bookmark this post (as well as this one) in your folder of awkward segues.

First thing we might notice, despite how clinical it may sound, is that materials have properties. Cotton, rayon, wool, dacron — wait, dacron? — are made of different stuff, have different feels and looks to them, yield differently to the sewing machine and all, and have different effects on those wearing them. Why is this important? Mom gave me socks made from the material wool one day in third grade, and by lunch time my entire body had a rash, and I was itchy everywhere — especially around the family jewels. I was forced to miss half a day of school because it's hard to concentrate on school stuff when you can't stop scratching (insert random junior high string orchestra joke here). From then on, I wore cotton socks. Different material — different scratch coefficient.

Yes, I was allergic to wool, as tests later confirmed. So years later, forced to march in high school band and to wear wool uniforms, I was one of very few who wore long johns in June. Because it's hard to play trombone, and march, and scratch yourself in the family jewels. This also explains the bit of shirttail sloppily sticking out in this David is so cute in his band uniform! picture. I believe in the picture I was trying to channel The Fonz.

So yes, some musicians talk about the materials in a piece — not to mention, there are countless music fundamentals textbooks with "Materials of Music" in the title, or even the whole title. What is a material? A note? A bunch of notes? A scale? A rhythm? A tone color? A sixteenth note? An orchestral crescendo? A chord progression? A cadence? A theme? A structural section?

Aaaaa! Too much! Too much! The answer to all of them is Yeç. They are all materials.

And how much are we aware of — how much do we have to be aware of — the music's materials when we listen to music?

Hee hee. Depends. The word is so broad as to be fairly useless here. You might as well ask when I listen to music, am I aware of stuff?

So I scratched my head a bit — no, I was not wearing a wool cap — when, many years ago at an artist colony, a composer told me he hadn't started his piece yet, but he had all the materials. Okay, fine, I don't write that way, so it was intriguing to think of approaching a piece by inventing or collecting its materials, and then — as an act that can follow only when the first one is completed — putting the materials together. And on further thought, I stopped scratching my head. Yes, I work with materials. I just don't call them that (I call them Fred), and I don't wait to start a piece until I have all my materials. But why should I care about someone else's process, anyway, as long as the music works?

Slippery, slippery slope here.

So lemme splain. Or try to get a little more particular. I'm going to talk about scales as a musical material. Insert fish joke of your choice here.

Scales might be thought of as like (hey, a simile! Call me Simile Guy! Again) the Sieve of Eratosthenes. And, belaboring the simile, the scale(s) a composer uses is(are) like the prime numbers that make it all the way through the sieve. Thus, belaboring the metaphor even more, in a fairly substantial majority of Western music, the chromatic scale represents the entire spectrum of possibility (the counting numbers) and the scale a composer uses as musical materials is always a subset thereof (the prime numbers).

And so let's consider a sieve of the sort that fascinated us in graduate school until it stopped. The diatonic scale — major and natural minor scales — can be sieved out of the chromatic scale by using something like (another simile!) clock arithmetic. Chromatic scale: 12 notes; clock: 12 hours. Set your iPhone to sound an alarm every 3 hours, say, and, presuming you start at 12 o'clock, when will the alarms go off?

Okay, you're just humoring me. Sure. 3, 6, 9, and 12 o'clock, and then the pattern repeats. 3, 6, 9, 12 ad infinitum. If we want to be reminded to do something at 2 o'clock, this pattern isn't going to work. Unless we start at 11, 5, or 8 o'clock. Whoa, cosmic.

So every four hours? 4:00, 8:00, 12:00, repeat. Every hour? Yes, every possible hour. But also if the alarm goes off every five hours. Then the times are... 5:00, 10:00, 3:00, 8:00, 1:00, 6:00, 11:00, 4:00, 9:00, 2:00, 7:00, 12:00 .... repeat! All twelve possible hours! Just not in counting number sequence. Thus if we similize some more, turn 12 consecutive hours into 12 consecutive adjacent notes of the chromatic scale (i.e., one hour equals a half step) ... which themselves repeat after 12 iterations ... Uh oh, I sense you nodding off.

Let's isolate every seventh note. Similistically, this is what we already know as the circle of fifths (left), which experienced musicians know covers all 12 notes of the chromatic scale and then repeats. And to be totally nerdy about it, rewind back to clock arithmetic: the circle of fifths covers all the notes of the chromatic scale because seven is prime to twelve. See, this is a property.

Now take any slice of seven consecutive notes from the circle of fifths. Go ahead. You'll be glad you did.

The red-boxed notes represent such a slice, and comprise all the notes of the C major scale, or A natural minor scale. Similarly, the green slice — which we note has six notes in common with the red slice — is the G major scale. The blue slice is the D major scale. In tonal music theory, there is the concept of closely related keys and distantly related keys. Such relationships are easy to visualize here — the red box (C major) is more closely related to the green box (G major) than to the blue box (D major) because there are more notes in common in the slices. The purple box, meanwhile is as distantly related to C major as possible: F# major, which has only two notes (F and B) in common.

