Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Innodate and Consolivate

I got me some Spotify. The free version, with occasional commercials exhorting you to buy in to the much less free versions. If you love hearing a country and western twang a-throwin' some pedal steel guitar 'n' heartache y'all's way right after the slow movement of the Mozart K. 499 finishes, then free Spotify is definitely for you.

There is one Davy track on Spotify, (not the one by the linked artist) less than one percent the number of Davytraks™ on iTunes. But there are shonuff plenty by other composers, a large hunk of them long dead (did you know Mozart has been dead for 1540 dog years? Whoa. Kind of makes you think. When I say "think" I mean something else).

So with Spotify at first I was, like, totally like, they's not so much here for classical musicians. But I was being pretty wrong. They's plenty of Liszt and Mozart and Beethoven (delightfully pointless exercise: how many dog years combined have all three been dead?), and as it turns out, there's not a small amount there by American composers who were working in the 1950s — thanks to the Naxos American Classics series, up and running on ze Spotify. And after I read this little tidbit on NewMusicBox, I up and spent two afternoons and an evening using some Spotification to check out a bunch of toons by Walter Piston and some of the less-celebrated composers working in the so-called tonal vein around the same time: Irving Fine, Peter Mennin, Norman Dello Joio, Roy Harris, William Schuman, Harold Shapero, Roger Sessions, Paul Creston, David Diamond, and the not-dead Ned Rorem. Why would I do that?

Silly, because I'm me.


I haven't made a firm and final judgment about the relative merits of those composers — at least not one I'm willing to share here — since the available sampling is non-scientific (except for the science it took to invent computers, stream 0's and 1's that way and reassemble them into soundwaves, etc.), but I was pleased to discover some really nice pieces that I hadn't previously encountered. Head and shoulders my favorite discovery: Sunday Morning by Ned Rorem. What a weird/strange/cool piece. And my now-retired colleague Marty Boykan has recommended other Piston pieces (Piston was his teacher) that aren't Spotified, or even available on the mighty iTunes.

I also have lots of apps on my iPhone and iPad, including no fewer than seven HDR camera apps in the iPad. What is HDR? Damned if I know, except for the acronym, which means High Dynamic Range. I've been taking lots of comparative shots — same view, different app — with them and have been learning something about how and what each one does to make those impossible magaziny photos where everything is in focus and well-lit. No sun bleaching out the sky while the landscape is too dark, etc. Some of the apps take one picture and put a funky filter on it and go TA-DA (I hope you didn't notice it was a cheap imitation...)! Others ominously tell you to hold the camera VERY STILL while it takes TWO or THREE PICTURES with DIFFERENT EXPOSURES and AVERAGES and MERGES them. While this happens, I can just go Yes Sir, Please Sir, I'd Like Some More, Are You Finished Yet?. My own preference among the apps has turned out to be iCamera HDR, which gave me stunning shots of Utah mountains and big cloudy Vermont sunsets, though in some cases the shots are not particularly lifelike. Then again, neither are magazine photographs. While I still don't know exactly what HDR is, I have at least learned the meaning of the acronym.

And why have I been doing all this in the summer, usually my most fertile creative time?

Readers of this blog know something. A month or so ago I declared hammock time (or was it Please Hammock Don't Hurt 'Em?) after about fourteen straight months of filling every single day with writing. In a normal summer, even if I had no projects to start or work on, I'd get busy with études, or, more recently, préludes. But not this late summer. Because, you see, I'd be running on fumes.

Normally summer and winter break are the only available creative times, since that day job that pays the bill, bill, bill, bill, bill, bill, bill, bill, bill, bill, bill, bill, and ... oh wait, I guess I could have simply said that pays the bills. Plurals, I love you! ... precludes there being much writing time during the school year.

Hey, wait. Études done, forever. One book of Préludes written. When the Préludes are done, I can write Precludes. Oh wait, then there would be an excuse not to play them. Never mind.

Oh. Unless I used the aigu accent. Précludes Book I. Boy, does that look like a typo.

