Yesterday, my composition teacher Jim Primosch died of cancer. Many of Jim’s colleagues and students have been sharing memories online, and I’d like to offer one here.
Like my fellow Penn composers Melissa Dunphy and Nathan Courtright, I’m remembering one of those lesson moments with him when something big clicked.
This was my last semester of coursework, and I was just starting my dissertation piece—a quixotic evening-length extravaganza for singers and improvising instrumentalists. I had not written any vocal music at Penn, and now I was thinking that I was going to write 60-plus minutes of it.
Jim, on the other hand, writes the most incredible vocal music. I was understandably very nervous about bringing my first ideas in to our lessons. One magical thing about Jim’s vocal music is that he can take texts that are so rich on their own, and write music that fits so perfectly and doesn’t weigh the text down. It’s so hard to do. I reaaalllly wanted to do that in this piece.
So I brought in this poem “Oystercatchers in Flight” by Eamon Grennan, and the beginnings of a solo melodic line. Jim began to read the text and his mouth curled in an impish grin.
“I want to set this text,” he chuckled.
I sang him the line, and then we improvised together, jumping between singing and the piano, thinking about how to activate the breathless run-on sentence of a poem. That moment of recognition gave me the confidence to plunge into writing 70 minutes of vocal music; the confidence that I had something to say.
May Jim rest in piece, and may all who knew and loved him be comforted and sustained.
In the fall of 2015, Taylor Swift made a $50,000 donation to the Seattle Symphony. In a letter to the orchestra’s music director, Ludovic Morlot, she said the donation was inspired by listening to the orchestra’s recording of Become Ocean, the Pulitzer Prize-winning piece by composer John Luther Adams. Adams himself was delighted by the gesture, and wrote hopefully, “Through her generosity and her open ears, Taylor Swift is inviting her fans to experience a new and different kind of music.”
This week, in addition to dropping her seventh studio album, Lover, Swift noted in interviews that she is planning to re-record her first five albums to gain artistic and financial control over her material, after her masters were sold by her old record company.
In addition to re-recording her songs in their original form, perhaps it could be fun to throw in some remixed goodies as well. What if Swift teamed up with her favorite contemporary composer for one of those remixes? And what if it was of my personal favorite song “Blank Space?”
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. Continue reading →
A performance of symphony for broken instruments at the 23rd Street Armory, Philadelphia
“Why didn’t they fix the instruments first, and then have us play the piece,” asked a middle-aged man sitting in front of me. He was fiddling with the third valve of an old trumpet, trying to free it from its stuck position. We were at a rehearsal for the project Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, a large civic art project in Philadelphia that went up in the Fall of 2017. As one of the twenty-five section leaders, it was my task to help teach the piece symphony for broken instruments by the composer David Lang to some of the 400 professional and amateur musicians who had signed up to play.
“I’m not sure,” I answered. The man with the trumpet looked a little dismayed, seemingly concerned that the so-called section leader didn’t have a better idea of what was going on. Trying to save face, I continued, “I feel that not knowing how this all works can actually be a good thing. We’re figuring out how to make music in a different way than we’re used to. We’re going to try a lot of different things today, so let’s be open to whatever happens.”
“Trust the process,” my fellow section-leader Ben chimed in, repeating the mantra of Philadelphia’s long-improving professional basketball team. A few of the prepping musicians chuckled.
Although I didn’t have a good reason at the time why we were playing a symphony for broken instruments, rather than a symphony for instruments that used to be broken, but are now fixed and good as new, it’s clear to me now that project’s practical effectiveness and compelling artistry depended on those instruments’ brokenness. The project as a whole, and Lang’s composition in particular, transformed the essential hierarchical relationships of a typical orchestral performance. These relationship transformations turned the instruments into performative agents who could tell their previously-hidden stories of trauma and neglect. Continue reading →
In the fall of 1996, composer Gavin Chuck and conductor Alan Pierson were students at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. They met at a party and began to talk about the contemporary music scene at the school. Chuck voiced his frustrations about the difficulties student composers faced in getting work for large ensemble performed, whether in school-sanctioned readings with the full orchestra, or in performances with hastily-rehearsed pickup groups. Pierson noted that among all of the contemporary music concerts at the school, none featured music by minimalist composers. Their conversation soon ballooned to include more friends, setting in motion a sequence of events that led to the creation of Eastman’s first student-run contemporary music group, Ossia, as well as the acclaimed and influential contemporary orchestra, Alarm Will Sound, which had its first performance under the baton of Mr. Pierson in May 2001.
