Several years ago, my former student Jason Uechi sent me this sequence of composers and their students, connecting me somehow back to Bach.
J.S. Bach > W.F. Bach W.F. Bach > Sarah Levy Sarah Levy > Carl Friedrich Zelter Carl Friedrich Zelter > F. Mendelssohn F. Mendelssohn > Carl Reinecke Carl Reinecke > George Whitefield Chadwick George Whitefield Chadwick > Horatio Parker Horatio Parker > Roger Sessions Roger Sessions > Milton Babbitt Milton Babbitt > Uncle Davy
Coincidentally, I got the George Whitefield Chadwick (my great great grandteacher) Medal from New England Conservatory when I graduated.
This same composer also proferred an alternate history.
Beff and I taught at Cortona Sessions in the summer of 2016, and boy was it hot, and boy was our room and all of our composer sessions hot.
We appreciated that one of the features of the festival was a day off to visit Florence, with all train fares covered, and another day off to tour the Brunello region. Mike Kirkendoll, who is in charge, is a wine buff, and he has friends in and around Montalcino. Heck, the second winery we went to gave us lunch and let us use their pool.
This is the view from the second winery. Those are all Brunello grapes.
And we were more or less on our own for non-breakfast meals, and getting stuff in Cortona was fun (despite the very steep and long walk into town), and there were so many amazing restaurants there for dinner.
I was put in charge of one of the two-hour group sessions for the enrolled composers, and I decided to give a composer career lecture, using all the facets of composer life that were germane as far as I could tell. So I compiled some notes about what occurred to me as important, and I was ready to riff on them to fill up the time — though clearly what I had to talk about could take up two hours or a whole semester, or anything in between. I was ready for it, with the topics neatly laid out on my iPhone.
Then, of course, Mike decided to usurp an hour of the session to talk about piano writing to the composers. It didn't bother me that he cited me a lot as having done some good piano writing, and I had scores and recordings to broadcast to them of the stuff he brought up (there was a mini USB video projector available, and even given the hotness of the room, it seemed strangely lo-fi). But that wasn't why I was there.
So in the one hour now available to me, I went through the topics pretty fast, not getting to all of them, and I didn't quite do my job that day. Except for broadcasting pdfs of my own music. Which, now that I think of it, wasn't my job.
I have posted my notes on the book of face and twitter occasionally, getting plenty of comments and questions. I have still not had the opportunity to do this presentation completely and in the time for which it was designed. Plus, I have added to it over the years. I was at Yaddo with Marilyn Chin in fall 2017, and we got into some deep conversations about how much our careers were shaped less on what our training prepared us for, and moreso on things that happened serendipitously. We even exchanged long e-mails noting some nice things that happened to us professionally and tracing all the serendipity that led to those things. So I added serendipity as one of the topics. I don't know exactly how to talk about career serendipity at this point, but if I am ever asked to give this talk, I'll try to figure it out.
Here's the current state of my notes, subject to more change as it occurs to me. I called it Iron Composer because I used a topic from a fun exercise at Cortona Sessions and typed over it all.
The two most important points, though, open and close the presentation.
Update: in February 2021 via a zoom substitute, I (finally) had a 2-hour slot to give this lecture to composers at Eastern Carolina University — thanks to Ed Jacobs for asking. I did get it into two hours, and the serendipity topic took up 45 minutes of it — Using logic and odd connections, I proved that serendipity was in most of the logical steps between There was another composer at NEC with a similar name to mine, therefore ... to ... I was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In January 2011, Milton Babbitt died and I was conscripted by New Music Box to write an in memoriam article about him. The piano concerto I was writing exactly at that time ended up being written in his memory; I had been thinking of dedicating the piece to him as a 95th birthday tribute, but this is how things go.
In that article, I mentioned that I had already written birthday pieces for him, every tenth year just like clockwork. I had dedicated my big wind ensemble with ten clarinets piece Ten of a Kind to him as a gift for his 85th birthday, and in that article I paraphrased his written response to receiving the score as best as I could remember it (I was writing it in France). Ten of A Kind is very big and very complicated, and the "President's Own" did an amazing job with it.
I have just located a scan of the actual letter he sent, which just goes to show that he did tend to keep going when he wrote you friendly letters. I had not remembered him calling me "Dear, Dear David"; I also had not remembered that he told me he had nominated me for something. And so almost twenty years later, here it is. It seems to be the only letter I have from him that doesn't end "As ever, Milton".
Dear, Dear David:
Can you ever forgive my unforgivable delay in responding to your birthday offering? But it has not been the best of times (indeed, this summer ranks among the worst).
Your incredible composition tempted me to take out my clarinet and play all of the parts; I, then, reminded myself that I hadn't played the clarinet in sixty years. Really, I can't wait to hear it, since my ears are even older than my clarinet embouchure (EMBOUCHURE!).
I trust I haven't made your life more messy by nominating you for a Charles Ives(!) Living at the Academy.
Love to both of you from both of us,
P.S. Not only can I not count the ways in which I am grateful, I cannot even count the notes.)
