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After months of procrastination, I began composing String Quartet No.3. I’ve never had trouble starting works since my process relies on intuition, situation and subjectivity so intensely.
One’s third quartet has to be good and I’m freaking myself out just a little. Wolfgang Rihm, one of my great heros wrote his third quartet at the age of 27 and it is one of his finest works. Brahms, my childhood hero stopped at his third quartet. For the first time in my life I have let the blank page spook me. My solution: write String Quartet No.4 concurrently to simply remind myself that String Quartet No.3 isn’t the last word.
I played a similar trick on myself when writing Sibyl Tones, my first quartet – I said that it wasn’t really my “first quartet;” it was only a sketch. When writing my second quartet, I thought it would turn my Sibyl Tones into my first quartet by being a latter movement. By then (even months later), I realized that the situation (and thus my intuition) had changed significantly and that String Quartet No.2 (2005) really stood on its own.
I believe they are my finest works and suddenly, surprisingly I find myself standing in their shadow as though they were written by someone else and I doubt if I can replicate the feat, let alone exceed it.
My good buddy, Daniel Johnson sent me a link to this fantastic blog. I now procrastinate writing this new piece for Alarm Will Sound by alternating between reading posts about bass flute drama and watching episodes of Mad Men, Season 2.
David Shea, clarinet; Daniel Sweaney, viola; Eli Kalman, piano premiere Tyger, Tyger (2010), a new trio at the Rocky Ridge Music Festival – the latest installment of the Other Tiger Cycle. Other works by Jacob Ter Veldhuis and the inevitable Robert Schumann. David Ludwig and Daniel Ihasz give a lecture-recital at 7 PM on the immortal Liederkreis, Op.39More info…
Jessica Osborne premieres one of my new piano pieces, Just Stripes (2009) at Yale on Monday. It’s part of a larger cycle of chamber music I’m working on and includes three clarinet trios:
E-flat Clarinet + ‘Cello + Piano,
B-flat Clarinet + Viola + Piano
Bass Clarinet + Violin + Piano
and probably a septet for E-flat + B-flat + Bass Clarinets + Violin + Viola + ‘Cello + Piano.
I composed the first trio, Another Tiger in 2005, revised it in 2007 and I’m now writing the second trio, Tyger, Tyger for a performance at the Rocky Ridge Music Center where I am composer-in-residence. I’ve written a bit about the concept of the cycle in notes for Just Stripes:
Just Stripes (2009)
“In music, we never say the same thing twice, because the saying is also the thing”
- Igor Stravinsky
Just Stripes is part of a larger cycle of works inspired by Borge’s famous poem, The Other Tiger, that include my original clarinet trio, Another Tiger and several projected chamber, choral, solo and large ensemble works. Borge’s poem, which ruminates on writing and influence, has been, along with Wolfgang Rihm and Harold Bloom, an enduring philosophical impetus for me, a composer obsessed with history, genealogy, succession, influence and intertextuality. Like Borge’s “third tiger,” mine “Exalts the vast and dusty library” of not only recent and older musical history, but my own recent work.
But Borge’s work is only an oblique reference; Rihm’s concept of musical cycles, if not the individual works, serves as an important precursor for my own “Other Tiger” Cycle. Like Rihm, I employ compositional techniques like “overpainting,” contrafacture, inscription and palimpsest. In Just Stripes I have stripped my clarinet trio, Another Tiger of its clarinet and cello parts leaving naked silences punctuated by surviving, virtuosic piano licks. Such silences are rare in my music and for the sake of novelty I have let them stand. Other silences are filled in with elaborations of the original piano parts, while still other silences are themselves “elaborated” with harmonics- the pianist silently depresses keys and strikes a chord, releasing the upper partials of the strings. This striking becomes the principle motive of Just Stripes.
I am intensely interested in howmotives, narratives and forms can evolve over a series of works and contexts: this transformed piano part will in turn become a “new” piano part for another clarinet trio, Tyger featuring a violin and bass clarinet. That bass clarinet part, stripped of the piano and violin, will become a solo work, and that solo work the foundation for another trio, Nocturnes II for piccolo trumpet, bass clarinet and harp. And so forth…
Just Stripes was written for Jessica Osborne, my friend who has performed most of the piano parts of my recent music, including Another Tiger. It was made possible, in part, by a fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Berio occupies a central position in my musical pantheon. Sequenza VII influenced my Violin Sonata No.1 (2008); in 2003, I attempted to fuse John Adams’ Shaker Loops and Berio’s Corale in my Berio-esquely/Adam-ish titled work, Light Upon Curves (2003); and the whole concept that Berio proposed in his Chemins series probably influenced me more profoundly than any other musical idea, not only compositionally, but as a student of intertextuality in music.