Note also that the notes that have been sieved out of any particular slice are two things: what are called that slice's (key's) chromatic notes; and they are a so-called pentatonic scale. Oooh, oooh, another musical material! The notes not in the red box? The black keys of the piano!

Note also that there are twelve possible slices, hence twelve possible keys. Bach already had the temperament to knew that.

Now let's talk about more properties of any of these slices. We already know that any slice has the collection of notes we call diatonic scales. Duh. But it also happens that in such a slice there are: six possible two-note combinations to make a perfect fourth or its inversion, a perfect fifth (adjacent notes in the slice!); five possible major seconds/minor sevenths (a slice note and the note two notes later); four possible minor thirds/major sixths; three possible major thirds/minor sixths; two possible minor seconds/major sevenths; and exactly one tritone. Those are all the possible chromatic intervals, and here comes a whopper of a property in the diatonic scale: it has a unique multiplicity of intervals (uh, as in, there are six of one, five of another, etc...).

Why should anyone care about the unique multiplicity thing? Wait, let's let one-sentence Italic paragraph guy ask that.

Why should anyone care about the unique multiplicity thing?

Well, for two reasons: it is the largest possible collection of notes in the chromatic scale with that property; and it has everything to do with the sound of music that uses the scale as a material. How the composer shapes the material given the possible sounds is, well, what makes the composer a composer. Well, that, and poverty.

There, are of course, more properties that can be, and have been ascribed to the diatonic scale. For instance, once all the notes are put into the same register, and ordered, the intervals between adjacent notes form a non-redundant pattern. WWHWWWH -- the pattern of whole- and half-steps between consecutive notes in the major scale. Yes, the sound, and therefore potentially something of the affect, of diatonic music comes in no small part from the properties of the diatonic scale. For one, you always know where you are in it — uh, unless the composer has done something clever to make you think elsewise.

So what?

Does anybody need to know this? Do composers know this, or have to be aware of it?

Nope. Yep. (both)

But let me get into a heavy metaphor here. I don't need to know how a car works to drive it — turn the key, vroom! and go. But an important property of what's under the hood — gasoline asplodes when burned, making it the perfect fuel for a piston-driven engine (which is the chicken, which is the egg?) — makes the car go, whether or not I care about that. And when your car stops working and you want to drive it again, somebody in the repair shop better know something about how the car is put together. I wouldn't trust my car to a guy who told me I dunno how make vroom go.

Go back to the slices a moment. The pentatonic scale — usually, the major scale with the fourth and seventh notes omitted — is also a slice of five of the circle of fifths. It has properties, too. That interval multiplicity thing — reduce the slice by two, thus reduce the multiplicity of each interval by two, and you get zero minor seconds/major sevenths and zero tritones. The sound and affect when there are neither minor seconds nor tritones is different when both of them are present. If you hate tritones and love perfect fifths, here is a material for you to use! And if you love, love, love the expressivity of minor seconds — stay away from this material!

Fine, fine, fine. The diatonic scale has special properties, and we hear lots of music that uses it without us being aware, or having to be aware, of the properties. What happens when composers want a different sound or affect than what they perceive is possible with — or more precisely, inherent in — a diatonic scale?

Facebook Relationship status: It's complicated.

First, we must presume that composers think of what we are calling scale materials here as actual scales — with steps and what "steps" mean to a musican or listener, and that's a lot more complicated than you might think. Pitch collections with big gaps — thus meaning say, a leap of a fourth between scale members — wouldn't act very scale-like or as scale-like. And that is only partly true, because it's complicated.

Presume — and it's no small presumption — that the composer wishes to be subtle about using different scale materials in tandem — because the composer wants a variety of affect — and then we start to see that there are other commonly used scales that have their own properties, and thus potentially their own perceived affects. We've already touched on one — the diatonic scale minus two, or the pentatonic scale. No half-steps. No tritones. Black keys of the piano is one of them. Fewer so-called active or dissonant intervals, making it quite pleasant to listen to. Hardly anything bad happens in pentatonic music.

Then there is the whole-tone scale. We know it's a scale because it's in the name. And there's nothing but whole-tones in it! Thus, no half-steps, minor thirds, perfect fourths, perfect fifths — but tons and tons of tritones! Given such a multiplicity of intervals, and the extreme redundancy of the scale ...

What do you mean by extreme redundancy? Well, let's compare the intervallic info you need to construct a major scale to the info you need for a whole-tone scale. Major scale, WWHWWWH. Whole-tone scale, W. Whoa. How do composers use whole-tone scales? Well, lots of ways, but one of the more common ways is a feeling of non-directionality, weightlessness, a feeling of stuckness. Even in a very active texture such as Debussy used in Voiles (right), whole-toneness feels as if it is not moving anywhere, the notes (actually, the gestures) pushing against a harmony that refuses to budge. It's a good scale to use to build an upbeat to a bigger moment — since the non-motion can be used to create tension in need of being resolved by such a big moment.

