Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Spotify, Spotify, Spotify, Spotify!

Hey. Spotify has embed code.

No, I don't have a piece called Fourth of a Habit.

Okay, so Sibling Revelry is by me (piano études arranged for band)

And below, Musician, Sara, Georgic, and Three Encores are by me.

Locking Horns is by me.

Imaginary Dances, from 1986, is by me. Lawdy. Je ne l'aime plus.

E-Machines, track 9, is by me.

... and Ten of a Kind, tracks 7-10, are by me, even though it doesn't say so.

Windy Nights (track 4) and To Be Sung on the Water (track 18) are by me.

The first three tracks are by me.

My Attitude Problem

Current Musicology devoted an issue to composers writing about their own music in 2000, and I was one of the composers who wrote an article. All musical excerpts are copyright © by CF Peters.
Apologies in advance for the pretension dripping from the first three paragraphs. Here it go:
In lieu of a celebration of the new millennium, I think I am supposed to write about how I fill my pieces up with notes. This is a hard task for any composer that doesn't write pieces destined for deconstruction in graduate seminars: while I can fairly easily list some tendencies my pieces have, and much more easily list the sorts of things that other composers do that I don't, I can't imagine how interesting either would be to anyone. Plus, I believe that composers tend to be their own worst advocates—separating the composition of a piece from its hearing is rather difficult for us: when we tell you about trees, the listener hears forest, and vice versa. Now that the disclaimer has been made, it's time to press on.

Like most composers I know, I write idiosyncratically, changing my methods, kinds of pitch references, and overall view of form from piece to piece depending on the circumstances, ensemble, and materials. In general, I write contextually and from left to right; how I decide on what to do at any given moment depends on gestalt, voice-leading, and (by definition) context. The music tends to be either quite fast or rather slow, without a lot of gradations in between. I have learned a lot about compositional craft and continuity from listening to and studying the musics of Brahms, Berg, Bartok, and Martino, and I think the influences are easy to hear; there is also a strong presence of jazz harmony and funky, driving rhythms, according to some people who know what those words mean. I consciously follow what I understand to be a tension-and-release model, and strive for clear phrases and formal articulations: things start simple, accumulate, get more complicated, catch fire, and release tension with a big gesture to begin another structural section. Beyond that, it's anyone's guess what the heck I am doing.

One thing I hardly ever do is compose from the outside in or the inside out formulaically. There are rarely predetermined formal schemes posing as vessels in wait for the right materials to fulfill their needs; nor do I use fractal models in which everything in the small is reflected in the same way in larger formal levels. I pretty much move from moment to moment, left to right, shaping the piece and keeping as much in memory as I can, so that in the small and large it makes sense, and makes a good story, at least for me. Rather than continuing to ramble on with vague and banal generalities, I'm going to take an informal look at a piece of mine and try to give a sense of how and why I wrote it, and follow how my thinking about the piece evolved as it took shape.

I'll be writing about a piano trio I wrote in 1996-97 entitled Attitude Problem, which is published by C.F. Peters and recorded on CRI. Like most of my other pieces, it is atypical. The oddball title will be explained in the course of the essay.

The genesis of the piece was an e-mail from pianist Lois Shapiro in the summer of 1996 asking me to write a piece for her newly-reconstituted trio, The Triple Helix; the performers are all virtuosi in their own right, and excellent chamber music performers. In 1993, I had written a piano trio called Hyperblue for the previous incarnation of the trio, with a different violinist; it was a very fast, virtuosic piece full of killer unison writing that the group played like a million bucks. The performers described the piece to me as dark, sinister, jazzy, and intense, and also fun to play. The Triple Helix had performed it on its inaugural concert in the spring of 1996, a few months before Lois's e-mail, and it made a big splash. For the new trio, Lois made a few requests: she wanted some more “sinister, jazzy” music like in Hyperblue; and for her own part, she asked specifically for two things: she wanted to sock a lot of really low notes (she loved doing it in Hyperblue, so this was a request for a reprise), and she wanted a “big, smooshy, romantic” solo. Rhonda Rider, the cellist, asked if I could write something very high for her, in the next-to-top octave of the piano.

With those things in mind, I did what most composers do when they start a piece: I simply improvised piano trio music in my head for a while before I started writing anything down. This improvised music constituted mostly of brief gestures, which were speculative thoughts about ways the instruments might possibly work in combination. These improvisations had both visual and sonic components: I do tend to “see” musical gestures before I write them down, and often the act of writing them down involves picking out the notes on the piano that most faithfully represent the gestures. I think of musical gestures having a physical quality, and that is probably part of what it is I “see” when I imagine them.

