Composer conversations

We’ve had interviews with composers on the two most recent episodes of the Gabfest, and I’ve got some thoughts that didn’t make it to air.

First, we had on Lowell Liebermann, who, at the age of 60, just released his debut album as a pianist. His selection of repertoire was unique to say the least, encompassing Liszt’s knuckle-busting Totentanz and Busoni’s sprawling Fantasia Contrappuntistica.

Most interestingly, he included some of his own piano works, including his wildly successful Gargoyles. So my question in the interview was: “is this the definitive interpretation of these works?”

His basic answer was ‘yes,’ though there was a bit of caveatage. He said that there are some interpretations by other pianists where certain elements might be ‘better’ than his own, but that this is the interpretation that represents the most authentic musical intention.

That’s only natural. But then he followed up by saying that his view is that he’s mainly interested in the composer’s voice in any piece — not in the performer’s individual expression.

A friend texted me to ask what I thought. What follows is our thread:

**: What’s your take on Lowell Lieberman’s take on the relationship between performers and composers?
As a jazzbo and Borgesian, I’m biased toward the interpreter.

WW: Oh man I think about that all the time. In some ways, the idea that a composer composes and an interpreter interprets is the central conceit of “classical music.”

I think of myself as not being quite as doctrinaire as LL but then again, when I hear people playing my music in a way I didn’t write, 90% I get annoyed and start writing long detailed emails to the performers (which I then delete.)

But then 10% of the time they do something I didn’t write and it’s BETTER, I’m very happy for it; and in my own life as an interpreter, I do sometimes make alterations, striving to be part of that 10%.

And then you have situations like Chopin — supposedly he never performed his compositions twice the same way, always improvising and altering in performance. The fact is that most musicians in the earlier centuries were composer-improviser-performers. I guess my take is that that’s what I think we should try to get back to.

I’m always encouraging performers to compose… even if they don’t do it seriously, it gives them a better sense of what goes into writing a piece of music, and thus a better chance of being part of the 10% when they put their “spin” on something

Our next composer chat was with Gabriela Lena Frank:

She talked about her project called Composing Earth. The idea is that she selects ten composers — all alumni of her academy — and provides them a two-year stipend for study and composing. Their goal is to produce new compositions that somehow grapple with the climate catastrophe.

Here my question was, “what are the limits of instrumental music to communicate the climate change message?” And while I’m sympathetic to the agenda of this program — and am myself someone who composes “message” pieces all the time — I’m not sure that I was totally convinced by her answer. In fact, I’m not quite so sure that she answered the question at all (very smart interview tactic, btw.)

Of course, it’s rare that a piece of modern classical music is heard without context. It’s mostly listened to by brainiacs who digest program notes with ease and who have been taught how to hear all sorts of hermeneutical meanings in the sounds of instrumental compositions.

Suffice to say, I will be very interested to hear the compositions that come out of this program.

Oh, and if you really want to help the planet, go vegan today! 🌱

Two Strange Pieces

Sometimes, people ask you to write strange pieces. Usually they don’t specify “write me a strange piece” (though sometimes they do) but more often they have a concept in mind and a set of constraints, and the only result that can arise from the intersection of the two is something weird.

For example, let’s say you’re asked to write a piece for cello and bass, and the concept is that it’s supposed to be about a boat trip from Dublin to a remote island off the Irish coast which is the habitat of a rare breed of bird. That’s going to end up being a strange one!

I should pause here and say: weird ≠ bad. It can = bad, but a super normie piece can = bad too. Weird pieces number among the greatest of all time. (Take, for example, everything Ligeti ever wrote.)

There are also times when someone asks you to write something that could conceivably result in a non-strange piece given the instrumentation and parameters, but for whatever reason, the subject inspires you to express its inherent weirdness. Hence this next one:

I mean, the subject of Noah’s flood set as a piece for brass quintet, organ, and choir could result in something that quotes a bunch of hymns or tries to represent the different pairs of animals in a childlike manner. And that’s a perfectly legitimate way of going about things, but I wanted to go for something both more literal and more metaphorical.

To me, the big theme of the story of Noah’s ark is: this is god’s world, and we’re just living on it. I think of “god” as the Sum of All Things or the assembled forces of nature. We may think that we have dominion over this planet, but we are naught but mold growing upon its surface, brittle matchstick figurines that can be snapped in an instant.

At the end of the story of Noah, after the waters have receded and the devastation has been wrought (and here, stop and reflect on what the carnage of a post-flood landscape would look like — I tried to get that in the piece) god establishes a “covenant” with Noah. What could that possibly mean? A covenant is a contract, an agreement between consenting parties. There’s no covenant to be made with the all-powerful.

Here, the covenant is simply this: that humans will continue to live on the earth and we will be subject to whatever the forces of nature wreak upon us. We are living on a knife’s edge, and as we continue to upset the balances at force in nature, we can hardly imagine the scale of the forces we’re tampering with. To imagine anything different would be hubris, and I wanted to reflect the terror and intensity of that concept in the piece.

Now, did I have to write a timpani part quite so strange in order to represent that? Probably not. But I did, so there you have it.

