I’m just back from Europe and wanted to collect a few thoughts here. This was a mixed work/pleasure trip, the main event being a London recording of my Concerto for Choir, an a cappella piece in seven movements that I composed during the final days of the pre-vaccine era. I will have much more to say about this later.
My itinerary included stops in the UK, France, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. I heard a couple of Proms concerts and two performances at the Concertgebouw, including a phenomenal new piece called The Redcrosse Knight by the young Dutch composer Xavier van de Poll. I also saw a play in Frankfurt. And most happily, I visited old friends and met new ones.
Before crossing the Atlantic, I stopped in New York for a different recording project, where I got to see Into the Woods during its limited run on Broadway after transferring from City Center (superb, especially the orchestra) and an American Symphony Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall (about which, more below in the Gabfest episode.)
Then it was a week-long stint guest teaching at the Pierre Monteux School. This invitation came in the wake of the passing of my dearly beloved teacher, Michael Jinbo, so it was both thrilling and surreal at the same time. I taught Brahms’ 3rd symphony, Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps, Rachmaninoff’s 3rd symphony, and two of the movements of Dvorak’s 7th. Can’t ask for much better than that.
Much of these travels were memorialized on… what else? The Classical Gabfest!
My latest piece is called The Muses. I’d love to tell you what genre it falls into, but I honestly don’t know. Hence this blog post.
To get the ball rolling, here’s how The Muses works: the piece is for chorus & orchestra, and it sets to music an Ancient Greek text by the 1st century historian Diodorus Siculus. The text gives a background summary of the nine muses of Greek myth. Each muse is named along with her area of specialty (music, dance, history, etc.), followed by a short etymological description of what the name means.
Men have given the Muses their name from the word muein, which signifies the teaching of those things which are noble and expedient and are not known by the uneducated. For the name of each Muse, they say, men have found a reason appropriate to her: Cleio is so named because the praise which poets sing in their encomia bestows great glory (kleos) upon those who are praised…
Before Diodorus launches into the list of the nine names, he starts with a brief discourse on the word “muse” itself. Of course, that’s where my piece starts, and that first bit becomes the introduction to the nine episodes that constitute the piece.
Given the shape of this text, I considered writing a theme and variations, one variation for each of the muses, but I scrapped that idea when the text didn’t want to coalesce into a clear “theme” (i.e. a single, singable melody.) The introduction, which would have been a “theme” became more of a “thematic field” with melodic bits that I immediately started to develop.
But I didn’t give up on the idea entirely. Which is to say that those melodic bits from the opening section became the basis for MOST of the music in each of the episodes. But each episode also has some stuff that’s new, and occasionally I re-used material that was introduced in one episode in a later episode.
So, you could call this piece a “thematic field and development episodes” but that doesn’t really have much of a ring to it. The next best thing I could come up with was “tone poem for chorus and orchestra.” And I suppose that it might be considered a tone poem, but I’m hesitant to call it one because usually in tone poetry there is a dramatic element, i.e. something happens. (Consider z.B. Dvorak’s The Wood Dove or Strauss’s Don Juan.)
Another thing that it might be but it’s not is a “choral symphony.” I would put something like Rachmaninoff’s The Bells in this group. The Muses is just one movement and has no symphonic impetus behind it.
Now that I’ve ruled all those out, I think I might have put my finger on it. You know what this piece really is? It’s a ballet chanté. It should have been obvious to me that I was writing a dance piece without the dance given that it was a response to Daphnis et Chloé. And yet, someone I didn’t realize it. But I’ll tell you how I figured it out:
Not two months ago, a conductor friend called to tell me that he was planning to perform my Recollected Dances as a ballet with his company in the suburbs of Seattle. I went to the performance and I fell in love with it. It worked incredibly well, and it’s made me realize that a ton of my music (maybe all of it?) would benefit from a choreographic treatment.
The Muses would just work SO WELL as a ballet, and I think that many smaller companies would love it. It’s basically got nine solos for nine ballerinas, any of which could easily be supported by the corps. And there’s no obvious reason it needs to include boys (but there’s no reason it couldn’t) so I think it’s pretty flexible and would play to many company’s strengths.
So I guess this post turned from a plea for help into an exhortative advertisement to regional ballet companies. That’s blogging for you!
One of the great pleasures of having your own podcast is that you get to go on other people’s podcasts. It’s a whole ecosystem out there, and we’re all in it together!
