It has been a while since I have written a legit blog entry, but things have just gone crazy pants up in here lately. My last barn-burner about key relationships is a tough act to follow, but I am going to give it a shot. I know that I originally meant for this blog to be about theory and analysis, but it has evolved to be more about me as a composer and theorist. It was unexpected, but apparently I needed somewhere to put this stiff. And that still gives me the excuse that if I need to fill material between rambling posts, like this one, I can post one of the dozens of theoretical papers I have written in abridged form spread over multiple posts. Oh, you lucky, lucky people. Amazing my RSS stats aren’t just through the roof.
Annoyingly, also, it is time to replace my computer keyboard. Things aren’t working right. Undoubtedly, one too many beers spilled into it.
The final chapter of my Masters Degree is winding down. My graduate recital is scheduled for March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, and that is the final requirement of my degree. As long as that program is accepted by the composition faculty, I will be officially Mastered and on my way to greater academia. Or not. Who knows? But the larger point is that my official interactions with the USM School of Music as a student are nearing an abrupt halt. Sure, sure, I will undoubtedly pop up there from time to time to see the occasional concert, the twice annual Composer’s Ensemble Concert for example, but it will be different. Alumni. TWO TIME ALUMNI *, at that. I will be expected to start contributing to the musical world as a whole, which I hope to do, proudly sporting the USM banner, which I will always do.
It is the last few interactions that leave me both happy that the school I have been involved with for fifteen years ** is really starting to move forward in a direction that I had been hoping for and asking for, but also a little sad that I am going to miss out on what seems to be an ever increasing series of great opportunities. This semester features a larger than usual number of specifically new music/composition events. I hope this isn’t isolated, and that the School of Music continues to build on this. In a three month span, there are two or three graduate composition recitals, plus there was one at the end of Fall Semester. Two concert readings/recordings focusing on new music. The Composers Ensemble concert, the Back Cove Festival. Winter-Spring is new music time in Maine, and I am lucky to sip gluttonously from its chalice, even if but for a fleeting while.
The first residency was a concert reading session by ETHEL, the often electric and always amazing, string quartet based in NYC ***. My progression as a writer for strings has been very gradual. In fact, if memory serves, all the real pieces I have written for strings are less than five years old, give or take, except for a few scraps of a REQUIEM setting that I started in high school before I could really grasp what a Requiem was for. There are still only a handful of pieces. Sure, the G Minor Concerto for Piano and the Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion have no orchestral winds at all, but they are far from the norm. There’s the very recent Chamber Concerto for small orchestra and newly finished Chamber Suite for Pierrot Ensemble. Isolated bits of string music pepper my early catalog, but for the most part they are not very good, nor are they good string writing. Bad music and bad part writing? No thanks, they can stay sheltered away on my hard drive until I look back at them and try to figure out if they can be edited successfully.
The string quartet that I wrote grew out of a sketch that I started about 7 years ago, give or take. I was stuck in the Atlanta airport for about 8 hours on a layover, and they had an exhibit on ancient Egyptian Shadow Puppets. I was completely captivated by the concept of a two-dimensional art form, and wanted to see if there was some way to capture that musically. What if I wrote a piece for an ensemble that was meant to be backlight, with their shadows portrayed on a screen? Two dimensional concert music! The reason that I chose a string quartet was the available range of motion of the performers. And what was born was probably the most dissonant, completely atonal 8 measures of music I had ever written, and possible have ever written. I could never figure out a way to make it a complete piece, but I loved the overall idea of the music I had written. When I was asked to write for this event, I took those eight measures, worked and cut and chopped the material and finally figured out what to do with it. Two additional movements, and I had a piece.
So, here I was: I knew enough that the first movement was fiendishly difficult. Awkward double stops in the interior voices, no real sense of cohesion, peppered strange articulations that weren’t apparently, what I really wanted sonically after all ****. I was nervous… because I wondered if the music was not just hard, but hard and bad. What was this… this thing going to sound like, even in the extremely capable hands of the quartet after one reading? I feared less for the second and third movements, but I was really, really nervous about what the first was going to sound like. That, dear friends, should have been the first sign.
To their credit, and in a manner assuaging my considerable compositional anxiety, ETHEL looked at the music and let me know that the double stops are hard and awkward. To that, I nodded in tacit agreement as if to say “Yes, yes I know… but would it be too much trouble for you to play it anyway?” And they played the first eight measures, but the music didn’t quite line up. Sheepishly, with the eyes of 75 people bearing down on the back of my head, I waved them off, and just let them know that the first measures weren’t quite right. They talked about it for a second, I let them in on the secret ^, and then they played it NAILS. I mean just like Finale playing back a sound file with the crispness of computerized time. And then the sensitive section, and they played it tenderly, and then the recap and just impeccable again.
I had nothing to say. I mean, in thirty seconds they had pieced together, and brought music out of, something I questioned was even actually musical. I was in shock, and I said so… I mean here is a group with phenomenal reviews from the world over, and all I can say is “I can’t believe you actually were able to put that together” ^*? After that, the second and third movements went just about exactly as I figured they would. Some minor things here and there that I asked them to tweak, and they agreed and played it again just like I asked. They even commented when they saw the third movement that it would practically play itself.
But I have heard it played… so what to do now with it? Well, I think that first thing I realized is that I have two thirds of a great piece on my hands, but that the opening movement just needs something ^**. And I will get to it, I just have too much other stuff floating around right now, so it’s on the list of things that I need to edit, and then try to shop around to quartets that might be interested. But I think that I have a nice little stable of marketable pieces that I might actually be able to get some performances. I will have some really good recordings of them which is going to be key, and hopefully the drive to do something with it all, rather than let it languish on my hard drive in digital form.
Because here’s the rub. Soon will come the next chapter, or book, or whatever analogy is appropriate. In the next couple of months, I have to spread my wings and see what I can do to make my name in the private music world. It’s scary as crap, I ain’t gonna lie, that I have to say goodbye to what has been a very, very big part of my life. But it’s coming whether I want it to or not. The final curtain call. The last hurrah. Send in the clowns.
* I did my BA there, too.
** Sure, there was a two year hiatus but that never stopped me from showing up, or being in contact with faculty there I am closest to.
*** There is also a strange connection between me and the viola player. He is from my old stomping grounds, and I knew his father.
**** Wait. Was that a quote from “Purple Haze”? What is THAT doing there? Ugh.
^ “Yeah, that 9/8? It’s four, with a long three… and the 7/8 is three with a long 2.”
^* Real classy, Newton. Way to go, you jerk.