dharmachakramudra for vibraphone, viola, cello (2010)


I’d composed four works this year up to yesterday, compared with five last year, so I figured it would be nice to end the year by evening up the score. I was thinking of a longer, static piece for tuba, bass trombone, cello and celesta, but after reading this and debating long and hard for more than a week, I decided to try and write something a bit shorter, and for the resources requested. Actually, I had thought to submit either five notes for christina fong or an arrangement of the open instrumentation work this piece intentionally left blank. Both are around 10′-11′ and I think are pretty good. But it became clear that neither would likely be accepted since even 10 or 11 minutes were apparently at the upper end of what would be feasible. In other words, anything submitted would have to be even shorter, and involve less than the 4-5 performers available.

My initial reaction was to not bother. I don’t generally do composition competitions. Granted, this isn’t technically a competition, but in effect it really is, since only a small group of works will be selected. I went down this road before when I submitted an arrangement of this piece intentionally left blank for a small group of instruments and, while the ensemble apparently liked the work and promised to perform it in a forthcoming program, that has yet to happen. I have always had issues with composition contests or anything where there is some competitive element to whether or not a work is selected. Music is almost completely subjective, and what one person might deem worthy another might not, and each is correct. And there are many other factors involved: economic feasibility, difficulty of the work, the duration/scale, how many rehearsals would be necessary, etc. I give a lot of credit to those composers who have mastered the art of getting their music performed. I have little or no skill at that, and the few live performances I’ve had (three since1980) have generally come about because the performer(s) liked the works enough to take them on. When Paul Bailey decided to premiere this piece intentionally left blank with his own Diverse Instrument Ensemble a few years ago, he did so on his own initiative, and I was extremely touched that he took it on and did such an amazing job with both arranging it and taking part in the performance. Same with recordings-Glenn Freeman and Steve Layton both took on a few of my pieces with great results.

But getting music performed consistently is challenging, even for the best of us. And I’m not one of those. There are several factors mitigating against much of my music being performed anytime soon:

  • Lack of name recognition
  • Performance challenges/technical difficulty
  • Length/scale of the work
  • (your reason here)

I’ve composed a few works with selected performers in mind. With few exceptions, that has not panned out very well. I had written one work for an old friend who plays an instrument that needs more new music written for it. The piece isn’t that difficult, at least to my mind, but my friend informed me that a performance wasn’t in the cards because of a lack of stamina. In other cases, the performers simply have too much on their plates to deal with a new work anytime soon. I don’t take it personally-this is just the reality. I have many friends who compose short works (generally 5 minutes or less) or who simply bypass the performers altogether and just compose for electronics. I’ve written a few works that are under 10 minutes, but truthfully, that’s more the exception than the rule. I have nothing against short works, although with the exception of Webern, early Feldman and a few others, most short works tend to be inconsequential, even trifles. Developing ideas takes some time to unfold. Webern could make this work because he was also dealing with timbres and klangfarbenmelodie, so that the texture was novel for the time and was as much a part of the music as the specific notes. But even Webern wrote a lot of music that isn’t that short. Many of his works, particularly the later ones, are more than 10 minutes. Quite a difference from the four-minute long Sechs Bagatellen. And Feldman eventually gravitated from writing brief works a la Webern to compositions lasting anywhere from one hour to just over six. Longer isn’t necessarily better. But shorter isn’t necessarily better, either. Many people know, and admire, La Monte Young’s seminal The Well-Tuned Piano, which lasts 5-6 hours. But how many know his early work for string quartet entitled On Remembering a Naiad from 1956? That work is nice enough, but in many ways is a Webern knockoff.

Anyway, after considering, and rejecting, arranging a short section from either for philip glass or zichron, I was again left with “Do I bother to do this” versus “Should I just try and write a piece and submit it?” I opted for the latter, much as I have some reservations. The main reservation is that I constrained myself to trying to write something in the range of seven minutes or less, and for no more than three performers out of piano, violin, viola, cello and percussion. It’s a nice challenge, but at the same time, I came up with a piece that I otherwise probably would have developed a bit further. I think it works pretty well, and am happy with it, but when I started last night wasn’t even sure I had any ideas. It must have been the champagne I had a few hours beforehand at a work-related party.

The piece clocks in around 7’30″. The title is dharmachakramudra and is scored for vibraphone, viola and cello. It is essentially a set of chords, often for both strings echoed or answered by vibraphone. There are no complex rhythms, and other than having to play very very quietly (pp throughout), I can’t imagine it’s at all difficult to play. There are a few chords in the vibraphone part that require the percussionist to span a major ninth with two mallets in one hand, but that’s generally not an issue (thanks to Glenn Freeman and Bill Solomon for confirming that it’s all playable).

The first reaction many people will have is that it sounds like Feldman. Yes, it does. Just like some of my music seems to remind folks of Philip Glass. And just as some Feldman sounds like Webern, some Riley sounds like La Monte Young, some Young sounds like Webern and Cage, etc. We all have our influences. Yet, some of the chords could have been lifted from any of a number of my earlier works, and it builds on some of the sustained notes and chords in some recent works like piece for electronic organ and bongo drums , four strings for todd reynolds and quartet for piano. So with one exception, everything else I’ve written this year is consistent with dharmachakramudra.

When I get back to the East Coast, I will send it in for consideration of performance at the forthcoming Manhattan New Music Project/Sequenza 21 concert. I don’t have a lot of confidence that it will be performed anytime soon, since any of a number of considerations could derail it. I remember being on the concert committee for the first Sequenza 21 concert back in 2006, and it was an experience I’d never wish to repeat. The process was admittedly a work in progress, and got bogged down by competing agendas, politics, personality clashes, etc. Some works were chosen for reasons that didn’t make a ton of sense, while others were rejected for the same nonsensical reasons. In one case, a really good piece was to be rejected without anyone even listening to the work in question, all because someone just didn’t like the composer personally. I happened to like some of the works by that composer and really pushed for a hearing and in the end, it was one of the works that was performed. I suspect the process this time around will be more rational, but in any case, I’m not getting my hopes up that dharmachakramudra will be selected for performance. But if not on this concert, then hopefully in another at some point. The question then becomes whether or not to expand the work. I think I probably wouldn’t-other than repeating a few notes here and there and possibly developing an idea further, it already seems to be a completed, whole work that I’ve come to really like.

The score is here. A downloadable MP3 is here. For reasons I can’t explain other than the quality of the sample (or lack thereof), there is some undesirable decay of the vibraphone notes in a few areas. Another reason, then, to hope for a live performance.

One last thing-what about the title? I was recently speaking on fibroid treatments in London and had the opportunity to visit the British Museum, which has an amazing collection of Asian and South Asian art and handcrafted statutes. There was a large exhibit on Buddhism, with several statues depicting the Buddha in the dharmachakra mudra. A mudra is a ritual gesture in both Hinduism and Buddhism, and the dharmachakra mudra specifically refers to the position the Buddha assumed right after reaching enlightenment. One therefore might think the term has some relevance to the piece in terms of the nature of the music, but the reality is that it is a very interesting word when melded together, and I decided to use it as a title. That’s the honest, superficial and somewhat silly reason for why this work is titled dharmachakramudra.

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