10 October 2015
I saw a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Metropolitan Opera House two nights ago, and I’m still exhausted!
I have to marvel at the energy and stamina of everyone involved, onstage, backstage, and in the orchestra pit; what a feat to stay focused and deliver at the highest level for over three hours, closer to four. Heldentenor Johan Botha, who sang the punishing title role, sounded as fresh in Act III as he did in Act I.
It was a novelty to see such an old-fashioned production. Otto Schenk’s production dates from 1977, and hasn’t been seen at the Met since 2004. Who knows when — or if — it will be seen again?
I find it refreshing to see a production which simply presents the opera itself, and not some director’s revisionist take on it. This production looked the way the music sounded.
Tannhäuser has some glorious music in it. It’s relatively early Wagner, and he’s still emulating the influences of Weber and Meyerbeer, and even early Bel Canto styles.
The story and characters are firmly rooted in 19th-Century attitudes, and these can prove troublesome to a modern audience. Our protagonist is the 13th-Century troubador (Minnesinger) Tannhäuser, although nobody ever calls him Tannhäuser; they all address him as Heinrich. Call him what you will, our hero doesn’t know what the heck he wants out of life. Wherever he is, he wants to be somewhere else. If he’s in the Venusburg, he longs for sunlight and trees and grass and a life of purity and virtue. If he’s back in the real world, rubbing shoulders with his pious friends and colleagues, he longs for the excitement and sensuous pleasure to be found in the embrace of Venus, the goddess of love and lust.
Tannhäuser is loved by Elisabeth, the chaste daughter of the Landgraf of Thuringia. She has fallen for his sweet voice, and she pines for him even after he’s walked out on her to hunt for thrills. When he comes back, disgraces himself by singing of carnal love in the Song Contest and disses her in the process, she falls for him even harder. Eventually she wastes away and dies, and her death ostensibly redeems Tannhäuser, who hardly deserves such a redemption. Why would she forfeit her own life, happiness, and fulfilment? Why doesn’t she give herself to someone who will appreciate her properly, love her and honor her? Where’s her sense of self-respect? Wolfram adores her, he too has a lovely voice, and he’s a gentleman to boot. But, alas, baritones rarely if ever get the girl.
This whole story rings false, and displays a rigid world view, even as it professes to be revolutionary. Women are either saints or sluts.
With all this in mind, should we cast Tannhäuser aside as hopelessly outmoded? Hell, no! It’s important that we see such things and recognize them for what they are. Seeing operas like this are a history lesson, and I think opera houses should show them the way museums show masterpieces of the past; unchanged, unvarnished, and unedited. Let the audience make the connection between the past and the present.
2 July 2015
What is the source of inspiration? Do we find inspiration, or does inspiration find us?
For me, inspiration can come from a compelling message from a text, a fascination with a particular instrument or group of instruments, or — best of all — a commission.
Recently, however, inspiration came to me from a most unlikely source: a wisecrack.
On June 26, 2015, The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, a 5-4 vote in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. This was big news, and it created quite a stir on Facebook and all over social media. I got into the spirit, and posted a status update that said, “In honor of today’s Supreme Court decision, my next piece will be in 5/4 time.”
That remark went over very well. It got over 110 “likes” in about a day.
A day later I was out taking a bike ride. I get some of my best, and craziest ideas on bike rides. Most of my thoughts on this ride centered around “Why not write a short, festive piece in 5/4 time to celebrate this landmark decision?” I remembered a tune I concocted while still a teenager, and that was indeed in 5/4 time — no doubt heavily influenced by Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” and Lalo Schifrin’s theme music for “Mission Impossible,” both very popular back in the day — and it was energetic and cheeky, exactly the right tone for this occasion, some forty years later.
My first idea for a title was “Uneven Steven,” but I soon rejected that for two reasons.
1) I didn’t want the title to be about me, and
2) a quick search on Google showed that “Uneven Steven” had already been used by a blues band and a DJ/rapper, among others.