I thank Brad Lubman who invited me to play viola in Eastman’s Berio Festival in 2003 with both Musica Nova and the Eastman Philharmonia. And while Berio could not attend, (he passed away shortly after the festival), it was a mind-blowing, life-changing experience where I was privileged to play Sinfonia, Chemins IV and Corale. Playing this marvelous music prompted me to radically rethink my relationship to European Modernism and skeptically question the dominant narrative perpetuated by American baby-boomers that European Modernism was expressively limited and ideologically stifling.
“Music gazes at its listener with empty eyes, and the more deeply one immerses oneself in it, the more incomprehensible its ultimate purpose becomes, until one learns that the answer, if such is possible, does not lie in contemplation, but in interpretation. In other words, the only person who can solve the riddle of music is the one who plays it correctly, as something whole. Its enigma apes the listener by seducing him into hypostasizing, as being, what is in itself an at, a becoming, and, as human becoming, behavior.”
“In music, what is at stake is not meaning, but gestures. To the extent that music is language, it is, like notation in music history, a lunguage sedimented from gestures. It is not possible to ask music what it conveys as its meaning; rather, music has as its theme the question, How can gestures be made eternal? In contrast, the search for the meaning of music itself, as something to be disclosed in the rational justification of its raison d’être, is revealed as a delusion, a pseudomorphosis into the realm of intensions, to which music, by virtue of its resemblance to language, misleads us… It is the paradox of all music that, as an effort toward that intentionless thing for which the inadequate word “name” was chosen, it unfolds precisely only by dint of its participation in rationality in the broadest sense. Sphinx-like, it fools the listener by constantly promising meanings, and even intermittently- meanings that for music, however, are in the truest sense means to the death of meaning. Nor is music ever exhausted in these means. As long as music was played within a more or less closed context of tradition, such as that of the last 350 years, this irresolvable quality that it has, the fact that everything suggests meaning and nothing actually wants meaning, could be concealed. Within the tradition, the meaning of music was accepted, and it asserted astonishment, as self-evident. Today, however, when tradition no longer prescribes anything for music, its enigmatic character emerges, weak and needy, like a question mark — one that, admittedly, becomes blurred the moment anyone asks it to confess what it actually wants to communicate. For the name is no communication of an object.”
“The emergence of music’s enigmatic character tempts one to pose the question of its being, while at the same time the precess that brought it to this point forbids the question. Music, after all, does not possess its object, is not in command of the name; rather, it longs for it, and, in doing so, aims at its own demise. If music, for an instant, were to accomplish the thing around which the tones revolve, this would be its fulfillment and its end. Its relation to the thing that it cannot represent but would like to invoke is therefore endlessly mediated. The name itself is n more present for music than for human languages, and the theodicies that are so much in vogue just now and present music as a manifestation of the divine are blasphemies. They afford music the dignity of revelation, although music, as an art, is nothing but the secularly preserved form of prayer, which, in order to survive, forswears its object and surrenders it to thoughts. In such efforts to reach what is at once blocked and unattainable for it, music is, of necessity, endlessly mediated in itself. It has no being to which the person is who seduced by the enigma could refer. Rather, ti draws the name closer, through the unfolded totality, the constellation of all its moments. Music’s simple being, which would be accessible to a primal question is a fata morgana –no different from the Being from which philosophy, bored with its tedious investigations, hopes to suck gratification… Immediately before the conclusion of the first movement of Beethoven’s Les Adieux, when in a fleeting, vanishing association over the course of three measures the galloping of horses becomes audible as “meaning,” this passage, which is more sublime than words can tell, says that this most transient of things, the ineffable sounds of disappearance, holds more hope of return than could ever be disclosed to any reflection on the origin and essence of the form-seeking sound.”
This week, for the first time, after eighteen years of composing, I composed something forthe tuba.
It’s not a bad start, especially considering the years of abuse the rest of the orchestra has suffered at my hands. It’s an artful, massaged line; the dynamics and articulations are carefully nuanced. A.R.T., my old orchestration, teacher might approve.
Why has it taken me so long?
The other large ensemble works I’ve composed were for double winds and excluded the tuba, nor is it an instrument I have particularly sought out. Compared to the double bass and contrabassoon and combined with the bass trombone, the tuba seemed too diffuse for my music.
That said, two of my favorite moments in music include vengeful tubas: