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.