Saturday, September 17, 2011

Silence of the Whams

It was at a Student Composers Concert in Williams Hall at NEC, probably my junior year of college. The piece at hand was for solo 'cello, and it began something like this.

I recall getting eyerollitis from that opening. Not because it wasn't a beautiful opening, and not because it wasn't beautifully played (it was).

The composer was, to my mind, one of the most interesting composers in the program, and I was disappointed — maybe even a bit angry — that he would choose to begin the piece in such a hackneyed and ... uh oh, here comes 1978 pretentio-Davy — common way. Aw geez, anybody with half a brain coulda wrote that beginning. Apparently in my hazy memory, pretentio-Davy grew up in New Jersey, not in Vermont. I suppose 1978 pretentio-Davy would have also said that the rest of the piece was pretty friggin predictable, given that opening.

I mean, how could there not be another fermata silence to follow, and how could the third phrase not be something like that on the right? It's a total duh thing. 1978 pretentio-Davy was not very much fun at parties, and in fact tended to retreat to a corner with his pacifier.

The problem is, pretentio-Davy was exactly right about what was going to happen in the third phrase — a slightly more complicated upbeat gesture decorating another phrase-ending agogic accent on E. And then subsequent phrases build on that, etcetera ad nauseum.

All very clear rhetoric, making perfect sense, lyrical, and grateful (not greatful, which would be another post, but more likely not) for the performer. Though it's true that the previous sentence lacks a verb and I'm too lazy to put one in. So what did 1978 pretentio-Davy have to complain about?

It was the '70s. I was studying composition on the east coast. The beginning wasn't, uh, complicated enough. I mean, where are the col legno battutos, snap pizzicatos, and audible sighs? (Does "sighs" matter?) How dare you be so straightforward? And thus predictable?

And that silence between the two identical phrases! What, I need a long time to ponder the unfathomable depth of your two-note (two-note!) utterance before you do exactly the same thing again?

Down, Sarcasm Boy. Here's your pacifier.

Being a student work, the piece was, indeed predictable, with few surprises. It was logical, and there were plenty of nice silences, and nicely timed silences, but I was, on the whole, pretty bored. Not because it wasn't beautiful — it was — but because there were no surprises. Logic isn't everything. And sometimes it's even a wreath of pretty flowers which smell bad.

Obviously I was into the more complicated stuff that was afflicting a lot of students in those days, and, just as obviously, I zoomed in on the rhetorical device of silence — at least silence used in this way — as suspect. And certainly quite common, and possibly — cheap.


Yes, or so I thought at the time. Many a fellow student composer would load up a piece with complications until it tipped sideways in a strangely unnatural way, and the internal phrase rhetoric, if there were any to begin with, would get suffocated in the welter of detail.

A pause as I nearly break my arm patting myself on the back for how complicated that last sentence is. In. Out. In. Out.

The Uptown music we were imitating — largely Martino and Davidovsky in my case — had a lot of hyperdramatic stuff in it, and of course, many of us wanted to be just as hyperdramatic (but not hypodramatic, because I don't know what that would be). We just didn't have much of a facility with musical syntax (uh, how the notes work together and fit together, as if those were two separate things) to support such a hyperdramatic narrative.

Therefore we did it on the cheap. Thusly: load up a phrase with complicated stuff, accumulate more detail, and just as it's about to a-splode ...


Dastardly silence.

Dramatic silence.

Scary silence.

Profound silence.

I faked left and I went right.

And then, do it again. And again. Free hyperdrama! All you have to do is stop suddenly just when it starts getting interesting!

Down, boy.

And then a-splode for no good reason!

Down, boy.

The hyperdramatic silences became mannerisms for many of us — and thus did those silences in our music rightly earn the descriptor cheap. They were stand-ins for actual musical rhetoric, which we were too busy trying to get ahead in this bidness to learn about.

Down, boy. And why are you speaking in first person plural?

To their credit, Davidovsky and Martino did it right. There's extremely elegant voice leading and precise control of pacing and density and cadence that make all of their dramatic pauses earned ones. Since there was no one around pointing that out to us, however, we got there with the shortcut that was available to us. And eventually I kind of realized that.

