With the premiere of Almanac coming up tomorrow, I wanted to share some sketches and other goodies from the piece. If you’re curious about nerdy composer stuff, read on!
Movement III – Oystercatchers in Flight
The first part of Almanac that I wrote was a setting of Eamon Grennan’s poem “Oystercatchers in Flight,” which is now the third movement. To help constrain my pitch choices, I used some *gasp* serial technique! I can’t say that I use it a lot, and Schoenberg and Babbitt wouldn’t be too happy about how I used it here, which is to say relatively un-systematically.
A lot of the pitches in the movement are derived from this twelve note chord (labeled P0 in this first sketch).
The chord features a lot of different colors that I like—stacked fifths, whole tone segments, and this kind of major-7 with a sharpened/distorted octave on top. From there, I started writing the vocal line, which you can see in this second sketch.
The first segment uses pitches from that original chord, but the later segments were written much more intuitively. After writing the line, I figured out serially-derived alterations of the main chord that would more-or-less fit the different melodic segments, which you can see in the third sketch.
With all of those materials in place, it became a matter of writing lines that fit the harmonic plan and helped place the voice in the middle of a cold but kinetic landscape, like in this score example.
Some thoughts about structure
Last June, I got to spend some time with George Lewis at the New Music On The Point festival. This shouldn’t be news to you, but George is just the most incredible music-maker, an unparalleled composer, improviser, and scholar. As a quick aside, I gave his tome “A Power Stronger Than Itself” to my improviser-friend Harrison for his college graduation, and then Almanac saxophonist Kevin Sun gave it to me for mine!
Through a composition lesson and a lecture, I got an amazing tip-of-the-iceberg version of George’s immense thinking on improvisation. Some of the most fascinating insights for me came through his thinking about improvisation outside of music. In our lesson, we ended up talking a lot about basketball, and the triple post/triangle offense popularized by coach Phil Jackson in particular. As you can see from my notes here, I thought about making an improvisation scheme for Almanac based on basketball offensive sets… but that didn’t quite make it in.
Another insight from George’s lecture that really struck me was thinking about improvisation as dependent on emergent situations, like natural disasters, to note a high-stakes, real life example. This insight helped my sense of Almanac’s larger structure click into place. At this point, naming the piece “Almanac” was mostly a justification for the different kinds of music I imagined sitting together in the same piece. But George’s thinking on improvisation helped motivate why an almanac-piece would have improvisation. Almanacs make predictions, but like most predictions, they fail, especially when there is an emergent situation. At this point, I knew I wanted to end the piece with an emergent musical situation, where most of the notation falls away, leaving the performers to improvise a way forward.
Movement V – Spelt From Sibyl’s Leaves
With this ending in mind, how was I going to set it up? I thought it could be effective to have a movement with explicitly dark prophetic texts, presenting the emergent situation that the performers would respond to in the final part. I looked through a lot of poems and came upon “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Now this was one dark prophecy!
I found the text to be both raw and other-worldly: raw from the particular sound-color of the words, other-worldly from the irregular, unstable phrasing. To embody these elements of the text musically, I was drawn to a couple of different sounds—heavy, almost John Bonham-esque drums, but rhythmically unstable and spaced out, and then gnarled, grotesque vocal polyphony.
With this sound world in mind, I sketched out the pitch material for the setting, placing the high and low voices in overlapping teams. In this sketch of the movement’s opening, the low voices sing tightly-wound lines on very limited pitch material—to me, evoking gnarled roots—while the high voices sing bright, hair-raising sonorities above. All of the singers are in their upper ranges, which I think enhances that bracing quality.
After a mysterious, floating section, the opening material returns, except now the gnarled low voice polyphony infects the high voices, while the hair-raising sonorities infect the low ones. After a kind-of drum ’n bass explosion, the texture thins again and enters a space where time circles back on itself. I try to evoke that cyclical sense of time with a spoken reference to a favorite line from Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” followed by an internal reference to Almanac’s opening (see “Impasto refer” in the second sketch). I thought that this “time is a flat circle” thing was an effective way to propel the movement to it’s final, terrifying section (which I’m not giving away, so you’ll have to come hear it).
More Movement V – The Gardener
Around the same time I found Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves,” I came across another stunning poem—“The Gardener” by Patricia Hooper. On one side, it linked up with “Oystercatchers in Flight,” as both are single, run-on sentences. On the other, I thought it was an interesting foil to “Sibyl” as a quiet, intimate prophecy rather than a visionary, apocalyptic one.
For the sound world, my first goal was to convey both the inevitability of the prophecy and the quiet motion of puttering in one’s garden. I came up with someone that I’ve called a “Nancarrow Passacaglia” in how it evokes old music with its pitch material, but uses rhythmic processes inspired by composer Conlon Nancarrow to create this background texture of irregular raindrops and dappled light. In the sketch here, I wrote the setting in basically a lead sheet form before passing that material through the Nancarrow-ator. I feel that there’s something of my dad’s old Judy Collins records in the melodic line.
As I worked on the setting, though, I was struck by the line “I know it is taking me,” the speaker’s realization of their own mortality. I imagined the speaker obsessing over that line, losing themselves in it, and that image opened a door to a new structural relationship. That obsession would overtake the quiet sound world of “The Gardener” and lead into the apocalyptic visions of “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves” (it’s very A Day in the Life-y). Once the sibylline visions receded, the piece would be back in the garden, the speaker returned from their dark reverie.
Movement IV – Inviting a Friend to Supper
In addition to the prophetic texts, I knew I wanted to have a lot of list-y, catalog-y texts, which quickly led me to “Inviting a Friend to Supper” by the English poet Ben Jonson. The speaker invites a friend to a “humble” dinner party, but then rattles off an incredibly long and involved menu! Although at first glance the poem is very rooted in its Jacobean setting, I found its obsession over food to feel quite contemporary.
My first idea for the setting was to outline this link between the old and the new by starting the movement with music from Jonson’s time and gradually morphing it into later styles. In the first sketch, you can see the beginning of this progression, with markings of “madrigal,” “Jimmy solo – Monteverdi,” “reel backbeat,” and “Aeroplane [Over the Sea] groove.”
But as I worked out this structure, I thought about how this musical intertextuality could also inform how I worked with the text. I had worked with Ted Hearne at New Music On The Point and loved how he dealt with assembled texts in works like The Source and Sound From The Bench. So I ended up adding some writings from Philadelphia’s first foodie (and Almanac-maker) Benjamin Franklin. Those additions helped the movement click into place for me, yielding quite the tasting menu in more ways than one.
Movement II – A Patter Song
For this movement—the last one I composed—I wanted some music that would both foreground improvisation and set up more of the stylistic collages later in the piece. I liked the idea of writing a “patter song” because patter songs tend to include lists, like the list of skills and accomplishments of the Modern Major General in Pirates of Penzance. The only thing is that this patter song has almost no text, and the only thing resembling a tune doesn’t come in until the very end!
Instead, the movement focuses on the musical features of a patter song, like restricted contours and rapid rhythmic flow. These become the parameters for a series of improvised solos. The different fragments in this sketch are the underpinnings of each section of the piece and the materials each soloist improvises on.
The riff marked A undergirds the final section of the piece, while the chords of B set up a floating, modular section featuring bassist Walter Stinson. The rapid, 16th-note flow of C powers a duet between pianist Mikael Darmanie and drummer Matt Honor, while violinist Josh Henderson shreds over the triplet-y flow of E. The two lines at the bottom of the page—a riff and bass line derived from those B chords—set this whole bizarre contraption in motion. While the entire movement is tightly linked through shared pitch material and mathematical tempo relationships, that doesn’t mean the contraption won’t ever glitch out…