And in jazz, more than a few players use whole-tone scales over a dominant seventh sonority. I only say that because it's true. But read on. They use the next scale in the same context.

There is a very special scale, whose intervallic info is, simply, WH. Arthur Berger gave it the name octatonic scale in an article on Stravinsky, and jazzers know it simply as the diminished scale. Jazzers have a more pictorial language, but both names simply denote a property of the scale: eight notes, contains two diminished seventh chords.


Let's go back to scheduling an alarm every three hours. 12:00, 3:00, 6:00, 9:00, then it repeats. Similize three hours to three half steps, and you get diminished seventh chords. With D as 12:00, look to the right to see 3:00, 6:00 and 9:00 — F, A-flat, and C-flat representing the notes successively three half-steps higher than the last.

There are only three distinct diminished seventh chords — in those four diminished seventh chords to the right, each is a half-step higher than the one before it; the fourth is the same in pitch content as the first, assuming that D and E-double flat sound the same — which on the piano they do. Now let's get slightly more cosmic with properties.

The intervallic info of the octatonic/diminished scale repeats every minor third. Thus, there must be a whole pile of minor thirds within the scale — diminished seventh chords! Furthermore, and I am skipping a few obvious logical steps: any octatonic scale is made up of the notes of two diminished seventh chords — and the scale's sieve leaves out the notes of the other diminished seventh chord from the scale.

Wow. Why should I care? One sentence Italic paragraph guy?

Why should I care?

Wait for me to pile up more properties, then I can give a proper answer! There are three distinct diminished seventh chords, thus three possible combinations of two of them (each combination leaves a different diminished seventh chord out). Thus there are also three distinct octatonic scales. So from the scale we see above, the D scale is the same as the F scale is the same as the G# scale is the same as the B scale.

Yes — and what that means it built-in ambiguity. If you hear D as a possible tonic note of the scale, it's easy for the composer to fool you into thinking F or G# or B is the tonic. Because of the extreme redundancy of the scale. For this to be a significant property, it has to be agreed that ambiguity is something a composer or listener values.

What about the intervallic thing? Well, all the intervals are possible, but there are lots and lots of minor thirds and tritones. If you value tritones — whether you want ambiguity, or you just like the way they sound — this scale is drenched with them.

But there is yet one more property to this scale that is extremely important — and which explains why composers as long-dead as Mussorgsky and Debussy valued it. And that is that is bears a lot of similarity to the minor scale. Look at the scale up there — the first four notes could be D minor. But the A that makes the perfect fifth with the tonic — denied! The tritone, G#, is the next note! Ambiguity, maybe! Dissonance, maybe! But still so familiar-sounding, while not being familiar at all.

Plus, both major and minor triads are available within the octatonic scale. Because the scale repeats itself every minor third, the triads a minor third higher and lower, and a tritone higher or lower, are also within the scale. Familiar sonorities here, but potentially used in such unfamiliar ways.

Also because of the scale's extreme redundancy, it is possible to use it for that floating feeling, and composers can use it for restful places, as Debussy did in Nuages

So redundancy equals ... wow, many things. Lots of tritones (dissonant! scary!) lots of minor thirds (the calling motive!), floating quality (not dissonant or scary at all!), lots of strangely related triads (mommy, where am I?).

Even this little octatonic portion of Stravinsky's Les Noces below and to the right — a florid tune over an ostinato — is both floaty and rather strangely dissonant. How did Stravinsky do that?

How about — because Stravinsky was a great composer? And because there's lots of emphasis on the A to E-flat tritone harmonically?

Bartok was also a serial user of ... oh, bad word choice. Bartok ... uh, used the octatonic scale quite a lot, usually forcefully, and often in a way that sometimes called to mind Eastern European folk music. Since Bartok's music isn't in the public domain, I'm not embedding any musical examples. But listen to the string quartets especially, Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and various other pieces, and you'll hear plenty of octatonic music in dialogue with music using other scales.

In dialogue with music using other scales.

The octatonic scale has another property that's not entirely its fault (it's hard to assign fault to inanimate material). Partly because of its properties, and partly because of the sterling example of much great music by Bartok that lots of composers wish they had written, the octatonic scale is a black hole that sucks composers in.

Composing with the octatonic sieve can be very soothing, because the composer can always feel good about the sound — it always sounds so damn great! You can have triads, you can have dangerous sounding tritones, you can get all the ambiguity you want, you can be soothing, you can be dastardly, and ... after a while, the composer can forget, or simply not care, that there are other scales — even other octatonic scales — and the sound all meshes into generic octatonicnessositudinousness, and the music grows alarmingly static. Especially if the composer is writing a string quartet, the composer loves Bartok, and the composer like scales.