At the time of its founding, Alarm Will Sound was a rare bird in the contemporary music world. Many of its members were both composers and performers, and the group rehearsed collaboratively—a setup that put them in league with the social world of downtown minimalism. However, the members also all studied at one of the United States’ august conservatories and many of their early gigs were at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, performing the work of academic modernists like György Ligeti, Harrison Birtwistle, and Augusta Read Thomas. This combination of intense, traditional conservatory training and a democratic, collaborative mindset to rehearsing and repertoire is reflected in the variety and creativity of their recorded projects, which not only feature works by composers as diverse Steve Reich, Conlon Nancarrow, and Charles Wuorinen, but also arrangements of music from outside the concert music world, including the Beatles’ “Revolution 9” and the work of Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin.
What’s most surprising about the group and their repertoire isn’t that classically-trained musicians can be interested in a huge range of music (just think of Gunther Schuller’s engagement with jazz, or Milton Babbit’s encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater). The real surprise is how influential Alarm Will Sound’s approach has become throughout the contemporary music scene around the United States. Groups like Ensemble Signal in New York, Contemporaneous (founded by students at Bard College), and wildUp in Los Angeles not only feature similar sizes/instrumentations as Alarm Will Sound, but also variety of repertoire. Other groups like Wet Ink feature composer-performers who both write for the group as a whole and perform their peers’ work. The piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire—another regular at the Miller Theatre Composers’ Portrait series—has premiered work by composers as diverse as Tristan Murail, orchestrally-minded singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, and the experimental electronic musician Pete Swanson.
This proliferation of groups who create their own repertoire through some combination of collaborative composition, improvisation, and commissioning marks a sea change in how contemporary concert music gets made in the United States. Top-down institutions like universities, conservatories, and large arts organizations like symphony orchestras have lost profound influence as tastemakers and producers to these grass-roots ensembles. In this new world, academic music institutions are faced with a particular quandary—how can they simultaneously preserve the rigorous traditions of classical training while simultaneously preparing students to become creative and collaborative musicians in this wide-open, self-directed contemporary music scene? By looking into how and why ensembles like Alarm Will Sound make music in a particular way, these academic institutions can learn how to adapt their teaching for the music scene’s next generation of multi-faceted music-makers.
A good place to start in this discussion of music and pedagogy is to define what groups like Alarm Will Sound do. The kind of collaborative music-making that powers Alarm Will Sound has an analog in the theatre world—devised theatre. In a work of devised theatre, a script is created collaboratively by a group of actors, many times through improvisation, or short prepared excerpts known as etudes. In this way, the writing and rehearsal processes of the theatre piece are the same, rather than split between different people and places. Using the concept of devised theatre as a jumping-off point, devised music is a form of music-making where the performers have a greater degree of control over the music they perform than in a typical classical situation. In a traditional classical model, the performers interpret a work of music through performance, but do not have the agency to change the notes written on the page—they can affect how a piece sounds, but less of what sounds in a piece. Groups that make devised music can determine the what of a piece in addition to the how in three major ways:
They can collaboratively compose music through group improvisation. These typically include groups with strong connections to the jazz tradition, like Anthony Braxton’s or John Zorn’s ensembles.
Different performer-composers in a group write or arrange music for the group to play, with other performer-composers having some degree of editorial input. These include groups like Alarm Will Sound and Wet Ink.
A group can curate its unique repertoire by commissioning an outside composer to write a piece, yet also have editorial control over the work via a collaborative process. Groups like So Percussion and Yarn/Wire, among many others, frequently work in this way.
Now that we have a working definition of what devised music is, we can look into an example of successful devised music and explore how its devised nature affects its result—how the process leads to its product—and the various source materials that go into the work, whether from within the traditions of western concert music or without. The example I’d like to explore here is Alarm Will Sound’s 2005 record Acoustica, featuring arrangements by group members of pieces by the electronic music artist Aphex Twin.