Since I declared Hammock Time, I did manage, in four days, to squeeze out a 4-1/2 minute string quartet movement entitled Fred. I did it for several reasons: a) Brandeis has a new President named Fred 2) I've always wanted to call a piece Fred ¶) The Lydian String Quartet asked us faculty for pieces honoring Fred for their concert series ‡) I said yes. So with the Brandeis alma mater (pilfered from the Academic Vegetable Overture) and the Mozart K. 499 at hand, I wrote such a celebratory piece, combining them and the "Dissonant" Quartet. Because. I. Could. Why K. 499? It's on the same concert. See, planning ahead. And why I might, just might be listening to it on ze Spotify.


And while writing it I was aware that I was, as they, and I, say, running on fumes. The piece was fun to write because I got to use a corner of my technique that usually lies dormant. But I was not breaking new ground, opening new doors, finding new elegant solutions to old problems, or making coffee for anyone that wanted it.

Fifteen months ago, though — Got notion for piece! Worked it out in head! Wrote it in a few days! Noted in Facebook status update! Zoom! Got notion for piece! Worked it out in head! Wrote it in a few days! Zoom! ... and in January: asked Amy what she wanted in piano concerto! Made list! Went Franceward! Started! Wrote and orchestrated 42 non-sucky minutes in less than three months! ... in November: decided to write sax quartet! Hit ground running! Wrote 19 minutes in three weeks!

It seems exciting in the descriptions, owing to the overuse of exclamation points — once the double bar is there, though, it's hard to remember just what a long, hard slog the entire process was for every piece and every note, for that matter. Not to mention the mountain of self-doubt that keeps getting climbed with every beginning.

Now there's a dumb metaphor. No, not dumb. Just Squirrel! ...


The last time I had the yearlong sabbatical was 2002-3, and the same thing happened. I wrote 23 piano études during that time, a symphony, a song cycle, and a quintet, and by June I told Beff I wanted ... needed ... a hammock for my birthday. And I got one! And I used it! Alas, then someone with a pile of money up 'n' asked for another piece for dance due on an emergency basis by the end of the summer, I took the money, and wrote on fumes. And bought a Mac PowerBook, back when it was called that.

Before that, it was the Rome Prize year, same result. After a year of much writing, and a dissertation defense, I wrote a kid's ballet on fumes; that one seems to have turned out fine.

Now that I have fulfilled the rule of three, it can be seen that I am trying to posit that which one-sentence Italic paragraph guy is about to say.

Compositional, and possibly other artistic, creativity is sometimes like a rechargeable battery.

Aw, man. One-sentence Italic paragraph guy is into similes now! That's like, not cool. But I guess I have to, like, run with it.

So to many of my colleagues, I seem to write fast. One of my canned responses is to say that I build it up during the teaching season, and thus when vacation arrives, it comes out, naturally, diarrhea-like. Since that's a surefire conversation-stopper, I normally don't have to splain myself any further. So I wouldn't get to the grosser puns involving bigger pieces and thematic liquidation. Whew! That was a close one!

The other explanation is the compositional battery metaphor, in which ideas percolate and bounce around inside my head for the weeks and months when there isn't time to write, and they are more or less fully developed by the time I finally get to start. Then, as the ideas make it onto paper, the battery is expended and is subsequently in need of recharging.

If compositional battery is true, then it's less like the Energizer bunny batteries than like my laptop's battery — where it is possible for the gauge to say 69% remaining and suddenly give out completely. This is how the études got off the ground — all those big pieces where the battery was seemingly near capacity but suddenly gave out (getting tired of this metaphor) – okay, those big pieces where I thought I knew what was coming next and it turned out to be crap, and all the wall-banging with my head couldn't fix it — writing small, unrelated pieces rejuiced the brain (a different metaphor!) so there's a fresh perspective when coming back to the big piece.

It occurs to me that a similar metaphor is occasionally used by teachers of music appreciation (I was once among their number) and writers on music to explain the progress of Western music. Now, bear with me, because it can be pretty lame when done by the book. In this narrative, the great composers are divided into the innovators and the consolidators. As usual, it is binary, and as usual, the theory doesn't immediately allow for overlap in the categories. The innovators changed everything! The consolidators reconfigured and, well, consolidated, all the existing strands (including the innovations) into the exemplary music of the day. Thus were Beethoven and Haydn and Stravinsky and Schönberg innovators, and Bach and Schumann and Stravinsky consolidators.

Uh huh.

Or put another way, once a style period (we know it's a style period because it has a name) is spent and the public is yearning for something new, along come the innovators to begin a new style period, followed by the consolidators, who continue until the next innovators come along. So Bach did such a great job consolidating that there was no choice but to begin another style period!

Uh huh. And incidentally, wow.

Thus do the innovators recharge the battery of Western music, and ... oh, I'm tired of this metaphor. Let's get back to what I'm really interested in, and that's me.

The innovating/consolidating thing — it applies, in a very general sense, to the life work of plenty of artists. At the colonies I visit, I see plenty of visual artists who have had at least one single great idea about space, or light, or shapes, and then do dozens or even hundreds of canvases or sketches all visiting the idea in a slightly different way. Then they move on to their next thing, and do lots of variations on it. Think of Beethoven and his obsession with the Neapolitan in his middle period, or the style periods of Stravinsky and Schoenberg and Copland, and the metaphor almost seems to make sense.

And then I think about recharging, in a general sense, in my own music, as the pieces in which everything changed and the pieces that came after it that explored essentially the same ideas. Which is pretty wordy, I know. Perhaps a better term for the second part of the equation is the pieces that pretty much treaded water. Which I only admit when I'm being enormously self-critical, which apparently I just was. If I were really trying to structure this post well, I'd call them the innovate pieces and the consolidate pieces. But does it really have to be binary? Can't they be two great tastes? Hey, you consolidated in my innovation! Oh yeah? Well, you innovated in my consolidation!

And as an unfortunate corollary to both of these, what our cat Bly did when we first moved to Maryland and refused to let him outside. Hey, you took a shit in my shoes!

Okay, not a corollary. More of a squirrel!

Hey, since we're batting around (when I say we're I really mean I'm) binaries here, why not say innovating is the idea side of the equation and consolidating is the technique side? One sentence paragraph guy?

Innovating is the idea side of the equation and consolidating is the technique side. I have no idea what I just said.

That's two sentences.

Innovating is the idea side of the equation and consolidating is the technique side; thus I have no idea what I just said.

So technique is the 99 percent perspiration? Thus 99 percent of my music should be consolidation? Except I don't actually use deodorant, which is less of a non sequitur than you think.

Uh, I think we've gotten mired in tautology here and completely repeated the premise of that other post. Backtrack, please.

Thus do I list pieces I wrote where somethin' new for me seemed to happen, thus placing them in the one percent category: Elegy (1984), Hyperblue, Persistent Memory, Ten of a Kind, Piano Concerto, Stolen Moments, Piano Concerto No. 2. But in every one of them, there is plenty of technique at work, too. So what I made one-sentence Italic paragraph say isn't true.

Part of what prompted these particular musingnesses was reflecting, yet again, on how many pieces I wrote that did the jittery fast unison breaking into chords thing that opens Hyperblue. That, and seeing several other composers do the same thing. So, sometimes a fleeting idea is so cool, and has so many undiscovered possibilities, the idea itself recharges the battery. But if I haven't the technique to follow through on the idea ("I haven't the technique"? Oh, pretentio-guy is back), I can still write a useless piece. And perhaps some of the older ideas I've got floating around that I've used before can be recontextualized in a new way that is in itself innovative.

And that's the problem with presenting problems as binaries.

So is recontextualizing innovation or consolidation? Hee hee hee. Che scema domanda.

Thus, while I can point to nearly every large gesture in my last piece and say it's something I did before (sharp chord with trailing tremolos in several instruments — done that; long line trying to escape from busy texture — done that; hocketed long line breaking into chords — done that; syncopated homophony cuts against slower harmonic rhythm — okay, haven't done that before; desperate chord gestures cutting against big piano bass octaves — you get the point). Perhaps the piece is more original than I had originally thought. When it's performed, I'll find out.

As to the way I feel right this very minute as I am typing this. Since hammock time began, I have sincerely tried to come up with ideas for piano préludes and for an orchestra piece that quotes familiar music. Niente, nada, rien. Unfortunately, the quality filter is still on — I've actually had plenty of ideas, none of them worth pursuing, at least according to the quality filter.

Thus am I waiting for my compositional brain to recharge. And not writing anything.

Sometimes I get a little scared that a piece I've just written may be the last good one I ever write. Since, you know, the screen can go blank when it says 69% remaining. But so far, the battery always recharges.

Otherwise, start calling me Coasts on Technique Guy.

Update: It turns out they's another whole 17 Davytraks™ on Spotify, for which Marilyn has been receiving all the glory. Go here.