Also before writing anything down I tried to imagine an overall shape for of the piece. Rather than thinking hard, I hardly thought, settling on yet another three movement attacca structure, fast-slow-fast. I think I prefer writing attacca movements because I'm simply not good at writing endings; with attacca structures I can end movements as big upbeats to the next movement, which is much easier. I also get fatigued as a listener by pieces — the chamber music of Dvorak being one of the culprits — that keep ending. For the sake of practicality, I was shooting for a 12 to 15 minute piece.

I did want the piece at least to begin differently from Hyperblue, for the sake of contrast if the two trios were ever performed on the same concert, or consecutively. Hyperblue has a light, jazzy opening concentrated in the middle register, generally at a soft dynamic. So I opted for a scowl-faced opening with heavy bowing, a wide registral span—something self-consciously on the ugly side—stereotypical mod music. For this musical impression, I used piano notes in extreme registers (including some socked low notes, as Lois had requested) and the strings hacking away at double stops that are interlocked registrally. For the sake of sonority, bowing and fingering quickness, the strings' double stops involved both open and fingered strings. And because the music is supposed to function as an opening, I probably wanted the gestures to feel short and fragmented.

Obviously this scowl-faced passage consists of two phraselets separated by silence; the first one ends rhythmically weak, as if still inhaling; the motion of the bass in the piano sounds to me like like it is supporting a motion to a half cadence. The second ends tranquilly, but, kind of in the wrong way. Given the quick and fragmented nature of the gestures that have happened so far, it's a little out of left field to end a phrase with this kind of repose.

The aggressive and obnoxious initiation of the second phraselet by the piano is a private joke; years earlier when the previous trio rehearsed Hyperblue, Lois always used a gesture of that shape, rhythm and register in order to stop a runthrough to make comments and ask questions. In this musical context, then, you can imagine that the pianist may be confused about the first ugly phraselet that just happened and tries to stop the rehearsal and talk about it. In response, the strings cut their sawing gestures short as if to see what the pianist has to say.

What the pianist “says” is the long chord that ends the second phraselet. I absolutely fell in love with that chord. It's got a beautiful, rich, sonorous quality, and, as I hadn't realized at the time, acoustic reinforcement of the bass — it's a C major triad with D and C-sharp added. Note the dutiful, conservative voice leading approaching the chord, too — the repeated C-sharps in the bass pointing down to the C, and the chromatic line B-flat, B leading up to it; and it is C's first appearance in this register; similarly, the top two notes in the chord are approached by step in the strings. I probably rationalized the C in the bass with voice leading, and the rest of the chord as some sort of prolongation of what was in the strings. I did not know at this point that the chord was going to be important in the piece.

I was thinking of this music in this passage as introductory material, even though I wasn't sure just what it was that I was introducing, and as so often happens in introductions, the hamonic motion is glacially paced. Keeping the glacial harmonic motion, and the sense of introduction, I repeated the same chunk-chord gestures in the strings a few more times, around the same notes, with similar gestures in the piano. For no other reason than that anything worth doing once is doing twice, I ended the second group of phraselets with the same gorgeous chord as the first group, this time phrased like a sigh.

This time, owing to the rhythm and the voice leading, the gorgeous chord felt more like it facilitated a concluding cadence than a deceptive one, so it felt like a real sectional ending, possibly an end to the introduction. Well-trained, thoughtful composer that I am, I knew the next thing I had to do was to break out of this harmony, in order to “begin” the piece properly, and signal an end to the introduction.

But it didn't turn out that way. Dutifully, I did add legato, lyrical lines to the box of things that the strings know how to do; but I couldn't lose either the chunk-chord gesture nor that gorgeous chord, and twice again I found myself ending chunks of music with the gorgeous chord — the second time articulated like a stereotypical Stravinsky chordal articulation, together with a tritone substitution stolen from jazz.

By this point in the piece, I was aware that I had closed major phrase groups twice — perhaps three times — with the same chord, and now I really needed to go somewhere else harmonically, because this was getting ridiculous. So I put the piece down for a while to think about it (and about teaching first year theory, replacing the garage door, etc., etc.). During this time, I encountered Rhonda, the cellist, at Brandeis, and she asked how the piece was going. I told her that I'd written a lot of notes, but couldn't get the piece actually to go anywhere yet. She said, “It sounds like your piece has an attitude problem. In fact, I think that's what you should call it.” Not one to turn down a performer's request, I said I would, but didn't mean it. But after thinking about it for a while, I decided I could use the title, because that way I could have a sort of hook for the piece — or at least an interesting way for me to think about what I had already, and where to go next. Consequently, I was able to think of this misbehaving passage not as a bug, but as a feature. That's it — the first movement's attitude problem is harmony that moves very slowly, or not at all, despite a lot of sturm and drang on the surface.