The original pitch for making acoustic arrangements of electronic music came from group violinist-vocalist-composer Caleb Burhans. While many members of Alarm Will Sound were intrigued by the notion by adding another layer of human input to a form of music that was already based on samplings of preexisting sounds, others were worried. Gavin Chuck notes that one member questioned whether the project would “…end up being like The New York Philharmonic Plays the Bee Gees.” The group decided that the music of Aphex Twin would yield the meatiest results, with its breakneck tempos, rich soundworld, and dramatic jump cuts.
While each arrangement from the record is credited to a single group member, the pieces were workshopped extensively. There were disagreements about how close the arrangements should hew to the source material, or what a certain note or rhythm was within a dense texture. Alarm Will Sound explored their instruments collectively, finding out the best ways to mimic electronic sound through acoustic means. Their catalog of extended techniques and nonstandard percussion instruments purchased from hardware stores could be used throughout all of the arrangements, creating a unified soundworld. In this way, the results of the Acoustica project are profoundly impacted by the collaborative creative process. From conception to execution, the physical music was shaped as much, if not more, in the rehearsal hall than in an individual’s composition studio. One can imagine what a less collaborative Acoustica project would have sounded like. Composers would have offered arrangements that only scratched the surface of possibilities in terms of what acoustic instruments could achieve when imitating electronic sounds. Some composers might try to reproduce tracks exactly, while others may have hit walls in trying to mimic Aphex Twin’s complex sounds and opted for safer, more cover-oriented material. In the end, this version of Acoustica would have been a curious experiment, a bit of let’s-be-hip crossover, rather than a deeply considered and holistically-constructed work. Instead, Acoustica as conceived and produced by Alarm Will Sound shows the exciting possibilities of collaborative devised music.
The fact that Acoustica was produced in a collaborative environment isn’t its only defining feature. It’s also important to note how the project arose from various musical sources, both within and without Alarm Will Sound’s classical training. It is not enough to note that Acoustica is a work of classically-trained musicians performing vernacular music. If that was all it was, its interest would be no greater than the aforementioned “New York Philharmonic plays The Bee-Gees.” What is interesting about the project is how the musicians both leverage and expand their conservatory training to execute the non-idiomatic difficulties found in the music of Aphex Twin. On a surface level, the performances on the album showcase the players’ command of their respective instruments. The clarity of fast runs reflect study of virtuosic showpieces, while the range of extended techniques used reflect deep experience with post-World War II concert music. From an arrangement standpoint, the writers use their ear training to figure out complex rhythms and melodic contours, as well as the components of multi-faceted textures.
While traditional conservatory training is a necessary part of Acoustica’s performance practice, it is not sufficient. The kind of rhythmic accuracy needed to convincingly perform Aphex Twin’s music, particularly in regards to syncopation, is usually overlooked in classical training, as it is not a significant part of western concert music (certain works of minimalism excepted). In particular, percussionist Jason Treuting is a virtuosic drum set player with enough experience playing rock, funk, and jazz to give Aphex Twin’s frenetic breakbeats the right rhythmic feel—a skill that isn’t formally taught in a typical conservatory percussion course of study. In order to play the music on Acoustica effectively, the players of Alarm Will Sound had to expand on their training and learn new, non-classical performance practices in a self-directed way.
Alarm Will Sound’s arrangement and performance of Aphex Twin on Acoustica is an effective work of devised music because of three main ingredients:
A strong concept regarding the nature of control in different kinds of music, motivating the combination of vernacular electronic music and acoustic classical instruments
A collaborative creative process that opened up a unified soundworld and quality of performance across the varied arrangements
The players’ ability to both leverage their classical training and expand upon it to accurately convey the nuances of the non-classical source material
With these characteristics in mind, let’s return to the discussion of how to teach devised music in a conservatory environment, in order to better prepare students for today’s wide-open, grass-roots contemporary music world and inspire strong new work like Acoustica. The essential ingredients of Acoustica’s success have implications in the teaching of critical and creative thinking, collaborative rehearsal, and technical training at American conservatories. With the expressed goal of fostering effective devised music in the conservatory and the greater contemporary music scene, I have the following recommendations:
Strong devised music projects have a deeply-considered underlying concept that motivates the particular combination of repertoire, performance practice, and creative rehearsal process. These strong concepts require musicians to think critically and creatively about the music they listen to and perform. In order to inspire this kind of thinking, conservatories should better emphasize study in music history and liberal arts among performers and composers. This does not necessarily mean adding additional coursework. Instead, courses should move away from tired and simple surveys, instead taking a more interdisciplinary approach. An effective music history course could focus on the influence of electronic sound on acoustic music across different genres (looking at the work of Ligeti, Acoustica, and the bluegrass band Punch Brothers, to name a few). These academic courses should stimulate independent thinking and create opportunities for individualized projects based on students’ interests, rather than ticking off arbitrary requirements.
