Sunday, December 30, 2012

European artist residencies 1: Bogliasco

Earlier I mega-posted about artist residencies, most specifically the five (5!(five!)) I did the first year I ever did them. Since that year, I've had occasion to do some more residencies — lots more, actually. Twenty-four since that year, by any conservative count (or conservative duchess, for that matter). Of the residencies I wrote about in that post, I've been to MacDowell ten times now, to Yaddo seven times, and to VCCA six times in all. I reapplied to the Djerassi Foundation in 1996 or 1997 and was turned down — and I haven't reapplied to Bellagio, which, by the way, makes you wait at least ten years between residencies.

Pansoti — pasta in a nut cream sauce
But I have really, really, really loved the European residencies I have had the opportunity to take. For one, it's Europe, which means strange-looking money that's not all the same color and same size; it also means better and fresher food, some mysterious food, and the opportunity to use names for food that formerly lived only in language textbooks. And it means timidity out there in the real world as you slowly rehearse what you're going to say when you get to the register, and practice your "huh?" look as you're spoken to at a clip that wasn't on the language tapes.

When the street level passage is closed, use the underpass
The cohort at these residencies is far more international than at MacDowell, Yaddo, and VCCA. And at them you can try out your silly multilingual jokes on the cohort, if you have any (I always do). Italians found my use of the word acciugamano to be riproaringly funny. Mostly because it's not an actual word, and it's a pun on the Italian word for towel: asciugamano, which is a compound word meaning "dry hand". Acciugamano means "anchovy hand". Though some of the weirder jokes needed explaining, which kind of deflates them — such as noting that Night of the Iguana is from around the same time as its doppelganger Iguana Hold Your Hand.

Rim shot.

It is forbidden to cross the tracks
Incidentally. After a year at the American Academy in Rome, I forgot the English words for grapefruit and eggplant. That's how many of them I had.

So around the early part of this millennium, Marilyn Nonken up and decided I would be writing her a concerto. The way she expressed that was something like, "Davy, I'd like you to write me a concerto." She played in her own group ensemble 21 at the time, which had earlier gotten me a Koussevitzky commission to write for them, and naturally I thought she was referring to a chamber concerto, with, say, nine instruments at most in the band. I started thinking of three strings, three winds, percussion licks to go with a solo piano (I work fast when I'm alone), and luckily, and soon, Marilyn clarified: no, a concerto with orchestra. In fact, she took responsibility of pounding the pavement to get an orchestra to sign up.

And there I was, in the Casablanca restaurant in Harvard Square with Marilyn and Gil Rose — it was my first time in the restaurant, but there would be plenty more meetings happening there because Gil always decided the location — having the phat cheeseburger, and this is where Marilyn talked Gil into agreeing to program a Davyconcerto with BMOP, and where Gil decided that BMOP would apply to the Koussevitzky Foundation to commission it. Plus, he said it go on the 2007-8 season.

Bogliasco composer studio
Excellent, so Marilyn's nefarious plan was working. Whether or not the commission came through, I was going to write the piece (I mean, duh. Piano concerto. Orchestra. Marilyn), and I also recall having to supply scores and recordings for the application at the very last minute, after I had actually started the piece.

So I went to my old standby. I took the spring 2006 semester off from Brandeis in order to write the concerto in time for the 2007-8 season, meanwhile also saying yes for some other pieces .... Thus did I slave away in fall 2005 at multiple applications for artist residencies: VCCA (Dec 2005-January 2006), MacDowell (March-April 2006), Bogliasco (April-May 2006) and Yaddo (July-Aug 2006). Yeah, that was a lot of traveling and being away from my cats, but I was worth it. I'm always worth it.

Watson studio at MacDowell
At VCCA I had to write some incidental music for a Brandeis play and a hand drum piece for Michael Lipsey (finally I wrote something away from the piano!). With only a few days left to my residency, I then wrote études 69 and 70. I had six weeks at MacDowell, which I began by writing a silly titles article, plus études 71 and 72 for Don Berman, and then it was time to get down, get down, to brass tacks. I'd been thinking about the concerto for some time now, and there I wrote the first three movements. Woo hoo! says I.

I only had a little less than a week after MacDowell to prepare for the Bogliasco experience, so I used it wisely. I walked through the Assabet Wildlife Refuge, and played around with buzz magnets, which I had discovered at a store near MacDowell, and used as part of the closing gesture of the third movement (if you like banjo playing, don't click on the buzz magnets link).

