Composition Preview: ‘La ſelle d’ærain’ premieres Feb. 13

In my last post I described a large-scale project of which, at the time, I had completed only a few fragments. As I hinted in the last post, I anticipate this that this project will take several years to complete. Lately I have been working on another long-term project: a setting of five Nostradamus quatrains, of which two will be premiered on February 13 as part of the Oak Bay New Music Festival.

When I was 15, I found the ominously-titled Final Prophecies of Nostradamus in a used bookstore called The Flaming Novel. The shop, located in a strip mall parking lot in Apache Junction, Arizona, lived up to its name by falling victim to a fire sometime later.  The book features the text of Nostradamus’ Prophéties (originally published 1555-66), comprised of 941 quatrains organized in ten Centuries, mostly in Middle French. It features uninspired translations and misguided interpretations by Erika Cheetham. Cheetham did write a fairly interesting introduction however, and I learned that Nostradmaus was born Michel de Nostradame to a Jewish family in Provence. Regardless of their reputation as prophecies, most of the quatrains also are of dubious value as poetry; many are lists of 16th century states, cities and towns (e.g. VIII.LII et al). That being said, there are a handful of quatrains that struck me as beautiful when I first read them, especially quatrain VIII.XCVI (the text from this 1566 edition rather than from Cheetham’s book):

VIII.XCVI: La ſynagogue ſterile

La ſynagogue ſterile ſans nul fruit,
Sera receuë entre les infideles,
De Babylon la fille du porſuit,
Miſere & triſte luy trenchera les aiſles.

The sterile synagogue without any fruit
Will be received by the infidels,
The daughter of the persecuted one of Babylon,
Miserable and sad they will clip her wings.

The explicitly Jewish content of the poem and its powerful imagery convinced me to attempt a setting, which I began in late 2006.  The piece began as an attempt to reconcile the traditions of Klezmer and serialism, each of which I was beginning to discover at the time.  I came up with the following piano dyads, which use all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and derived two tone rows from them:

Row

I ended up setting only the first line of the poem before abandoning it in 2007. The first line of the original version for voice and piano uses a mixture of Klezmer modality and serialism, including this representative passage:

melody

Untilthe end of 2007, I continued setting fragments of several other quatrains, but never completed any of them.

The next step in the development of this project took place in fall 2012 when, as part of Ron Kuivila’s composition seminar at Wesleyan University, we were assigned to write for an ad hoc ensemble of Connecticut musicians: namely voice, tuba, percussion, harp, accordion, viola and double bass. This highly unorthodox instrumentation, particularly the tuba, accordion and bass, reminded me of a Klezmer band, so I decided to complete my earlier setting of La ſynagogue ſterile for the ensemble. In order to emphasize the Jewish content of the work, I decided to intersperse a doina between the lines of the quatrain. The doina stems from sketches I wrote for solo tuba in 2010-11, which I called Der Levoner Doina (The Lunar Doina). I completed this version of La ſynagogue ſterile in November 2012 and it was subsquently performed and recorded at Wesleyan:

I decided to revisit my Nostradamus project recently, because I felt as though La ſynagogue ſterile was not  substantial enough a piece in its 2012 incarnation, and its unusual instrumentation meant that it might not be performed again in the foreseeable future. When the opportunity arose to write a piece for a chamber ensemble of voice, flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano for the 2016 Oak Bay New Music Festival, I jumped at the chance to adapt La ſynagogue ſterile for the new instrumentation, and also to expand the work to include two additional movements. I had come up with the title La ſelle d’ærain (The Brass Saddle/Tripod) when working on the 2012 version. The title comes from quatrain I.I, in which Nostradamus explains his method of divination. The tripod refers to the three quatrains I had decided to set, namely I.XVII (Par quarente ans l’Iris) and I.XXI (Profonde argille blanche), as well as VII.XCVI, which I  had already set.

By last November, I had decided to add movements for voice and piano framing the central three ensemble pieces: quatrains V.XCVI (La roſe) and II.XIII (Le verbe) as incipit and ‘excipit’, respectively (the latter term for some reason seems only to have existed in French literary analysis otherwise). I completed La roſe on Christmas Eve, and the final version of La ſynagogue ſterile exactly a month later, and these two movements will be joined by an instrumental interlude for the performance on February 13.

Doina

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Incarnadine Studio Recording

It’s been up for a few weeks, but I feel as though I should post it here as well:

Many thanks to the Vancouver Clarinet Trio (Shawn Earle, Kate Frobeen and Liam Hockley), who recorded this at UBC in December.

Upcoming songs after F. R. Scott

Four Moments

 

I

Stand by the window, Tyltyl,

Stand still by the old chintz curtains.

 

Tell the littlest diamond

It has wonder in its eyes.

 

But leave me to blow smoke rings

In a dusty corner.