I thought of the colorful phraseology used by Justice Antonin Scalia in his recent dissents, and the term “Jiggery Pokery” had a nice rhythm to it. Of course, Justice Scalia used “Jiggery Pokery” in his dissent on the Affordable Care Act (Burwell v. King), not the same-sex marriange decision. It also seemed a little perverse to celebrate a milestone of social equality by writing in an uneven meter, but in both of these considerations my heart won out over my head; sometimes an idea can be right without being logical.
So, Jiggery Pokery it would be, in 5/4 time. As I hummed the tune and timed it, to arrive at a metronome marking, I discovered that the tempo was quarter-note = 180. [British musicians use the term “crotchet” for what we Americans call a quarter-note, and I think you’ll agree that Justice Scalia was being very crotchety in his dissents] I like the fact that the tempo was 180. 180 is 10 x “chai” (the Hebrew word for “life,” and the numerical value of its letters add up to 18), and 180º is a complete about-face. The country had just made a complete 180 (there are still some stragglers resisting this change, but I have faith that they’ll catch up with the rest of us eventually) so 180 was a very appropriate tempo. I pushed this even further by adding the phrase “Tempo giusto” to the marking; “giusto” is the Italian word for “just.” Usually you use this word to indicate that you want the music played in strict time, no speeding up or slowing down, but “giusto” shares its Latin root with “Justice,” which indicates what’s fair and right as well as the person appointed to wear a robe and interpret our laws.
I knew I wanted the piece’s duration to be somewhere between three and four minutes. After all, “brevity is the soul of wit.” Using my (limited) skills in math, I determined that I’d need to write no fewer than 108 measures (3 minutes) and no more than 144 (4 minutes). When the piece was finished (in about 3 days, which is very fast for me) it comprised 128 measures, with a running time of 3:33. (3+3+3 = 9, as in 9 Supreme Court Justices!)
I am hoping that Jiggery Pokery gets heard soon, played by live humans on real instruments. When that happens, I’ll post a link to a recording, assuming I’m lucky enough to get one. In the meantime, here’s the MIDI version:
UPDATE: 29 October 2016 - Jiggery Pokery has indeed been played by live humans on real instruments. The humans in question are the Madison String Quartet, and I’ve just added a recording of their performance on the page for Jiggery Pokery. Check it out!
16 April 2015
Donald Francis Tovey, in his magnificent Essays in Musical Analysis, cites a riddle he often posed to his students: (I’m paraphrasing here)
Q: What is it that we wish to learn from the Great Masters, but cannot?
A: How to get out of a hole, because they never get into one.
With all due respect, Mr. Tovey’s answer seems to be deceptive and incomplete. It’s not that the Great Masters never got into holes, but we never get to see them in holes, as we only get to see their completed work with all problems solved. I have no doubt that the Great Masters struggled plenty, and that their finished pieces, which seem so effortless and inevitable, are products of hard work, rigorous attention to detail, trial and error, doubt, angst, and despair. They’ve left us very little evidence of their struggles, but that does not mean their struggles did not occur.
I confess that I often struggle with my writing, and that my inspiration often flags. I’ve recently completed two new pieces, my Saxophone Quartet No. 3 and a choral setting of Avinu Shebashamayim (Prayer for the State of Israel). Both pieces gave me trouble. Or, to put it more accurately, I gave myself trouble on both of those pieces. Recognizing that distiction is the first step to overcoming the trouble.
I remember my teacher, Giampaolo Bracali, of blessed memory, comparing composing to driving a car. When you’re lost, or at a dead end, he said, it’s probably because you made a wrong turn somewhere earlier. If you go back and retrace your route, you may get a clue as to where you went wrong, and where, perhaps, you should have gone instead.
I continue to follow Giampaolo’s excellent advice, and I find his technique useful, not only for undoing a faux pas, but also for figuring out where to go next.
