Et exspecto has been the hardest piece I’ve ever had to write. The music came in small bursts, with long stretches of me beating my head against the desk. I have stacks and stacks of sketches and sections that just didn’t fit the piece.
I attribute this to a couple of things. First of all, I was writing the piece at one of the busiest times in my life. Every minute I wasn’t in rehearsal was spent writing, even when I was in class. As a result, I had to take a lot of time away from my piano rep, but that turned out to be a good thing, which I’ll talk about in the next post.
But the biggest factor in the difficulty was most likely that this is one of the most personal pieces I have written yet. The piece is very much about my struggles with anxiety over the past year or so, and I had to make sure the piece was reflective of that. It very much feels like a lot of what tends to go on in my brain, it’s just a constant nervous energy, filled with thoughts that don’t get completed, sudden changes of focus, all with this underlying twitchy pulse. It’s almost a day in the life of.
I’m somewhat happy with the way everything turned out in the end. I used a lot of things that I just won’t know how they turn out until I hear humans play it, so I can’t be very sure, but I took a lot of risks and tried to step out of my comfort zone for this one.
The piece is mainly based on a tone row derived from the opening bars of movement three in Messiaen’s “Et exspecto resurrectionem et mortuorum,” one of my favorite pieces, which also, coincidentally, is for a wind ensemble. I quote the opening figure verbatim at the very start of the piece. In general, I split the six notes in half, with each set of three notes forming the basis for the harmonic and melodic material, often right on top of each other. A lot of material I derived directly from permutations of the row, and other material I came up with on my own, but it ended up being related to the row anyway.
Another very personal aspect for me are the pieces I reference throughout. Each of these pieces (which I’ll not name here, you have to guess) are very important to me on a deeply personal level and have had a profound influence on me musically, and on me as a person. I’ve had it in my mind to reference a lot of the pieces for a long time, and it gives me a lot of joy to be able to do it in such a personal and meaningful context.
The perusal score and midi are now posted on the aptly titled Et exspecto page. The piece will premiere at the beginning of June, with the Stuart High School band. Doug Martin, former director at Stuart, organized the commission while was the director there last year, but took another job at the beginning of the year, and as part of my residency there, he’ll be doing that classic hit, hydrogen jukebox, which should be a lot of fun. The commissioners have exclusivity until November of this year, just in time for everybody else to do it on their fall concerts, so start planning now, band directors of the world.
I’m very excited about my new projects, including a clarinet sonata for Michael Rowlett, the clarinet professor here at Ole Miss, and my next chamber opera, which I’ll be writing this summer. Exciting things to come.
And I await…
So, here we are. One musical is over, the other is in rehearsal. I’ve just finished midterms. Spring break is next week. Call Me Maybe didn’t win the Grammy. It’s just a very conflicting time for me right now.
The piece was technically due last Friday. (I say technically because that makes my brain feel like it’s ok, for some reason.) And, naturally, it is not finished. Now, there are a couple of reasons that could explain why this happened.
A) I was music directing a production of Urinetown at the same time. Back last spring, when we were negotiating the commission, the performances were supposed to be in the fall, but something happened with the performance venue and we had to move it to the spring. Ok, no big deal. Except about a month ago when I realized that the due date for the piece was the day after opening night. Oops.
B) I wrote a lot of music and about 75% of it is in a big stack on a shelf right now. About 60% of it is probably music that I actually like and will use in the future, just not in this piece. For some reason, I have had a really hard time getting a grasp on what this piece should sound like, and look like, and feel like. So, I have pages upon pages upon pages of music that I worked really hard on, that just did not fit in the piece, no matter how hard I tried.
So, between these two things, this piece has had a very difficult life. I usually take a very long time to get in the groove of a writing session, but I’ve not had that luxury, so I’ve had to learn to just knock it out. If I had 30 minutes between classes, my computer was out and I’m writing. I’ve written and orchestrated a lot of this piece in class. (I still took notes, I promise.) One teacher will not let us have electronics of any kind in class, so I took manuscript paper and wrote by hand. Priorities.
And, naturally, the piece is still not done. But, it’s close, I promise. I threw out a transition section last night though, so eventually I’m just going to have to tell myself to let it go.