This is the St. Albans Citizens Band, together with what must have been a hastily assembled chorus, at a rehearsal for a Bicentennial concert. Thus the picture was taken in the summer of 1976. This is not the summer I came back. This picture was recently posted on Facebook, which is what brought me to make this post. I don't remember a single thing about the Bicentennial concert.
I recognize a few of the people in the picture. Mervin Kaye, who owned Kaye's shoe store and was the St. Albans mayor for a number of years, is the first chair clarinetist. Right in the center of the shot, with a trumpet in his lap, is Branch Warner, of the family that owned Warner's Snack Bar. Which is where I worked that summer. I'm in the row in back of Branch, four people to the right (to his left). I have some hair. Ed Loomis, the band's director, is the furthest to the right. Larry and Grace King are in the chorus, close to the door — Gracie is my godmother. Click on the picture to see it a bit bigger.
This was the summer between my high school graduation and the start of my undergraduate degree at New England Conservatory, and I was making milkshakes at Warner's and writing furiously. On a trip to a doctor's office in Burlington my father made, I purchased the Gradus theory textbook by Leo Kraft (as I was earning $1.75 an hour at Warner's, and I was flush, flush, flush I tell you! with cash) and I did me some learnin'. And even some sketchin'. I wrote some Hindemith-type fugues, and a few fantasias on Gregorian chant tunes — because the opening of Norman Dello Joio's third piano sonata is in the text, and the author identified the opening melody as derived from a chant. Many many years later the beginning of that chant accidentally became the head motive of John Mackey's Wine-Dark Sea. I seem also to have tried my hand at inventions. I must have been kind of cocky, since my sketches are all in ink. I also arranged my Gregorian chant fantasia for woodwind quintet, which goes to show I hadn't had any sense knocked into me yet. Also, I played organ at my sister's wedding that summer. Note I'm not using the pedals. Also, behold those socks. The Citizens Band played weekly concerts on the bandstand in Taylor Park in St. Albans, and they were a very social affair for the members. People listened either from lawn chairs or from their cars, and at the end of every piece the people in cars honked their horn as a stand-in for applause — one of the few times I've known anyone to honk their horn as approval of something. Every once in a while we played an actual classical tune — Poet and Peasant Overture comes to mind (I remember making a "Franz Von Suppé Sales" joke) — and of course the experience of being in the mass of instruments and figuring out how they were used in a piece was valuable. Since I was going to be entering a program in music composition, after all.
The trombone section was pretty good, and I alternated between first and third — I had reasonably good high notes, but I also had an F attachment, giving me some extra low notes. More than four years earlier, I was one of the eighth graders invited (as the entire class was invited) to do a day at the high school to see what a high school schedule of classes was like. We had already registered for high school classes, so it was kind of like a dry run. The science class sure was a long way from the band room. Of course I was mad about music then, too. In sixth grade I had been given the privilege of playing in the high school district festival, and the music was so much better than elementary school band music that I kept (uh, stole) my folder of parts, got a reel-to-reel recording of that concert, and played along. Over and over.Oh, also, I was considerably smaller than the other trombonists. My sister would probably like to take this opportunity to mention, or complain, that I also played Bridge Over Troubled Water on our piano over and over and over. And over. It's in E-flat. Somehow my father was able to afford to buy a small electronic organ with an octave of pedals for me to play with (they probably hated it when I experimented on the pedals with the bass line from It Better End Soon on Chicago II). This being 1972 technology, eventually all the G-sharps stopped working. Also, some time around then, the piano in the house was tuned for probably the first time ever. The tuner noted that the piano was low by a half step, and retrospectively I'm glad I don't have perfect pitch. When I figured out Linus and Lucy on the piano, I played along with the TV in A. The tune is really in A-flat. Where the fingerings are far, far easier. But as high school was looming, eighth graders had to get serious about their upcoming schedules and sign up for classes. My father was insistent that I take the drafting class because I needed to start getting skills for, you know, making a living. Unlike, say, music. Which was fine, but the class met at the same time as band, so on my mock day, the music teachers wondered why I wasn't doing any music class. Apparently my reputation preceded me. I had pretty much resigned myself to not doing music any more, or at least not doing music much. Because you know, marketable skills. In the elementary school final concert in eighth grade I played 25 or 6 to 4 and Colour My World on trombone, with the music teacher at piano and Jim Hoy on drums. I had figured that was my swan song, even though I didn't know what that meant at the time. That summer I started playing in the St. Albans Citizens Band and the Enosburg Band — my father's friend Carl Eller played sax in that band and he gave me rides to the gigs (20 miles from St. Albans). So inventions, fantasias, fugues, milkshakes, and community band. Oh, and Carl also gave me a badass shortwave radio, which obsessed me for a little while. And this summer is when everything changed. I had had such a great time playing in those concerts, making friends with grown-up musicians, figuring out orchestrations from context, and cracking bad music jokes that I decided I loved music too much to leave it. And especially to leave it for a drafting class. So I negotiated with my father — he knew how music-obsessed I was, and he okayed me taking band instead of the drafting class, as long as before I graduated, I took the class. So I came back. Discovered that the band uniforms were wool, and I'm allergic to wool. So I had my special pair of band long johns, which were kind of a nuisance for the warmer gigs (such as marching in the Dairy Festival parade). We marched in the Veteran's Day Parade every year, and I was always in the front row on a corner, because slide. Also, it's kind of cold in Vermont in November, and I remember one marching practice where it was cold enough to freeze my slide in place. Luckily I knew the music well enough so I could determine where the notes of the B-flat harmonic series would fit in. On the first day of classes of high school, Verne Colburn, the band director, welcomed me "back", and within a week he noticed I was not tonguing right — the way my jaw moved when I played was the clue. For four years I had never tongued a single trombone note. I essentially did paw, paw, paw when I played rather than ta, ta, ta. Then at that moment I became an actual trombone player, even though it felt weird for a while. Especially because it meant I would eventually be able to double tongue. Though I guess I had four years of experience getting ready to play Papageno, should I have needed to.
And of course there were the music festivals. Vermont All-State and All-New England. I entered Vermont All-State's composition competition with a piece for my high school band, and it lost. Then in my senior year, I won. With a different piece. To the right is a picture of all the All-State competition winners in 1976 (most of them for performance, but most of the front row for composition), and I am sitting just left of center in the front row, not knowing that I was going to marry the woman on my left in a little more than thirteen years. 1972 was thus the summer I came back. I have to credit the St. Albans Citizens Band, the director Ed Loomis, and the excellent and fun musicians in the band for helping me convince myself that music was really my thang. Yes, I am still in music because of a community band. Oh, and as it turns out, I might earn more now than I would if I had a job that required drafting skills. I never took that drafting class.
Blue Griffin Recording recently released the Iridium Saxophone Quartet's Skylines album in digital form, and my Compass is on it in a truly wonderful performance (Prism Quartet also released a recording on their own label). Iridium is one of the ten saxophone quartets in on the original commission. True to form, Orchard Enterprises immediately placed static tracks on YouTube; also true to form, the metadata has no information about the composers of any of the tracks. Here you go.
It's not often you get asked to do a residency where they are doing six premieres of your work, but it happened to me. Once. Keith Fitch, who is all the composition all the time at Cleveland Institute of Music, invited me to do so (he had also invited me in 2009, at which time I also said yes), and he scoured my list of works for stuff they could do. The quality of playing for mod music there ratcheted up quite a bit in the intervening time, so all the performances are stupendous. And did I mention six premieres? Well, read further, or eat a mushroom, or both. Maria Paola Parrini chose five préludes from my list of unperformed ones, and did a spectacular job. I especially like Bump, though I don't remember writing it, and it's a dumb title. The sketch is here. Click on "YouTube" to watch on YouTube, and then click on SHOW MORE for a list of titles and clickable links to navigate from one prélude to another.
Then was the premiere of Breakdown, a piano quartet that had been commissioned by the Verge Ensemble just before they folded. There is dreamed music in this one — it's the heavy glissandi in the middle — and that dreamed music sort of takes over. The commission had been set up by Dan Visconti, who subsequently titled a piece Breakdown, and my jazziferous breakdowns are what give the piece its title. Finally, Arabesques I Have Known, which was not a premiere, was something I wrote in order to use two toy wind keyboards at the same time. There's the green Andes keyboard, and yes, the cadenza in the third movement is improvised, as well as the melodica, which tends to do little canons with the clarinet. Because Davy. At the premiere by Boston Musica Viva, one audience member spontaneously applauded after the second movement, but that's okay. The third movement reminds Gusty Thomas somewhat of Hyperblue — all those manic unisons — and she's right. Click on YouTube to watch on YouTube, and then click on SHOW MORE for the movement list and timings.
This is the finale of Arabesques I Have Known, which has the two toy wind pianos in it, and makes me laugh every time.
These are currently pieces I play, in different combinations, at presentations and colloquia I am asked to give. You can check out a far larger collection here. Below there is a little bit of perfunctory text preceding each piece.
Martler (Étude #14, 1995-96) Beff and I were both at VCCA and I finished the piece I had gone there to write earlier than expected. So I had a few extra days to start something else, and I chose to write a piano étude. We had been listening to fragments of Martin Butler's Jazz Machines during lunches we had together, so I decided to try and emulate that piece's opening texture. I placed my hands in the low register of the piano and improvised some fast dyads and wrote them down, all the while not knowing what the piece was about. After a short while I started crossing my left hand over the right, and after I had done that a few times, I knew the piece was a crossing hands piece. Martler was our nickname for Martin then, as it is now.
