A Happy Composer

Ladies and Gentlemen, today, I am a happy composer.  What makes a composer happy?  Well, basically nothing – we’re all tortured, existentially-fraught philosophers in sound who see this world for the vale of tears it really is.

But occasionally one receives a very decent recording of one’s own work, and one can’t help but feel a moment of pride.  Therefore, I present to you now two of my newest musical children:

Symphonic Essay (2014)

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I composed this piece mainly this past January for the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra; we premiered it at the end of March and recorded it at the beginning of May.  Here’s an earlier essay/manifesto I wrote about it.

The Dwarf Planets (2012)

A suite in five movements for brass quintet, timpani and organ, composed for the Gargoyle Brass Quintet.  Each movement depicts the god or goddess assigned to one of the outermost celestial bodies in our solar system (click the title above for more info thereabout.)

Haumea

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Pluto

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Ceres

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Eris

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Makemake

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I love this quote

from Bryan Magee’s Confessions of a Philosopher, p. 269:

What to my mind sets Wagner and Shakespeare apart from other artists is the fact that they deal with everything.  Their works confront the totality of human experience, and present our emotional life as it is, in its wholeness.  So much of even the greatest art is aspirational, concerned with, and aiming at, ideals.  Bach said he was composing his music to the greater glory of God; Beethoven said he was trying to express the highest of human aspirations; and one could multiply these sentiments many times over by quoting from the mouths of some of the greatest of artists.  Art that springs from such motives can be wonderful, but cannot articulate the realities of human feeling across more than part of its range.  Wagner’s work, by contrast, is not aspirational but cognitive, truth-telling; and he tells it like it is, down to emotions we disown.  Shakespeare does the same, across an even bigger canvas.  If Wagner is enabled to go deeper it is only because his chief expressive medium is music rather than words.

Now me: I think Mahler was aspiring to do what Wagner did naturally (if not heedlessly,) but it comes off as self-conscious and pretentious in his music instead of id-driven and inexorable as in Wagner’s.

In other news, if you ever get a chance to hear Tchaikovsky’s conservatory dissertation setting of “Ode to Joy”, run for the hills.  Aside from a precious few lovely moments, it’s just one primitive melody after another, set in a wandering morass of the blandest counterpoint.  However, I find it deeply gratifying to know that the composer of Pique Dame and the “Pathétique” Symphony did not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus.  Not every great composer had to start off that way, and that gives hope for the rest of us.

I mention this piece because we’re performing it on a concert with Beethoven’s 9th.  Beethoven’s music, of course, completely overwhelms the text, tossing it around like a raft upon a stormy sea.

Luckily for Schiller, one musician set “An die Freude” perfectly, lending just the right wind to its sails: Franz Schubert.

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List of pieces I deeply wish to conduct

that I haven’t conducted already, in no particular order, obviously not exhaustive:

Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances, Symphony No. 3, All-Night Vigil
Schnittke: Symphony No. 8, Choir Concerto, Viola Concerto, Suites from The Census List, Agony, Story of an Unknown Actor
Wagner: Die Walküre, Act III, Das Rheingold, Siegfrieds Tod & Trauermarsch
Berg: Violin Concerto
Sondheim: Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, A Little Night Music
Herrmann: “Scène d’Amour” from Vertigo, “Conversation Piece” from North by Northwest
Weill: “The Seven Deadly Sins”
Poulenc: Gloria
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro
Sibelius: Symphony No. 3
Ravel: Daphnis & Chloe, Piano Concerto in G, Left Hand Concerto
Bernstein: Mass, Trouble in Tahiti

Just throwing it out there.

 

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Ramuntcho, Desplat

The Basque-Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena brought a delightfully obscure program to Cincinnati last week: Gabriel Pierné’s “Ramuntcho” Overture and Alberto Ginastera’s “Panambi” (complete).  The Ginastera is a wonderful piece and an especially impressive Op. 1 (composed at the tender age of 20) but I think enough ink has been spilled about Ginastera’s youthful stint as the Argentine Stravinsky.  There’s a great LSO recording which I’d recommend to one and all.

The piece I really fell in love with and feel compelled to discuss here is Gabriel Pierné’s overture to “Ramuntcho”, which I am quite confident in saying you, dear reader, have never heard before.

ramuntcho

“Ramuntcho” started out as a novel by the French colonial diplomat/naval officer/oriental fetishist Pierre Loti.  It takes place in the Basque country, which was enough to make me want to know everything about it, cause I loves me some Basques.  You can you can download the novel for free and read it in a few days; I’d recommend it.

The book was adapted into a play for which Pierné composed the incidental score, hence the overture.  Before I continue, let’s just get two things out of the way: 1) Juanjo’s recording is the definitive version of this overture and way better than Pierné’s own scrappy account from the 1930’s (sorry Gabriel!)

And 2) let’s discuss what this overture is and what it isn’t.  It is very definitely not a symphonic movement with thematic development and the other trappings of that form.  It IS a charming medley of songs and dances culled, to the best of Pierné’s abilities from the folk tradition of the Basque country.  It is well orchestrated and delightful.

Here’s a couple examples of the loveliness that Pierné has wrought.  He took this unruly Basque folk dance, the “Aurresku”:

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and rendered those tuneless txistus into a sprightly woodwind section:

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He also looked to the national rhythm of the Basques*, the zortziko, a 5/8 meter than has a feel of three with one short beat and two longer ones.  It’s excellently demonstrated by the lovely “unofficial national anthem” of the Basques, “Gernikako Arbola

 

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Pierné does gives us a chirpy little tune with the zortziko lilt at the top of his overture:

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and then lushes it up like a badass with the strings:

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And assorted other loveliness.  Pierné’s output is a little hit or miss, which you can hear on Juanjo’s disc.  His music is grounded in Saint-Saëns with sprinklings of Roussel and Ravel.  So let’s all do our little part for Pierné and the Basque people and listen to and read “Ramuntcho”!

*So then what’s the U.S. “national rhythm”?  The back-beat?  Discuss.


I’m officially on board with Alexandre Desplat.  I know, it’s like, welcome to the 21st century, but his totally anachronistic score to “The King’s Speech” just rubbed me too much the wrong way.  After seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel – a movie I thought better than most of Wes Anderson’s recent efforts but still not quite my cup of tea – I see how vivid M. Desplat’s musical imagination is and what a compelling partnership these two artists make, verging on Ozon-Rombi/Almodóvar-Iglesias/Burton-Elfman territory.

[Side note: who is the gayer filmmaker: the openly homosexual François Ozon or the openly dandified Wes Anderson?  Is it possible, given our current cultural understanding of the 'gay' to consider the pink-frosted confections of a straight man more aligned with this categorically than, say, "In the House"?  Discuss.]

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