In the next blog,
hopefully tomorrow when the piece is finished, I’m going to fully outline how I wrote the piece and how it’s all constructed and such, because it’s very different from anything else I’ve written before. What if I just said that a new aspect of waiting for the piece is everyone waiting for this piece to be finished? No? No.
Now that finals and juries and recitals are all over, I can return to being a composer for a little while. I’m finishing up a little song set right now, and then my next project is this commission for a consortium of 7 bands in Fairfax County, Virginia (coordinated by the fantastic Doug Martin). The piece technically isn’t due until March (premiere(s) is (are) late next spring), but I’m the music director for 2 musicals, rehearsals in February and March, respectively, so I’m trying to write it now instead of frying myself then.
I was asked if I would do some blog posts about the piece as I went along, so this is my first shot at trying to let you inside the process. I’m sure my “inspiration” process isn’t much different from other composers, but it’s interesting for me to lay it all out on paper. The planning stage of a piece for me relies heavily on a kind of free association. It starts with a very small idea, and then keeps turning and growing into something completely different. So, here’s a kind of outline for what I am thinking about the piece so far. (It’s usually not so linear, but I’m too lazy to draw a web.)
The commissioning parties asked for a concert opener that ended with a bang, not a whimper.
Obviously, The Hollow Men
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang but a whimper.
My next obvious thought was about the doomsday predictions of 2012.
Which happens to be right smack in the middle of Advent, my favorite season.
Which is about waiting. So there is a common theme here of waiting- either for Jesus or the world to end. Or maybe both.
The commission was for a piece to open the concert. Which brought to mind the waiting and expectations one has for a concert.
I have been listening to a lot of Messiaen’s works lately, and I’ve been reminded of how much I love Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Which is a phrase from the Mass that translates roughly to “And I await the resurrection of the dead.” And is also one of my favorite movements of the Bach Mass in B Minor.
So, from all that, I’ve decided the piece is probably going to be titled Et exsepcto (and I await), and is going to be about waiting and preparation. Waiting for the rest of the concert, waiting for the concert to be over, waiting until the end of this awful piece, etc. Just the concept of waiting. Like an overture prepares you for the opera, this piece will, in theory, somehow, prepare you for the rest of the concert. I have no idea how all of that is going to translate into music just yet, but that’s what makes it interesting.
So, something like that. My next job is to sketch some kind of outline for how the piece will actually look. 5 minutes is a weird time span, because it’s not quite long enough to do a whole lot, but not quite short enough to rely on just one idea- it’s a delicate balancing act. My other main goal for this piece is to make it a little grittier. Things like hydrogen jukebox sound to me, now, like they have a glossy sheen on them. So, I’m going to try to see if I can peel back the paint in a few spots, but something not as crazy as, say, Varese.
I’ll hopefully keep you updated. Probably in a month when I have decided the piece is going to be about something different, like flowers or the 4th of July. Or, more likely, a transcription of “Call Me, Maybe.” (I’ve expressed this on other social forums, but if that song doesn’t win Song of the Year at the Grammy’s it will be a gross injustice.)
So, this is terribly late, but I have spent the whole week in rehearsals with the Memphis Symphony’s Opus One ensemble. The concert is tonight, and your attendance is required. We’re playing among many other things, the Adams Son of Chamber Symphony, Torke’s Adjustable Wrench, and the last movement of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, which I know is your favorite. Plus, DJ Redeye will be there and we are playing a whole bunch of stuff. You know you want to hear me play a synth slap bass solo! Starts at 7:30, free admission.
Messiaen once infamously argued that a falling tritone was a cadence. A lot of people tend to dismiss it as Old Man Olivier, but nothing else could explain his music better.
Indeed, in the world of modes of limited of transposition and non-retrogradable rhythms, what could be more significant than a falling tritone? Messiaen’s language has no use for V-I. This is not a bombastic faith, not a simple faith. This is a faith of color, of depth. An authentic cadence in this universe would be like tagging “Shave and a haircut” on the end of the Goldberg Variations.
One of my favorite parts of the Advent season is how layered it is. On one level, it is an exercise in waiting: the long wait for the birth of the Messiah, which also mirrors our own waiting for his Second Coming. On another level, it allows us Protestants a little taste of Marian worship, a chance to look into the heart of Mary for questions and answers. And on a deeper level, it gives a slight nod to the Lenten season; one can’t think about Jesus coming to earth without remembering the reason that he came in the first place. These layers are what sets the Vingt Regards apart for “classical” religious music. I love singing along to “For Unto Us a Child is Born” as much as the next guy, but Messiaen truly understands the season, and in 2 hours, takes us through every possible feeling.
The Regards use 3 themes as their building blocks: the Theme of God, the Theme of the Star and the Cross, and the Theme in Chords. Messiaen uses these themes as almost Wagnerian leitmotifs, telling the story through combinations.
(The excerpts I will be playing in December mostly feature the Theme of the Star and the Cross.)
At first it seems strange that the Star and Cross share a theme, but Messiaen explains in the program note: “The Star and the Cross have the same theme because one opens and the other closes Jesus’ time on earth.” In the note to the raucous and disjointed “Regard de l’Etoile” he writes, “Shock of grace…The star shines naïvely, surmounted by the Cross.”
In this second movement (the Contemplation of the Star), Messiaen gives us a slow integration of the Star and the Cross. The movement starts with 3 distinct gestures: a rapid ascending chain of chords, followed by a chain of sevenths and ninths in the uppermost register of the piano, followed by three chords, almost like clock chimes. It is almost as if Messiaen is showing us the family of stars: a shooting star, then some of the twinkle twinkle little variety, and finally the hammering and installation of the star of the annunciation. Following this astrological journey, he gives us our first taste of the Theme (shown above), introduced piano, four octaves apart. Tacked on the Theme is a 2 measure series of octaves and tritones, still four octaves apart, acting as almost a bridge between the colors of the stars and the shapes of the Theme.
After another trip through the night sky, we are given another chance at the Theme, this time stated forte in the left hand alone. This time the stars of the right hand answer pianissimo in-between the statements of the cross. The Cross has surmounted the Star; the powerful statement of the theme serves as a reminder of the season just a few short weeks down the road.
The bridge is restated, this time accompanied by twinkling seconds in the upper register, sending us through one last survey of the stars, all before a peaceful conclusion- an expansion on the connecting bridge- the joining of the Star and the Cross at last.
This past summer, while I was visiting my parents back at home, I was able to have a front row seat to a meteor shower. We are very lucky to have a home basically in the middle of nowhere, free from noise and light pollution. So, as I always do, I grabbed a blanket and watched.
Watching a meteor shower is a very strange event. You are basically waiting for something you might not even be able to see. There can be unnervingly long periods of time between stars. And on top of everything, you are often times dealing with less than ideal conditions- in my case coldness and wet grass. However, that first star makes it all worth it. It gives you a chance to appreciate the layers of the sky- the proud guardian of the moon, the soft twinkle of the constant stars, and the surges of light and energy of the meteors.
As I lied there in the middle of my yard, my mind couldn’t help but wander. After all, it can be 10 minutes between star sightings. The flashes of light echoed my scattered thoughts. Thoughts of worry, doubt, fear. Thoughts of questioning.
I tried several times to go back inside (the cold was getting to be too much to bear). I was in the middle of a movie, All About Eve, I’m fairly sure, but I couldn’t resist the stars. Something drew me to the fleeting objects. Perhaps it was the time-sensitive nature: these things don’t happen every night. Or perhaps I needed the reminder of something more in the world. Indeed, this was the capstone of a summer full of anxiety. I had become a very different person, but I still had no idea whom that person was. The exhilaration of the stars alternated with the pain inside my head- a mental tug-of-war for custody of my mental capacity. Falling tritones over strings of chords. A cross surmounting the star.
No resolution was achieved, only a defeated juxtaposition. This was not the world of Beethoven’s 9th, no triumphant D-major to be found. Pain and ecstasy are not always mutually exclusive.
I am writing this from a horse campground, which is A) the kind of thing that only happens to me, and B) probably the only time in your life you will read that sentence.
