Notes and words

So I sat down in earnest today to compose, working on the Mass setting I mentioned a couple of posts back. I had a few loose sketches and ideas already, and am quite pleased that tonight I was able to complete two versions of the Kyrie (I know, I know: there are three words in it; all the same…). I also got a good start on the Gloria, confirmed which text I’m using (the 1962 English translation of the Tridentine Mass), and hammered out my harmonic scheme for the work overall. I’m happy, given my nervousness over the project due to my lack of time to compose regularly… I was afraid I was too rusty to get anything done. Earnest Newman’s famous quotation comes to mind: “The great composer does not set to work because he is inspired, but becomes inspired because he is working.” Not that I’d call myself a great composer, but it really is in getting to work that the “art” of it comes. I guess that’s why people call it “artwork.”

The idea behind this Mass, by the way, is new for me. I’m attempting to involve the congregation in the music without overwhelming them. I tend to like dissonance and rhythmic complexity and such, so this takes a very intentional approach from me to make happen. So far, so good, I think. Rather than writing for a large ensemble (as is strangely typical of Masses, despite most churches having an organ at best), the accompaniment I’m using is a single melodic line, playable on any instrument capable of the notes–so organ, flute, violin, guitar, bassoon, accordion, xylophone… whatever is available. The text is sung (thus far, at least) in a call-and-response manner, heavy on the repetition for the non-music-readers, between a cantor/choir/soloist and the congregation/choir. I’m going to be regularly running it past non-composer types to make sure I’m not imagining some super-musical church congregation, but even if it did end up largely out of reach for most non-musicians, it will certainly be easily accessible for choirs.

I’m just glad to be getting my hands dirty with the music again…

rock and roll!

Well, not rock and roll per se, but…

So Tuesday night was the long-awaited performance of "In C," for which I have been preparing and stressing for the past few weeks. We ended up with twelve musicians making up the following ensemble: 2 violins, flute, alto sax, trombone, soprano, guitar (me!), mandolin, 2 keyboards (on vibraphone and clavicord patches), piano, and percussion; I piped the eighth-note pulse from my laptop over a set of central monitors on a combination of harp and triangle sounds. Overall a good mix of timbres.

The coolest thing about it was the way we set up the performance space. We had the concert in a banquet room rather than a concert hall – no stage, no terraced seating, no stage lights. The twelve of us sat in a circle facing inward. The circle was in the middle of the room, with some seating around the outside, but for the most part people were invited to move around the room and listen from multiple angles. We projected the score (which is only 1 page) on a screen against one wall, had snacks and drinks against another, and people ate and wandered and listened, discussed what they were hearing, stooped looking over musicians' shoulders… it was a great interactive performance (we even had one musician in the audience join in briefly on the piano… unexpected and a little alarming at the time, but thankfully it turned out to be no problem!).

As for the performance… it's a difficult piece, not so much in technique as in stamina, pacing, and listening, and we pulled it off well. There were a couple of moments in the middle where things got really dense and chaotic, which was a little scary; but then there were other moments where everything opened up into broad, beautiful textures and everything just clicked. It's hard to describe, but if you're a musician you know what I'm talking about. It's almost magical. Particularly with this piece, where so much rides on listening closely to each other and yet remaining independent, there develops a distinctly spiritual element to a performance.

What do I mean? There are a couple of ways in which "In C" becomes something of a spiritual experience. From a listener's perspective, this kind of music completely recalibrates the ear so that one is no longer listening to chord progressions and melodies, but rather to small repeated gestures. In this texture, the smallest change – a player switching from one motive to the next – becomes a musical event of earth-shaking proportions. In a Brahms symphony, a Stravinsky concerto, a Carter quartet, these kinds of listening events simply do not take place; it's an entirely different way of hearing. This close attention to things which previously would have gone unnoticed has spiritual implications: where are we looking for the movement of the Spirit? Where do we expect to see God working, and how? We have our eyes set on big things, obvious miracles and providence, explicitly answered prayer, when God is at work every single day in small, subtle, unnoticed ways! Where else in our lives do we miss the things happening right under our noses as we look intently for the Big Important Events?

From a performer's perspective, I think this may come somewhere near what playing jazz is like (not being a real jazz musician, I wouldn't know). The same intense listening is at play, but so are two other things: interplay and independence. The nature of this music, where these small interlocking motives play against each other in such subtle and fascinating ways, makes for unexpected and uncontrollable moments of counterpoint, where one plays against another in entirely new ways. This can last for a second or for a minute, but it elevates the spirit at play in the performance to new, unexplored levels. We had one particular moment tonight where I almost start laughing because of the utterly nonsensical way in which the music we were playing suddenly became 10 times more beautiful; the motives we were playing spaced out just so, the dynamics balanced, the tone colors swirled into an almost crystalline shimmer… the air was so charged at that moment, one might think that the Spirit itself had come and begun playing with us. And why not? "Where two or more are gathered," right? And in the midst of this kind of communal interplay, this kind of coincidental klangfarbenmelodie, each musician must maintain a strong element of independence. We play with each other, but not together. It is an actual goal to not play in sync with anyone else, at least not for long if it happens accidentally, and each motive varies in length and meter, so that to play it properly you must clash against the other meters and motives swirling around you (and it's hard playing in 3 when people around you are playing in 4, 5, and 7/8 simultaneously!). Each part has an important role to play, each is part of the whole while remaining itself. One musician can not look at another and say "I have no need of you." Each in our individual-ness make up one whole-ness.

Of course, to my knowledge Terry Riley is not a Christian, and maybe wouldn't know what to make of all this, but it's there nonetheless. Faith becomes a key for opening many mysteries in this way, whether in art or elsewhere. If I refuse to engage art in this way, I miss the richness of truth buried in it and the lessons the Spirit is willing to teach, if only I am open to them.

This is the first performance I've been a part of here at Fuller, but I think it will not be the last. The group of musicians I was able to gather for this was outstanding, and all are into doing more concerts in the future. I'm psyched, this is just the kind of thing I've been needing: exciting, dynamic interaction with intelligent and talented musicians! (We also recorded the concert, which will need to be cleaned up a bit and mastered, at which point I'll link to an mp3 that you can download for free and hear what we did.)

Latenight redux…

Sort of, at least…

I would like to announce a rather major website overhaul that just went up! It's a lot better than the stale (and crappy looking) old design I've had up there for the past two years or so. Check it.

Also, things are ramping up here at Fuller for Spring Arts Festival next week. Tracy is involved in a Dance/Poetry night (as in choreographed modern dance, not booty shakin'), both as an organizer and as a presenter. She's reading A Prayer for Restoration, which she wrote for me to set to music, which I've begun and not finished… it's a beautiful text, and I would post it here but then she would kill me. So you'll have to fly out to Pasadena by Wednesday night to hear it.

As for my own involvement, I organized and have been quasi-directing a performance of Terry Riley's minimalist masterpiece In C, in which I am playing electric guitar. This is notable for me, as it is the first time I've made use of the guitar in an other-than-rock capacity. You may know that, while in Michigan at least, I stayed active playing with the band, but this is a completely different animal, and I'm psyched.

Of course, just because Arts Fest and web design are happening doesn't mean lots of school stuff isn't. I'm just kind of ignoring that, instead. Which is a bad thing. We have two papers due early next week, which we both have yet to start. It's gonna be one of those weekends. (Not the fun kind)

Totally random other piece of info: a few weeks ago we bought an exercise bike as our tax return present to ourselves, and I'm proud to say that we've both actually kept up using it! I can't tell you how many times I've thought I was going to really dig in and start exercising, only to slack off after a few days. This is going on 3 weeks, now!

I really need to go to bed. First I will mention that I've also recently re-re-re-discovered some old favorite music that I seem to routinely forget that I love. Mahler's 5th symphony, Sibelius 2, Shostakovich 5 and 10 (and his String Quartets), Brahms 1 (and 1st Piano concerto)… and a whole lot of Mozart. I have a box set of the complete Piano Concerti (Barenboim – ecstasy) which I've finally finished iPod-ing. We went on Good Friday to a church service/concert of the Requiem, which is much more stunning live than on recording, especially given the context of the presentation. I don't think I ever realized the real power of the Requiem Mass texts until that night. It was followed by the Dona Nobis Pacem from Bach's B-minor Mass, which made for a wonderful end to a wonderful service. But I'll tell you, it got Mozart on my brain, and that lit up all the other stuff. Oh yeah, I do like "old tonal music!"