In order to foster a spirit of creative collaboration in students, conservatories should follow Eastman’s lead and create student-run contemporary music ensembles, or at least give students significant governing power in a departmental contemporary music ensemble. Beyond this, faculty should reevaluate how they teach chamber music. Instead of coaching groups from outside the performance or via conducting, teachers can embed themselves in groups, teaching the necessary skills of chamber music in a constructivist fashion through example. Many of the groups that I’ve mentioned in this article take this approach at the summer festivals they run, including Yarn/Wire and So Percussion (it is telling that three successful percussion groups have come out the inaugural class of the So Percussion Summer Institute in 2009).
Instrumental and musicianship training at the conservatory should reflect a broader range of music from outside the classical tradition. Conservatories should mandate a course in improvisation (Stony Brook University’s improvisation class led by trombonist Ray Anderson is a good example) and change the musicianship curriculum to encompass more diverse music (i.e. transcribing jazz solos or Indian classical music, or learning fiddle tunes by ear). In lessons and chamber music, students should be required to perform pieces that require non-classical performance practices, like string quartet pieces from the Brooklyn Rider Almanac, for example.
Individually, these recommendations can better prepare conservatory students for today’s contemporary music world, but collectively, they build on each other to inspire thoughtful and creative musicianship, rather than just good musicianship. For instance, a violin student may enjoy transcribing a James Brown vocal line in musicianship class, which could lead her to the Brown-inspired string quartet piece Dig The Say by Vijay Iyer that she’ll put together with a group of friends for chamber music class, which could then motivate a larger project that interfaces with vernacular dance traditions. With studio work and narrowly-focused institutional (i.e. orchestra) jobs fewer and farther between, academic music training in the United States must adjust to this new reality. These changes are not mere practical realism, however. More importantly, they effectively foster the creation of exciting and relevant new work for the concert hall and beyond.
David Bowie—the artist who transcended style and media and form and perhaps his own self—died yesterday, 2 days after his 69th birthday and the release of what is now his final album, Blackstar.
The tributes and remembrances that I’ve seen today have been moving and wide-ranging, reflecting Bowie’s unique influence on listeners of all kinds. Composer/violinist/Arcade Fire member Owen Pallett has a touching story about having dinner with Bowie back in 2005. Author Elizabeth Gilbert is overwhelmed by Bowie’s making art in the face of death. And actor Simon Pegg put it beautifully and succinctly:
“If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”
Like Gilbert, I am deeply moved by Bowie’s ability not just to create while confronting his mortality head on, but to continue to stretch himself in new directions. I’ve not only admired Bowie’s ability to reinvent himself (rock’s version of a Stravinsky or Miles Davis), but also his collaborative approach—how he embraces the knowledge and insight of others to expand his art’s expressive range.
Blackstar (and his previous single “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” released in October 2014), find Bowie once again challenging himself to expand his art through collaboration, this time with New York jazz musicians (many of whom I’ve written about here and at Jazz Speaks). Sitting at home on this cold and sunny afternoon, all I can think of to do is delve into this valedictory work and bid farewell to this inimitable human being.
Track 1: Blackstar
This is a sprawling odyssey, but the direction of motion is uncertain. Mark Guiliana’s drumming is energetic and intense, but also brutally syncopated, as if gracefully tap dancing in lead shoes. The other band members seem to be moving at different speeds and in different directions. Guitarist Ben Monder’s fingerpicking is relaxed, peacefully drifting through keyboardist Jason Lindner’s vintage synth patches, while saxophonist Donny McCaslin swoops in and out with melodic fragments that move at yet a different rate. The atmosphere is simultaneously tranquil and deeply unsettling.
Bowie’s vocals are striking and declamatory, almost a sacred chorale. He harmonizes himself, an ethereal falsetto floating an octave and a fifth above his main note. That interval is part of the harmonic series, meaning that the two pitches, though far apart, are proportionally related and fuse in the mind. It’s as if I’m hearing both Bowie’s earthly and heavenly voices simultaneously. Both Bowie’s voice and McCaslin’s saxophone are mixed in a way to make it seem that the performers are moving in space in relation to me as the listener. Sometimes, they seem far away, other times close up. Sometimes they move from my right to my left side. It’s disorienting and positively spine-tingling.
At about four minutes in, the rhythms break down, the song reaching a place of restless repose. A new major-key chord progression enters, surrounded by the opening section’s fizzy haze. Bowie intones:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
Poignancy aside, I’m really curious about the meaning of the word “blackstar,” particularly in how he contrasts it with not being a “gangstar,” “film star,” “pop star,” “marvel star,” “white star,””porn star,” or “wandering star.” Maybe it’s just the fact that the lyrics move to the second person, with Bowie addressing some unknown you, but I get a sort of Walt Whitman-esque feeling here. Perhaps “blackstar” is a way of saying that “I contain multitudes,” that this bridge is a sort of bizarro Song of Myself. After hearing the obtuse lyrics of the opening section that can disorient or alienate, Bowie is inviting the listener to ponder them, explore the blackness and the mystery. The things that the listener may not understand in a Bowie song are just as much an authentic part of him as the things that the listener can understand. This simultaneous disorientation and embrace is something that I experience in a lot of great music. I think jazz pianist Brad Mehldau puts it pretty well when he describes the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It’s like they’re saying: Continue reading →
Composer, performer, conductor, scholar, teacher, administrator, auto-didact, genre-coiner, nifty hairdo-wearer, and fiend for fat ties Gunther Schuller died today at the age of 89.
Throughout all of his life roles, Schuller’s principle project was bringing together music from the western classical tradition and the African-American jazz tradition. He played French Horn on Miles Davis’s seminal record Birth of the Cool. He wrote a pair of groundbreaking (though flawed–transcribing is hard!) books on early jazz and swing music that attempted to look at this music through the lens of classical music theory. He wrote music for mixed ensembles of jazz and classical players, juxtaposing serial techniques with swing and improvisation—a style he named “Third Stream.” And he founded not one but two departments devoted to jazz and improvisation at New England Conservatory, some of the first of their kind in the United States. As my friend/fellow composer Joe Sferra wrote on Facebook, “Any one of his projects would be a life’s work of great historical import to music, and he had SEVERAL of them.”
I was lucky enough to hear Gunther Schuller speak before a concert at NEC a couple of years ago. He was clear-eyed, passionate, and sincere about the music he wrote and enjoyed, and had a number of colorful stories about the many great musicians he worked with over the course of his long career.
But tellingly, Schuller wasn’t absorbed in the past, and instead was visibly excited about the new music that was to be performed that night—music that used many forms of improvisation to draw from diverse musical traditions. Even though he was decorated in all of his musical pursuits (Pulitzer, MacArthur, you name it) you could tell that he was most proud of opening doors for others through his teaching and administration.
Thank you, Mr. Schuller, for opening doors for people like me. I’m still trying to figure out this whole jazz-classical hybrid thing too, but I know I have a really good path to follow.
Tonight, my girlfriend Julia and I get to see our badass cello-playing-fiend-friend Francesca McNeeley play with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. As an added bonus, the orchestra will be playing a piece by one of my old teachers, Steve Mackey—his 2008 violin concerto Beautiful Passing. I’ve never heard the piece before and want to have a fresh experience with it, but have been listening to one of my favorite pieces of his to get pumped up—his electric guitar concerto Tuck and Roll.