Narcissitude (étude #79, 2007) I was between pieces and felt like writing an étude. I did my usual thing of asking various pianists to suggest ideas for études, and Michael Kirkendoll suggested mirror études, in which the hands mirror each other. I wrote a slow one (Upon Reflection, #78), with both hands moving slowly and mirroring each other together, but I wanted to let it rip with a fast one with an additional premise: the hands mirror each other but they are not synchronized. Indeed, in most of the piece the left hand lags behind the right by just one (fast!) note. Technically speaking, then, this is a mirror canon, and what it is, too. Check out the silly cross-hand ending. Fists of Fury (étude #25, 2000) Marilyn Nonken had given a great recital at Miller Theater which included my first two études, and the presenter decided to give the concert the silly title Fists of Fury. In the concert, Marilyn used her fist only once, at the end of my E-Machines, and was a little depressed about her concert's name. Indeed, the NYTimes reviewer liked the concert but said it had a dumb name. So to cheer Marilyn up, I wrote her a piece with that title that actually calls for the use of fists. In it, the beginning theme of Beethoven's 9th symphony is quoted in finger-pedaled notes in the last section of the piece, and in the middle, the rise from the extreme low register of the piano quotes one my études she had played on the concert. Note this piece doesn't use the nose. Quietude (étude #97, 2010). This is the third étude whose constraint is that it uses only one kind of chord — the dominant seventh chord (the other two use half-diminished seventh chords and major triads). I unfold them mostly in falling arpeggios, à la Schumann, but I use block chords as well, and occasionally you hear two of them at once (a polychord). I dedicated the étude to Augusta Read Thomas, a very close friend, and who had dedicated one of her études to me. Absofunkinlutely (étude #68, 2005) One of the strands in the études is so-called vernacular styles, which began when Amy Briggs asked for a stride étude. Eventually I included bop, rock and roll, tango, prog rock, and polka as étude premises as well. This one was precipitated by yet another trip to the well of great étude ideas by Rick Moody — he suggested funk licks, and behold, this one is based on two fairly generic funk licks. It is also a slightly wild celebration of no longer being chair of my department.
Violin Concerto #2 (2016-17). As composer-in-residence for the New England Philharmonic, I was asked to write a violin concerto for Danielle Maddon, the concertmaster. I always try to find screwy compositional problems to solve when I write for the orchestra, and one such problem occurred to me: how about a concerto movement where the soloist and string sections play only pizzicato? Whee! That means only the winds (and percussion) can sustain notes. So that first movement is in four basic sections: 1. establish the premise with rising pizzicato figures 2. forest of pizzicati in the sections 3. reestablish rising figures with a 3-part texture (a) long-line melody in winds b) soloist and violin sections combine into a superviolin c) violas, cellos and basses create rising lines that move from section to section, and the time between those lines gets closer and closer) 3a. transition 4. alla chitarra (like a guitar) for soloist and first violins over a pedal E. The second movement is a creamy little thing emanating from an oscillating figure in clarinets designed to be unoctatonic. The finale is a traditional barn burner in compound time that ends by bringing back the beginning of the first movement, and then leaving the soloist hanging as if it were Wile E. Coyote after the ledge he was standing on crumbles away. Natura Morta (2015) is a piano quartet commissioned by Network for New Music for a Milton Babbitt at 100 celebratory concert. It's in three sections with the incipit upbeat gesture turned into something thematic in the middle section. Before I started writing this piece, I listened to a lot of piano quartets by 19th and 20th century composers, and was struck that so many of them were romantic, heart-on-sleeve hyperexpressive pieces, without very much lighter music at all. Since I was writing a celebratory piece, I was interested in writing something different from that, and I used that dichotomy to shape the first section of the piece: there is a light, coloristic, rhythmic music that begins the piece, but the strings, one by one, leave that music for romantic, slow, expressive music. That leaves the piano as the only one doing the lighter music. Eventually they trade gestures and at the other end, they agree on a more vernacular music. After a recapitulation of sorts, it gets loud and fast — mostly because it was written by me. For those playing along at home, natura morta means "still life". Alas, the group has taken down the video.
Entre Nous (2016) is a rather substantial piece for oboe and string quartet. This is the final movement, a scherzo. All the materials come from the opening tutti, and the two-note bouncing figure that is everywhere comes out of the slow movement of Beethoven's piano trio Op. 70 #2.
Zephyrs (2013) is the first movement of Dance Episodes, my fifth symphony. At the time I was interested in trying to write music for dance — or even a full-length ballet — and this was the first thing I wrote as a way of demonstrating what I could do. An interesting thing formally in the piece is an early detail that gets exploded into its own section — that of a single note expanding into a chord via glissandi. Tristesse is the third movement, a slow, sad one, in which I imagined a solo dancer gradually joined by a second, third, and fourth dancer.
Piano Concerto #2 (2011) Rob Amory approached me to commission a piece -- my wildest dream, whatever I wanted. I chose a piano concerto for Amy Briggs, with whom I'd been working for nearly a decade. I asked Amy for a list of things she would want in her concerto, and it would be my job to make them all fit together. Her list included the opening texture of Martler, beginning in medias res, ritornello structures, textures like the Bach keyboard concertos, and jazz, among other things. I was to write the whole piece at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. The day before I left, I dreamed a late 19th century piece with chorus and orchestra with a chromatic turn on the words, "the postcards are traveling home," and since I always use music I dream in a piece if I can remember it, the chromatic turn has a big role in the piece. Thus the first movement starts with and returns to the Martler texture. The second movement is an elegy in memoriam Milton Babbitt, with the Bach stuff in the middle. The finale is the jazz movement, and has a substantial cadenza.