A Spring Break pick-me-up

Well, I got a rather nice email today from my publisher HoneyRock, of a review of my Marimba Fantasy by one Tom Morgan (whom I don't know) to be published in the April issue of Percussive Notes magazine. It's a good many times better than I would have expected any review for something of mine to be, so I thought I would share it for those interested. Check it:

This difficult and rewarding unaccompanied solo for five-octave marimba is written in a contemporary atonal or neo-tonal style with much rhythmic variation and complexity. The opening section (in 11/16) begins in octaves but is soon off in a playful romp that covers the entire range of the instrument. The texture is often one or two voices, punctuated by four-note chords. Interspersed are counter melodies and passages in contrary motion, with shifting rhythmic patterns and changing meters.

The piece eventually settles into a dance-like mood shifting between 5/8, 6/8 and 4/8, but this is shortlived. A monophonic, more free and legato section follows that soon returns to material similar to the opening. The most difficult part of the piece is probably the slower section, which requires the player to use a "mandolin roll" with the left hand, performing a rolled glissando while the right hand plays a choral as a one-handed roll on top. This moves to a more traditional rolled choral marked "majestic and broad."

The solo concludes with another fast sixteenth-note passage, climaxing with angular melodic patterns and a crescendo to fff. This is a monumental work requiring much musical and technical skill. It is destined to become a standard in the solo marimba literature.

listening…

For the record, for those interested in such things, here are a few
things I've been listening to lately, in no particular order:

Respighi – Pines of Rome
Elliott Carter – Piano Concerto
Mahler – Symphony #2
Gorecki – Symphony #3
Messiaen – Et Expecto…
Saariaho – Graal Théâtre

and on the "popular" front:

The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan
The Arcade Fire
Kyuss – …And the Circus Leaves Town

I'm new to The White Stripes, a friend lent it to me. I'm intrigued,
and would like to subscribe to their newsletter… er, hear more, that
is. Kyuss is from way back in my proverbial day, and are pretty sweet
for those unfamiliar.

My Mahler recording of choice is Simon Rattle conducting the Birmingham
Symphony Orchestra. Phenomenal recording, I highly recommend it. I
don't have the famed Dawn Upshaw recording of the Gorecki, but rather
the (considerably cheaper and perhaps more authentic) recording on the
Naxos label, the performers of which I don't at the moment remember.
They are, however, a Polish orchestra, conductor, and soloist, which I
think actually does matter when performing the work. Some may
disagree.

Pines of Rome and the Carter concerto are favs of mine that I come back
to now and then to absorb some more. The Carter is hard to get through
if you're listening closely, as it's so dense, but rewarding
nonetheless. Many of you know that I adore Messiaen. And Saariaho…
you must hear Saariaho. She's amazing if your ears are open to "new
music."

w00t! I've managed to put off any homework a little longer! Now I
finish my post and am (again) without excuse…

It’s a website, not a box

This website is pretty tripped out:

http://www.pandora.com

It's a new online music service that provides music streams (like radio, but online) instead of downloads. What stands out about this particular site is that it is based on a project called the Music Genome Project (http://www.pandora.com/mgp.shtml), in which trained musicians evaluate music based on multiple technical characteristics to attempt to extract something akin to DNA of musical style.

You go to the site, enter a song or band you like, and it serves up
songs by other bands that have similar characteristics, and that you
will presumably also like. I put in "The Grudge" by Tool, and so far I
got "Ghost of the Navigator" by Iron Maiden, "Somebody, Someone" by
Korn, and right now it's playing "Break You" by Lamb of God. All
rather different bands, but listening from an analytical perspective I
can certainly hear the similarities. I already knew I liked the Tool
song, and back in high school I was the biggest Iron Maiden fan in the
world (although the song they played is from a more recent album that
I've never heard) and I like that song quite a bit. I've always kind
of thought that I would hate Korn because they're in that sort of
rap-rock nu-metal kind of vein, but the song they played was actually
pretty good. Funny, I kind of enjoyed it more before I knew it was
Korn… I'm so shallow. The Lamb of God song is really heavy, and
pleasingly technical rhythmically, structurally, and in instrumental
part writing. I probably would have been super into them in high
school when I was in a really big metal phase. It was a good song, but
I don't know how much I would listen to it now.

Ooh, update… now they've kicked me way back in time to Soundgarden's
"Rusty Cage!" Crazy. Definitely doesn't seem to fit in character as
much with the other songs, but again, listening analytically, I can
hear why it's in there. I see now that you can also tell it whether
you like a particular song that's playing, and it will alter the
profile of what it plays for you. It will also tell you why it's
playing a certain song with the others… really freaking cool. Too
bad I can't afford to actually subscribe!