Trust me. I find myself being sucked in by the octatonic scale all the time, and I've had to invent a brain switch — well, not really, but I've had to learn to be extremely vigilant about noticing when the music I'm writing is getting all octatonicky, and therefore static, and therefore ... dare I say it ... I'm getting damn lazy about squeezing out the next notes. Thirteen years ago I wrote Beff a cute little piece for E-flat clarinet that is at least ninety-five percent octatonic (and zero percent perspiration), and since it's short, I almost got away with it.

Notice my value judgment here. I suppose it's okay for the piece to be so limited and limited-sounding because it is short. But contrast and motion are valued by me (as is the passive voice), and when I write music that stands still like that, I disappoint myself. Mostly because — sigh, it's my stupid value system — which when I invoke it I know that I chose, in this piece, the easier, lazier route.

Another way of saying this — or perhaps a development of the same point — is that it takes a different, perhaps, better, composer than me to make relentlessly octatonic music sound original, captivating, and not static.

And the black hole thing? It's sucked in its share of composers. How many times have I said (rather obnoxiously) to a friend after a performance "I sure do want to hear those other four notes now."? There's an actual answer: seven. I've never said that after a piece by Bartok (usually it's more like FUCK yeah).

In my coda to this rather overly long post, I bring up that I myself do not write diatonic music, despite having a nice long list of its properties. For one, there are other composers steeped in the sound who do much nicer things than I feel like I ever could. I feel more comfortable in extended-tonal chromatic don't-let-the-octatonic-bite-ville. I suppose I've just revealed a hidden buttstik.

As to my stupid value system. It's mine, and you can't have it.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Talk the Talk

Composers are their own worst advocates.

And that's not just one sentence Italic paragraph guy speaking. Beff once said that when we were graduate students. As graduate students, we went — unsurprisingly — to graduate seminars — some of which I liked, some of which I disliked — and in said seminars composers were occasionally encouraged (read: obliged) to talk about their music.

Indeedy-do. At Princeton, there was something they called the composition pro-seminar, and it was given every semester. The seminar was free-form, meaning that the subject taught, or discussed, or ignored, was at the discretion of whichever faculty was teaching it that semester. A satellite portion of the seminar was readings of student work by poorly-paid New York players, and naturally before the readings, the students were obliged to share their music.

Naturally, since this was graduate school, the strategy for sharing was to discuss how I got the notes. This is academia, after all, and every note in its place was the subtitle, or subtext, of every talk. In essence, it was one side of the composition lesson — the side that doesn't involve critical thinking, looking at the music in any detail, or pointing out contradictions. Or contradistinctions, either, whatever those are. One semester when Joe Dubiel ran the pro-seminar, he started out by analyzing our own pieces, and then assigned us to analyze each other's pieces.

We all know, of course, the root of the word analyze.

I had been at Tanglewood the previous summer, so I had a brand spanking new recording of my now barfmachen Violin Concerto movement — which was an up-arrangement from a violin and piano piece. I had thickened the texture to fit what I thought was appropriate for a chamber orchestra, and that meant adding notes to prettify the rather severe harmonies. Thus did I loosen the taut (not self-taut) note-spinning procedures, which Joe had noticed. In one place, I added a bass F that momentarily sounded F majorish, and Joe admitted being puzzled by it. Not because it didn't sound right — even though it may have been be true that it didn't sound right — but because the extra note violated the self-tautness of the note-spinning technique up to that point. My response was the appropriate nothing. Since I wasn't doing the talking. And because I liked the F — I mean, there it was, not as if I was trying to sneak it in where no one would notice it. To belabor the point a lot — the F was like a blueberries you add to yogurt. It's no longer pure yogurt, but you can still eat it. Oddly enough, the F was nothing like strawberries that you add to yogurt. I can't splain why.

I was given a piece by Jody Rockmaker for my particular analysis assignment, and I did not go first. One student had summarized another student's piece by writing out a harmonic progression that was used a lot, and we talked about that for a while. I knew Jody and his working method well, and I knew he was doing something similar. Indeed, I found a similar ur-progression working in his piece, as well as rondo-like alternating sections.

People still talk about how I characterized that form. By people I mean Beff. And maybe Jody. I said "the form is a loose ABABABABA. That's pronounced ..." well, okay, so in a juvenile way that is particularly welcome, or unwelcome, in Ivy League graduate seminars, I did that thing where you put your fingers on your lips and go a-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba (nervous laughter and glances at Joe to see if it's okay to laugh) ... And strangely, my writing down of Jody's ur-progression fell flat. Joe said surely there was more going on in Jody's music than just that. Well, yes, there was (and don't call me Shirley). I just didn't know, yet, how to verbalize it. I could only nounify. And at Princeton, there was not much talk about phrasing or phrases; it was customary to say that phrase is such an imprecise word that we shouldn't use it.

Hard as it is to talk about music — it's famously like dancing about architecture — talking about your own music is harder still. Not least because most of what a composer does — shut him/herself up in a small private place and spin out notes for private and convoluted reasons — isn't really that interesting, except at the moment, to the composer. Moi-même, I probably find the act of writing pretty intense, since I almost never remember anything about actually writing it down — not even of writing Thickly Settled, finished just yesterday. I remember intentions and ways of thinking, but I completely forget everything about the actual act of writing it down. So how can I say anything intelligent about my own music if all I remember is intentions and not the actual act of composition?

That's a rhetorical question. Let's let one-sentence Italic paragraph guy ask it.

How can one say anything intelligent about one's own music if all one remembers is intentions and not the actual act of composition?

Note how I gave one-sentence Italic paragraph guy the question in third person, utilizing the French on or the Italian si as the subject, and making it far more convoluted grammatically. The answer to the question is — I'm learning.

In this post, I talked a little bit about composer process and how difficult it is to talk about. But the talking about there is about writing liner notes. That's only one side of the talk about your own music thing. In this post I said that composers should refrain from self-describing in public. That's another side — the self-promotional copy that always gives me dry heaves when I read it. Truly any self-effacing composer would be embarrassed to have written this copy.

I am suitably embarrassed.

Though it's true! Even though I don't remember anything about using it, I do, I do, I do believe in formal rigor! Technically speaking, though, there is no talking about music there, and even less dancing about architecture.

Imagine the violinist in my piece asks, "how do you want this double-stop played?" Graduate student Davy would have either blushed and walked out of the room giggling or he might have mentioned where the two notes fit in in the prevailing trichord.

Wait — in the original Star Trek, are they seeking three-note groups whenever they explore a planet? If not, why are they carrying trichorders?

But no, I wouldn't have shown where the notes fit in. That's not interesting to a performer, or at least not to most performers. The violinist is trying to put something musical in context, and my composer job is to make it fit and to feel right within the piece. That's a complicated bunch of stuff. How do I answer the question? I try to describe whatever affect it seems I was going for in that forgotten moment. "Make it fierce. It's like you're trying to drown out the clarinetist for what he just played." Or perhaps "let it fade a bit ... there's a dissolution going on and the 'cello is about to pick it up". Or "be hesitant. The real big moment is coming up". I could go on.

Okay, so ... right. So ... talking about music, and more particularly, talking about my music. Unsurprisingly, it comes down to audience and intent — the two being inextricably linked. Also unsurprisingly, once I got out of grad school and was in the real world forced to talk about my own music, my approach changed. Plus, I started to appreciate the different needs of the different ... ooh, do I have to use this word? ... audiences.

I sense a need for some more decorative formatting here, so I'll do a bullet list of the kinds of talking or writing about music I have to do. And only because the bucket list formatting is not available on blogspot.
  • Self-promotional copy ("can you send a bio ASAP?")
  • Program notes and liner notes.
  • Off the cuff and on-the-fly commentary on pieces in progress, in composition lessons
  • Colloquia at institutions of higher love learning
  • Pre- or post-performance talks to a concert audience
  • Presentations to other artists at artist colonies
  • A-splaining affect and intention for the benefit of performers
I suck at liner notes. Well, not literally, but that put a pretty strange picture in your head, didn't it? My writing about the music of others is pretty stiff and tends to be just the facts, ma'am, even if I can wax rhapsodically and metaphorically about it live and off the cuff. My own program notes — composers get asked for them a lot — usually do the composer copout thing of delightful vignettes around a piece's origins with perhaps one technical detail. Sometimes I go on a less-is-more kick, as will be discovered if you read on. That is, if one reads on.

Here are some program notes I've supplied recently.
Current Conditions was commissioned by the US Marine Chamber Orchestra for a "Music History Mystery" children's concert, on which it was premiered last May. The idea of the concert was that someone had "stolen Beethoven's Fifth!" and a wide historic and stylistic range of composers was represented with short pieces and excerpts. The children had to identify which piece had stolen Beethoven, and which one of six possible culprits had written it. I was commissioned to be that culprit, and to that end, I also was asked to make my piece "stylistically similar" to my own piece Stolen Moments, which they were excerpting as a representation of my style. That piece had been commissioned by Merkin Hall in New York to be a "response to jazz", and the excerpt they played had highly stylized stride piano and swing in it. Thus Current Conditions has them, too, as well as a big honkin' Beethoven theft right in the middle. I finished the piece the same day my wife Beth, also a composer, finished a piece, and we resolved to title our pieces with phrases from Hers is called "Winter Weather Advisory".
 Compass is my first saxophone quartet, and it was so much fun to write that I hope it's not my last. It's in four movements that can be played in any order. "W" takes off from hocketed repeated notes; "N" (marked Calcioculo) is built around swing eighths; "S" is a slow movement built from rising gestures; and "E", marked "merda di pipistrello pazza" is the crazy movement that plays with cascading chord-building.  I called it Compass because there are four movements. The players are not required to face in the direction of each movement's compass point, but it would be funny if they did.
Talking Points (Right Wing Echo Chamber) is apolitical music with a political title.
Which of the above Davys would you like to take for a beer after the concert? Which Davy do you think probably smells funny?

The talking about music of others that happens in a composition lesson — that's something I love, because I happen to love teaching. Taking it all in on the fly, gauging intent vs. actuality, trying to visualize how the whole piece will work, and constructing complicated metaphors for why I think things do or don't work — that's part of what happens in those one-on-ones, and I truly have fun. I sometimes even giggle. Composers who have taken lessons with me will recognize my stable of reusable jokes, many of which came from Ross Bauer. For instance, and only for instance, when I sense a composer trying to make a big moment, and that moment feels like it falls flat, or is not strong enough, often the reason is that the notes or the harmony at the big moment don't leap out at you — and that's usually because the notes are stale, or already in the mix, doing that which it is that notes do. The advice is usually to rid the piece of the notes just before the big moment — so that they are "fresh", so to speak — and I use Ross's joke: It's like the Country and Western song: How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away?

Nine of ten composers who studied with Davy just had a flash of recognition, and nodded, knowingly. And knot just because they are aware of Davy's affinity for silent k's. The other one of ten blushed, giggled, and walked out of the room slowly.

Some of the talking in the composition lesson is about possibilities. Compose a little on the fly, getting extra heavy with the metaphors about what sort of things would be interesting and/or dramatic using the existing materials. Wouldn't it be cool if there was a sudden stop here before you use this chord, so it would be like the piece was suddenly inhaling, or maybe stretching a rubber band almost to the breaking point?

My real trial-by-fire in talking about music — and that which taught me the most about how to communicate just what I was trying to do — has been in doing presentations at artist colonies. All the technical stuff about trichorders and phasers and priority pitches and home sonorities that cause composers to drool just a tiny bit is like so much gibberish to sculptors and writers and painters and video artists, etc. But they are like me — they shut themselves in that small private space for a huge portion of the day and make stuff. So the idea that someone can, and should, be creative, is a given. Thus did I learn how to talk about my own music not in terms of how did I write a piece (now so graduate school), but why did I write a piece.

Indeedy-doo, and I don't know why I am suddenly using that expression so much. I learned from the presentations that artists and writers gave — it takes a good talk to splain a big ol' hunk of cement with a streak of red on it — who rarely talked about their technique (except the very youngest ones — "this is my figure drawing exercise; this is my exercise in contrasting shapes...") just like it takes a good talk to splain 25 minutes of strange atonal violin concerto music. My first such talk — in the Savidge Library of the MacDowell Colony, November, 1990. I remember that I presented E-Machines and some of my violin concerto, both of which were young pieces at the time, though only one of them is still a piece I would mind you listening to. Plus, E-Machines has that funny Für Elise quote, which usually gets a laugh if it's played right.

The way I talked about E-Machines was the usual familiar story about how I couldn't write piano music, didn't want to write piano music, and pianists had asked me to write them pieces. I told them about Martler when he was our grad school roommate, the piano in the living room he composed on, how he was a jiggly kind of guy, how he was a fantastic pianist and one of those pianists asking me for pieces. I continued with the 12-tone 4-hand improvs we occasionally did, and the machine-gun repeated note thing he could do but I couldn't — being a failed pianist myself.

So far, not a thing about the music, but it's not a bad story when fleshed out. And so far, no one ever raises a hand at this point to ask, "Davy, what about the music?"

Then there was the extra six days I had on a trip to Arizona when I had unexpected working time, and I thought about Martler and his machine-gun repeated notes, about his tape piece with a similar texture, and I just started writing to see where it would go. Six days on a playground and away from a piano, and voilà! There's my new piece. I don't bring up the Beethoven quote because it's funnier when you're not expecting it.

"That's about the music. So there, smartypants."

Of course, all I said was that it had repeated notes and I said why. How would I have explained it in a graduate seminar four years earlier?
So this little piano piece I'm going to write four years from now and wait another four years to call étude #1. The main motive will be repeated notes with various interruptions. Martler's structures tend to be symmetrical, so mine is, too. It's in five sections, loosely A-B-C-B-A which is also the alphabetic signifier for the all-combinatorial hexachords that generate the notes.
"Generate" the notes? We talk funny in grad seminars, don't we?
In addition to each structural section being associated with a particular hexachord, it will also be associated with a particular use of the piano register. Thus are the A sections in the upper register, the B sections in the lower register, and the C section using the full piano. For the sake of a little humor (it's okay to use humor, right? Right?) and yet another level of structuralitositudinousness, each section/harmonic area/registral disposition has a quote in it. Hence the C section quotes Beethoven's sixth symphony, the B section quotes a tune in an unpublished piece by Martler himself, and the funny Für Elise quote fits right into the A section (the C# that completes the hexachord is in the first sonority after the quote, so put your fried egg around that note when you analyze it).
Yeah, I got a few dry heaves typing that, too, just as you did reading it. It's okay, they're easy after which up to clean.

I have in my possession three masters papers from graduate students at an august program in the midwest, all of whom were compelled to write their papers about this very piece. They are interesting to read because a) I really did that? b) hee hee, people had to write masters papers on this little trifle of a piece, c) they found most of that stuff I detail in blue and d) they found other stuff I did (or maybe didn't do) that's way more interesting than anything I just said. At least to me. Certainly not to visual artists and writers.
As to what I said about the violin concerto. I probably said the overarching story was about soloist versus the masses, struggle for control, and agreement at the end. I'm sure they knew that "struggle" was a code word meaning "it's going to be atonal, and not at all funny".

I got better at doing the presentation thing, though. For one, I got good at not taking myself so seriously (and we all know where that has led — yes, ultimately to this very blog entry), got good at breaking down the story of my own music in a way that didn't stumble over the technique, and — this part is the best part — I became a much better teacher and writer about music. Which was good, since I still hadn't finished my gfornafratz dissertation.

Though my liner notes still sucketh.

Thus, then, are the colloquia I give for other composers hardly ever about the notes (except when they are about the notes), and the same goes for pre-performance talks. After all, it's much more fun to note that there's a toy piano in my first piano concerto...

News flash. I now have two piano concertos. Concerti, whatever.

... because when I floated the idea by Marilyn Nonken, she said, "having a toy piano would effect which dress I wear" — than to note that the toy piano's first brief outburst at the end of the first movement, returns developed at the end of the second, the horns take the notes of the second movement's toy piano lick and harmonize it jazzily in the third movement, the chords of which migrate to the piano itself later in the movement, and return in the cadenza.

Though I think it's pretty cool that I did all of that, now that I think of it.

So splainin' the toy piano to a performer: "nice dress. Much nicer than the other one you could have worn". See how simple?

Just for the sake of breaking up the text again, here's I-Chen Yeh's premiere performance of the 95th étude, called "Flit".

I've never spoken publicly about this piece, nor have I written about it anywhere — though there's a paragraph about it in I-Chen's dissertation. Since there's something about all one hundred études in her dissertation. What would or should I say about it for the various different constituencies?

Artist colony presentation

This is one of exactly a hundred piano études I've written — what can I say, I'm obsessive and pianists kept asking for them — and it was written specifically for the pianist who is performing it. She wrote a dissertation about all the études and had come to Brandeis to interview me and to play a few for me — I Flipvideoed them and stuck them onto YouTube, they were so good. She is a player with a supple touch, fantastic technique, accuracy, and great expressive technique. When she interviewed me, I had only written ninety-four, and I told her she could suggest the idea for an étude, what it's about, and it would be dedicated to her. She could even have the premiere (otherwise known as the only person in the world except me with a score to it).

She e-mailed a few days later and said she really like the texture of Ravel's Scarbo and could I do something like that. I said I could try and I gave her one more task: choose one or two notes to be the most important ones, the "tonic" notes, as it were. You'll hear that the piece starts on one of them (F) and builds down to the other one (G almost two octaves lower). And I hope you like it. This performance was given at the Ohio Music Teachers Association yearly conference last year, where she was giving a paper on the études — a vastly shortened version of her dissertation. I called it Flit because a lot of the quick gestures made me think of the motion of a moth flitting around a flame.


This 'tude was written for the pianist on the recording, who wrote a dissertation on all hundred of them. She had played some for me and I really liked her playing — I even filmed them and threw them up on YouTube (note to self — throwing them up on YouTube is linguistically too similar to having dry heaves). Since I hadn't finished the set yet, I told her she could suggest a 'tude, and she later e-mailed that she liked the texture of Scarbo. I asked her to choose some priority pitches around which the piece would be based, and she chose violin open G and the F an octave and a seventh higher.

So the piece turned out to be more about uneven repeated notes — my first framing device in the music— than about the texture of Ravel's Scarbo, so in one respect I might have failed the assignment. I started the piece with those uneven notes on the high F, decorated by flitting fast gestures (hence the title) and slowly I build to repeated chords with I-Chen's two notes as the boundary notes. Later, the chords build back up to the same conclusion, from the bottom up. Eventually the music spans the whole piano, and when it reaches the top, it slowly ascends in gestures that must have been meant to be the moth being burned in the flame, I don't know.

Liner notes

Flit is the 95th étude, on uneven notes, likened to the motion of a moth around a flame. I-Chen Yeh, for whom it was written, suggested I write some piano textures like those found in Scarbo — a challenge I relished because I had never written such a texture. It builds in and around G3 and F5.


Ravel's Scarbo, uneven repeated notes, and the motion of a moth around a flame were all in my mind when I wrote this one. I-Chen made the original suggestion. I hope you like it.

Composition lesson

Scarbo? Are you nuts? This doesn't sound like Scarbo at all! This part near the end where you repeat the downward building chords — pure brilliance. The surprise fadeaway ending — too short. The falling from the top of the piano — I know you don't revise études, but this is the most prosaic part. You should rewrite it, and make it less regular, as befits the rest of the piece.

Splaining to pianist

This part should Flit! It's the title, after all. Could we slow it up a bit at the end? Composer's fault — it's a bit too abrupt and I know it's like putting lipstick on a pig ...

