improvisational study no. 1: shingon mándaras [1981-1982]


After many, many months of off-and-on work, I’ve finally gotten together a PDF and MP3 file of an old work of mine, improvisational study no. 1: shingon mándaras. Basically, this was my first postminimalist work. I had written several 12-tone works, some of which I still like, some of which were dreck (I’m trying to forget most of a 12-tone “Suite in Baroque Form for Flute and Harpsichord” that I wrote for a friend, for example). The last of these was the piano piece ineffabilities, which basically did me in. I like ineffabilities very much, but I had reached the end of the line with dodecaphony. Nothing wrong with it, when not taken to extremes, but I felt I had to work hard to make the technique work so that I could write what I wanted to write, and truth be told, some of the best sections of ineffabilites are the ones that aren’t strictly 12-tone. I think the music was trying to tell me something.

I didn’t think I’d even write anything further, but finally got some ideas through improvisation, which is how I still write most of my music. Hence the title improvisational study no. 1. At the time, I was taking a course on Japanese art, taught by a very important scholar of Japanese paintings. It was a horrible course, in all honesty—we were expected to memorize the names of the paintings and the dates when they were painted, as if any of that is useful and as if any of that really has much to do with the art itself. But I had no interest in taking any music courses, nor did my two years studying music in NYC on weekends during high school exempt me from the U of Chicago’s art/music requirement. So I took some art classes. Anyway, even though it was a bad class, I liked the art, especially the Buddhist-inspired works known as mándaras, which feature repetitive images of the Buddha and represent a commonality with the repetitive structures of my music.

That said, the piece is not at all programmatic. It is divided into two sections: kongokai (which represents the material world in Japanese Buddhist art) and taizokai (the diamond world), and while each section has subsections, the piece is to be played as one continuous whole. There also isn’t a single serial element in the entire piece, so this was a complete break with what i had been writing before.

IS1 was written between 1981 and 1982, and mostly in Chicago. I wrote the longest section, near the end, during an extended composition session into the middle of the night in a practice room in the basement of the Shoreland Hotel, which had been converted to a dormitory. It has never been played publicly, and until I got this audio file together, I was not sure how long the piece takes to play through without a break (just over two hours, apparently).

Why bother to get this piece up on the Web after over 25 years? Because even after a quarter century, I think it had a major influence on everything I did with my music from that point onwards. While IS1 is clearly pretty different from a lot of what I’ve written in the past few years, the repetitive structures, use of dissonance along with consonance, rocking fifths and repeated single eighth notes represent elements I still use as part of my musical vocabulary. Besides, I still like the piece after all these years, and was also really curious to know how long it takes to play (I’ve never played it all the way through myself, since I’m just not a good piano player).

There is an improvisational study no. 2 and an improvisational study no. 3. No. 2 is a really short work for piano, but I don’t know if I’m going to get it up or not, since I don’t know that I think it’s that great a piece, and even forgot I had written it. No. 3 is for orchestra, and is also pretty long. It’s not a bad piece, but there’s no way I’ll ever have the time to dump the manuscript into Finale and do something with it. I have lots more stuff to write, so balancing the new stuff with the old stuff is hard, and writing something new trumps restoring old works.

The audio was done using Finale 2009 and Garritan Personal Orchestra (Finale’s version of it) under Kontakt 2. The new sound files included with Finale 2009 didn’t work very well, and wouldn’t even play most of the notes in one measure for some reason (guess it doesn’t like tone clusters), so I went back to the previous samples that originally came with Finale 2008. The audio is ok, although there is a lot of overpedalling that I can’t do much about, but the file still gives a pretty good idea of the work. Also, even though I spent a lot of time going through the score, I can’t guarantee there aren’t some minor typos that I haven’t yet found, so it’s very possible some minor fixes will happen over time as I find these errors. I’m also planning to post the score to the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)

This is probably more than I ever tend to write about one of my pieces, but I wrote this a very long time ago, and figured it was deserving of a little bit more background and detail. Did I mention that the piece is just over two hours?

The score is here.

An MP3 file is here (114 MB).