I wrote three piano préludes (yes, préludes and not études) for Sarah Bob. The recordings she made of them are below. Mind the Gap (prélude #18, 2012) came about because Sarah was hired to be the pianist in a recording of my Stolen Moments with BMOP, and there are a few monster solos in it. After the recording session, she said she wanted to play the first solo as a solo piece, and I said it was middle music -- it didn't have a beginning or an ending. So she said WRITE THEM THEN. I did. Ghepardo (prélude #48, 2015) has a name Sarah chose: Book V titles are Italian names for animals or insects: she choose cheetah, which is her son's favorite animal. I remembered Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom's episode on the cheetah, where the family of cheetahs mostly lounges around the water hole, only twice doing the really fast cheetah thing in action shots -- so my piece is structured thus. Wayo (#51, 2015) is a nonsense word that was spoken by Sarah's daughter (the titles of book VI are nonsense words), and is a slow passacaglia based on a 3-bar theme. The conceit here is imagining what Sarah's daughter would see and hear in her bassinette.
Etruscan March (2007) (also first movement of Cantina, for wind ensemble). This is a march movement for band.
Dream Symphony (2003) When I am asked if I ever write slow music (since I tend to play fast music for people because it has a lot of notes), I play the last four minutes of my third symphony, written for string orchestra.
Ecco eco (Étude #77, 2007) was a response to a suggestion of an "echo" étude made by Corey Hamm. Corey may have been thinking echo phrases like in Baroque pieces, but I took it literally. In the piece, chords echo, the rate of echo changes, they overlap, and sometimes there are Doppler shifts. This is a really, really hard piece.
Not (Étude #74, 2006) This is a speaking pianist étude using a minimalist text by Rick Moody. Adam Marks, a former theory student of mine, who was writing a dissertation on speaking pianist pieces (there are quite a few of them now), asked if I'd write one for him. I did. Rick's text slowly assembles the text Not happy with it, not lying down for it, written as a screed against the (W) Bush administration.
In 2006, I was elevated (if that is the word) to the Walter W. Naumburg Chair at Brandeis. At the time, all new Endowed Chair people were feted at events honoring them, at which the Provost and Dean attended; the Provost did the introducing, and there were refreshments afterwards. This doesn't happen any more, and I kind of wish it didn't happen then.
Nonetheless. I wrote and delivered a speech. Here's what happened.
I don’t do a lot of public speaking — actually, I don’t do any — and I’ve certainly never been called on to give a talk before such an accomplished and erudite crowd such as has gathered here. I did read somewhere, though – or maybe I saw it on TV – that public speeches are supposed to begin with a joke. And since this is such an accomplished and erudite crowd, I realize I can’t use just any joke – all the ones I know are either beneath such an accomplished and erudite crowd, or are musicians-only. So I made it my summer project (along with a few other things) to make up just the right joke for this occasion. For such an accomplished and erudite crowd. I don’t mind saying I’m at least as proud of this joke as I am of the piano quintet and the flute trio I wrote this summer.
Before I tell it, I should let you know that the joke has been test-marketed. I was at the artist colony Yaddo this summer, and I ran it by the writers, visual artists and composers who were in residence there. Maybe fifteen percent got it right away. Another fifteen percent got it after long pensive stares. The other seventy needed it explained. The same seventy percent said it wan’t funny anyway.
I then test-marketed the joke to my Music 103 class at Brandeis. There was a 100 percent laugh response. Which goes to show you: Brandeis students are incredibly sophisticated — either that or they’re really good at sucking up to faculty.
I realize that it’s too late now to start with a joke. So I’ll just tell it, and move on.
There’s no “eye” in Oedipus.
I’m honored and humbled to be awarded the Naumburg Chair in Composition. The composers who have preceded me in it are in the history books – literally. Irving Fine, Arthur Berger and Harold Shapero represented the American neoclassical school along with Copland and they were represented in a substantial portion in the textbook I had when I took music history as an undergraduate in 1977. Fine’s String Symphony, Berger’s Septet, Shapero’s Symphony – all received serious disquisition. And I must note here that I had very significant encounters with the music of all of them as part of my undergraduate experience. In particular, I sang in the New England Conservatory chorus when it toured with and recorded Fine’s Hour-Glass Suite (I could probably write out the “White Lily” movement from memory); and I went nuts over Berger’s Septet when the NEC Contemporary Ensemble played it – I bought the score and record and studied it pretty closely on my own. Yehudi Wyner wasn’t in my book in 1977 but the work he did after coming to Brandeis – the Horntrio and the piano concerto in particular – most certainly has put him in the latest edition.
These are pretty daunting shoes to fill. By comparison, I feel like a beginner, someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing.For once I can say I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants and not sound pompous. Hmm, actually, I can’t.