Self-promotional copy

Of all the piano études that Rakowski wrote, this is one of them. It spins a magical tale of a moth flitting busily around a flame that has just enough formal rigor to amuse and delight audiences of all ages.

Dry heave.

One final thought. The more I have been obliged to deconstruct my original thinking about existing pieces for the benefit of interested, though not technically proficent, listeners, the clearer has my thinking become about how pieces go. Which comes in handy when I'm writing one and what do I next? is the most common query to myself.

I end with today's tautology, closely related to the subject at hand. Sometimes people take you more seriously if you don't take yourself so seriously.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Hammock time

It took me a little while to realize that by far the most boring blog posts are the ones about work recently completed, work about to be completed, work about to be begun, and/or work floating around in them brainly synapses. Though truth be told, I do like musing about work about to be begun — okay, not musing, but saying out loud — because it sounds like work about to B.B. Gun. And suddenly all of the movie A Christmas Story flashes in front of me, and there I am, saying "Oh, Fudgggge....." But it was the Queen Mother of all dirty words ...

So on this my fifty-third blog post — on average, one per each complete trip I've made around the sun — and to commemorate a really really really thick double bar, rather than commemorate all of them, I again update on that which I have been working and completing. So there.

Y'alls already knows I wrote piano préludes and a piece for cello and a dozen and a third strings. You know that because I told you so. This is the complete Unofficial Official Davy Sabbatical Wrap-Up, and it is very unfortunate that the term ends with a preposition. What do I call it if I'm fiendishly anal about the rules of grammar? The Unofficial Official Davy Sabbatical Up I Wrap? Yeah, that'll do. Especially 'cause it's, like, you know, in red.

Technically, my sabbatical has been over for exactly half a month — since my academic contracts coincide with fiscal years (we get fiscal, just as Olivia Newton-John did), but we get summers off with the explanation, "you are on a nine-month contract with payments stretched out over twelve months." Excellent, so my nefarious plan is working.

What this means to me (and of course it means nothing to you) is that my bimonthly check autodeposited today was for my full salary and not for half of it. That means I can afford to go out to eat today, and then come back.

I know what you want to ask. Davy, how did your double bar get so thick? In an earlier, slightly more juvenile, time, I would have blurted out I fold it in half! and then I'd laugh hysterically, having to leave the room briefly and return, while you either roll your eyes at me or are simply confused.

And here's the answer! We have a nice hammock in the back yard. I like it. Even though I didn't make it, I like lying in it. I don't mind spending all day in it. Except when work calls. And doody calls. Hammock time exists when my last egrigious deadline of the sabbatical period has been fulfilled. And that time was 9:03 this morning.

Woo hoo!

Which means I get to indulge in more Moodyan list making.

Thus, since last I taught a class, here's what I have added to my list of stuff I wrote and you didn't. Starting .... now.
  • Étude #96 on cross-accents, Double Cross (3 min)
  • Étude #97 on dominant seventh chords, Quietude (2-1/ min)
  • Étude #98 on fast arpeggiations in both hands, Mosso (2-1/2 min)
  • Étude #99 on uneven alternating hands, Mano War (3 min)
  • Étude #100 combo étude Two Great Tastes (#100a on chromatic scales, Erdnußbutter and #100b on crescendo-diminuendo repeated chords, Cioccolato) (2 min, 2 min, 2 min)
  • Luccicare for 'cello solo (6 min)
  • Talking Points (Right-Wing Echo Chamber) for 'cello and 16 strings (12 min)
  • Préludes Book I for piano solo (36 min)
  • Compass for saxophone quartet (19 min)
  • Zyg Zag for flute, oboe, guitar, mandolin, violin, violoncello (17 min)
  • Piano Concerto No. 2 for piano/celesta and orchestra (42 min)
  • Thickly Settled for clarinet, violin, violoncello, piano (17 min)
Add to this list an up-arrangement I did for the US Marine Chamber Orchestra: Stolen Moments (yes, the response to jazz piece), originally for woodwind quintet, string quartet and piano.
  • Stolen Moments for chamber orchestra (2(picc)22(bcl)2 200 pno strings) (28 min)
Some of those pieces have received their premieres, too, so there. Namely, starting ... now.
  • Two Great Tastes by I-Chen Yeh and Karl Larson
  • Talking Points (Right Wing Echo Chamber) by Fred Sherry and the Orchestra of the League of Composers, conducted by Louis Karchin
  • Préludes Book I by Karl Larson
  • Luccicare by Rhonda Rider, many times
  • Stolen Moments by the US Marine Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jason Fettig
  • Compass by the Prism Saxophone Quartet
So obviously this morning's double bar was on Thickly Settled. Glad to oblige.

Thus are all my obligations out of the way for the summer. So it's hammock time.

And, dare I say ... blogging time, too? Hee hee, just wait and see if anything is left of the octatonic scale once I'm finished with it ...