Thus did I make a conscious decision — just a little way through grad school — to go completely counter to the cheap silence thing. Instead, I would endeavor (endeavour for you British Empire readers) to have no silence, whatsoever, in the pieces I would write. From the downbeat to the double bar, always sound, always sound, always sound. Always. Sound. It may have been the first really hard compositional challenge I gave myself.

Thus would I be required to — if I wanted to become a real composer (and I didn't know this yet) — figure out a lot about voice leading, about pacing, about the control of density and timbre, and especially about phrasing — to write interesting music that omitted silence from the narrative. I didn't use the words at the time, but I was teaching myself something about large-scale rhythm (about which I spoke briefly in this post), that of making upbeats and downbeats, the musical inhalations and exhalations that come about as a result of the musical rhetoric. The example that Berg set in Lulu — especially with regard to the relationship of the bass to the harmony, and the many, many, many fourth species-like moments and the internal counterpoint — weighed pretty heavily on me, as I had just gotten to know the piece and was totally smitten. Or smited. Or smote. Full of smitingness.

Thus did I begin my odyssey of all-attacca all-the-time pieces: Violin Concerto, Imaginary Dances, the pretentio-fest Symphony No. 1, Cerberus, Hyperblue, No Holds Barred, Sesso e violenza, Persistent Memory, and Attitude Problem. All of them are multi-movement pieces with no pauses between movements. Whoa, and they span 15 years. Perhaps in this time the no-silence thing itself became a mannerism? Perhaps? Hmm? Hmm?

During this 15-year so-called odyssey I was fond of saying that I always wrote bigger pieces with the movements attacca because I sucked at writing endings. I'm not sure if I said that to make people go away, or to deflect attention from the very shallow breathing that was going on within the pieces — of which I was only perfunctorily aware. For you see, using Berg as a model — his ghost was on my left shoulder for about a decade, which was a real bitch if I spilled some salt — I similarly wrote pretty thick harmony (hexachordally derived for a while, and then something freer that I will call dysomapangahee because otherwise it wouldn't have a name, and intuitively is the wrong word), usually with a pretty active, or at least important bass, and I would try to keep it pretty active. Not quite ADD, but I liked making stuff up, and a lot of it.

I wasn't aware of musical breathing so much during this time, though I shonuff am now. I was probably going for a lot of contrast and it made a lot of sense to slow down and speed up, etc., to articulate large spans of the music. And given my pathological — okay, not pathological, but user-enforced — eschewment (eschewal? eschewing? eschewfulness? Gesundheit!) of silences, it turned out that whatever articulations there were were usually pretty weak. Which is another way of saying that the breathing, such as it was, was rather shallow. Time to catch a breath? Not usually very much. Maybe a bit like breathing while jogging in 110 percent humidity.

So what did I do at those so-called thinner texture passages? I shonuff developed (or stole) one mannerism — one note in an articulative chord would be sustained, after the chord cuts off, in a single instrument; which would crescendo, followed by an accompanying chord that recontextualizes the note as out of place, and thus a resolution (most often stepwise) in that single instrument "like" that of fourth species. I loved those moments. Berg was the King of those moments. I was the Crown Prince and Heir to the Throne of those moments.

Down, boy.

Mikronimicon I ending

Mikronomicon II beginning
So did I really suck at writing endings? As it turns out, yes, but it has nothing to do with the attacca movements. After their premieres, I wrote new endings for Slange (by adding another equal-length movement), Imaginary Dances, and Cerberus, as well as the first movement of Attitude Problem. But those were mostly the whole-piece endings that got rewritten. I didn't have to write real endings for the attacca movements, nor, as it turned out, for the ends of movements that aren't ends of pieces. By the time I wrote Take Jazz Chords, Make Strange, I had stopped doing the attacca movements — I quit cold turkey! — and I went in search of ways to end movements that might motivate the movements that followed — following ... silence! Thus does, say the very end of the second movement of Dream Symphony — a phrase ending — begin the third movement — a beginning. And thus do the doubled lines ending the first movement of Mikronomicon (from 2009) spawn the ostinato the underscores the entire second movement. One can also sense in that piece that the ending of the first movement is upbeat, and though the music that starts the second movement is also upbeat, it feels, retrospectively — because of the movement break and because of the upbeat that precedes it — downbeaty. For I have spoken it.

Even without attacca movements, though, I tended to through-write movements without silences until the end. Still not bringing in the hyperdramatic silences. Or any silences, for that matter. No movement of any big piece until 2008 had any significant silences in it — save the cadenza of the first Piano Concerto — until I was responding to jazz.