 

II

Lay your hand, lay it gently on my arm,

For there is no stillness lovelier

Than the deliberate, fond

Reticence of soft fingers on an arm.

 

III

The little hump of her body

Untidied the bed.

 

She heard a chair creak

And a shoe drop.

 

And after

The wind cooled her.

 

IV

Close,

So close your breath is warm.

 

While slowly the

Clock

Ticks

 

Little one,

Little lovely one.

Incarnadine for Clarinet Trio, or, My Week With Chaya

I had originally intended to write this post several weeks ago, before the Vancouver Clarinet Trio (Shawn Earle, Kate Frobeen and my good friend Liam Hockley) premiered my latest piece, Incarnadine, on October 19 at the CMC in Vancouver.  Life got in the way, so I’m writing about it now.  The exciting part about this piece is that is was technically my first commission, as well as the first performance of a piece of mine to be fairly widely publicized, including in the Georgia Straight.  After the performance, Liam said that he’s “sure the piece will become a staple of the repertoire before long.”

I wrote Incarnadine over this past summer by request of the VCT, but the ideas in it stemmed primarily from Chaya Czernowin’s visit to Victoria this spring.  The UVic Orchestra, along with Ensemble Nikel, performed the North American premiere of Czernowin’s Zohar Iver (Blind Radiance) and she gave a public lecture, a masterclass and lessons with composers (including me).  In her lecture on February 29, she revealed that she shares many of my artistic concerns, especially those of fundamental dialectics inherent in the structure of music.  She sees musical material as being on a continuum of phenomenology to psychology (what I would call ontology).  This is most typified by her piece Anea Crystal for two string quartets, which is made up of two pieces, or “seeds”, which can be played simultaneously. Seed I comprises the psychological ” simple human voice, swimming in time,”  whereas Seed II is a phenomenological “view of stretched rubber bands.”  Czernowin also postulates a similar dialectic at play in composition, namely that Experimentation can be broken down into Innovation and Discovery.  To her, Innovation is an “extended area of action, an expansion into different areas” that seeks to “plant a new flag in the Arctic of the mind.”  This strikes me as very much the Wesleyan Experimental Music department typified in the post-Cageian, Lucier-inpired school of conceptual music (and thus the American avant-garde as a whole).  Czernowin emphasizes that the risk of this branch of Experimentation is one of posturing and excessive ego.  On the other hand, Discovery is marked by a more organic approach: “listening to what the new material wants to do, discovering what is immanent in the material.”  The risks inherent in this approach are developing a semi-religious, mystical personality.  Discovery seems to me to be a more European (especially Russian) approach, and it’s what I seem to tend towards more frequently.  Czernowin notes, however, that the compositional ideal is a balance of both aspects of Experimentation.

Czernowin also had a great deal to say about the composition more generally and what end up being the upper levels of Schnittke’s picture of the artistic process.  She stated that pitch material (and the other constituent parts of a piece) is not an end in itself; it must serve the fundamental concept/inquiry of the piece, and that the composer must invent a new technical device for each piece to fit its concept.  This something I’ve suspected for several years now: that one doesn’t really ever know how to compose, that one must relearn/construct a new method with each piece.  Czernowin also said: “something must be at stake in a piece, you must work towards something and be aware of it,” which I think is highly typified by my inability to start anything until I have an extremely clear idea of the concept and structure of what I’m going to write.  As for more traditional elements of music, she said: “[letting pitch material into my music] is like when a little doggie is allowed in the theatre. Everybody just looks at the doggie.” The dominance of genre markers such as clear harmonic and rhythmic material when they are introduced into a piece is pretty inescapable, which is why I only use them in my pieces when I am playing with those sorts of associations (and practically never in improvisation, but that’s another issue).  I am working, however, on ways of disassociating familiar material (especially harmonic material) from its traditional contexts and functions, inspired especially by late Schnittke, using, for instance, a minor triad as a neutral sound object that has no role besides occurring between what comes before and what comes after.  My idea is to create structure from the manipulation of juxtaposed elements for purely psychological effect.  This comes into play in Incarnadine, but mostly as a textural device, because of the nature of the material (as I will show below).  I will definitely be writing more about this nascent compositional philosophy in the future.

My lesson with Chaya on February 28 was also fantastic.  She is one of the most perceptive teachers I’ve ever met, noticing basically all of the problem I’ve had over the past five years while only looking at the first movement of my grad piece.  She correctly pointed out (within less than five minutes of seeing it) that the beginning was considerably more detailed (and therefore better), since I spent two months on the first minute and then another two months on the next 18 minutes.  I told her that I thought there was too much material and too many ideas in it, and that I should break it up into several pieces, to which she replied that it wasn’t necessarily true: it wasn’t that there was too much, just that the multifarious elements didn’t have enough depth in and of themselves to make the piece good enough, unlike, say, Berio’s Sinfonia.   She recommended that I try to write a longish piece (10-20 minutes) using only two ideas, exploring them fully in the manner of Scelsi or Feldman, as well as exploring all their possible interrelationships.  Several months later, I stumbled onto Rzewski’s structural scheme (discussed in my previous post), and the rest is history.