Bogliasco is the name of the town that borders Genoa to the east, on the Mediterranean coast of Italy, and it's definitely a tourist-type seaside town. The place run by the Bogliasco Foundation is called the Liguria Study Center, and it is open for eight fellows at a time during the usual academic semesters, three five-week residency periods each semester. So I was catching the tail end of the spring semester, and at a great time in mid-spring when it's warming up and everything is blossoming. That's a big woo hoo, too, pardner. The residency is without cost, but you have to get there — you fly into Genoa airport, which is a relatively small one. The Foundation sends someone to the airport to bring you to the grounds, and brings you back when your stay is done.

Since there aren't any direct flights to Genoa from Boston, I changed planes in DeGaulle Airport, and that was fairly stress-free. Indeed, there was a long security line to get to where my gate was, but I found another security line downstairs that was deserted. This seems to be how things happen in Europe. I made my plane easily.

Shorefront Bogliasco foundation buildings
It was cool flying over some Alps on the way to Genoa, then going over some of the Appenines so close to the sea. The plane had to overshoot Genoa by a fair piece, and then gradually spiral down to land on the airport's one runway, built on landfill extended out over the sea, and parallel to the coast. And of course Bogliasco had sent Mr. Gregarious — all the residencies seem to have one of these — to pick me up. It was a  40-minute ride to the foundation through a lot of tunnels and tight curves — hey, did I mention the Appenines rise up pretty quickly from the coast? — and Mr. Gregarious engaged me in a simple conversation, in Italian, about the area and other stuff. Of course, the terrain was quite hilly at the Foundation, and the driveway in very narrow with tight curves. He carried my suitcase into my — gorgeous! — room, and when it dropped on the floor it started ticking.

My metronome. I am reasonably glad that didn't go off in the airport or when being handled by baggage people.

View from my veranda towards downtown Bogliasco
And, wow. The views were spectacular. I had a private room with a bath, a study, and my own veranda with a view south toward the Mediterranean. I immediately e-mailed Beff to try and get her to come for how ever many days she could carve out of her academic schedule, even if she could only stay two days, that's how crazy beautiful it was. I even sent her this movie of my digs. Of course, Beff couldn't by any stretch of the imagination do it. But maybe one of these years.

So the Foundation has several building carved out of the town of Bogliasco, including a large mansion on the sea, a large building for administration and groundskeeping, a grotto underneath the mansion, various lovely paths out over the sea, and ... further up into the Appenines, two sizable villas, gardens, a tennis court, and, just above the tennis court, the composer's studio. Also, on the way to the composer's studio, the two-level artist's studio. In between them — flowers. It was April.

"Davy cleans up real good"
The structure of the residency was thus: breakfast items would be left out in the morning in the villa where the composer and artist stayed; there was a Saeco coffee maker there that got the job done with no fuss. Lunch was at two locations: the four artists in the villas up the hill gathered in my villa, and the writers staying in the mansion had a parallel lunch there. For dinner, we were compelled to dress nicely, those of us coming in from up the hill saw this when we entered the grounds, and we all gathered at a glass table and were served dinner, dessert, and wine, followed by aperitifs. There was a drinks cupboard that was always open so we could gather beforehand and look sophisticated by having a drink in our hand. So on the first night I met the rest of the cohort: living in the mansion were an historian from Duke University and her writer husband (yes, Bogliasco lets you bring your spouse); a translator from Russia working on an Italian-Russian dictionary; an historian from Vanderbilt University; and a columnist for the Times of India. Living up there in artistville were, in my villa, me and a sculptor from northern Italy; and in the other villa, a filmmaker from Ireland and a curator from Milan. Some of the other fellows had brief visits by their spouses. Otherwise, there was plenty of working and walking around time.

Bogliasco town beach and train tracks and the Appenines
I got to work pretty quickly and had early days — in fact, the sculptor noted to others how I was in my studio working by 8 every morning — that's normal for me at residencies. And since it was spring, around 9 every morning there was an explosion of bird calls near the big window of my studio. In fact, I started noticing a lot of the individual bird calls and how different they were from the American bird sounds I knew so well.

The outer movements of this concerto were planned to be big ones, and both with slow introductions to fast movements. Because each was based on an étude from the Marilyn chronicles (first movement was repeated notes and the last scales) — the plan was for both slow introductions to have the same harmonic plan and voice-leading, from which in I. the repeated notes are extracted and developed, and in IV. the scales are extracted and developed. Woo hoo! I already knew the first note, and as a challenge I was going to try to imitate, in a way that gives tribute, the opening of Gusty Thomas's Ceremonial — a solo clarinet line that splits apart into counterpoint, eventually birthing a bunch of crunchy chords. I had tried to do that in II., but I got distracted. This time I got it to work. I marked in Con Gusty. In a few days I had written the slow intro, gotten it to speed up, and readied the allegro. I saw that it was ... well, at least it wasn't stupid.

