Saturday, February 13, 2016

And then I was anthologized

Yes, anthologized. Whenever I think of the word anthology, I think of the e.e. cummings poem quoted in this article. What rhymes with anthologist? Well, gist. And mist and missed and du bist, and tryst and list, and, and, and ... 

So the fourth edition of Steve Laitz's The Complete Musician (Oxford University Press) textbook is being rolled out, and it features an anthology of music used in the text, plus some other pieces with piercing study questions. I'm not aware that there is much in the way of analysizationness of the later music in the anthology. And the living composers tucked in at the end are Sam Adler, John Corigliano, Joan Tower, Tan Dun, me, and Gusty Thomas. Woo hoo! That order isn't random: it goes by date of birth. Which makes me the penultimately youngest composer in it. What rhymes with penultimately? Well, ultimately. And ately, though that's not a word.

The prose in the actual textbook is quite good, and the organization and splainin' of concepts very, very good. I've been saying I would use this textbook for Theory 1 when it came out only because my music is in it. As it turns out, I think I'll use it for Theory 1 because it is so very good. And have I mentioned that my music is in it?

It also turns out that on the first of the two pages talking about my pieces, my name is spelled three different ways, including the correct one. Though just to be helpful to OUP, I might start using the other two on occasion.

Incidentally, the two pieces are the 84th and 85th piano études. That makes them consecutive.

When this was being assembled, I was asked by Steve to do a substantial piece analyzing or otherwise talking about the two études. And it did take me some time, since I don't write about music, and I certainly don't write about my music other than liner notes and program notes. Of course, writing about your own music is like Photoshopping your own picture — I always end up with hair, and oh, what happened to that big forehead wrinkle? So I thought those notes would be included in the anthology, but mostly they were referenced by Steve's study questions. Firstly, though. Karl Larson's premiere performances of them from so long ago, thanks to YouTube. I blogged about making the trip to Mass MOCA to record this performance here. Of all the YouTube videos made with an iPod Nano, these are two of them.

And now with all that in mind, here is the silly text that I wrote on this assignment. Yes, the pieces are related — did you notice both starting on repeated Ds and ending with low C# and high D and E? Now you did.


What’s Hairpinning and Diminishing Return are part of a series of a hundred études for piano that I composed from 1988 to 2010. The études started out as compositional respites —playgrounds where I could monkey around with ideas and play games with notes when I was stuck in a larger piece.  They were little obsessive pieces designed to cultivate compositional spontaneity, in contrast to the larger pieces, which took a lot of thinking and planning, and lots of revising.

I set up four rules for étude-writing: composition time is limited to six days (because that’s how long it took to write the first one); they are obsessive about one thing, which is stated on the score; there is no a priori formal design; and revision is not allowed (only restarting the composition is allowed). The rules encouraged a sort of seat-of-the-pants compositional thinking that I found refreshing, and which affected my thinking in larger pieces. A lot of the études tended to follow a simple formal arc of expositional music, developmental music, and a crisis (an accumulation of texture, notes, and/or dynamics that create tension and a need for an explosive resolution) that spawns a kind of return. Both What’s Hairpinning and Diminishing Return follow that design.

The études, too, presented me with the opportunity to develop a way of thinking harmonically (through trial and error) that eventually brought me to a lot of what hipsters like to call jazz chords (I have a clarinet quintet entitled Take Jazz Chords, Make Strange), and I grew to love and embrace the open, third-saturated sonorities in particular voicings because they sound great on the piano. Plus there is a wide palette within such sonorities of degrees of perceived dissonance, and they tend to be very suggestive of a harmonic direction, of a place to go next. I have never used so-called jazz chords functionally (it’s more fun to make them strange), but at times it has felt like I was inventing new functions for familiar chords — old wine in new skins. Both the pieces at hand are rife with jazz chords, not the least among them the big cadential chord of Hairpinning in bar 56 and the sharp chords in Diminishing at bar 61.

In this space, I am wearing two hats: I am playing the role both of composer and of theorist; they are very different animals. As composer, I invent a kind of maze and discover a path through it that makes sense to me at one particular point in time; as theorist, I step back and get a third person aerial view of my former self making the maze and the path through it, and I try to make decisions about how I made decisions. I rarely remember anything about the actual act of composing except for intentions going in. Since the point of writing the études was to cultivate spontaneity, it is likely that at least some of what Rakowski-theorist is telling you about this music concerns creative decisions that were intuited rather than deeply considered (or at least Rakowski-composer thought he intuited them). In performing them, in listening to them, and in analyzing them, though, there is little point in making a distinction between the two. That wall is porous.