Steve is really, really good at writing concertos. What makes these work really exciting for me is how he writes truly virtuosic solo parts without falling into tropes of the grand, Romantic concerto tradition. He reconfigures the relationship between soloist and orchestra in an almost theatrical way, sometimes pitting the two as adversaries, sometimes making them equal partners in shaping the musical form. Mackey’s concertos are full of surprises, wrong turns, and humorous non-sequitirs. In that way, Mackey’s Tuck and Roll is to a classic piece like the Tchaikovsky violin concerto as…
How about Steve Mackey’s Tuck and Roll is to the Tchaikovsky violin concerto as the comic The Far Side is to Tintin. I mean, I’m listening to Tuck and Roll now and am imagining a windmilling Pete Townshend in a tuxedo in front of the NYPhil and you really can’t get any more cartoonish than that.
So let’s first think of this analogy in terms of the general sound world and color palette of each work. Far Side and Tuck and Roll have much wider and brighter color palettes than their predecessors. I hear Mackey’s industrial timbres—from the huge assortment of percussion instruments to the blazing guitar itself—as Gary Larson’s eye-popping Crayola shades in his Sunday panels. The rich, vintage-velvet sounds of the Tchaikovsky are then a proper analogue to the muted colors of Tintin panels, aged by the decaying newsprint.
The analogy holds for the form of each piece as well. Tintin is an adventure novel in graphic form, with single characters sustained through an extended plot line. The Far Side comics are generally single-paneled, pithy non-sequitir observations, with occasional characters and themes popping up here and there. Like Tintin, the Tchaikovsky concerto is structured like an adventure story. The virtuosic hero-soloist is pitted against the grand orchestra. Single themes are stated, transformed, and returned, creating a linear sense of drama. Tuck and Roll on the other hand is made up different, more loosely connected episodes. The musical kernels are generally shorter—like the 7-beat rhythmic ostinato vs. the famous Tchaikovsky tune—and transformed timbrally rather than tonally. While the episodes in Tuck and Roll are certainly related by their sound world and rhythmic definition, they don’t sustain a single dramatic story like the violin line in the Tchaikovsky. There’s just enough disjunction between the sections to know that Mackey is more concerned with single panel images rather than a traditional musical narrative.
Thirdly, the analogy illuminates the relationship between the communicative styles of the pairs of artworks. Both the Tchaikovsky violin concerto and The Adventures of Tintin engage listeners in a very direct way. They seek to bring the audience safely from point A to point B, while creating the illusion of danger. They speak in common languages that are familiar to the audience. They are exciting to experience, but the adventures are contained within the works themselves. They don’t jump out of the medium to challenge the very reality of the audience. The Far Side and Tuck and Roll are much more subversive in that respect. Gary Larson’s surrealist take on the world, with his peculiar images (like God looking at a piano falling on a man on His computer screen) and obsession with anthropomorphism, isn’t that far removed with Mackey’s surrealist take on musical styles. Tuck and Roll isn’t quite darkly comic like many Far Side panels, but it certainly entertains some wild musical possibilities, like using car parts as percussion instruments and combining electric and acoustic sound sources. The sense of playful surrealism in both works cannot be contained by the works themselves, as the works make it clear to their audiences that the world they know may not always be what it seems. In this regard, The Far Side and Tuck and Roll are gleefully mind-bending.
STEVE MACKEY SHREDS
So thinking about concertos in this analogous way certainly creates some tenuous connections between the artworks, but also leads to a more lively set of possible interpretations. In a way, this gets to the heart of writing about music—trying to communicate non-semantic sound in an analogous semantic way. Listening to a piece as an analogy helps with the translation of the music into words, but has the possibility of distorting the meaning: Mackey may not think of Tuck and Roll as humorously surreal, and Tchaikovsky may not think of his violin concerto as an archetypal adventure story.
However, at a concert of music that is all under 35 years old, this kind of curious, analogous thinking is what can make unfamiliar music come alive. When music is more abstract, it suggests fewer direct musical comparisons and more complicated musical emotions. However, it also allows for a wider range of comparisons and experiences, including imagining the pieces as comic strips. Perhaps then at a concert of contemporary music the audience should be encouraged to think creatively and playfully, rather than being told what to think by detailed program notes and on-stage explanations.
Especially when compared to the author’s great tragedies, William Shakespeare’s sonnets always appeared to me to be the runts of the Bard’s poetic litter. I’d read the line “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and my mind would draw up images of butterflies and roses and tacky Hallmark cards, not deep thoughts on the struggles of human experience. It turned out I was not alone in that thought either: In the two centuries after Shakespeare’s death, the sonnets had little lasting impact on English poetry, as great poets like Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope looked to Milton as the pinnacle of English sonneteering.
Yet when I first read these poems closely, and really got to know their ins and outs, they turned from sweet, fourteen-line morsels to something much darker and more mysterious. For instance, most of the sonnets center on the relationship between the poems’ speaker and a male “fair youth.” Is their relationship romantic and sensual? Just platonic? Not quite either? Does it matter? Once I followed the sonnets down the rabbit hole, I discovered that they lead to endless questions rather than simple answers.
In a course on Shakespeare that I took in college, my professor encouraged us to dig into the sonnets by trying to write an analysis of a favorite one using only the words in that sonnet. I chose Sonnet 73, a meditation on lost youth.¹ By playing with and rearranging the words from this poem, I got a new insight into how it worked. No longer was I just struck with the asymmetrical beauty of lines like, “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.” Instead, I noticed just how obsessed the speaker is with explaining his or her station in metaphor. As opposed to a person aging gracefully and imparting wisdom on a young friend, the speaker appears extremely frightened of the future, using every bit of poetic skill to express what he or she is feeling. Even the final couplet directed toward the fair youth feels more like a passive-aggressive command than a statement of fact.
In this piece, I am hoping to convey both the ambiguities of the sonnet itself and the sense of discovery one gets when digging deeply into such a rich piece of literature. The poem itself is set as a chorale. Like a love sonnet, a chorale has a very strong archetypal emotional connotation—we immediately associate it with church services and solemn events. But just as Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 subverts our concept of what a sonnet is meant to do, my hope is that the mysterious oddities of this chorale push against your own sense of what a chorale is supposed to evoke. After the chorale, the singers pull the sonnet apart, creating a new texture based on single words from the poem. At the same time, a reader puts the sonnet back together in a new way, using that old assignment from college to attempt to explain the poem in Shakespeare’s language. Just as it takes more than one reading to really understand a poem, it takes more than one musical setting to tease out the sonic possibilities of a poem’s words.
That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
This piece was premiered by the San Francisco Choral Artists on June 8, 2014, in Palo Alto, California. It was subsequently performed on June 14 in San Francisco, and June 15 in Oakland. It won second prize in the San Francisco Choral Artists’ annual “New Voices Project” call for scores.
1. This may have been a symptom of the classic senior year “what’s next” ennui.
Art imitated life at last night’s Tony Awards, and no, it had nothing to do with Hugh Jackman being a kangaroo. Three out of the four winners for best lead actor honors—Bryan Cranston, Audra McDonald, and Jessie Mueller—not only portrayed real people (Lyndon Johnson, Billie Holliday, Carole King, respectively), but real people from recent historical memory. Most of us know what these figures looked and sounded like. It’s not like these actors brought long-lost figure to life in a way that we could only imagine.
I’m not here to comment on the relative merits of each actor’s performance (I’ve only seen Cranston’s as LBJ). Instead, I’m wondering why it’s easier to give a prize to an actor portraying a person that we’ve heard and seen, rather than a purely fictional one?
Depictions of contemporary public figures have recently been extremely well-represented in the Oscar lead actor and actress categories as well as the Tonys. Just in the past 10 years, actors have won the top Oscars for depictions of Ray Charles, June Carter Cash, Edith Piaf, Truman Capote, King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, Harvey Milk, Margaret Thatcher, and Idi Amin. Playing this kind of role carries more weight with awards voters—all but two of the winners above have only won the top prize by playing these kinds of characters.
One potential reason for this trend is what I’ll call the Fantasy Baseball Quotient. As an audience, we usually only know the public personas of the characters portrayed on stage or screen, but not what happened when the cameras stopped rolling, or the stage lights went out. We get excited by the fact that we’re let into these people’s worlds, that we get to be acquaintances, not just a throng of fans. These performances allow us to fantasize about being a part of an important, historical moment. Continue reading →