Of Danes and Strings

I finally got to hear / see the Danish String Quartet live a couple weeks ago. They played Beethoven and Bartok, music which they play very well, but I wouldn’t care if I heard them play the canon ever again. The deep spiritual core of the DSQ’s repertoire is their set of Scandinavian folk music arrangements.

How to describe these pieces? They are fiddle tunes that would sound familiar to anyone with an interest in Scottish reels or American bluegrass. They are fashioned into forms full of variety, spontaneity, and verve that function, emotionally and intellectually, as real pieces of music.

The style of the arrangements draws from the Italian baroque, French impressionism, modern pop and film score music, contemporary indie rock, and old fashioned jug band music. It’s hard even to parse the influences because they are blended so seamlessly into a coherent style, which, were I to hazard a name for it, I would call Cosmopolitan String Folk. (This would be a great name for the group itself if they ever decided to ditch the whole Danish thing.)

The music is arranged by the members of the quartet themselves, and as far as I’m concerned, that makes these gentlemen the leading composer-performers of the current generation. They perform with finesse and subtlety, both live and in person. They’ve got enough twang to make you feel country, and enough polish to make you feel urbane.

It’s hard for me to express how much I love this music, but here’s a go at it: the Danish Quartet’s Scandinavian folk arrangements are my platonic ideal of what new concert music should be. It’s music that is deeply connected to an ancient tradition, and that draws from the best styles and tools available from the history of music. The textures spring forth from the instruments themselves, and the music has been crafted by the hands of the performers.

I know the DSQ will continue to play Beethoven and Adès and Haydn, but if they ever give it up and just play full shows of the Scandinavian folk music, I’ll be first in line to buy a ticket.

Their albums in full on Spotify: Wood Works, Last Leaf

New bébé

I’m so pleased to present one of my latest pieces, a sonatina for clarinet and piano. I decided to make one of those YouTube score videos since those are all the rage these days (at least among me)

This was a case of writing something for a specific performer, a young clarinetist named Joseph Folwick, who played in the Metropolitan Youth Symphony during my year-long stint as conductor. Joseph was a technical wiz on the instrument, but more than that, his playing was full of a puckish vitality that I’ve rarely encountered. When he had a solo, he would interpolate licks from other pieces (“Rhapsody in Blue” during the “Cuban Overture” for example.)

He was always pushing the limits, trying to see how far he could go to make me laugh before I actually got pissed off. Even when we played my own music (the Mulligan Overture), he would play his part in different octaves and add freewheeling glissandi to the printed part. Rather than getting annoyed by his shenanigans, I changed the score to match his improvisations.

So I was looking out for an excuse to write a piece for him, and the opportunity came to perform at a New Year’s Eve concert here in Portland on December 31, 2017. The sonatina is in three short sections connected into a single movement, lasting about 12 minutes. It’s in turn zany, sultry, soulful, and jocular. He complained (and continues to complain) that the licks were too hard (“impossible!”), and then proceeded to play them perfectly, as you shall hear.

It was a blast to write and perform, as I hope it is to listen to.

Stravinsky, Bees, and Lies

Igor Stravinsky was an inveterate liar. He lied about big things, like the fact that he used authentic folk tunes to craft The Rite of Spring (not only did he use folk songs, all the songs he used were located on the bottom of right hand pages in the collection he was studying); and he also lied about little things, like what year he first heard Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (it was premiered in Russia in 1904 in Pavlovsk, but Stravinsky himself was in Pavlovka, about 1,000 miles away.)

In preparing for talks at the Chicago Symphony this past weekend, I came across a real set of whoppers from old Igor, all to do with his opus 3, the Scherzo fantastique.


The Scherzo fantastique is music about bees. More specifically, it is a musical portrayal of bees in the hive, their communications, their mating rituals, and their general swarm of activity. This is Stravinsky’s prefatory note from the French edition of the score:

In the summer of 1907, I read many books on the life of bees and I was very much moved by many details in the life of this extraordinary world. The uninterrupted life of the swarm (hive) through the generations and the nuptial flight of the queen bee, the murder of the male, her lover, in the giddy heights, the vital energy and the ferocious lyricism served me as the so-called literary basis for this symphonic poem, which I have entitled Scherzo fantastique.

Most of that is true, except that Stravinsky definitely did not read “many books” about the life of bees that summer, he read one book: Maurice Maeterlinck’s La vie des abeilles (The life of bees).

It’s worth noting how weird it is that Stravinsky decided to compose a tone poem bases on a non-fiction treatise about insects. Maurice Maeterlinck wrote a few scientific essays, but he was mainly known as the leading poet-playwright in fin-de-siècle Europe, and most composers were setting Maeterlinck’s theatrical and lyrical masterpieces to music (Pelléas et Mélisdande, for example, was set by Fauré, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Sibelius.)

But Stravinsky was a weirdo so he wrote this bee piece. He was 26 years old and still in his infancy as a composer (unlike, say, Mozart or Mendelssohn, who were mature masters at that age.) In fact, he was still a student of Rimsky-Korsakov when he wrote the Scherzo and so he may have been inspired by his teacher’s most famous work.

While he was at his country estate working on the Scherzo, he kept Rimsky-Korsakov up to date on his progress, writing on June 18, 1907

When we see each other I’ll show you the spots in Maeterlinck I took for the program, since it won’t all go into a letter.

And indeed, if we compare La vie des abeilles to Stravinsky’s Scherzo, it’s pretty obvious how the whole thing lines up, starting with the very first notes, the “war-song of the queen bee”, which Maeterlinck describes as “resembling somewhat the note of a distant trumpet of silver,” and which Stravinsky gives to a muted trumpet playing forte.

From here the specific musical allusions continue apace. This sort of musical image-making is a perfectly fine thing for a composer to engage in, and it’s probably fine that Stravinsky hadn’t neither sought nor received permission from Maeterlinck to set his treatise to music – after all, it was a purely instrumental piece inspired by a scientific essay.


The big lies started about ten years later in 1917, when the Paris Opera’s ballet company planned a production of a new ballet called “Les abeilles” (the bees) set to the music of the Scherzo fantastique, and advertised the ballet and the music as being based on Maeterlinck’s treatise.

That’s when the lawyers got involved. Maeterlinck sued Stravinsky and the Paris Opera, but Stravinsky played dumb, claiming that, not only had he not based his piece on La vie des abeilles, but that he had been totally unaware of the Paris Opera’s intentions. He stopped barely short of claiming not to know what a bee was or that such insects even existed.

Stravinsky’s claim crumbles like the proverbial house of cards under the slightest scrutiny. In December 1916, he had written to Gabriel Pierné that he was looking forward to the ballet’s première, and we know for a fact that he had approved of the plans of the ballet with Jacques Rouché, the director of the Paris Opera, and that he had even been scheduled to conduct the opening night performance (and would have had he not been sick.)

It seems like he was able to deceive Maeterlinck well enough to evade any serious ramifications, and nothing really came of the lawsuit. This would of course embolden Stravinsky as he went on to rewrite his own personal history in essays and interviews in the coming years.


Maurice Maeterlinck, it turned out, was hardly a boy scout himself. In 1926, he wrote his long awaited follow up to The life of bees called The life of the termites, which he plagiarized nearly word-for-word from the Afrikaner poet-scientist Eugène Marais. (A linguistic note: Maeterlinck was Belgian, and though he wrote in French, he spoke Dutch well enough to read Marais’ Afrikaans treatise.)

Basically, nobody connected to the Scherzo fantastique had so much as a single moral fiber in their body.

Odds and ends

  • The style of the Scherzo, which Stravinsky claimed had been inspired by modern French music (i.e. the Debussy pieces that he had never heard), rigorously followed Rimsky-Korsakov’s principals of harmony. That is, until the central portion of the piece, in which Stravinsky stole unabashedly from Richard Wagner. Listen to the section beginning at 3:42 in the above video and compare it to Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll.
  • Stravinsky was quite pleased later in life with this early work, saying that it was “quite a good opus 3”.
  • The orchestration of the Scherzo is unique in the repertoire. It is scored for triple woodwinds, four horns, three trumpets (including alto in F), celesta, and three harps, but completely dispenses with low brass, and includes only a part for suspended cymbal in the percussion department.
  • In another letter to Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky said that, “the harmony in The Bees will be fierce, like a toothache, but all at once it should turn pleasant, like cocaine.”

Process Addendum

One thing I may not have expressed well enough in the last post is just how much of a role random chance, accidents, and gut level queasiness play in composing a piece from scratch.

Sometimes you accidentally hit a bunch notes on the piano and they turn out to be a chord you never would have thought of but works.

Sometimes you type something into the computer wrong or copy it into the wrong measure, and it’s not at all what you had intended but is in fact WAY better.

Sometimes you think you’ve finished work on a passage but it nags at you for weeks and you finally go back and throw the whole thing out and redo it.

John McPhee has a nice passage in his Draft No. 4:

What counts is a finished piece, and how you get there is idiosyncratic. Alternating between handwriting and computer typing almost always moves me along, but that doesn’t mean it will work for you. It just might. I knew an editor who had a lot of contempt for nearly all writers and did his own writing with a quill pen.

Interestingly, I would say that 90% of people are disappointed when I tell them I compose symphonies and sonatas with a computer instead of a quill.


I recently had a request from a young composer to vlog my composition process as I was writing a piece of music. I declined, for a number of reasons.

First, my composition process often happens in fits and bursts and I can’t be getting up to turn on a camera at the moment of inspiration. Second, much of the ‘composing’ actually takes place inside my head on walks or while I’m half-asleep, which doesn’t make for the most exciting viewing. Third, I go a little crazy when I’m working on these pieces, and I need to feel totally unselfconscious, which I don’t think I could with a camera rolling.
So instead of a vlog, I responded with a summary of my process (as I view it) in these 12 points and I thought I’d post them here:
1) Logistics. Whom am I writing this for? What’s their level of proficiency? Where is this going to be performed? When does it need to be ready? How long does it need to be?
2) Emotional Content. Once I have an idea of the scope, I start to carefully consider what the piece is going to be about: is there a theme? Is there a text? What emotions do I want to evoke? Given the length, size, and scope of the piece and what I know of the performer’s personality and technical strengths, what kind of music (in terms of emotional/musical content) is best suited for this project?
3) Big Structure. Then I think about large-scale structure: is this a single-movement or a multi-movement work? What is the overall flow of the music I’m looking for in terms of tempi? Where do I want the big climaxes to be? What is the ratio of the different sections in terms of timing? If the work is in multiple movements, do I want to cycle any themes throughout the different movements?
4) Overall Sound. As I’m considering all of that, I try to imagine to myself what this music will sound like in a broad sense: the general harmonic, melodic, and textural landscape. Sometimes this comes to me in dreams, but the dreams leave only a very general impression, and I can never remember the details (though I do keep a music notepad by my bed to try to grab as much as I can).
5) Improvisation. Now I sit down at the piano and start to play around with musical ideas. This is sort of half-improvisatory – it’s not pure improvisation because I’ve already thought so much about what I want the music to sound like. I write down everything and I make a few notes about where the different ideas could wind up in the piece.
6) Development. I start picking the best ideas and improvising them more thoroughly. At this point I try to settle on a distinctive opening (which will influence the piece in so many ways), and I start a new Finale file.
7) Shaping Outlines. Once I’ve got the beginning and a few of the other main motives worked out, I start to imagine how they will fit into the Big Picture scheme that I came up with originally. Then it’s just a matter of working things through. (It was easy to write that last sentence. The actual carrying out of this process is always maddeningly difficult.)
8) Filling Them In. As I continue with the piece, I am always sketching ahead. I’d say I generally have about three stages of development at any given moment: 1) the section I’m currently working on, rigorously working out the shape and the detail; 2) the section I’ve been working on the previous days, which is now in for polishing (and often changes in light of what I’ve written after it); and 3) rough sketches for what’s to come.
Here I want to make a special comment: As I have continued to improve as a composer, what I have noticed is not that my ideas are better from the start, but that I am more and more willing to discard music that isn’t working. Maybe it’s a great passage but it just doesn’t fit with the piece overall; maybe it wasn’t good enough to start with. Experience has imbued me with the confidence to know that there will always be more, better ideas at hand.
9) Polishing. Working through this way, bit by bit, you find your way to the end of the piece. But writing an ending is not the same as finishing the piece. After there’s an ending, I then go over the whole thing many more times to make sure the pacing works, and that the details all somehow contribute to the whole. I will sometimes make major revisions (like inserting a whole section or deleting or reworking several bars) at this stage.
10) Sharing. I have a few very trusted musician friends with whom I will share work in progress (usually in the final stages of development) to gauge their reaction. I like to be in the same room as these people when they’re hearing it; they won’t always tell you exactly what they think, but their body language will reveal a TON as they sit listening.
11) Performer Reactions. Unless I have a specific technical question, I don’t share too much of a work-in-progress with the intended performers. I want to give them a work that has a big shape already, and then I want them to have a lot of time with the material before they comment on it. So often, the first instinct is often to glance at something quickly and register a thumbs up/thumbs down reaction at the first impression. Especially when you’re trying to stretch their technique, they really need to practice a new piece for several days before they can give a fully-informed answer about whether or not a passage is technically possible, and certainly they need weeks to absorb the whole piece to know if it ‘works’ or not.
12) Rehearsals and performance. The rehearsals and the first performances are all part of the composition process. You will make tons of adjustments, fixes, and alterations, and you won’t really know how the piece lives and breathes until you play it in front of an audience. Then you will almost certainly make further changes according to what you heard and saw. At that point, I consider the piece as finished as it’s ever going to be (god willing).
A few more words about that last point: one tremendous hurdle facing composers of classical music today is that our music is measured against the masterpieces of history. And while I think that every composer should constantly strive to add to that magnificent canon, it is important for performers to remember that those composers (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy – all of them) all tested their music in performance and revised their music over a period of many years.
These masterpieces may now seem to us like manna from heaven, but truly, the they were forged in the fires of real-life, practical performance and revision. The only way our contemporaries will continue to add masterworks to the repertoire is with the willing collaboration of their musician colleagues, and of course their own humility in the face of what they hear.