About a year ago, Draylen Mason was the victim of a senseless bombing in Austin, TX. Draylen was a talented string bass player in the Austin Youth Symphony for which I was a conductor (he was also in many other music groups and extra-curricular activities). Draylen was a senior in HS when he was murdered and had been accepted into the string bass studios at Oberlin Conservatory, University of Austin- Texas and University of North Texas.
I’d encourage anyone reading this to help make the world a better place by purchasing a ticket to this concert:
It’s being mounted by the Austin Youth Symphony, but you don’t have to live in Austin – or even plan to attend the concert – to buy a ticket. In fact, the hope is that people all over the world will purchase tickets as a show of solidarity, and in order to fund this a scholarship program set up in Draylen’s name.
Per the event info,
all proceeds will go to locate, encourage, and develop underserved young people of talent in the greater Austin area by creating access to instruction, instruments, scholarships, and fellowships. All funds will be administered through the Austin Youth Orchestra.
Which is a bummer! I built this program around Boulanger’s setting of the 129th psalm. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms was a natural pairing, then I got to thinking about other psalms, going back as far as I could and up to the present day. Here’s what we were supposed to have performed tonight:
SCHÜTZ Alleluja! Lobet den Herrn! HILDEGAARD Karitas habundat SHAW and the swallow STRAVINSKY Symphony of Psalms DVORAK Žalm 149 BOULANGER Psaume CXXIX WHITE Psalm 46
It’s a wildly eclectic program spanning 900 years of music, performed in five different languages, but I’m telling you – it works!
Or so went my hypothesis anyway. I had prepared my pre-concert lecture to explain how it works, pointing out the many cross-pollinations that bounce around in this program. Since I couldn’t give it in person, here you have it:
Same Text, Different Worlds
There are two pieces on the program that share the same text: Heinrich Schütz’s Alleluia (1619) and the last movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (1930), the text being that of the 150th psalm.
Here’s how Schütz sets the first lines, “Alleluja! Lobet den Herrn” (“Hallelujah! Praise the lord”)
And here’s Stravinsky’s setting of the same words, this time in Latin:
It’s immediately clear a) that we’re in two totally different sound worlds and b) that Igor Stravinsky has an awfully dour way with the word “Hallelujah”.
In fact, Stravinsky’s setting of this whole text is quite peculiar, and a case could be made that it’s hardly a musical setting of the text at all, and more a symphony to which words were appended.
Listen, for example, to the way Schütz and Stravinsky set the baldly evocative words, “Praise him with timbrel and dance, praise him with strings and organ”:
I’m not saying that a composer has to be literal with their word painting, but this psalm invites it brazenly, and it’s a bold choice to ignore it outright.
The irony here is that Stravinsky considered the music in this movement to be the single most literal musical depiction he ever composed, particularly the following passage, which depicts Elijah riding a fiery chariot through the sky. The horns and triplets represent the stomping of hooves:
Apparently Stravinsky was even embarrassed that he had written something so literal, which may well be, but it’s worth pointing out that this text contains not a single mention of a horse, a chariot, or the prophet Elijah.
Sing we and chant it
Chant plays a major role in this program, most obviously with the work of the 12th century mystic, Hildegaard von Bingen:
There was a major revival of interest in chant in Parisian musical circles around the time that Lili Boulanger was receiving her education (you’ll hear it a ton in Fauré, d’Indy, Franck, and Duruflé). Listen to the first vocal line of her setting of the 129th psalm with the Hildegaard in mind:
Even a composer like Dvorak, whose setting of the 149th psalm has a bright, festive, dance-like atmosphere, uses a bit of chantish writing to invoke the solemnity of his material:
There are two contemporary works on the program, one by Caroline Shaw, the other by yours truly. (One of these composers has won the Pulitzer Prize in Music; it’s hardly worth quibbling over which it was.)
We’re composers of the same generation who mainly write in the sphere of tonal music, and what’s more, we both use some of the same techniques, one of which is writing in parallel harmonies.
Listen to this complete performance of and the swallow and I’ll explain what I mean:
Right from the start, you’re getting parallel harmonies – a G-flat major chord moves up to a B-flat minor chord, same voicing, all the parts moving in parallel motion. Another way of putting it is that she’s writing melodies, but instead of using single notes, she uses stacked chords.
This is something that I do a lot, but whereas Shaw’s writing (in this piece) tends towards modality, mine tends towards chromaticism, since I most commonly maintain the chord qualities with each melodic move.
[I am so sorry for that last paragraph. This is the kind of jargon that I would entirely eschew in a pre-concert lecture, but I would have extra tools to explain myself, like a piano and my insouciant charm.]
A simpler version of this is to say that, had I written the opening of and the swallow, it might have had a B-flat major chord instead of a B-flat minor chord, which would sound crunchier and less mellifluous.
Check out, for example, the dissonances in the opening bars of my piece:
Lots more could be said about this program, and it’s a shame that I won’t get a chance to present all these pieces in one evening, because I really believe they have all sorts of interesting resonances with each other.
But the wheels have been churning, and I think I’ve figured out how to scrap this program for parts, leading to many new programs, perhaps even more diverting and ingenious than this one, so stay tuned!
An angel has come down heaven and uploaded Stephen Sondheim’s 1994 appearance on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” to YouTube, and since I’ve given up the pretense that this space is anything other than a Sondheim fan blog, here it is:
This might actually be my favorite Sondheim interview, though it’s hard to pick because Sondheim always says the exact same things any time he is questioned. He would make a remarkably good political candidate; he is relentlessly on message.