I also want to say that I am honored to serve in the same program that has had as faculty Seymour Shifrin, Eddie Cohen, Conrad Pope, Allen Anderson, Marty Boykan, Eric Chasalow and Yu-Hui Chang – every one a composer of great distinction, personality, originality and imagination. Despite our program’s small size, we continue to be one of the most distinguished in the country. And the unfailing support we have had from Brandeis has been crucial in gaining and retaining that distinction.
The first Naumburg Chair was awarded to Irving Fine when I was one year old. Now I’m more than twice that age, and I am tickled to report the fact that, full circle, I am now teaching Irving Fine’s granddaughter, Nina Hurwitz, in music theory. Nina declared a music major last week, on the composition track – I wonder what it’s like to enter a building and every time be greeted by a bust of your grandfather, always with the same expression. And by the way – Nina laughed at the joke. No “eye” in Oedipus.
Many thanks to Palle Yourgrau, the first Chaired professor to give such a talk as this, for his advice on what to do in mine. I can only hope one day to know as much music as he does — he already knows at least as much philosophy as I do. I’m going to say a bit about my formative years, and sorry about this, I’m going to get a little technical on occasion. Then there will be a little video.
I want to start by relating a personal story about the beginning of my formal education in composition. I came to New England Conservatory in 1976 as a composition major from St. Albans, Vermont, deep in a dairy farming region, not exactly wild about the arts, and a city economically depressed since the railroad business it used to do moved to Canada. I knew very little music, but my ears perked up at the gentle “modern” music I played at music festivals – what I was writing in high school blithely imitated that music. When I got to NEC, I was told that composers sang in the chorus for two years, and that I would have to audition to sing a really tough piece that was being done with the Boston Symphony in a mere month and a half. It was a large atonal piece called “Chronicles” by a composer named Seymour Shifrin from some nearby college called Brandeis. In the audition I had to sightread some frightfully disjunct lines with difficult rhythms, but I made it through, and I was admitted into the chorus. Lorna Cooke deVaron drilled us mercilessly, got us to feel and sing the lines as real melodies, stopped often to tune the strange chords, and slowly whipped us into shape. It was a real challenge, especially for the voice majors who would rather have been singing Mozart arias, but the more we rehearsed, the more natural the music felt. Eventually we were ready to sing our part for the composer. A nice looking man came to a rehearsal, sat in the back and nodded and smiled while we sang, and afterwards said only, “Thank you. I know it’s hard. Bravi.”
Then were the not enough rehearsals with the BSO and Ozawa. Hearing an orchestra in front of us playing that music that we had hitherto associated only with a rehearsal piano was quite amazing. The way the last movement moved to the final eight-note chord – an A minor seven in the men’s voices – I had the G at the top – and a second inversion E-flat minor 7 in the women’s voices was glorious. I had heard nothing like it before, and there’s no adequate explanation for the feeling of singing that note, being in the middle of the big sonority, and knowing, just knowing it is right, in every sense of the word. The week after that performance I changed my writing style completely. And the cool chords from Chronicles were still in my head and were all over what I wrote. That last chord – I’ve used it or a derivation of it at least ten times. If not a hundred.
I tell that story to emphasize how much an encounter by a young musician with just one piece can change everything. The experience I had with Chronicles and other pieces is always in the back of my mind when I teach pieces in music theory or music appreciation, and it is most gratifying when I am able to be the one who changes someone’s ideas about art, about music, or about life — with something as simple as an encounter with a piece of music. I suspect that my story of becoming a composer is very much like that of many others – you hear a piece you like, and imitate it. Then you write that piece over and over until you hear another piece with stuff you want to steal, and incorporate that, and so on. Every once in the while the encounter is so intense as to cause an epiphany. Chronicles was one such piece for me.
A few words about my DNA. There is no history of musical aptitude on the Polish side of the family. Indeed, my father was tone deaf, which made singing hymns in church something of an excruciating experience. His father grew up in Warsaw; the reason the family moved to America was that in 1918 my grandfather had a, um, difference of opinion with someone in a poker game, shot, and killed him. Shortly he was living in Springfield, Massachusetts raising a family. He scrimped and saved to send my father to Northeastern University in 1940 to study chemistry.
The English branch of my mother’s side of the family came to America in 1823, a Mr. Benjamin Hill who was brought from London to teach at a new conservatory established in Rochester, New York. His daughter Julia was a piano prodigy who toured the European continent at age 14, played for royalty and the great musicians of that time. When she turned 21, the city of Rochester gave her a piano with the stipulation that she present a free recital on it. Then she married, stopped concertizing, and began the domestic life that made me possible. Julia’s granddaughter sent her daughter – my mother – to BU in 1940, to major in vocal performance.
My parents met at a mixer, went out for two years, and my father was drafted. He spent the second world war in Burma, by his account mostly getting drunk on grain alcohol. After the war, he finished his degree and moved to my mother’s hometown to take a job at a paper mill. The two offspring who preceded me into this world were forced into piano and violin lessons, which they hated – my brother told stories of being chased across a playground because he had a violin case. My parents learned their lesson: the baby – me – would not be forced into music lessons. It was a good move.