Incarnadine is based on two pieces of preexisting material: a quiet, high, clear, smooth idea that originally came from an exercise I wrote for viola and trombone for MUS562 at UVic in around November of 2009 and a loud, low, obscure, rough one that came from Fun Fat Meat Bullet for trumpet and tuba for The Workshop from April of this year, a 12 hour day of composition when we started writing pieces at 9AM, performers arrived at 2PM and we gave a concert at 8PM.  The first piece of material consists of a high C# (my favourite note on the clarinet since I was about 14) repeated in clarinet 2 while clarinet 1 alternates between repeating a smooth cell of pitch material (Eb – D – B – G – F#) and a repeated high E.  The second piece of material is mostly fluttertongued clusters at the bottom of the clarinet’s range separated by rests, but also has some multiphonics, of the harmonic, artificial and vocal varieties and timbral trills.  Ok, I confess that Incarnadine is basically in sonata form with two thematic groups, but they’re not used as such, the development is much more abstract and the recapitulation is highly irregular (as I will explain below).

I won’t give an exhaustive analysis, since there isn’t much to say about the piece on a micro-level.  Most of the pitches are either clusters or iterations of the cell from the first bit of material and any rhythmic and textural ideas are basically just juxtaposition of extremes.  Structurally, the piece is divided into 120 four-second segments, which are grouped into 18 irregular sections.  These sections employ the six relationships codified by Rzewski, with each type occurring three times.  For the “exposition” (three sections), the two “themes” are stated in Rzewski Type I, separated by a transition of Type II.  There then follows a “development” (14 sections) that gradually fragments the material and brings the two ideas closer together, cycling through all of the Rzewski types.  Most of the material in this section is long notes separated by rests, but the techniques involved make the texture continuously variable, giving a sound much more complex than the notation would suggest.  Finally, in the “recapitulation” (one section of Type VI) the two ideas are combined: the harmonics of the notes in the second theme in effect become the high notes from the first theme.  The very ending is this transformation in miniature, all three performers play fast figures at the bottom of their ranges while changing their embouchures/throat positions to gradually move up through Xenakis’ régions to VI (teeth on the reed), where the notes being fingered become only slightly differentiated squeaks.  After this climax, clarinet 1 plays a very long tone with copious amounts of saliva in the reed, creating a sort of “radio static” effect that contains snippets of harmonics, low fuzz, pops, whistles, etc., in effect containing the entire seed of the piece in one gesture.

Due to technical issues, there was no recording made of Incarnadine‘s debut, but the VCT has assured me that they will be making a studio recording sometime in the near future, which I will hopefully be able to post for your enjoyment, and they will be performing it in Victoria sometime in the new year.

Reading, Structure and the Creative Process

Needless to say, I didn’t have the time or energy to finish my report from the VISI Art Song Lab. But the results of the week’s collaborative process can be found here.  Since then I’ve mostly been doing a great deal of reading while battling my own lethargy and uncertainties.  The fact that I’m leaving the country in 10 days is slowly becoming more and more daunting, and the many tasks I have yet to do before I leave are on the verge of becoming overwhelming.  Despite all of these sources of anxiety, I find great solace in reading; I’ve consumed about 8000 pages since the beginning of June, and I invariably feel more confidant and inspired while in the thick of relevant reading material.

Two sources I’ve read recently have made obvious to me the importance of structural concepts in the music I write (and even more so in the music I want to write).  First there is an exhaustive summary by Robert Wason of a structural scheme devised by Frederic Rzewski:

According to Rzewski (in personal conversation), these six “textures” grew out of a scheme which he had developed as a plan for improvisation while working with Musica Elettronica Viva. In essence, the scheme is based upon six relationships which two musical events may assume in time: in the first, the two events are completely separated and distant from one another (no relationship); in the second, they begin to move closer and to influence one another; in the third, they are contiguous (Rzewski draws an analogy to the traditional texture of “melody”); in the fourth, they overlap (Rzewski’s idea here is “counterpoint”); in the fifth they are coincident, or nearly so (here Rzewski’s thinks of “harmony”), while in the sixth, they pass one another in time, and bring the whole nature of temporal succession into question.