It’s very rare for me to work out the entire structure of a piece in advance. Usually I make it up as I go along. One idea leads to another, and I let these ideas run free as long as possible. At a certain point — or, should I say, an uncertain point — this stops being effective, and then it’s time to take stock of what I’ve done. I’ll analyze what I have so far, and write an outline of it. Doing this can be very helpful, in many different ways. It could be that I have too much material, and that I could make a more coherent presentation doing more with less. It could be that there are aspects of how the various motives relate to each other that I have not explored. Seeing how ideas are presented the first time may give me ideas about how to develop them later on.
That’s good advice for a journey that’s already started, but what about the times when you can’t even get the engine to turn over?
When you find you can’t even begin, there’s certainly an emotional component holding you back, and that’s coming from you, not from your material.
I find that I’m highly susceptible to an affliction called “Importantitis.” I feel that if I’m working in a form others have worked in before, I’m in competition with them, and I must outdo them, or else I have failed. That’s crazy, of course, and holding onto such thoughts leads to severe self-consciousness and doubt, utter paralysis. I cannot proceed until I’ve talked myself out of the irrational fears that hamper my progress.
One way to bypass all this mishegoss is to forget about all the great masters of the past, forget about posterity, and just focus on the right now. It’s not necessary, I tell myself, that your piece lives for the ages, but it is necessary that your piece lives for the five or ten minutes of its running time. The people who create are always the people least qualified to judge the work, as they’re way too close to the work to have any perspective. So don’t judge, just create! Let all the others judge. Casablanca (1942) is a great movie, one of my favorites, and a classic if ever there was one, but no one who worked on it knew or even believed it was going to be great; they were all on board because they were under contract. Greatness is an accident as often as not. Make yourself accident-prone.
6 December 2014
I wrote my first Saxophone Quartet in 1980, when I was 26. At the time, I just called it Saxophone Quartet, but when I wrote another one, many years later, it became known as my Saxophone Quartet No. 1. I had been out of college (Manhattan School of Music) for four years, but I was still studying privately with Giampaolo Bracali of the MSM composition faculty. I had written some chamber music, a song cycle, and a Symphony, and I was starting to get active writing for the theater, having been admitted into the BMI Musical Theater Workshop in 1978 (This august institution was not yet named for Lehman Engel, as he was still alive and kicking and running the Workshop). I had also taken a summer course in Jazz Arranging at the Eastman School of Music in 1978, and techniques and voicings I learned there made their way into my “serious” music. Consequently, this was perhaps the first of my pieces to show the influences of jazz and theater sensibilities as well as my conservatory training. For one thing, it was remarkably terse compared to the rest of my chamber pieces, only 12 minutes long. The last movement was in swing, and it swung. It was premiered in the Spring of 1980 at an MSM Alumni Concert. It was well received, and it started to become popular almost immediately.
Theater writing, both as composer and orchestrator, kept me occupied throughout the 1980s. Starting around 1985, I was beginning to make sketches for what would become my Saxophone Quartet No. 2, but I was not able to finish it until 1998, when I was 44. I’m not sure what prompted me to make the second quartet be in four movements instead of three, but it seems to have been a good decision. This piece has also met with wide acceptance, and has garnered many performances and an excellent recording, (by the New Hudson Saxophone Quartet on their CD “The American Muse”) which I believe is still available.
Eighteen years separate my Sax Quartets Nos. 1 and 2, and - at this writing - Sax Quartet No. 2 was sixteen years ago. I held off writing a third quartet for quite a long time, but I feel ready now to work on Sax Quartet No. 3.
I have the two inner movements (of four) finished, and I’m currently working on the two outer movements. One advantage of writing two movements at once is that if one movement gives you trouble, you can pick up the other one and make progress on it. I often feel as if I’m trying to do a jigsaw puzzle, but I don’t have the picture of what the puzzle’s supposed to look like to guide me. It also seems as if some of the pieces I’m trying to make fit might belong to some other puzzle. All I can do is generate material, and try to determine if it belongs, where it goes, and where it takes me.
Saxophone Quartet No. 3 is finished. Baruch HaShem! Check back here for news of its premiere.