And I wasn't even responding to jazz! I was responding to tango! By, uh, writing and deconstructing a tango. As a dance movement with what I imagined was potentially an accompaniment to choreography contrasting motion and stillness, it seemed to call for a musical representation of said stillness. Anybody in the audience have a suggestion for something musical to suggest stillness?

Stolen Moments, III.
No, holding a note of the chord and doing the crescendo won't do that. That's active, not still. And it's such an old Davy solution.

To the right, the opening of the movement. Look at all that space between the chords where nothing happens! It's not hyperdramatic, and it's not cheap. At least I don't think it's cheap. The silence is a fundamental part of the musical rhetoric. After my best man heard the premiere recording of the tango, he remarked that he hadn't heard space like this in my music before this piece. Best man guy is very smart. And very encouraging. And has all his hair.

Guess what? This movement breathes, and it breathes deeply. It also breathes in that shallow way at other points, but with the deep breathing as a contrast, it feels like a more complete ... oh, pretentio-guy help me out here — musical experience.

One sentence Italic paragraph guy?

I'm sorry, but I really have to go to the bathroom.

Okay, go. I'll handle this myself.


So I'm a details composer. I like trying to put together a lot of scrummy details that together make a kind of magic. By the same token, I love a great, say, funk groove with a lotta stuff a-goin' down; I'll put on the headphones and endeavo(u)r to identify every element coming together to make the groove. Because, of course, it may be the basis of something I'll want to steal some day. And also by the same token, it's valuable to contrast the really funky grooves with the ones that don't work as well. Since lots of notes to self about what doesn't work, and why it doesn't, go into the virtual Post-It™ part of my brain.

And as details guy, I have often given the listener just a little bit of time to catch a breath in between the parts of the music where the most stuff happens. I've always known this, and I've gotten "breathless" from more than a few listeners — but usually framed in a good way, as in "it was so inventive it left me breathless", or "breathlessly inventive", or possibly "Madonna's character in the Dick Tracy movie was named Breathless". Usually that's a different conversation.

I had heard plenty of pieces with a lot of breathing, but with breathing that got in the way, so to speak — there were so many pauses that the intensity and the trajectory of the music fell flat on the floor, not to be so easily taken back. As a reactive composer, I erred on the side of breathing too little and rather than breathing too much. Was I wrong? In reply, the Magic 8 ball says "Ask again later".

I'm back, and feeling better.

Don't need you right now.

So recently a very good non-musician friend asked for some recordings of my music, and after listening, he noted, "Your music doesn't breathe a lot." Yes, no holds barred, got it in one. The timing of the remark was good, since I was just starting to obsess about the breathing part of music — and now I'm in full Davy-obsess mode. I bring up breathing much more in composition lessons, while apologizing that breathing in music is a current obsession, sorry and I don't mind coming right out and saying this piece breathes strangely. While sitting on awards panels, I occasionally have to excuse myself to go to the window and exclaim, sorry I can't breathe because this music doesn't. Yeah, it's Davy-obsess mode, and maybe it's that childhood asthma thing finally catching back up.

So the hyperdramatic pause thing isn't particularly in fashion nowadays. Now there's a lot of continuous-sound pieces out there, both from the Europeans and the pop-influenced Americans.

So Davy's going to go against the grain of fashion again!

Thickly Settled beginning
I said I don't need you right now. And besides, I'm not that interested in what's in fashion (uh, except maybe intellectually, and for the sake of the blog). As long as it breathes. Or as long as I can listen to it and breathe.

Thus do I admit that I've come full circle on this issue and reveal the two most recent openings I've written. First, the opening of Thickly Settled (written in May), and then the opening of Fred (the celebration piece for the new President of Brandeis, from July).

Fred beginning
In both cases — what, the opening gesture was so profound that the listener needs time to take in its great profundity before it's repeated, only slightly varied, a second time? Huh? Huh?

Down, boy.

Nope. 2011 Davy likes to go to parties without his pacifier (which has been retired and is in a box in the attic). In both cases, I'm letting the piece breathe a little before going on, and easing into the rhetoric — not unlike the composer of the solo 'cello piece in 1978. And very unlike 1978 pretentio-Davy.

I just hope no one thinks those silences are cheap.