On one of those hikes in the hills
Confident that the work was going well, and with the weather getting progressively warmer, I started taking frequent walks. The walk into town was only five minutes, so I did that pretty quickly. The hills around our villas were steep, and the area had been inhabited for so long that stairs and trails and the like had been built into almost all of the hills, so that we could take lots of hikes that would be different each time. The curator and the filmmaker and I took a good number of them just after we would lunch, or in the middle of the afternoon.

On one fine warm day, we got ambitious and kept going higher and higher to see if the built-up part — trails and stairs — ever ran out. And yes, it did, and we were still maybe a quarter mile short of the peak of the hill. Then we looked behind us and saw that we were truly pretty high up there. And we took pictures. And movies.

Meanwhile, the concerto movement was going as well as could be expected. Writing really fast stuff destined for Marilyn — shooting fish in a barrel. I recall how proud I was of the octave cadence on E after the first big round of scales. Patted myself on the back, I did. The string parts, though — fiendishly hard. As Gil would note repeatedly in rehearsals.

And it turns out string sections doing repeated notes — don't at all recall piano repeated notes, as in the first movement. That's both good and bad, and sometimes it's both, but it's never cranky.

A week into the residency, we were taken by Alessandra, the Associate Director, on a tour of Genoa; this involved riding buses, being shown what might have been Christopher Columbus's house, now surrounded by a sea of vespas, various museums, a walk on the street of palaces that Goethe had called the most beautiful in the world (obviously Goethe didn't get out much, and now most of the palaces are stores or businesses), a few visits to incredibly gorgeous churches, and a special insider's tour of an old monastery not ordinarily open to the public. Now there's a woo hoo for you.

As the weather got nicer, post-dinner became walks into town or walks away from town to a bar that turned out to be at the head of the Passaggietta del Mare. Whoa, a long wide path directly on the sea more than a mile long and businesses, and views, and oh my. This changed everything. My daily exercise now included walking the Passaggietta or hiking the hills, or walking into town, or all of them. Nice.

The cohort became familiar enough that we could talk about anything, and even share multilingual jokes. One of us taught the Italian curator her first English multilingual joke, which was really funny in an Italian accent: why do the French have only one egg at breakfast? Because in France, one egg is un oeuf. It's much less funny in Italian. Perchè i francesi mangiano solamente un uovo per la prima colazione? Nella Francia, un uovo è basta! You could make an aria out of that. But you wouldn't want to.

And sometimes at lunch we were silly enough to make movies like this one.

the view from my room at night was nice, too
So then I had to write some apeshit music for while the piano was silent, so that it could feel like something was breaking and the piano could rescue it. So I did that. Then I wrote a brief tantrum for the piano, and started dissolving so the toy piano could have its solo. When the piano and toy piano play together, I used the marking va scimmiamerda, or "go apeshit".

And right around then I got an e-mail from Michael Kirkendoll, a graduate student in piano at the University of Kansas, asking for a piece for flute and two pianos, and we'll go inside the piano, anything! I said okay, and that was just another thing on my plate for when I got to ... Yaddo! Woo hoo! So of course I started putting imagined licks for that weird ensemble in the back of my mind. That's just what happens.

Then I finished with the toy piano stuff and got to a great place to put a cadenza. A cadenza! My first piano cadenza! Not a credenza, mind you, which would just be silly. This was fun. Marilyn was thinking she might want to write her own cadenza, and I said, sure, okay (I said it in the score, too), so I didn't know if whatever I would write would even be played. And I recall knocking my head against the walls for three days while writing the cadenza and trying to get in all the materials from the rest of the piece. My head was fine. The cadenza turned out to be fantastic. It brought the orchestra back in so cool and nicely that I wrote the ending music — some of it recapped from earlier with that hard string writing — in about an hour. And then, and then ...

So I'd finished what I came there to do with four or five days left to my residency. What was I going to do? Ah, an idea! I'll start the piano quintet that I promised the Stony Brook Contemporary Players. I worked on that for a day, and at the end of the day it turned out to suck really, really big ones. So I discarded it. I tried another idea for piano quintet. It sucked slightly smaller ones, but they were still reasonably big.

