Inverted Fugues and Unimportant Flutes

I know I promised more interesting things like blog posts about books and the MET, but those will have to wait, because it is 2:30 AM and I have been listening to Harmonielehre all night and I just have to talk about it.

Ok, so Harmonielehre. John Adams. The best thing about Harmonielehre, besides everything, is that it has the most satisfying structure I can think of. What John Adams is probably the best at is knowing when it is time to change to some new music, and, perhaps most importantly, what music needs to come next. Every moment is placed precisely at the perfect point in the journey of the piece.

I think a big reason why I connect with Adams’ music so deeply is that I <3 Structure. It is my absolute favorite thing. It is the first thing I notice about a piece as I hear it. (I can’t tell you how many times I have thought to myself during a recital, “Thank God, a Rondo! I can tell when this will be over.” Have I mentioned Classical structures bore me?)

An aside: Isn’t it kind of awesome and sad how there will always be those three flutes just arpeggiating away at the beginning of Harmonielehre, but you will never hear it for those incredibly orchestrated and spaced E minor chords?

Structure is also the first thing I think about before writing a piece. I take all these 11×17 pieces of paper and draw these huge graphs and shapes and things all outlining what the piece will look like when it’s finished. When I’ve finished these sketches, I tape it on my office wall, so I can always see exactly where I am in the Big Picture. This can sometimes turn into a problem of “This section doesn’t want to go there” but more often than not, the original drawing is correct and it is an extremely helpful way to keep your work focused.

For the past 3 or so years, that is how I have always worked. Structure first, the write the notes to fit the story. But for some reason, I decided I wanted to try something different this time. I’m currently working on a piece, tentatively titled Knock on Wood, as a thank you gift for a mentor of mine. Right now, the piece is basically an explosion of my favorite hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past. I was so excited about working on the piece, that I didn’t bother trying to sketch out a structure; I just wrote a whole bunch of notes. This has been fine and dandy until now, when I am trying to figure out how all of this fits together. I had a similar problem when I was writing Leaves of Greens: I had written all this music to fit this poetry, but I had absolutely no idea how it all worked together. I’m still not even sure how Leaves of Greens all works together, if it even does. I don’t really have an answer to this right now, so this storyline will have to be continued in a later episode.

At any rate, Structure. Here are some examples of what I deem Satisfying Structures:

Adams – Harmonielehre. (Duh.) If you do nothing else, listen to the last 6 minutes of the last movement.

Jonathan Newman – Symphony No. 1, “My Hands Are a City” Make sure to catch the awesome, awesome ending of the last movement. (This won’t be a theme, I promise.)

John Corigliano – Clarinet Concerto. Unbelievably amazing.

Price Walden – hydrogen jukebox. just kidding. but really. just kidding.

Here’s the other thing: I don’t think I could name an Unsatisfying Structure if I had a gun at my head, because I don’t really listen to pieces that I would consider unsatisfying. But they exist. Here is where I reckon they main offenders would exist:

Choral Music (or any music with a text): Music with a text automatically is a problem in that the text 99% of the time will govern the structure. This is usually not a bad thing in and of itself, but it can turn into this never ending rhapsody where the composer just follows his heart and you are left wondering what the heck has happened at the end. Samuel Barber was really awesome at making sure the text left you with a satisfying structure at the end. See: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, where he took a prose chapter of a book and turned it into one of the most moving things you will ever hear. David Lang is really awesome and taking the text and letting it have absolutely nothing to do with the structure of the music. Instead, it just becomes another aspect of the music that he can manipulate. See: the little match girl passion. (The best piece of all time.)

Renaissance Music: Back circa the 16th century, they basically just pretended that structure didn’t exist. Their philosophy was basically “It’s over when it’s over.” All of that music always will sound to me like a Giant Polyphonic Jam Session, which can either leave me So Excited or like “Really, Dudes?”

Classical Music: This suffers from exactly the opposite problem as the Renaissance. The Classical period was all about structure, but they were too much about structure for me. There is a certain amount of time that I can sit through a Sonata Allegro and it is about 16 bars. Once we start modulating to the Dominant the first time, I instantly zone out. A big exception to this is Beethoven, who, especially toward the end of his live, was usually wildly inventive in his structures. He also created one of my favorite structures of all time: the final movement to his Piano Sonata in Ab Major, Op. 110. It is Recitative: Arioso: Fugue: Arioso II (the same arioso in a different key and heavily ornamented): and then he does the Fugue again except HE INVERTS IT. HE TURNS THAT FUGUE UPSIDE DOWN AND YOU HAVE TO PLAY IT. YESSSSSS. Go listen to it right now. It is absolutely my favorite thing. I’m gonna be playing it on my recital next year, so go ahead and put April 2013 on your calendars for the best recital ever. I’ve also decided I’m doing Phrygian Gates on that recital, but that is Another Structure for Another Time.

What’s great about Romantic Music is that’s when composers learned about Transformation. They were the best at learning how to really manipulate the emotions through transformation and such, which kind of turned out to be their downfall. But they were always good at giving you satisfying structures, even if you were mad that they were able to leave you so devastated through a tone poem.

Here is Glenn Gould doing that last movement of Beethoven 110.

I am super in love with this video because:

  • A: That chair. I have recently been doing the Glenn Gould thing where I sit as low at the piano as possible, and it is amazing how it effects your touch and motion.
  • B: He takes the opening recit. so incredibly slow and it drives me wild.
  • C: I love the choices he makes about what voices to bring out when in the fugues.
  • D: He does the best arm motions when the bass has the subject
  • E: Stacy Rodgers would eat me alive if I ever played either of the Ariosos like that
  • F: All the other typical Glenn Gould things that I hold dear

Speaking of Glenn Gould, the Bach Goldberg Variations also have one of the Most Awesome Structures. They are typical variations, but Bach gives you these surprises along the way to keep you interested psychologically: Canons at all the different levels, different forms like the Overture etc., and then that awesome Quodlibet.

For an altogether different thought, I have always to do one of those tests where they put people in an MRI or whatever and see what parts of their brain light up when they flash certain pictures or whatever, except I want to get in there and then them play the last 6 minutes of Harmonielehre and watch my brain explode with colors like a Jackson Pollock painting on LSD.

OK, so moving on from all this rambling.

I was on the front page of the Tupelo Daily Journal! Here is the great little article by Scott Morris. It was very strange and extremely exciting to walk up to the newspaper stand and see my face staring back at me.

If you have never seen Waiting for Guffman, do yourself a favor and go find it right this second. Go watch this video of a song from it. Some amazing things about this song: The name of this song is Stool Boom. It’s in Lydian mode, so there is all kinds of I-II action. The intro has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the song. That awesome MIDI clarinet run in the second verse. The absolutely inexplicable deccelerando at the end. The lyric, “Stools are where/Once upon a time, you’d find a chair.” And every single other thing about it. Catherine O’Hara and Parker Posey are delivering some especially fine vocals. Go now. You won’t regret it.

Ok. I can’t think of one more thing to say in this extremely random post, so until next time, I hope you all have a wonderful time being entranced by Harmonielehre. The next blog post, I promise I am going to talk about programming, both at the MET, at the major orchestras, and about the programming for my recital next month.

Forgive me for the incoherence,


OH and PS, I don’t know why the YouTube videos are showing up so enormous. I am going to see what I can do about it. Forgive me until I can get it fixed.

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