A shocking moment

I love podcasts, which (in case I haven’t mentioned it in the last five minutes) is why I started my own, but a recent favorite discovery has been The Classical Top 5 Podcast. There’s actually been some cross-pollination, in that Richard Bratby, a Birmingham-based musician, critic, and writer, has come on the Gabfest twice now (and I hope continues coming back!)

But of course, the thing about listening to other people’s podcasts is you can’t interject in the conversation with what you want to say*, and that’s very frustrating, because I always have very much to say when I’m listening to the Classical Top 5, but thankfully I have this blog, so here we go.

The last episode was “Top 5 Most Shocking Moments in Music,” and it made for a great discussion, because each participant interpreted the brief in their own unique way. There were discussions of actual shocking moments within a piece of music (an unexpected bass drum hit, for example), shocking moments of discovery (the guest talked about rewinding the lead-up to the recap of the first movement of Mahler’s 2nd ten times after hearing it for the first time) and broader societal shocks (a lengthy discussion of why it’s so shocking that nothing had been done about the heinous acts that became #metoo revelations in the world of classical music, when it’s supremely obvious that people in high places had known about them for so long.)

Our friend Richard Bratby was a bit jaded about this whole topic — he noted that we’re constantly being told why certain pieces or moments are supposed to shock us, but but this point, audiences have heard it all. What might once have shocked is now routine, and what now attempts to shock is greeted with boredom.

But it’s that very paradigm that led me to being genuinely shocked by a piece of music, and it will come as a shock to no one who knows me that it involves the music of Alfred Schnittke.

Soviet Composer Alfred Schnittke Was Born On This Day in 1934 [ON-THIS-DAY]

I was in college when I learned about Schnittke from David M. Gordon, my theory TA and private composition teacher. Having been a classical music freak for all of high school, I was already well-versed in the broad narrative that supposedly encapsulated classical music history: music had been heading in a single direction for half a millennium, from simplicity to complexity, from consonance to dissonance. In the post-tonal world, music had reached apotheotic complexity with Boulez and the total serialists, whose music reflected the chaos and malaise of the modern world. Now (c. 2005) those trends were beginning to “reverse” and certain mild consonances could be tolerated in the way that certain mild dissonances were tolerated in the music of Josquin, as long as they followed a proscribed set of rules.

Then I heard Alfred Schnittke’s first concerto grosso.

The moment that shocked me more than any other — as I know it has done for countless listeners — is the end of the cadenza (18:30 in the above video). The two violin soloists have been abusing their instruments several minutes, instructed in the score to improvise the most complicated, dissonant jangle they can come up with. Then a rip in the fabric, a baroque cadence, and finally: the harpsichord.

An arpeggiated c-minor chord like black ink spilling from a jar, the likes of which you might hear in a scena from Don Giovanni or perhaps the entrance of Lestat in Interview with the Vampire. That was truly a shocking moment.

What came next didn’t shock any less. Here was music that COMPLETELY upended the narrative I had been told was true, music that actually did what the yawn-inducing music of Schoenberg and Stockhausen was supposed to do — it was bracingly dissonant, full of bitterness, rage, and turmoil, but it accomplished this using triads and tonality.

At that moment, it was plain as day: hundreds of composers had wasted decades of their lives, the entire output of their artistry and careers, studiously avoiding thirds and fifths only to produce screaming bores that intended to unsettle, but only nonplussed.

That was a musical shock that changed my life, and I’ve never looked back.

*Clubhouse is trying to solve for this problem, but I have yet to come across a conversation I’d want to participate in. The classical music “thought leaders” on that app have just scheduled their 3rd session about why classical music desperately needs to get on board with NFTs. Let me know if you need an invitation.

SPARKS pre-order

One of my pieces is on a new album and you can pre-order it now.

This album is being released through PARMA / navona, and I gotta say, I think their design team did a bang-up job with the cover art.

The album people are also educating me about release schedules and such, and from what I have learned, getting lots of pre-orders is super important for the eventual success of an album like this. So if you want to chip in and hear some cool music — and you’ve got a cool $8 to spare — this would be a great thing to do!

A very good episode

If you have yet to listen to The Classical Gabfest, the podcast I co-host with Tiffany Lu and Kensho Watanabe, I think this is a great starter episode:

We start every episode with a game, and in this one, we pull off a fairly unbelievable act of musical logic / recognition.

Then we do a news item, and this week we talked about an INSANE lawsuit by a music professor against the entire faculty of his department as well as one of his own grad students.

For the second topic, we usually discuss something lighter. In this case, I tricked Kensho and Tiffany into discussing one of my all-time favorite subjects, The Classical Revolution by John Borstlap, which irks and compels me in equal measure, and which I’ve written about on this site before.

Our third segment is most often an interview, and this is one of my favorites so far, exploring the world of music therapy and dementia with a bona fide expert and advocate from the UK, Grace Meadows.

In the final segment, the Classical Mixtape, I recommend a video that I have been OBSESSED with for the past 3 weeks, Timo Andres performing “New Year’s Music” by Georgs Pelēcis.

So yeah, just all around a great episode of a great podcast — at least I think it is anyway. But other people do too! Some very savvy people will tell you it’s their favorite podcast. Am I saying that by adopting it as your favorite, you too can be a savvy person? Yes I am. But even if it doesn’t work, it couldn’t hurt!

Available on YouTube and in all the podcast apps.