The past 5 or so months of my life have all been leading up to the past week. I first got the idea to do a Cage recital back in mid-April (the next piano lesson after my last recital, naturally), I spent the summer preparing the program, and the last 2 or so months practicing and buying screws and bolts.
I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. I’ve written about this before, but I was deeply moved just to have been a small part of celebrating this man’s work. It was very gratifying to have had such a great turn out for such a crazy event. It was even more gratifying that they really responding and enjoyed the program. I even had a couple of people say how much they enjoyed One! The definite one hit wonder was Mad Rush, coincidentally a piece that John Cage did not write. At least 75% of the people who have talked to me went on and on about how much they loved that piece.
Immediately after my solo recital, I had to switch gears to get ready for the big Cage concert the next monday. I and several professors had been planning this since July and it turned out to be an enormous undertaking. I’ve told several people that it was the most involved and elaborate concert that I’ve ever been a part of. The logistics were a nightmare. (A piece for 12 radios and 24 people in the middle of the program is a crazy thing to do, on multiple levels.) But, it was so worth it. We had an enormous crowd, probably the largest I have ever seen here, and they absolutely ate it up. It was nice to get A) another shot at The Perilous Night, B) to play percussion on stage again, and C) to get to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, all the time being mic-ed and amplified. (I was also very hungry at that point, so bonus.)
All in all, it was so very worth it, but I am so glad to be done with Cage for a while. I’ve been trying to live inside this man’s brain for so long, and I’m ready to move on to the next thing.
Speaking of the next thing: On Sunday, December 2nd, I will be giving another solo recital as part of the First Presbyterian Church’s Advent Recital series. I’m currently trying to figure out what to play, but I know for sure I will be playing some selections from Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus. (More on him later.) Also, I’m starting to look far ahead to next fall for my Senior Recital, which, right now, is looking like it will be a double bill of Phrygian Gates and Beethoven Sonata no. 31, Op. 110. So, I’m apparently a crazy person. Also, I’ll be playing a gig with the Memphis Symphony’s awesome Opus One chamber group next month!
I’ve started to really dig into this Messiaen because it’s hard and probably going to take me the semester to learn. (My “official” school repertoire for this semester is finishing up the Beethoven Op. 110, finishing Bach Partita No. 1, Barber Pas de Deux, and the Premiere Communion movement from the Messiaen Vingt Regards.)
For those of you who don’t know, Olivier Messiaen was this crazy French 20th century composer. He was a Catholic, and was heavily influenced by Christian Mysticism, and his pieces reflect that, both through title and content. “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus” translates roughly to 20 gazes, or reflections, on the Infant Jesus. The entire set of 20 pieces, last 2+ hours, and is one of the monuments of the 20th century piano repertoire. He works in these incredibly unique harmonic and rhythmic languages that make me want to gouge my eyes out most of the time. Observe:
That second excerpt (from Regard de l’Étoile) is probably going to be the death of me. It’s one thing for the two hands to be doing something different, but for different parts of your hand to do something so totally different is _hard_. But, as I have found a lot lately, the hardest music to learn is almost always worth it. So, I’m somehow trudging through.
I promise to post pictures soon from my recital (especially the awesome awesome birthday cake my mom had made), but for now, here are the recordings.
Tomorrow will be the 20th anniversary of John Cage’s death, and for some reason, I feel an obligation to share a few words.
John Cage and I only lived on this earth together for about 16 months, obviously too young for me to have known, but his life has had a profound impact on mine.
I can remember, when I was probably 14 or so and first starting to use the Internet to learn about music, reading about this seemingly crazy guy named John Cage. The cool Internet-music-forum thing to do was to make a joke about 4’33” or, if you happened to be on a piano forum, to express outrage that anybody would ever want to change the sound of a piano. So, for a long while, I believed them. How on earth could a person write ‘tacet’ on a page and claim that it was music? How crazy do you have to be to want to stick screws and bolts and felt in a piano? Do you not realize how much a Steinway costs?! What the heck is an I Ching and why didn’t my Sunday School teacher warn me about this?