Robert W. Wason, “Tonality and Atonality in Frederic Rzewski’s Variations on ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated!’ ” in Perspectives of New Music , Vol. 26, No. 1 (Winter, 1988), pp. 108-143

This scheme has been particularly important to the composition of my clarinet trio, and so has Chapter Two of Victoria Adamenko’s Neo-Mythologism in Music: From Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb, “The Prime Structuring ‘Molds’ of Myth and Music.”  Here, Adamenko gives an exhaustive treatment of two important structural concepts that I embrace in my work: binary opposition, including the use of synthesis or a “mediator” (this was the main concept of Neither/Nor and continues to be basis of much of my personal philosophy, musical or otherwise); as well as variability and combinatoriality, which manifest most obviously in my music as thematic variation (in Six Popular Songs After Lawrence Durrell) and the creation of a contiguous structure from small combinatorially arranged cells (in Loops from Broken Lies and the shuffled file card pieces).  This chapter from the Adamenko definitely deserves a fuller summary and a closer critique, which I hope to accomplish in the near future.

In the midst of  what was, to me, a much less convincing chapter from Neo-Mythologism in Music, “Perception and Critique: Myth as a Figure of Speech in Musicological Discourse,” Adamenko shares a gem with us on the subject of Schnittke’s creative process:

Schnittke’s notes and sketches reveal that in his picture of the creative process, the composer placed the collective above everything.  Schnittke’s archive in London contains a little handwritten diagram, which represents a layered structure.  The top layer Schnittke marks as “super-music” (nadmuzyka), from where one descends through the layers of “hyper-idea” (giperzamysel), “the idea of a work” (zamysel proizvedeniya), to a “rational concept” (razionalnaya konzepziya) and, finally, to the musical text using notation (notnyi tekst).  “The collective” (kollekt[ivnoe]) occupies the highest level in this diagram, while Schnittke separates the stages that lead to the musical text with a line marking all of the lower  categories as “individual” (indiv[idual’noe]).

Victoria Adamenko, Neo-Mythologism in Music: From Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb, p. 249

My own conception of music and composition, which I’d largely developed before I was familiar with any of Schnittke’s work, is remarkably similar.  I also think of music in the highly abstract, hierarchical way that Schnittke does, which in some ways has been a barrier of sorts: I often have to spend months thinking about “the idea of a work” and the “rational concept” before I can commit anything to paper, and I think it will be years, if not decades, before I’ve learned nearly enough about music to have an even somewhat complete notion of “super-music,” which I interpret as being the composer’s philosophical outlook on music, sort of a meta-generalization of the ideological trends in their oeuvre (which I would suppose would be the “hyper-idea”).  Not only that, but I also share Schnittke’s Platonic conception of composition, and, like him, I feel as though I am merely the medium through which compositions, which are inherent from the structure of music as we conceive it and exist in an abstract plane, flow.  I will definitely be discussing that topic in the near future as well.

The ideas I’ve been exposed to through reading in the past few months have raised more questions for me than they’ve answered, but that is undoubtedly a good thing. Merely considering these topics on a day-to-day basis has me feeling closer to my work, despite being in a fairly artistically sterile environment until I move to the US.  Also, since Wesleyan’s MA program uses a portfolio-style thesis, and since I want all the compositions and essays I produce over the next two years to be relevant, I feel as though I need to come up with a plan for the topics I’ll be working on now, instead of a year from now, when I would be beginning a traditional thesis.  The readings I’ve been doing have cemented my desire to further develop my ideas in the areas of style, structure and morphology, and to continue to study the works of Alfred Schnittke, especially those from the end of his life.

 

February Updates

Until this month, very little had come of finishing my Bachelor’s degree.  I managed to finish two short pieces last summer: HER&HIS/ZAG&ZIG for solo trombone, premiered by Aubrey Kelly in October, and Self Effacement (Aldo Clementi in Memoriam) for two pianos (which I still plan on revising and expanding).  I had several other compositional goals that I failed to meet.  I entered a few competitions, just to see what would happen. Then, over the past few weeks, three important events have made me much more confident of my abilities:

  1. I was selected to participated in the Vancouver International Song Institute’s Art Song Lab 2012.  I’m paired with poet Shannon Rayne and we’ll be creating an art song  to be performed by a team of professionals on June 8 after a week of workshops.
  2. For the Seven Lakes was one of two entries selected in the Via Choralis call for scores. I was somewhat surprised since I wrote it quite quickly at the end of January (though I’d been mulling some ideas in my head for a few weeks beforehand) and because it’s in no way a typical community choir piece.  Via Choralis, directed by Nicholas Fairbank, will be performing it on April 21 and 22 and the winner and runner-up will be announced at one of the concerts (I won’t know which I am until then).
  3. I was accepted into CalArts’ MFA program in composition at the Herb Alpert School of Music. I’m still waiting to hear back from Wesleyan, and there are important financial considerations to attend to, but I am completely dazed by this news, and hope beyond all hopes that I can go.

All of this adds up to a very exciting next few months musically. Keep posted for updates, whoever actually reads this, and I promise I’ll update more often.