Then I remembered the birds. And the birdsongs. Which were denser still every morning at 9. If I'm going to write a piece with a flute, and maybe a piccolo, too, to go along with (eww) two pianos, I could maybe make it about birds. Yeah, that's the ticket. So after lunch I took a chair and a piece of music paper to various parts of the grounds and started transcribing the local birdsongs, to the best of my ability. All with the idea of using them as the materials for that piece. And so that I did. (This movie has a lot of Bogliasco bird sounds in it, and my favorite was the one you hear just as the second big door is being opened) In July and August, when I was at Yaddo, I took out the transcribed birdsongs and used about four or five of them as various materials, and I called the piece Gli Uccelli di Bogliasco. Wow. And here's what it sounded like when it was played in November 2006. At 3:40, those are the birds outside my studio.

I recall Mike actually had more than half a head, but I may be wrong. And I thought it might have been the lower half that he had.

The time of the residency was coming to an end, and we all said our goodbyes and went out to the pub some more — where we also used an Italian delicacy called ketchup for our fries — and our end was marked by a gorgeous full moon over the Mediterranean, easy to capture from the window in my bedroom.

But then I realized that the concerto was not actually finished.

There was dreamed music in the concerto — what I had dreamed a boombox was playing to keep distant lions from charging — and that music had had a life in the first two movements, and was even referenced in the cadenza. My ending was pretty safe, as they say on Project Runway.

But in the front of the mansion were these two really tired lions. I had come there to work on a piece that had lion music in it, and here I encountered these tired lions. I had to acknowledge that in the piece somehow, even if it meant ending with a non sequitur. So I tacked the lion chords onto the ending, docile this time.

The end.

And people either love that ending, or hate it to pieces. Excellent, Mozart. You're coming along.

I was given a ride to the airport by Mr. Gregarious, and we had a different elementary Italian conversation. This time the change of flights at DeGaulle was very stressful, but I made it back. And I now had a finished 35-minute piano concerto. What did I write next? For the next two months, nothing. And boy did that feel good. And then, at Yaddo, I wrote not one, but two fifteen minute pieces plus a piano étude in five weeks. For you see, artist colony time is not the same as human time.

Later, the Koussevitzky commission came through, so I was actually paid to write the piece. Woo hoo!

Here's a Spotify link to the Bogliasco movement of the piano concerto, and here is a link to a scan of the sketch. Now behave.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Santa's twelves

Every year the parents opened Christmas Club accounts for us kids. Or maybe it was just one Christmas Club account, for me. Every week of the year, I was given fifty whole cents to deposit — half a buck! — in my very own account, with the reward that at the end of the year, I had accumulated 25 bucks — 25 1966 smackeroos! — or 1967 smackeroos — of 1968 smackeroos — to spend freely on Christmas presents for the family! I suppose the bank marketed the Christmas Club accounts as, among other things, ways to teach kids how slow and steady investing grows actual wealth and all. What I got out of it, though, was free money. Also, the bank got a pile of cash it could invest and not pay interest on.

Thus did I have an average of 5 bucks to spend for Christmas presents for each family member. And I almost always did all my shopping at once at one of those secret code catalogue stores that used to proliferate in those parts. You went into the store, picked up a catalogue, and looked at the available items. Maybe five percent of what was available was actually on display in the store, one of each item, and surrounded by lots of space — it was quite an antiseptic feeling inside. You shopped sight unseen (very amazon dot com except thirty or so years earlier), though they always had everything in the catalogue in the secret (presumably) gigantic back room.

And the catalogue had secret code. The price listed under each item was not what you actually paid. You had to be smart enough to know that in the secret Helvetica Narrow Extra Bold gobbledygook at the bottom of each entry was your price. Hence, your item would be listed at $12.99, and the code would read XHC194783PB979. Your price: $9.79. It was Dick Tracy-style sleuthing. Even though there was a big sign in the front of the store that explained the secret code, with the number circled in red and "This is what you pay!" in a handwriting font.

And almost every year I settled on a cheap music box to give to mom. The $7.99 XCH3779483BX559. Which was close to my budget. It was a cheap plaster of Paris thing, hastily painted, with generic looking happy people on a disc that rotated when the music box played. You started it by turning those happy people clockwise a few turns, then standing back, and oohing and aaahing as the magic unfolded. Mom always opened it, ooohed and aahed, played it once, and then it lived out of sight, where I would play it maybe twice during the year before it seemingly disappeared without anyone noticing.

One of those music boxes played Edelweiss, whose title I didn't know at the time (until someone later in the year said, and here's how I heard it, "Hey, that's Aydel Vice.") Later the girl's chorus in elementary school would sing it in concert, and I wasn't expecting it, since on the program it said, and here's how I thought it was pronounced, eddel wice.

It never occurred to me exactly how the music box worked. You just spin the generic people, and they make generic music, and they never get dizzy.

So imagine my surprise — and delight — when my father brought home a little cylinder operated by a tiny crank, attached to a piece of metal with slits cut into it. When you turned the cylinder, it played — like a music box! Duh. It was a music box. It just didn't have the hastily painted happy people who don't get dizzy interface.

And now I could see what was under the front end: pimples in the cylinder essentially plucked the metal slits, each of which was tuned to a particular note. The faster you cranked, the faster the music went, and you could make it go all wonky and uneven, and you could even make it go backwards, and ... well, of course, the first thing I figured out was that music boxes had the same slitted pieces of metal, and it was the cylinder that changed for a new song. My state of mind briefly went from music box consumer to music box engineer. Although that never did anything for me in the long run, and I was hungry. And, most likely, wet.

It didn't have to be a cylinder, either. Bob Ceely, my first composition teacher, has a bigass music box from the Victorian era that plays 18- or 20-inch discs with pimples on them. Being that the player is bigass, the slitted metal can be longer and thus has an actual low register. And obviously the people who manufactured the discs with songs on them were at the front of the gravy train on the economic end of that device (past the original point of sale). And if I had the patience to figure out the rules for where to put the pimples on the disc to play at a certain prescribed time, I could have been on that gravy train. Except that I was born half a century after that market collapsed.

What brought all these silly memories rushing back was hearing Edelweiss a few nights ago as Beff was watching The Sound of Music on TV. And it occurred to me, for the first time (since I don't ever think about that song otherwise), that the opening three note pattern of the tune— rising minor third followed by rising perfect fifth —is the same as the incipits of Close to You, Pure Imagination, and On A Clear Day. Update (thanks to Kenneth Sears for noting it) and What The World Needs Now.

Knowing that doesn't necessarily make you smart (although it made an exception in my case). But it can and does lead to fun nerdgames like switching the beginning words of all the songs willy-nilly, and even following through by moving all the lyrics of one song into the tune of another one.

Or like shifting the syllables of Take Me Out to the Ball Game by phasing them — starting the song on its second syllable, for instance — for instant nerdy fun. Not to mention, then the song is then forced to end on the leading tone ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Bwa ha ha ha ha ha!

Thank you, one sentence Italic paragraph guy.

It also occurred to me in that nerdly way that Edelweiss is different from the other three in one important way: it begins on the song's metric accent, whereas in the other three, the first two syllables are upbeats to the stressed third syllable, which carries the metric accent. Which means, of course, that there's less sleight of hand available when substituting lyrics — but possibly compensating by being funnier still. Go ahead — sing Come with me and you'll be in a world of pure imagination to the tune of Edelweiss. You won't regret it (at least not until you're 65). Now to the tune of Close To You. Now On a Clear Day. This is how to become a hastily painted happy person that doesn't get dizzy.

So why is it so cool knowing all this stuff? Or is it cool knowing all this stuff at all? I dunno. It mostly resonates with others who value the same sort of nerdliosity that I value. Which is why the nerdlious tend to stick together.

The same people who get all nerdly over those things also enjoy knowing that the opening three notes of Marian the Librarian is the retrograde inversion of the opening phrase of Density 21.5. Bwa ha ha! Seriously, now that I know that, what do I do? I imagine to most people, this is what a conversation among C++ programmers would sound like to me.

Okay, so when I was a consumer of cheaply painted music boxes, I didn't need to know what was going on under the Undizzy. And as a consumer of music, I don't care that those four five openings are the same.

But when I started turning myself into DavyComposer, I shonuff had to figure out just how it was that music worked, in order to write music that at least made sense. Even if it sucked rocks. Even if rocks were sucked by it. Even if the list of what it sucked began with rocks. Somewhere I have a solo trombone piece I wrote when I was maybe ten or eleven. The only thing I can say about it is that there is the correct number of notes and rests in each bar. Otherwise, it doesn't even make sense. On the other hand, I wasn't trying to compose. I was just writing stuff down.

Oh, sure. I knew about chords and rhythms and all that stuff, and I could play a Fake Book admirably. And I knew a few classical pieces. But it took a while for me to figure out what the good ways were to organize the notes so that they made sense as music. Naturally, I poured through a bunch of music theory textbooks, and I found out things about different scales, and leading tones, and all. I also had developed my ears enough to figure out some of the cool sounds in the more mod pieces I'd played in band (parallel sharp-nine chords? What a great idea! That is now my idea! Worship me!)

And one of those textbooks (as they all tend to do nowadays) had a brief glossing over of more recent developments in how music is put together. Naturally, as I was a budding composer whose music either imitated slavishly or made no sense, these more recent developments interested me greatly.

In particular, I remember the brief explanation of the rules for composing with twelve tones related only to one another. It wasn't called that in the textbook — it was called twelve-tone composition, and the rules were easy to remember. And my still-tiny (even to this day) brain enjoyed the calisthenics of doing exact inversions and retrogrades and all.

I knew nothing (or more accurately, I was acutely unaware) of phrasing and cadences and all, but apparently I didn't need to: that wasn't part of the method. I could apparently stop and start as I wanted, and use my innate ... my innate ... okay, my innate ignorance at this point ... to guide how the stream of notes that the method was giving me (I should have written how the stream of notes that the method was shitting out at me) would be expressed in time. Note how I did not say would be expressed musically.

And so I wrote my first, now lost, twelve-tone piece. It was a short piece in three movements for three clarinets, called Intrada, for three clarinets. It was never performed, and I'm pretty sure it didn't make a lick of sense musically. But I got some chops out of it. And I got to write some truly weirdass things, like all three clarinets having a grace note into a rest. At least I learned the discipline of inverting and retrograding. And, me being me (how could it be any other way?), I immediately applied that discipline to writing out Happy Birthday inverted, and to learning how to sing it backwards.

So in the year I spent in Rome (1995-96), I got to hang a little for a few days with George Rochberg and his wife when George was there for some performances by Sally Pinkas at the American Academy. I lent him an umbrella, and I also ordered dried prunes for him at the local deli (he thought he didn't have enough Italian to do it on his own, but he had to tell me the Italian word for prunes — I asked for prugni secchi, and guess what I got? Dried prunes!) He told a few great stories about his time in Rome in the early 1950s, including when he finally gave in and adopted (and he spoke it in Italics) the method. Because apparently all the cool kids were doing it. I already knew — since the story was in all the music history textbooks I'd ever seen — that 20 years later he made a clean and very public break with the method. It's amazing how he was able to speak in Italics.

What's so amazing about that?

Pipe down, one sentence Italic paragraph guy.

Since that happened before being born was done by me (and my progenitors), we only have the stories of them what were there to corroborate what was happening then, and of course they vary wildly depending on fading memories, axes to grind, and rain in which to sing. This was, as they called it, a time of international serialism, and a) it represented a clean aesthetic break with a corrupt world that could get us into WWII b) it was liberating in the extreme c) it was pointlessly artificial and took complexity too seriously as a feature rather than as a bug d) it was a great method for inveterate puzzle solvers e) it represented a possible new lingua franca for composers and audiences given the demise of tonality f) nobody actually cared about it g) everybody cared about it h) you had to care about it to get stuff i) lots of truly glorious music was written in the method (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Dallapiccola, Berio, Stockhausen, Boulez, Babbitt, Martino ...) j) the worst dreck imaginable was written in the method. And, just as Nixon, having spent a whole career as a fervent anti-Communist was the most appropriate person to open the US up to mainland China in the 70s, some of the most accomplished composers in the method were the perfect ones to break free from it. Hey, listen to the first movement of Rochberg's second symphony — it's terrific. Despite the silly this is my twelve-tone set laid out for you as a tutti opening.

I suspect there were a lot more layers to the alphabetical narrative above, not the least of them the beginning of the awarding of PhDs to composers in 1967 and the requisite explaining that composition is like research only different to University administrators.

And so after my little experiments in twelve-tone composition (I wrote a lot of Hindemith style fugues, too), I entered college (Conservatory!) at the long tail of the method. I encountered that long tail in two ways: composers five to fifteen years older than me who would universally characterize their music as a mild, semi-violent, or violent reaction to what their teachers told them they had to do; and some pretty hot shit twelve-tone music that I totally loved. Indeed, there were legions of not the method composers, more willing to chraracterize what it is they were not rather than what it is they were. And meanwhile, I didn't think I had enough chops yet to write seriously in the method. So I farted around with silly putty-like manipulations of groups of pitches. What did I know about making musical phrases with those groups of pitches? Not a thing.



And so in them so-called formative (so-called because that's what they were) years, I was exposed to lots of cool music without tonal centers. I presumed most, if not all, of it used the method, because, well, you know, just because. In particular, I really got attached to Notturno and Triple Concerto by Donald Martino — and not just because he happened to be on the faculty of the very school I was attending to learn how to be a composer. It was visceral, on the edge, colorful, exciting music that spoke to me. The phrasing was clear, and there was an expert sense of pacing; there was clear voice-leading and directionality to the phrasing; the harmony made perfect sense, even though there was nary a recognizable sonority in any of it; and — especially — the way the instrumental color shifted so boldly, so mercurially, so kaleidoscopically was something I wanted to steal. The idea of creating giant composite gestures out of a great group of instruments, and thus creating weird and scary superinstruments — cool beyond belief.

And so, like many composers almost exactly my age, I imitated it. Without anything near the finesse, panache, and phrasing. But it was a start. How would I get the notes to work right, though? It seemed my silly putty pitch groups were running out of cool things to give me.

So in graduate school, I landed in Method Central. I read the articles that laid the groundwork for the method — The Source Set and its Aggregate Formations, Wintle's article on Semi-Simple Variations ... okay, too much new stuff to keep up with the silly putty metaphor, and wow. The machinations one could do conceptually with notes while keeping within a closed system were pretty cool. I could see how a lot of people could — and did — get obsessed with the machinations alone, sometimes even quitting composition altogether. I wish it had occurred to me to offer them some silly putty.

Phrasing in groups of all twelve notes — well, it had its ups and downs. I was writing pretty chromatic music that my older grad school colleagues presumed used the method (as one of them put it in a highly superior tone, "That's all you're doing, right? Arpeggiating the same cluster over and over?"), but no. However, two particular abstract concepts in the molehill-turned-mountain of writings about the method were intruiguing and interesting to a silly putty composer: all-combinatorial hexachords, and derivation.

All-combinatorial hexachords are, to put it briefly, six-note collections that both transpose and invert into themselves and into their complements (yeah, I know. zz-zzz). Everyone in 08544 were gaga about those properties. I just liked the way they sounded. I could get good tunes by arpeggiating the hexachords; and they sounded great as chords. And there are only six, classified alphabetically, of which my favorite were B (diatonic pentachord plus the minor third), C (diatonic hexachord), D (two 3-note clusters a tritone apart) and E (two augmented triads a half step apart).

Derivation was simply, as I understood it at the time, combining a trichord with one if its inversions to make one of them there all-combinatorial hexachords. It seemed that that ball got rolling with the Webern Op. 24 (a piece I despised because it was artlessly obvious so much of the time) — the row for the piece is a particular trichord followed by one each of its possible the method transforms (in this case, RI, R, I). But I liked thinking about that trichordal derivation thing as somewhat analagous to the common chord in a common chord modulation — A minor, formerly the ii chord in G major, now functions as the vi in C major, the new key after the modulation. Well, Webern's set is a Type E hexachord (the two augmented triads a half step apart, and it sounds scrummy as a chord) and if the second trichord is C#-C-A (the inversion), the hexachord derived is Type A (a chromatic cluster, and not a driven personality type).

Thus did these two things bring out the puzzle-solver in me: I knew how to modulate, in a manner of speaking, from one kind of harmonic color to another using common trichords. Is that all there is to music? Well, of course not. And neither is a common chord modulation simply about recontextualizing the old ii as the new vi. After all, I'm the new me, and that can't be taken lightly.

Thus did my compositional thinking evolve largely into articulating the full chromatic in a systematic/non-systematic kind of way. I had a closed system of relationships — a pool with stepping stones, shall we say — and I had rules for how you could get from one to any other. Cool!

But what the hell does that all have to do with music?

I see your point, one sentence Italic paragraph guy. Just like tonal composers might take a chord progression and solve puzzles by varying it or stretching it out, or take a motive and develop it by stretching the intervals or reharmonizing it — that's just part of the scaffolding — or internal music box machinations — that helps the composer write. That all gets taken down when the structure is complete. I liked having my available notes right there, and then having complete freedom with rhythm, phrasing, texture, and all. After all, I started this all by wanting to steal Martino's licks, and make composite gestures and superinstruments with them. And so I did, and so I ... so I ...

So you got tired of the complete chromatic and got freer with how you chose harmony!

Well, I guess you could say that (I already have said that in other posts on this blog). Even though my puzzle-solving was pretty rigorous, I often felt the musical need to use smaller chords than a six-note chords, or add extra notes to a chord the way you add flour to gravy to get the affect I wanted. And voice-leading became more of a going thing, and, and, then, and then ...

Well, okay. I did hang around a few people who were into the method in a big way, and I can only imagine how they gushed on and on about it in lessons with Milton Babbitt. Some of these guys (and they were all guys) were hardcore. I recall a lunch at the Annex Restaurant in Princeton with Milton, where one of the hardcores from an earlier era was in town and sitting at a nearby table, and the hardcore came over to chat. He said he'd discovered [three paragraphs of description that may as well have been in Sanskrit], and it all fits together without cheating! Without cheating.

With. Out. Cheating.

Davy, you just said you were a cheater.

I never knew he actually knew my name.

I never knew you knew my gender.

I'm pretty sure that whatever Sanskrit was happening in that conversation never actually made it into a piece of music. Because, you know, what would be the point? No music ever could be as cool as something that you can do without cheating.

Yes, I was a cheater. But then again, I didn't aspire to steal Martino's notes. I only wanted the superinstruments. And the gestures. And the unfailing sense of timing. Okay, and the voice leading. It turns out the notes were his business, not mine. I was just the consumer cum thief.

So several times after graduate school I had the pleasure of hearing Martino speak about his music. Actually, I think I heard pretty much the same lecture every time, especially the part where he talked about how he wrote Notturno. And that part went something like ...
I noodled around a bit and came up with a tune I liked, and it had all twelve notes. It became a set I worked with. I noticed that the last note was a perfect fifth higher than the first note. So I was working with a circle of fifths, and by continuing in this manner with the first note of the new set overlapping with the last one of the previous set, every overlapping note would be a perfect fifth higher than the last one, and eventually I'd traverse all 12 pitch classes and get back organically to the first one.
Ah, a composer talking about the scaffolding. The secret code! Do go on.
And that became one structural section. I did different things for the next section, and of course the circle of fifths comes back loosely retrograded as way to close off the first movement.
This all sure did sound familiar as a way of proceeding. Thing is — I didn't hear or care about the circle of fifths thing. That's not how the music goes. How it goes is the flute hands off a nervous line to another instrument, and at a cadence there is a tremulous sound feeling foreboding and implying more yet to come, and the flute comes back in a more timid way, and, and ...

The scaffolding is not the music. It's the composer's way into the music, and even other composers such as myself who love the music don't get a single thing from learning about that part of the process.

And so — how composers get their notes is their business. I can get down and dirty with the pitch class set crowd, but how did you get this note? is almost always the furthest thing from my mind when I am teaching an advanced composer. And yes, I have taught composers who told me they were writing using the method, and never have I cared about what set or what transformation is happening when. If something doesn't work, I say it doesn't work and ask them to fix it. Explanations of but, but, but, this set and this transformation is structurally important is as convincing as students saying their dog ate their homework. The music and the picture of the music are not the same thing. The concert hall is not the classroom.

Oops, metaphor overload. Backing up.

So it turns out I did write one more piece using the method, for fun, and I did it mostly without cheating. And I pretty much stole the method of using the method that Uncle Milton used in his second string quartet (an early favorite) — unfold a set, break it into its constituent parts, derive different stuff with those constituent parts, and eventually build the set back up. Eventually all sections (trumpets, trombones, saxes) have their own trichordal derivations in parallel in a double fugue (!) and the rhythm section recaptures the set. Why else would I call it Overderive? Don't answer that. I will. It's because I'm hastily painted and never get dizzy. Except for vertigo once in a while.

And by the way. It was for the Brandeis jazz ensemble, in 1985, with considerable badassery by Ross Bauer putting it together.

This is a 12-tone piece tells me nothing about it if I know nothing about the composer. And look! it's a naked music box apparatus! tells me nothing about what song it's going to play. Nope, I don't use the method. But damn, I sure learned a lot by studying pieces that do.

And when I teach undergraduate composition, one of the units is always the method. Explaining the method is easy, especially since I can leave out all the fancy stuff you can do without cheating. What I love is the attitude of the students once they've spent time working with the method; most of them find it dull, boring, pointless and stupid. But a few — always at least a few — find it liberating. And occasionally, one or two of them will say that in their final project they got some of their ideas from the sounds they created when working with the method.

And by the way. To end with a non sequitur; my music is very chromatic, but tonal. It's up to you to prove otherwise. Use whatever method you want to do that.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

My stand-up (The Big Easy 3)

Hey! I never knew this was on YouTube until today. And it happened two and a half years ago at the L.A. Convention of the Music Teachers Association of California, on July 4(!). See The Big Easy and The Big Easy Part 2 for my notes on writing for young performers, as well as the performance video that apparently preceded my stand-up.

For the record, the Étude-Fantasies, which is/are/be published by Peters, is my best selling piece.

The 3:00 show is completely different from the 1:00 show.