Yearly Archives: 2017

Process

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.

The Lighter Classics

One thing sorely missing from the concert life of major symphony orchestras these days is the Light Classical repertoire. The major conductors (and those hoping to replace them) seem to think that by associating themselves with Serious Masterpieces written by Intense Male Composers (Mahler and Shostakovich) they too will go down in history for their Deep Interpretations.

It’s a pity of course, because the lighter works add sparkle and luster to any program. They often carry strong thematic connotations, frequently stemming from ballets and operas, or representing various folk traditions. They can add context to more serious works (all the major composers in Europe, for example, adored the work of Johann Strauss II) and generally leaven a program that might be overly dense.

Suites, medleys, and other short works also allow for variation from the standard overture-concerto-symphony format. O-C-S is a fine concert format, but it’s even more effective when it’s not all you hear.

All this is why I was so very pleased when I stumbled upon David Ewen’s The Lighter Classics in Music, a beautifully written survey of this particular repertoire published in 1961 (basically on the eve of this music’s ubiquity.)

This book introduced me to many hidden gems, by composers well-known, lesser-known, and unknown (to me anyway), much of it music that hasn’t made it through the filter of history. Ewen writes beautifully about these composers and their music, and he does a fine job of representing the geographic spectrum of this particular style. I’d very much recommend picking up a copy, but if you don’t care to, I’ve assembled a Spotify playlist (above) of representative works from all the composers mentioned in his book.

One thing worth noting is that this stuff didn’t just die off in 1961: composers are still writing light music. We just have to listen.

Schubert’s 10th

On a recent program, the local symphony orchestra included a movement from the reconstructed “10th” symphony by Franz Schubert, as realized by Peter Gülke. It is an abomination at every level, and it is a scandal that Schubert’s name should be associated with this musical misadventure.

The music sounds nothing like Schubert. It sounds more like Vaughan Williams. Rather, it sounds like a high school composer’s bad imitation of Vaughan Williams. Actually, that’s not being fair to Vaughan Williams. Or high school composers. Or bad imitations.

Gülke wasn’t the only one to realize Schubert’s sketches for a late symphony in D Major; Brian Newbould also created a version, and that version was later revised by a certain Pierre Bartholomée. But the materials they were working from were fragmentary at best, mostly just a few melodic ideas with some bass lines filled in and the occasional working out of inner voices.

No surprise then that neither the harmonies, melodies, nor orchestration make any sense in the version I heard. The big lesson here is just how many iterations a piece – nay, a phrase, a motive, even a note – undergo on their way to becoming a completed work that’s representative of a composer’s style. Many composers have tried to hide the painstaking process behind their greatest works (see, for example, Johannes Brahms, who burned all his drafts) but even a Mozart doesn’t necessarily sound like Mozart at the first stages of a draft. Certainly a Gülke doesn’t sound like a Schubert.

But on top of that, there’s another, much more objective sense in which this piece can not be said to be Schubert’s 10th symphony: Schubert only wrote seven and a half symphonies in the first place.

You probably get what I mean by the ‘and a half part’ – the two movements that comprise Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony. But, you protest, the ‘Unfinished’ is Schubert’s 8th, and the 9th is the well-known C Major symphony, so certainly he composed eight and a half symphonies at the very least.

If that be the case, ask yourself this: when’s the last time you heard Schubert’s 7th? Not ringing any bells? That’s because there is no such piece! Rather, one might say that any piece purporting to be Schubert’s 7th suffers from the same essential musical invalidity as does the so-called 10th: the piece only exists in sketches which have since been realized (also by Newbould.)

Actually it’s a little more complicated. When publishers were bringing out Schubert’s symphonies, they purposefully left the No. 7 spot blank, publishing the ‘Unfinished’ as No. 8 and the Great C Major as No. 9. Scholars had come across references to a symphony composed by Schubert that they believed to be lost (the so-called ‘Gastein Symphony’). They kept a spot open in the chronological numbering in the hopes of finding it.

It’s now generally agreed that the symphony referred to was in fact the Great C Major. Which, ironically, means that the musicologists did the right thing, since the Great C Major really should be Symphony No. 7 (if we’re only counting completed symphonies.)

To tidy up the rest of the mess, I’d propose (to… the world?) that the ‘Unfinished Symphony’ should just go by that description alone – no number at all.

But at the very least, if you’re going to keep performing this so-called 10th symphony (and by all means, please don’t) at least put Gülke’s name up front and bury Schubert’s deep in the program notes; it’s the least we can do.

Halloween Belongs to Alfred Schnittke

Did anyone even celebrate Halloween in the Soviet Union? They did not. But does my boy Alldead Slitsya need some bogus holiday to creep you tf out? HE DOES NOT.

This number,”Es geschah…” from the opera Historia von D. Johann Faustus, is so satanic – and I’m guessing you didn’t know this already – that it was used by Alexander Plato in the final round of the 2016 Armenian Eurovision Song Contest Finals:

Trio for Viola, Horn, and Piano

This piece was composed for two very good friends, Andy and Mary Moran, whom I first met in the summer of 2005 at the Pierre Monteux School. Andy was attending as a conductor and horn player, Mary as a member of the viola section. Which meant I got to sit next to her in orchestra all summer, which I count among the singular delights I’ve been afforded.

Andy is now Professor of Horn and Orchestral Director at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point; Mary is a musician and staff member with the Central Wisconsin Symphony. The premiere was given at the UWSP School of Music, by Mary and Andy and Janna Ernst on the piano. Shortly thereafter, I travelled to Wisconsin to give further performances (as pianist) both there and in Chicago. The video above is of our final performance in September 2017 at a house concert in Chicago.