So my sister, older by 6 years, apparently had no friends her own age to play with: she spent her play time teaching me to read music, to play the piano, and to read – I have no memory of not being able to do any of those. We had a piano in the house, and I tinkered endlessly. We also had a meager collection of classical records – just the stuff that the local supermarkets sold as weekly subscriptions to the “World’s Greatest Classical Library in Your Own Home!” Nonetheless, the only classical music we ever listened to at home before I got to college was Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and The Messiah.
For school band, I picked up the trombone and became serviceable at it without practicing much. I got good enough to go to All-State and All-New England festivals, where I had my first encounters with so-called modern music. In retrospect it was very tame stuff, but at the time it perked up my ears, simply because it was different. When I learned that our All-State festival had a composers competition with actual money prizes, I wrote a piece – my first piece ever -- for my high school band – it pretty much stole all the licks from what I played at music festivals, and it lost the competition (I got to conduct the premiere with my own high school band, and the third clarinetists were all drunk) – but I got hooked. I asked my band director, Verne Colburn for advice on where to find new strange music that I should be listening to, and he gave me his Time-Life collection called Music of Our Time. I find it hard to believe that in this day and age Time-Life would do something like that again.
There were a lot of different styles of music on that compilation, but the very, very modern pieces by Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez stood out as completely unlike everything else. I was mesmerized by them, even though I didn’t really understand them. And I listened to them over and over. Mr. Colburn also lent me his theory textbooks, where I read about some of the technical aspects of this weird music, but had no idea how to imitate it. I did some pretty serious wearing out of grooves, though.
Then came my encounter with Shifrin’s Chronicles. I knew what to do next.
My undergraduate years were spent mostly acquiring technique and learning pieces. I would listen to pieces like the Rite of Spring, Messiaen’s Chronochromie, Berger’s Septet, Davidovsky’s first Synchronism, study the scores, to try and figure out what was in them that I could steal (you’ll note this preoccupation a lot with composers. Stravinsky is said to have remarked, “good composers borrow. Great composers steal”). I wrote music by the bushel, and I wrote it very fast. Most of it was complicated, and most of it was about technique alone. Which is to say, if anyone asked me what I was trying to “do”, or what my piece was “about”, I would present a disquisition on where the notes came from.
Then in my junior and senior years both my parents died, a little more than a year apart. My mother’s struggle with depression ended when she took her own life; and my father died when the car he was driving struck a train at an unmarked intersection. In the time after my mother’s death, my father and I got much closer, which made his passing even more tragic for me. I stopped writing music for quite a while, and when I did write it came out very slowly. I don’t know, maybe I was finished with learning mere technique and now I realized that what I really needed in music was – something to say. Or maybe what I really needed to learn was enough technique to express grief.
It turns out I didn’t have to wait very long for my answer. When I got to graduate school, Berg’s opera Lulu was being produced at the Met, and Princeton grad students were allowed to sit in on the rehearsals. I made it to six of them, getting to know this glorious opera really well, and in the last rehearsal, I had my epiphany. At the end of the opera, Lulu is forced to London to escape the law and becomes a prostitute. Her three clients are played by the same singers that played her three now-dead husbands, and the music associated with those characters returns. If you know the opera at all, you know that her third client is Jack the Ripper – yet he looks like Doctor Schön, the only man Lulu ever loved. While the gorgeous “love music” plays, Lulu and Jack yammer about the price of the trick. The many layers of meaning and irony to this scene and the music itself somehow overwhelmed me, and when the opera finished I was so full of emotion that I literally could not move for several minutes. My compatriots seemed to be similarly effected, as the car trip home was uncharacteristically silent.
For a graduate seminar on the opera, I analyzed the “love music” which I just mentioned, and found it to be so tightly constructed that you could bounce a quarter on it. Moreover, the melody was written simply by repeating, several times, the rhythm that is associated in the opera with death – yet Berg’s treatment of the melody with the accompaniment made it sound anything but repetitious. What I think seeped in gradually from listening to this music was a sense of how counterpoint works in music, most specifically what is called in music theory the “fourth species” of counterpoint. Put simply, a tone is stable with its surroundings, and sustains while the surroundings change, thus making it unstable, or dissonant. The tone then has to move in order to fit with the new surroundings, which then change again, etcetera. Imagine by analogy being in a space and being comfortable, and the space itself changes to something forbidding, and you don’t belong. You have to move to where you belong. The continual artful use of such a device is part of what makes great music move, and is a big part of what gives it, for me, affect and expression. Berg had figured out how to get that affect in an atonal context, and I thought that was revolutionary.
I know it’s boring to talk continually about acquiring technique, but this was a big one for me. Without technique it’s hard to say anything with eloquence; but technique by itself is worthless if an artist has nothing to say. Meanwhile, while I was figuring this stuff out, everything I wrote for the next ten years bore the unmistakable imprint of Berg. Within a few years I had written an elegy for strings for my parents that worked – I had learned how to write good slow music. It is the first piece I wrote that “worked” from start to finish without any dead moments. Now I just had to figure out how to write music of other speeds.
