It’s been awhile since I have had any opportunity to compose music, with work and all that. I did, however, make it out to the office in California last week, and over 2-3 nights managed to write a short work for solo cello. It just happened; I didn’t go into this with any thoughts of writing for solo cello, nor did I have an abundance of ideas, so I’m glad this was the resultant output. It is based entirely on an improvisation, which just happened to work well for cello. It’s a stream of continuous 16th notes and also ends as it begins.
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The first piece of 2011 is finally here. I had taken a break for a bit after writing dharmachakramudra, but had recently began to toy with a very basic musical scheme: the sequence I-IV-V-I, which is basic to much tonal music. It’s also extremely banal-basically, that sequence consists of triads beginning with the first tone of a scale, then the fourth, fifth and back to the first tones, respectively. In C major, this would be CEG/FAC/GBD/CEG. Very boring. Or one could simply just include the root notes (C-F-G-C) with or without the corresponding fifth above.
As I said, very dull and boring, but this is what so much tonal music has been based upon for hundreds of years. So I saw it as a bit of a challenge-could I do a work with repetitive structures that largely, if not exclusively, consisted of those tones?The result is a new piece, which I figured I’d title I-IV-V-I. It’s scored for violin, cello and vibraphone, so in that way it somewhat superficially resembles dharmachakramudra. But there’s actually little resemblance; I-IV-V-I is a pretty repetitive, motoric work, whereas dharmachakramudra is brief and almost static.
Like a lot of my works, I-IV-V-I started off as an improvisation. I came up with it at home in Wyncote as a seven-minute improv, and that morphed into what is now a 25-minute work in three nights in Palo Alto last week; I did some minor tweaking once back home, and I think the work is now done.
I had initially recorded it using Finale 2011, but some of the audio sounded muddled to me. Finale is really hit or miss in terms of audio, although their samples are really good in general. I decided to give it a go with Reason, and while the strings are not as good, it sounds better overall, I think. The MP3 file is here; the score is here.
Every other week for the past month and a half, I’ve been spending my night here at San Francisco International Airport waiting for the red eye flight back home to Philadelphia. As I have been doing for just about two years, every other week or so, interrupted by flights to other places. But it does give me an occasional opportunity to blog, something I’ve had less and less time and interest for lately. It’s been much easier to use Twitter and Facebook. Actually, mostly Twitter, which can pass content directly to Facebook.
But since I’m here at SFO. Again. Waiting for a 9:45 flight that is already delayed a bit since there’s not yet any plane sitting here in front of me at Gate 26. I figure it’s a good time to go over what I’m working on right now, music-wise. You’ll notice over time that I haven’t been writing that much about topics besides my own music. Not that I haven’t been busy with fibroid-related stuff for work. Work has been quite busy. But at the end of the day, I would rather deal with a passion than work, even if work is something of a passion. But it’s still work, no?
After finishing my last piece, quartet for piano, I’ve gotten the hankering to finally write something for the innovative violinist Todd Reynolds. Todd and I follow one another on Twitter, and expressed an interest in a solo violin piece rather than something for, say, violin and piano. I used to be a violinist, but haven’t played it in decades. Still, it helps in that I understand something about how to write for string instruments, which isn’t that intuitive, since you have to take into account the various strings, fingerings, etc. At the same time, there are not a lot of great works for solo violin. In part, I think that’s because of something along the lines of what Feldman once said, to the effect that solo violin music tends to be short because how long can anyone really listen to a solo violin? Feldman, who wrote prodigiously lengthy works in the last decade of his life (4-6 hours), wrote two pieces in that same timeframe that I know of, For Aaron Copland and Composition for Violin. The latter piece I like better than the former, but they are both short. Unusually short for late Feldman. The greatest works I can think of for solo violin are the unaccompanied sonatas and partitas by Bach. I used to play them, and they’re amazing works of music. But even they typically come in around 20 minutes or so, in several movements. Same with Bartok’s Sonata for Violin Solo. Same with Hindemith’s two solo violin sonatas, also fine pieces of music (it’s become fashionable of late to bash Hindemith, but I’ve always loved much of his music and will never bash his music). Xenakis wrote a few things for solo violin, as did Prokofiev. Again, all relatively short.
So I started writing this past week in a hotel room in Palo Alto. I had few ideas, but just decided to start improvising and writing, and got just under 10 minutes written down. It’s not bad, and even growing on me. But I have to see where it all goes. In some ways, I’m tempted to write a really long piece, just because everything else I know for solo violin is short. But I don’t know if that’s what I really think is likely. There is a very long solo viola piece I know of by one of my favorite composers, Maria de Alvear. But I’m going to be painfully honest-no matter how many times I listen to it (it’s almost 70 minutes long), it ends up boring me to the point where I just have to stop. I don’t know why it bores me so much, but it just does. Even Opus 17A by Darboven, for solo contrabass, holds more of my interest for the same length of time (69 minutes).
Anyway, I’m going to see where the new violin piece takes me, or rather, where I take it. It’s titled four strings for todd reynolds. Interestingly, the opening is 12-tone, or rather, uses all 12-tones in sequence. But it’s anything but academic. By the time a few minutes have passed, we’re into a stream of continuous eighth notes, so don’t worry-I haven’t given up on postminimalism and gone over to the dark side of uptown, academic serialism. But there’s nothing wrong with playing around with all 12 tones; I’ve been doing that for many many years.
Whether tis nobler…oh the hell with it.
I’ve been seriously debating just giving up this blog entirely, or at least just abandon it while letting it sit on the Web. I’ve been writing it for several years now, but in these days of microblogging via twitter et al, I’ve been reserving this blog for things that just don’t fit neatly into 140 characters or less. But the interesting reality is that, as messy as life is, most things really can be condensed to quick thoughts. Sometimes, as in the case of Pascal’s Pensees, these aphorisms contain a lot of detailed meeting (“He lives on the other side of the water” generally implies Pascal’s questioning of why murder is illegal yet soldiers can kill folks just because they’re on the other side of the water). But much of twitter is pretty meaningless and vapid.
Nonetheless, it’s gotten harder to find time to write worthwhile stuff. I mean, I don’t want to bore anyone to death. So I’m still debating, and hope to have a decision soon. In any case, work is busy, which is good, I’m writing a piano piece that I’m intending for three pianists for whom I have a great deal of admiration (Alessandra Celletti, Stephane Ginsburgh, Louis Goldstein), and have been asked to speak on medical device development for physicians at a conference in the Fall.
I won’t blog about a recent debacle involving a new music forum that imploded-I wrote enough about that in various new music forums and am still detoxing from the snarkiness that ensued. Let’s just say that surprisingly, new music is very political, and at times resembles a contact sport.
One quick comment about the piano work. It’s based on an improvisation I did in 2006, and is tentatively titled quartet. Yes, it’s for solo piano. But it’s written with four individual lines. The piece is somewhat different from a lot of my other music, yet very much the same. It’s extremely quiet (the original improvisation that spawned it was barely audible) and almost static at times. There are only a few different notes played in the first few minutes, so it’s like the opening of zichron in terms of its sparseness. Hopefully Alessandra, Stephane and Louie will like it and might even perform it. Anyway, all three of them are experts at performing quiet, sometimes complex new music, so it should be right up their alleys. Not yet sure how long it will be, but probably somewhere between 10 minutes and three hours is a safe bet.
Still debating about the blog. Let’s see how it all goes and how I feel about it over the next few weeks. Feel free to vote yay or nay in the comments.
For almost three months now, I’ve been writing a piece for harpsichord for my the harpsichordist Rebecca Pechefsky.Rebecca and I were classmates at Juilliard’s Pre-College Division back in the late 70’s, although she was a year behind me. We stayed in touch, and finally got together again at the first Sequenza 21 concert in 2005.
I’ve wanted Rebecca to perform a work of mine for some time-she’s a great harpsichord player, but in addition to the usual Baroque works for the instrument, Rebecca has also performed some modern music, and participated in a recording of a just intonation version of Terry Riley’s In C that I really like. I had hoped that she might perform this piece intentionally left blank, but she felt that the repeated notes weren’t feasible for harpsichord. I deferred to her expertise, and so came up with a new work that, while it could be performed with any keyboard, was intentionally written for harpsichord. I tried to keep it in a suitable range, but there were a few notes at one point that really work better an octave lower, so I placed these in as an ossia in the event someone performs this piece using a harpsichord with a larger range, or a standard piano or electronic keyboard.
The piece itself is about 20 minutes in duration, so it’s among my shorter works, being half the length of torture memos and a sixth as long as one of my string quartets and two of my piano works. It begins where torture memos left off, but otherwise has no relation to that piece. It’s mostly a series of repeated eighth notes for two hands.
It was notated using Finale 2010a, and as the harpsichord sample used by Finale isn’t optimal, I dumped the MIDI output into Reason 4.0.1 and used its harpsichord patch, which I think is much better. Now, it would be really interesting to hear it with a real harpsichord to see how close Reason nailed the harpsichord sampling.