Until, when I was probably 18 or so, about to enter college. One day, somehow, I heard ‘Dream’ for the first time. It was actually the first Cage piece I had ever listened to. I was completely overwhelmed. How could such a crazy man write such gorgeous, affecting music? I had to know more, so I went and bought all the best known works. I sat for an entire afternoon and listened to the Sonatas and Interludes twice. I burned a CD with the Constructions and listened to them on the way to and from school. I even checked out the score to Music of Changes from the library one time, but I quickly realized that was way too much for me to handle at that point. Here was a John Cage I could understand. There were actual notes on the page, conventional notations, even a chord now and then. I could just ignore the crazy star-map pieces and such- this, this was music.
Earlier this year, when all the talk and planning was starting for the Cage centenary, I thought about how much fun it would be to do a concert. After all, I had just played Dream on a recital, and surely it wouldn’t be hard to find some pieces to go with it. But the more I thought and planned, the more I realized that I couldn’t just put Dream and In a Landscape on a recital and pretend I was honoring Cage; if I was going to do this, I would have to do it the right way. Which meant I would have to confront the Krazy Works.
For all his “conventional” pieces (he never wrote a conventional piece in his life, but that’s another blog post), there’s another piece out there that involves choosing notes based on notches in wood, or a score that tells you what notes you are supposed to play within a given length of time. How on earth was I going to serve up a piece like One to an audience without them laughing at me? I devoured every book I could find about Cage. I read almost all of his own books, 2 or 3 biographies and a few books of interviews and articles. The more I read about his ideas and philosophy, the more I realized that pieces like Dream or the Suite for Toy Piano weren’t outliers in his oeuvre. Every piece he wrote, even/especially 4’33”, stemmed from one central place. His whole life was dedicated to making you see art and music in a different way. Gone was the need to feel uplifted and overjoyed at the end of Beethoven’s 9th; if two friends were listening to Song Books and one laughs the whole time and the other cries the whole time, they both are having the correct experience because each person’s perception of the piece is different and true.
As I have delved into his work list this summer, both listening and practicing, I’ve been continuously humbled by the connection I have felt with this genius man. When practicing Beethoven, it’s easy to feel as if the Master is standing over you, preparing the thunderbolts every time you miss a note; but with Cage, it feels like he’s sitting on the bench next to you saying, “Oh, that note is much more interesting than the one I wrote. Isn’t this lovely rain we are having? Have I told you lately about my mushrooms?”
Most of all, he has taught me patience. When everything is beautiful and true, it is much harder to get annoyed by it. The ticking of a watch now becomes the metronome for the suite in my office. The computer fan, a drone which the birds outside sing over.
So, rest in peace, John. May you still find joys in the cacophonies of this crazy world.
“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”
“In this section the pianist may utter an occasional grunt, puff, or wheeze to give emphasis to a particular note, as classical performers frequently do, apparently without being aware of it.”
-Frederic Rzewski, in the score to “De Profundis“
In case you didn’t know, this performance of the Hammerklavier sonata by Rzewski himself exists, and it’s just as crazy as you might think. Go now and listen. It’s worth the hour.
This past weekend, I happily attended the final two concerts of a chamber music series in Memphis. I’m not going to name or link to the series here, because my intention is not to be mean to anybody, but rather to just share some observations. My main reason for going was that they were playing the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time on the evening concert, which is one of my favorite pieces and I’d never heard it live before, so there was no way I was missing the opportunity. There was also a concert that afternoon, so I decided that if I was making the trip, I might as well go to both.
Upon arriving to the first concert, I was happy to discover they were playing a lot of new pieces, 4 of the 5 pieces on the concert were written this year, mostly by students graduating from area colleges. It’s very rare that I get to hear new music live, so I was excited to hear some other people’s music for a change. That was until I actually heard the music though. I’ll deal with the music later, but there’s something very important we need to talk about first.
