another year, another birthday


I’m not a big fan of birthdays. They remind me that I’m getting older, not necessarily wiser, and I end up lamenting all the things I still haven’t accomplished. But whether or not I care to admit it, every year at this time I gain another year in my chronological age. Yes, our new Wii indicated that my fitness age is really 39, but I’m not sure it’s good policy to listen to a video game.

So I’m spending my 48th birthday on the left coast taking care of work and spending evenings working on a new piece for saxophone quartet that Brian Kauth requested. Now that I’m older and presumably a tad wiser (or at least more honest), I am willing to admit to myself that I don’t really like to write for woodwinds. Even brass instruments, as much as I like the bass trombone, give me pause. It was easier to write for winds back when I wasn’t writing music that was pulsatile, at times continuous, since I have to reconcile my ”mature“ style (now that I’m nearing 50, I probably qualify as mature) with the fact that wind players have to breathe. I’ve made this mistake at least twice—my brass piece for arielle victoria and alto flute work for roger copland will probably never be performed by human beings because few brass and flute players do circular breathing. I have yet to see any brass or flute player who didn’t look at those two works and instantly declare them impossible to play without suffocating, all while silently thinking to themselves that I’m either an idiot or an asshole for writing such unidiomatic music for their respective instruments.  

That’s not to say that both works aren’t cool pieces. And I really do think they’re performable. Just not by the average brass or wind player with too little time to learn new music. But even if they just aren’t performed or simply can’t be performed by 99% of wind/brass musicians, both have been realized electronically, and sound pretty acceptable to my ears. I figure, if Nancarrow could get past the rhythmic limitations of human beings by composing rhythmically hypercomplex works for player pianos, why isn’t composing works for brass/wind instruments that transcend or exceed human limitations? Still, it would be nice for them to be performed by human beings. I’m just not holding my breath. I’ve thought of arranging for roger copland for two alto flutes, but I’m not sure that would have the proper end result. I could easily arrange brass piece for other instruments, such as strings (the third section has already been recast for string quartet as the piece mf), but that would make it even more unlikely that the work would ever be performed as originally written, although at least it would be more likely that the entire work would finally be performed in some fashion.

Which brings me back to my saxophone quartet piece, still in progress and still untitled. It’s going well, considering that I’ve been somewhat lacking ideas lately and I really don’t feel as comfortable writing for winds as I do pretty much anything else, even voice. So I’m looking at it as a matter of discipline, taking into account the possibilities as well as the limitations of the instruments. I like saxophones, but the last time I wrote for one was back in the late 70′s, and my music then was nothing like what I compose nowadays. It’s not going to be a short work, and perhaps not a really long work (”really long“ for me is two hours or more). I’m taking some of it from some recent improvisations I did using Reason 4.0, and that’s part of the problem, since I’m trying to adapt what I did on a keyboard to something that is idiomatic and feasible for a saxophone. It seems to be working so far, though, and what I recently showed Brian Kauth was considered performable, so I haven’t written anything impossible as of yet.

Now I also have to think of a title. I’d love to do something that references the current tragedy in Gaza, but I try to avoid writing political messages into my music since it might detract from the music, and most political compositions I can think of have great social/political messages but forgettable music. The only exceptions I can think of are several works by Rzewski (I still love Coming Together, which is all about Attica) one or two by Nono and Steve Reich’s Come Out. Then again, these are pretty good works of music, so maybe I need to get over my aversion to political messages in my compositions. I recently read a great article in Ha’aretz by Gideon Levy entitled “And there lie the bodies,” so maybe there’s a title there…