Also note that I use the words breathe and cadence in the ensuing text. These pieces clearly hew to the tension-and-release model, and they breathe like living organisms. Cadences (cadere, to fall) are for me where there is an arrival, an exhalation, a release of tension, which are accomplished in several ways: an accumulation of texture to a goal moment, a slowing of harmonic rhythm, a voice-leading goal achieved, or a number of other ways. Cadences are also hierarchical: some are weaker than others, and feel like places to breathe that are on their way to stronger cadences, which may articulate structural points. 

I consider thee two pieces to be a related pair. Both open with repeated D4s, and both end with the same sonority of C#1 D4 E5.  They both hang on to the repeated Ds for a significant portion of the piece before a thickening of texture and increase in dynamics create a kind of crisis and pushes them out; they both expand registrally in a slow and deliberate way; and in both the harmonic rhythm is slow to start, and much faster in the developmental music.

What’s Hairpinning’s premise is of strands of equal repeated notes with dynamic swells (a sort of appropriation of the pulsing chords common in Adams and Reich); the strands can go at different speeds simultaneously. The strands also swell independently, sometimes making a counterpoint of as many as four different swelling voices. The effect is that of a slow, pretty chorale that thickens and thins, with a kind of out-of-focus melody outlined by the notes emerging in the swells. The hairpinning of the title also applies to the way the texture hairpins from one to as many as six voices and back several times in the piece.

The piece seems to consist of three large breaths followed by a final exhalation — or three sections and a coda, articulated by large-scale swells. Each of those swells starts with a single voice and expands to four, five, or six voices, and recedes back to one voice. Each mains section is more complex than the previous one, meaning that what I call the crisis moment (the moment of maximum textural thickness and dynamic complexity) ends the third one.

The first section spans mm. 1-22, is harmonically static, and starts and ends with repeated Ds in eighths. Eventually repeated dotted eighths are added. A six-note quasi-diatonic chord that happens to be contained within the D Lydian scale is the only harmony, fixed in register — N.B. I thought of this as a harmony with a particular neutral quality rather than a composing-out of a scale. Single notes and double notes swell, perhaps implying some sort of melody. The section ends when the notes of the chord are gradually stripped away and its opening D in eighths is heard by itself again.

The second section, mm. 23-38 adds some new complications. The armor of the fixed-register chord is slowly dismantled, (while D4 stays put), first with the introduction of G4 (paired with the familiar G# now spelled as A-flat) in 23, given a swell as it descends a half-step to the familiar F#. The descending half-step will become motivic, as G-F# happens again, seemingly dragging down the higher C# to C with it in 28, making a weak cadence. Things get stranger when G#3 at the bottom moves up to B-flat, where a new high point, E, happens. The texture expands to four parts, then five, then six, new notes are added, C# sighs to C, a new lower extreme of F# is established, and it too sighs the descending half-step to F; at the same time, the C moves to B, creating a cadential confluence on what can only be described as a strange chord. While this has happened, the number of swells has increased, and the swells have sometimes crunched together. That chord in 37 feels cadential yet strange — it is made up of B-flat major 6/4 triad with a first inversion E minor triad above it, which is a more active sonority (and an octatonic one) than the D Lydian that introduced the piece, and it feels as if it’s on its way rather than a goal (like a half cadence), and especially more active than the whole-tone sonority in 36 that we passed through on the way to this octatonic moment. The isolated repeated G#4s in eighths that emerge pile on the strangeness — it’s the first time the opening D4 is absent, and there is the feeling that we’re not very close to the beginning any more.

The third section (mm. 39-61) is the most complex, as it adds a new pulsing rhythm of quarter note triplets to the mix, while also expanding registrally and texturally, often with as many as three independent simultaneous swells (which is pretty hard to play). In this section the descending half-step explodes into all the voices, eventually spawning a long passage in which all parts are doin’ it, and pretty fast, in mm. 52-55. This seems to create the greatest instability — given how fast the parts are moving in comparison to the first third of the piece, when they didn’t move at all — that it creates a mini-explosion solved by the stasis at m. 56; this would seem to be the piece’s biggest cadence; the sense of arrival here is further enhanced by the new low extreme of F2 and by the fact that the swells in the parts are temporarily no longer independent.

I felt this arrival chord had to be held onto for a long time in order to balance the rather long stasis with which the piece began, so it holds on for six whole bars. When it finally finishes its business, the opening D — which has been suppressed for so long and only got into the chord in the sneakiest possible way — emerges, but now it’s slower than it used to be. I probably thought of that as a pretty obvious composer-signal that we’re just about done and we’re in a coda — or that metaphorically the D-machine has been ground down by the gravity of the piece and it can’t go as fast any more.

All that remained, in my mind, was cleanup, and more stasis as the final counterweight to the opening. The D stays around to the bitter end, never changing speed, and contextualized within voices in other parts that spin out a little bit of the descending motion motive in parallel ninths, from 63 to 67. Bar 67 feels cadential, like the end. The actual ending, what with the suddenly very low C#1 sustained and a brief E5 way up top is meant to feel a little bit WTF — recapturing bits of the opening harmony, but in the wrong registers. I decided this would be picked up in a subsequent étude.

Diminishing Return was written while I was pounding my head against the wall about the opening of a very big piece. Thus did I bring back the repeated D thing from Hairpinning, but this time as a wild-eyed, take-no prisoners virtuosic piece of extreme crazy. I had already been using fast fadeaway repeated-note licks in several pieces, and this was a new way for me to use them — simple, short, caveman gestures which, as the stated premise of the étude, were everywhere. As is frequently the case with gestural premises, what starts as foreground turns eventually into a kind of accompaniment, on top of which another layer emerges.

The sectional division is pretty clear, as sections are articulated by immediate textural changes. The first, expository, section — which establishes the premise, hangs onto a fixed-register harmony for a long time before slowly punching its way outward — spans bars 1 to 34. The second, developmental, section also begins stuck in register, but with octaves being the hip new thing, and, finally, an opening up in harmony and register that expands faster and faster, especially in the bass, to the downbeat of 56. The crazy rising passage that follows is transition to the coda, which starts in bar 62.

In my mind’s eye, the fast fading repeated note gesture were like blobs of paint flung at a wall and spattering. Using lots of them overlapped would not only be virtuosic and it would not only sound cool, but it gave me a visual sense of what was going on. Thus after the fadeaway gesture is established on that same D and harmonized only with B a third lower, I added the next layer: sforzando chords that were like paint guns that also shot splatters, and that created the piece’s harmony — and a really cool looking spatterwall.

The sforzando chords create what is, at first, static harmony — arpeggiation of an octatonic sonority around D. Once I had all these balls in the air, I simply played with trying to move the harmony, one voice at a time, as if this were a slow chorale (which in the deepest sense it is), at first around the pedal D, then displacing it, and then returning to it. As in Hairpinning, the register remains quite constricted even as the sforzandos become more frequent and wilder, yet none of them represent something cadential; the piece is failing to take anything but the shallowest of breaths. By m. 31, the opening D has been pushed out, and it is as if a crazy melody is trying to emerge in the left hand. The failure of the melody to emerge, along with the very shallow breathing, created a crisis and an upbeat for an explosive re-emergence of D, this time in octaves. The piece takes a big, big breath, and thus does this feel like a sectional ending.

The second section starts in m. 35 when that D re-emerges, now paired with octave C#s a minor ninth lower (rather than higher, as at the outset). This was a conscious reference to the ending of Hairpinning. Octaves starting the fadeaway gestures were the next level of difficulty for the pianist, to which, beginning in 39, brief octatonic motives were added in the middle finger group of the right hand while the Ds continued.

The static D-C# that starts this section was felt like a traditional pedal point — one that begins as a stabilizing tone which is eventually pushed out by being made dissonant. It felt like the gestures and the shifting octatonic harmony were creating a big need for release — which finally happens in 44 when the C# moves to C natural. This moment felt like such a dramatic release that, from here, things changed quickly. The frustrated left-hand tune tries starting again in 46, and eventually the repeated notes in the right hand break apart into zonky descending bebop licks, in 49 — that’s the melody that was trying to emerge in the first section, and finally it is able to do so. The bebop licks continue unfettered, making their way down to the bottom of the instrument, thus creating another crisis (there’s no room to go any lower, is there?) that reaches its apex on the downbeat of 56. In response, the piece very methodically picks itself back up, overlaps rising fadeaway gestures, culminating in two explode chords in 61.

It seemed like the only possible thing to do next was return to the opening, fragmented, as a coda, with a tail of bebop licks going down again. This time the licks stop at C#1, to which D and E, as in the end of Hairpinning, tail off, creating a parallel ending to Hairpinning.

I find it rewarding to listen to these two pieces in sequence, in either order. It feels like looking at two faces of a many-sided polygon.


And so that is literally what I wrote. That's what was written, and by me.

Wait, I was anthologized? That rhymes with hypnotized. And recognized. And, and, and...