After graduate school I did crap word processing jobs and wrote very little music. I had decided not to try for a teaching job, but then another Brandeis connection comes in – a job landed in my lap. My friend Ross Bauer, with a PhD from this department, was leaving a lectureship at Stanford for another job at the last minute, and he recommended me to replace him for a year. I was offered the job on my 30th birthday, and I decided to try a year of teaching to see if it was for me.
I think you know what the answer was. By virtue of having to figure out pieces of music in order to teach them, I rediscovered stuff I hadn’t thought about for years. Since I was engaged with music full time, I was drawn back to composing in a big way. Soon I wrote a big Romantic symphony that all my friends called “Berg’s Third Symphony” – my friends aren’t very subtle – and when I finished, another Brandeis connection came calling: Rhonda Rider, who used to be the cellist of the Lydian Quartet, got her piano trio to commission me. I don’t know why, but the music that came out had an unusual rhythmic freedom, very strongly referencing the rhythms and gestures of be bop and even of rock and roll, yet harmonically it sounded like me. I had figured out how to write fast music. Moreover, it was fast music with fourth species counterpoint. With this piece I think I found my voice – at age 33. 33 is the number on the Rolling Rock bottle. Coincidence? I think not.
I’ve brought the story up to 1991 and don’t have much more to say about my development as a composer. I have been constantly looking for new challenges, and ways to grow as a composer, and I’m fond of saying the only way to do that is to approach each new piece as if I don’t know what I’m doing. Because, as I have found out the hard way, convincing myself I know what I’m doing leads to laziness, sloppiness and to repeating myself.
Speaking in such abstract terms about music, which is already abstract, is getting tedious, I think. Rather than talk a lot more, I’d like to share with you a teeny sliver of my music.
I have several parallel strands in my output – there’s the serious, long pieces; the not as serious serious smaller pieces; pieces for children; and a whole mess of piano études. Piano etudes are for me sort of a compositional playground. I enforce very strict rules when I write one: it must be written quickly (within six days), have no a priori ideas about its form, and something once written down cannot be revised. An etude is by nature an obsessive piece, so by trying to do as much as I can imagine, and quickly, that is about just one thing keeps my chops sharp. And because the pieces are written so quickly, I feel like I can have as much fun as I want. And explore different aspects of piano virtuosity – make no mistake, these are really hard pieces. Some things from the etudes have made it into my larger pieces, but I’d have to do another technical disquisition to say what.
To date I’ve written 73 piano etudes. More are on the way. I’m going to play the 14th, called Martler, on a video screen for reasons that will become apparent.
Traditionally etudes are about some particular aspect of piano technique – parallel intervals, pedaling, broken chords, particular accompaniment figures, specific fingering patterns – and one class of etudes is about crossing hands. It’s not uncommon to find piano music in which the right hand plays an accompaniment figure and the left hand switches back and forth between bass and treble, thus crossing over the right hand. Probably the most well-known crossing hands piece is found in the movie of The Music Man in the scene that sets up the song “Goodnight My Someone”.
I wrote Martler at an artist colony. Both I and my wife Beth were resident at the colony, and we showed each other our sketches daily. On the second day of writing my piece, Beth suggested I slyly quote something I might have played when I was in a rock band in high school. I protested, but I liked the challenge of sneaking something nearly incongruous in there. So I quoted “Smoke on the Water” and hid it within some long notes in a very busy texture, and I showed it to Beth. She said the quote should be more obvious. Well, I couldn’t take my really subtle quote back – remember, the rule is no revisions – so I then made a second, more obvious quote. It is okay for you to laugh if you recognize it.
Writing an appallingly virtuosic piece for crossing hands means that there is not only musical structure to think of (by the way, the two dueling tonics of A and E-flat are suggested by the first two sonorities of the piece, which fly by like the wind), but also the ballet of the hands themselves. So it ends up being a very visual piece. It is a real treat to watch an artist of the caliber of Amy Dissanayake play this piece – I have been very lucky to find players of her artistry who like to play my music, and who can pull it off with such fierceness. You will note that about two-fifths of the way through Amy stops looking at the music and plays from memory. Amazing. The video was made at the American Academy of Arts and Letters after Amy had spent three grueling days making a CD of 22 etudes of mine, all of them with similar technical demands, and she did this performance because the recording engineer asked to watch the piece being played.
By way of conclusion, I simply want to say, somewhat tautologically, that I want to make music that is everything that it can be. I’m sure my colleagues share that philosophy, and it has been my teaching philosophy as well. My new goal in life – now that I wrote my joke – is to write something so good that the next Naumburg Chair says in his or her speech that it was one of his or her formative pieces. Or at least that he or she could bounce a quarter off of it.
I want to thank Marty for hosting this event, and Rick Silberman and Trudy Crosby for taking care of the logistics. I also want to thank Adam for giving me the courage to wear this tie. I want to thank Brandeis, for throwing wonderful undergraduates into my classes and for the support and space it’s given me in the decade I’ve been here. The last ten years have been the most productive and exhilarating of my life. I’m honored to be awarded this Chair, but still I ask for your patience with me. I’m still learning.