Which meant I could, or even should, begin what I was now very clearly thinking of as the main body of the movement in exactly the wrong way: with the same chord and another sequence of frantic surface gestures.

Beginning the main movement after an introduction with the same harmony and gestures as the introduction probably struck me as a little perverse. Perverse is good, though, in moderation, and is especially good in this piece.

Clearly, though, I eventually had to stop starting and stopping, especially since all of the gestures were turning out to be short and of similar lengths. Eventually the music does become more continuous, but only after Lois's prized socked low notes go away for a while. In the next three or so minutes of music, the gorgeous chord is only heard incidentally a few times; the strings eventually start playing a composite lyrical long line, and the movement comes to a climax. I think the climax is strongly reminiscent of Bartok, if he had listened to too much Tower of Power in his youth.

See the baritone sax in the socked low notes in the piano's left hand and the squealing trumpets in the violin?

By this point I imagined that the listener — and performers — would be fatigued from hearing so many notes and so few different harmonies — I know I was. Indeed, the lack of significant harmonic movement made me think of the music a little like a hamster on a treadmill, forever running but not getting anywhere. So I ended the movement with a return to the opening harmony and gestures quite a bit slower, mimicking that fatigue; I think the Triple Helix understood the point of this return, as they perform this passage without vibrato and uninflected — they really do sound tired.

It made sense to begin the second movement attacca with a new chord of a markedly different quality; if I calculated correctly, the chord would feel like a big exhalation, a big relief, because we're finally in the section of our program where harmony moves. As an overlap, though, I had Lois pick up the repeated E-F-sharp figure in the violin part and turn it into an accompaniment figure to start her smooshy, romantic solo.

Obviously the piano bass note at the opening of the second movement could not be C (as in the gorgeous chord), since that would tend to defeat the impression that the harmony had finally moved.

When I wrote the first bar of the second movement, I hadn't thought yet what the “attitude problem” of the second and third movements might be. The simple metric modulation that I had used to get from the first into the second movement gave me the idea to have the three instruments proceed in different pulses, but to agree harmonically — the pulse disagreement is the attitude problem. In performance this tends to sound like extravagant rubato, which is fine with me. An additional idea was to have the piano accompaniment present for the whole movement, gradually slowing down from eighth notes to dotted halves and then speeding up. Predictably, when the piano slows to its longest pulse, the gorgeous chord is heard for the only time in the movement.

Rhonda gets her extremely high cello solo after the smooshy piano solo, and the piece proceeds as you would expect: the violin enters, all three play a while, the violin gets a solo, and the cello reenters. By then it was time for a transition to a fast movement, and it occurred to me that the way to do it was to have the lines agree in pulse again and start doing things together. You can see where that happens here; the piano doesn't catch on for another two bars.

In this rough-and-ready transition, all the parts speed up to sixteenth note triplets, and strings gradually slide back into the gestures and notes that opened the piece, except this time, because of the great speed, they sound frantic and more desperate—as if stuck in quicksand.

In other words, the piece was back in harmonic stasis, sounding even more desperate than before, and gave me a new picture of the gorgeous chord in which the harmony was now stuck: the gorgeous chord became a mysterious black hole, capturing the string players like flies onto flypaper, causing them to flap about frantically. I was reminded of an old Bill Irwin special on public TV where one of the running gags was that when he got close to one corner of the stage it would appear to be sucking him offstage; now when the string players get close to the opening chord, it appears to be sucking them in, requiring a heroic gesture from the piano for them to be freed.

I liked the idea of pianist as hero. Plus, a heroic gesture would necessarily be a dramatic one, the upshot of which would be a signal of the beginning of another movement.

At this point the simple two-note figure in the violin, together with the clearing of the murky quicksand texture should have the metephorical feeling of opening a window for the first time in spring after it has been closed for the whole winter—in other words, a feeling of clearing the air. In fact, at this point, I thought of the violin as a character in an air freshener commercial, where our blonde protagonist sniffs the air in ecstasy, life is beautiful, and nobody is ever going to hurt us again. But as you would expect, it soon turns out to be a revel without a clue.