By the way children, this is the sort of programming that used to air regularly on Bravo. It was basically ITAS, Mindwalk, and England, My England on a loop. Go ahead, click that link to Mindwalk and just imagine that playing on Bravo today. It is literally three people walking around Mont Saint-Michel for two hours talking about Systems Theory to the accompaniment of Philip Glass music. My recollection is that it ran almost every day.
As much as I despise James Lipton, I always dreamed of being interviewed on ITAS so that I could answer the famous Proust/Apostrophe/Bouillon de Culture questionnaire that he asked at the end of each episode. But that’s not going to happen, so here are my answers:
What is your favorite word? Euphony
What is your least favorite word? Wart
What is your favorite drug? Green tea
The sound or noise you love the most? Gentle birdsong
The sound or noise you hate? Open-mouthed chewing; leaf blowers, lawnmowers, motorcycles
What is your favorite curse word? Heaven forfend!
If you couldn’t do what you’re doing now, what job would you like most? Diction coach… although this is part of my current job, so maybe curtsey reviewer?
What job would you like least? Football player
What would you like to come back as if you could be reincarnated? One of those bacteria that live in liquid asphalt. I would finally be warm enough.
If Heaven exists what would you like to hear god say when you arrive? I’m your Auntie Mame!
Here, for your auditory delectation, is my appearance on Kyle Marshall’s excellent “Putting it Together” podcast, a nerdy Sondheim gabfest that is for me what a politics or sports podcast is for “normal” people.
I was so excited that I probably got a little out of control. The episode is seventy minutes long and we are talking about the Overture and “Let me entertain you” from Gypsy. But it’s your holiday gift, so you’d better enjoy it!
This coming February 9, I’m going to premiere a new orchestration of my setting of the 46th psalm (titled, aptly, Psalm 46), realizing an intention that I’ve harbored since I composed the piece in 2011. The piece was originally scored for organ, handbells, brass and timpani (and choir).
As I’ve come back to the piece to give it its new orchestral garb, the memories of its creation have come flooding back. It’s my own little Proustian madeleine.
I composed Psalm 46 in one of my off-years from full-time conducting, ironically enough, right after having completed my masters degree (…in conducting.) It wasn’t for a lack of trying that I didn’t have a job; I had applied for every position I could find. I was roundly rejected from every one.
So I decided to move back to Chicago from Bloomington, IN, which was a bit of a let down, but it seemed like the best choice. My professional network was in Chicago, and I assumed I could always pick up a bit of extra work giving lectures for the Chicago Symphony (it turned out they only offered me 3 concerts that season.)
I rented a little apartment in Ukrainian Village on Chicago’s west side. My landlady was a somber Polish woman whom I hardly ever saw since she spent most of her time in Poland “visiting her son”. When I asked where he lived, she told me he was dead. That has always stuck with me.
My landlady owned only half three of my building’s six units. The others were owned by a truly loathsome man who lived on the top floor with his wife. He was immature and aggressive, a bully and a tormenter. He was so abhorrent that – and I’m not making this up – the previous tenant in my apartment had defecated in the communal washing machine as a final act of retribution.
This landlord and his equally detestable wife often had violent shouting matches. During one such outburst, when they were arguing about something to do with the building, I heard them refer to me as “the composer”, which I’ll admit I did appreciate.
This year when I didn’t have a real job was a challenge but it also proved that I had very many loyal friends who were willing to help me. Most of that help came in the guise of commissions for new pieces. Psalm 46 was one of those works.
The piece was commissioned by the church where I had been working right before I left for Bloomington, and it’s really a testament to the kindness of that congregation, since I had left after only a year when they were fully expecting me to stick around for at least four or five.
The commission was quite specific with regards to instrumentation: it would be written to celebrate the retirement of their longtime organist (a dear friend) who was also the director of the handbell program. As the church also had a resident brass ensemble, they were to be included as well.
As happy as I was to have the commission, that ensemble was a field of land mines. Writing for organ is always fraught, though Mike, the organist was and is a good friend and a dream to work with, and he greatly improved my writing for the instrument.
Nobody could improve my writing for the handbells though; they simply shouldn’t be written for.
Inexplicably, some people enjoy the so-called English handbell choir. To me, they sound like the unholy union of a tin can and a cowbell, and what’s more, I can not fathom why anyone would want to play in an ensemble where you only get to play one note (“But if you play the little ones, you can play up to four at a time!” I am told. Gee willikers.)
Compositionally, this piece was a big step in my development. Parts of it were probably a bit too outré for those lovely singers in suburban Illinois, but they tackled their task with gusto, led by my successor, who turned out to be a petty bitch. He actually kicked me out of the dress rehearsal of my own piece when I tried to adjust the balance from where I was sitting in the back of the sanctuary.
But now I get a second go on this piece. In addition to re-scoring it for large orchestra, I’ve also added some extra amens for the chorus at the end, since one of the original chorus members complained to me that she was miffed that the chorus didn’t get to sing the end the piece. (They still don’t, but they get much closer.)
The thing I’m most looking forward to hearing is the work’s major climax, a huge modulation that takes place near the end of the piece, landing on a monumental C major chord. I remember being so delighted by that passage when I wrote it that I called my friend Tim and begged him to come over and listen to it.
But there was something that robbed that moment of its fullest glory, something I desperately wanted but couldn’t have: a cymbal crash. I’ve been awaiting that cymbal crash for 8 years, and now, god willing, I’ll finally get to hear it.