These program notes were dreadful. The first note featured the sentence, “Structurally, the piece flirts with Twelve-Tone but never gives in fully to Serial charm.” WHOA. There are like 15 different things about that sentence that don’t make sense! First of all, and most importantly, the twelve-tone system/serialism/whatever you want to call it has absolutely nothing to do with the structure of the piece. John Cage talks about this a lot in his book, Silence. He basically explains that when Schoenberg and all dem homegurls wiped out the system of tonality, they always wiped away those classical forms, and did not live us with a suitable replacement. Nothing about the twelve-tone system dictates what the structure of the piece should be, only the notes. I’m gonna talk more about this in another blog post about Cage though. Next, ‘Twelve-Tone’ is an adjective and doesn’t have a noun, and neither ‘Twelve-Tone’ nor ‘Serial’ should be capitalized. Also, the whole sentence just doesn’t make sense.
The next program note contains a story about how the piece was an attempt by the composer to “‘modernize’ [his] style (whatever that means) (sic),” but that by the end of the piece he realized that his style worked perfectly well, “hence the resolution to pure tonality just prior to the brief coda.” I can’t even bring myself to comment on that.
The next program note talks about how he stole the titles of the movements from a Lutoslawski piece. And talks a lot about how all these themes heard in the first 4 movements don’t recur again until the final movement, but guess which movement was still in progress and not on the program? You guessed it. The Final Movement. 4 for you, Glen Coco.
(The next piece on the program was Copland’s Twelve Songs of Emily Dickinson, and Aaron’s program note was perfectly fine.)
And oh boy the last program note. Here’s the money quote: “[The piece] was strongly influence by the music of Judd Greenstein and others who fall into the category of “Indy-classical”. (sic) As such, the tonal language is primarily triadic and the rhythmic language generally active but not complex.” INDY-CLASSICAL. OH MY GOSH. I couldn’t believe it when I read that sentence. I tweeted about it immediately. I would talk about why “indie-classical” is an awful term, but Nico Muhly already did it a lot better than me, so go read his blog about it. And I find the second sentence to be kind of offensive in its simplicity? Like, if you were going to categorize a group of composers including Judd, you could surely do a lot better than “they use triads and are kind of rhythmic but not Elliot Carter.”
The worst crime of all came when the pieces were actually played. And by that I mean that the pieces were boring. Well, 3.25 of them were. (The last piece managed to save itself.) That’s probably the worst thing you can be as a piece of music. As I tweeted yesterday, be anything but boring. Be dissonant, be loud, be soft, be for unaccompanied cactus, be 5 hours long, but for God’s sake, just don’t be boring. I was really considering leaving after the first two pieces, because it was like watching paint dry. Both of the first two pieces were both kind of typical new music, long, slow, soft, extended harmonic language, but not Berg. Which is not a bad thing, necessarily, I’ve certainly written music like that before, but they just didn’t do anything. (The truth is that I really only stayed so I could hear “The Chariot.” You know that time you wanted to do pandiatonicism? Copland already did it better than you in that song.)
The longer I thought about it, the more I realized I needed to define what made a piece Not Boring. My mind immediately sprang back to this Jeremy Denk article on NewMusicBox from a few years ago, where he explains why he doesn’t like new music. That article is one of my favorite things ever and perfectly explains what I didn’t like about the pieces on the concert.
I love his notion of “delight” as an indicator in music. This is something I 100% can get behind, and I have blogged about before. Give me a chord as awesome as that one in Salome, and then we’ll talk.
Moving on, Quartet for the End of Time was at least 10 zillion times more awesome than I could have imagined. There were a couple moments between the movements when the audience was rapturously still and silent. I haven’t had many concert experiences that transforming. There were a few accuracy issues on the rhythmic unison 6th movement, and sometimes a string harmonic would be out of tune, but the piece is really hard, so that can be forgiven. Also, it came upon me that even though it’s probably his most famous piece, and one of the most famous of the 20th century, it’s actually really tame for Messiaen, right? I mean, sure, tame Messiaen is still harder than like Copland or something, but it’s definitely not Turangalila or one of those pieces for piano and winds or the Vingt Regards. I really love how Messiaen creates these intensely spiritual worlds using unconventional harmonic and rhythmic languages. I talked to my concert companion about this, but I really do believe that Messiaen is one of the most unique compositional voices of all time. There’s nothing like him.
Some day, I’m going to actually write some music and then talk about it here, but until that day comes I have a lot of John Cage to read/research/practice for this event.
Until next time,