Which is a good setup for a scherzo movement. I love writing scherzos for several reasons. First, it's fun writing fast music, especially when there are so few composers — especially composers of similar outlook and training — who seem able, or willing, to write truly whizbang fast music. Second, performers usually like to play fast music as long as it's gratefully written for the instruments and it makes them sound good. Third, with stuff flying by so fast it's fun and challenging to see what sort of rhythmic games I can get away with. By saying this music is scherzo music, I'm not saying anything about its form, just about a state of mind.

As scherzo music, it might as well live up to its name — hence the ideas for the “attitude problem” of this movement. I decided on two attitude problems happening simultaneously: flowing notes in a triple subdivision conflicting with and interrupted by articulated notes in a duple subdivision; and, scrupulously prepared climaxes that go unfulfilled. In fact, often it is these duple interruptions that prevent the climaxes from coming where they are supposed to.

The cello shortly joins the violin in the air freshener commercial. Now for the sake of the scherzo, I thought that of the strings as be so ecstatic that they'd eventually lose control and start tripping over themselves; which leads to the first unfulfilled climax. The ecstatic gestures eventually coalesce again, into the gorgeous chord and the strings get stuck, unable to move, as before. So the piano has to come to the rescue with another heroic gesture.

The immediate response of the strings to the piano is straight out of a cartoon — the harmonic disagreement is supposed to sound as if the strings have stars in their eyes from being slapped so hard. But since the slapping doesn't seem to take, the piano has to repeat the gesture, amplified this time with the “let's stop and talk about this” gesture from the very beginning of the work.

This is where the duple vs. triple rhythm attitude problem is first heard. The interruptions of the triplet stream by the duple notes become more invasive and obnoxious later in the piece.
After a few more exchanges between Lois and the strings, Lois is left by herself on the alternating E-F-sharp accompaniment figure as she was at the opening of the second movement. In fact, each rebeginning after this point begins with alternating E-F-sharp figures. Right after this, the group seems finally to catch a groove, but it is frustrated by the intrusion of the duple figures, and the music winds down and starts again.

Several times after this, this large-scale gesture is repeated: the piano is left by itself on an E-F-sharp figure, the music builds, and is thwarted from climaxing by various interruptions. One of the interruptions is a private joke: while writing this movement I met composer Daron Hagen for the first time and was listening to his music. I very much liked the fake swing music at the beginning of his opera Vera of Las Vegas and I used the feel of that music as one of the interruptive gestures in the next large segment:

The two gestures in swing eighths that diminuendo in the piano quote the feel of Daron's piece while using notes from another piece of mine.

There is another much longer passage, initiated again by E-F-sharp figures, which manages to continue and build, this time seeming to ignore the myriad interferences of the duple idea. In order to “resolve” the conflict once and for all, a real climax finally happens, and it is heard entirely in duple time—after which the duple villain disappears.

Note that Lois gets to sock her low notes here, and gesturally it's like Bartok hepped up on Tower of Power again.

At this point with both attitude problems “solved”, I figured it was time for a coda in which another old problem was dispensed with — that of the gorgeous chord. This coda begins as all the other re-beginnings in this movement do, with an E-F-sharp figure, and this time explicitly attached to the gorgeous chord.

But this time the chord feels defanged. There is no heroic gesture extracting the strings from the chord, just business as usual. And the coda which follows is so happy-go-lucky that it is as if nothing has happened. The strings glissando to harmonics, the piano keeps the sixteenth notes active, and eventually the piece simply ends understatedly, on the gorgeous chord.

You might note the the high D-flat of the piece's opening “moves” to D in the violin here at the same time the bass moves locally from C-sharp to C. That is there as a joke, as a red herring for future theorists who may read somewhere that there is voice-leading in my music.

I frankly don't know how a listener would receive this piece, whether exposed to the long narrative just presented, or innocent of it. I would hope that the successions of formal articulations are clear, and that the gestalt of the music is something like the gestalt I felt when writing it. And I would hope that on repeated hearings, the function—or at least the repetition—of the "gorgeous chord" would become clear. Beside all of that, I would presume any listener would bring experiences into a listening that I could never dream of (and therefore write for), might have some interesting things to say (or complain about), might find relationships in it of which I was unaware, or might simply get up and start dancing (which I would like). But one thing is clear — I am too close to the piece to tell you what it is. I can only say with any accuracy what it is made of.

N.B. The article ends with a preposition. You might be able to find an old live recording of the piece of you click on the "i" in "this".