I get a little hyper when I go on other people’s shows because I’m usually talking about myself or my work, subjects upon which I am but rarely asked to opine. On my show The Classical Gabfest, the whole point is that my cohosts and I don’t talk about ourselves, we talk about music and news. Of course our personal lives come through in little glimpses, and I quite like that. It’s good to get to know someone slowly.
But, if you are curious to hear my thoughts on conducting, composing, and non-classical music…
This is an interview show wherein artistic guests talk about the professional demons that have haunted them along their career paths. We had the hosts on our show in January, at which time Kensho and Tiffany and I revealed a bit about our ups and downs and bumps along the road.
In my episode, I ended up talking more abstractly about the conducting profession as a whole, but I definitely got into some of my own stuff. I think it was a good conversation.
Also an interview podcast, this time specifically for composers. The host, Steve Danielson, is a choral conductor and composer so the guests mainly come from the choral world. He’s had one some pretty well-known figures, Jake Runestad being a standout example.
I really like the structure of this show. In the first half, Steve asks the composer about their musical background and career; in the second half, he plays four representative works (chosen by the composer) and has a little discussion about how each fits into their output and artistry.
I chose my works based on whom I perceived his audience to be — mainly choral music aficionados — so I started off with a very old choral piece (which I still quite like) and then moved onto brass music (a movement from The Dwarf Planets), my piano sonata, and Acadia Fanfare.
On another show (or a different day) I might have chosen four different works, but I think these ones serve their purpose quite well.
Putting It Together
In my most recent episode, we talked about what is easily the most fucked up song in the very fucked up (and completely perfect in every way) Sweeney Todd. It’s pretty wild!
The Classical Gabfest
Did you think I wasn’t going to include my own show in this little list? Not bloody likely! We just did another All-Games Extravaganza this week, and those tend to be very popular with our hardcore user base, so here it is:
In this week’s edition of the Gabfest (technically the Lovefest) we talked about Music of the Heart for our movie club, a 1999 tearjerker about an inner city violin teacher played by Meryl Streep. I called it “one step removed from a Hallmark film,” a statement I stand by, but Tiffany thought it should be part of the core canon of beloved classical movies.
I was willing to grant that it’s not a bad movie per se, but it will never enter into my personal pantheon. So what would I put in my personal pantheon? Well, I’m glad you asked:
10. La Pianiste
I’m starting this list with the single most f*cked up movie about music. La Pianiste (â€œThe Piano Teacherâ€) stars Isabelle Hupert as a sexually repressed classical musician who experiences the grave misfortune of seeing her kinkiest desires come true. (See Å½iÅ¾ek for a deeper analysis.)
For most of its running time, La Pianiste falls into my favorite genre of movie, which is â€œmoody French art film with almost no dialogueâ€ (more on that below.)
9. The Red Violin
Another movie that came out when I was a teenager and did surprisingly well at the box office. It’s basically The Da Vinci Code of the violin, and it’s more than slightly ridiculous. But it’s got a cool score by John Corigliano performed by Josh Bell (both of whom, apparently, also acted as script consultants.) I doubt this one holds up particularly well, but it was fun at the time.
8. Hangover Square
If you think I’ve only seen this movie because of the position it holds in Sondheim lore, you’re absolutely right. Sondheim often told the story of how when he was 10 or 11 years old, he watched this movie like 100 times with the intention of memorizing its score. (Just listen to the podcast episode in my last post.) It’s about an Edwardian-era composer-pianist who goes insane, and the picture ends with the character playing the piano as he’s engulfed in flames. Neat stuff!
This is the second most f*cked up movie on this list, an avant-garde phantasmagoria of a biopic. Ken Russell also made movies about Elgar, Delius, Tchaikovsky, and Liszt, but I haven’t seen any of those (though I’d quite like to.) It’s been a long time since I saw this movie, and I only saw it once, but like… this isn’t a movie that you easily forget.
A performer biopic for a change. This movie came out in the US when I was 13 and it was something of a sensation. And for good reason â€” it’s a fantastic movie! It spurred in me a several months’ long obsessed with the Rachmaninoff piano concertos. Been a while since I’ve seen it, but I would guess that it holds up quite well.
5. Immortal Beloved
I watched this movie so. many. times when I was a kid. Beethoven was, after all, my favorite composer (still is!) and this movie was the best available depiction of him on screen. I think Gary Oldman does a great job portraying Beethoven and overall the film holds up pretty well. It’s always fun to see Isabella Rossellini and she matches Oldman beat for beat as his main love interest. The period details and are very good as are the musical depictions. There’s one big criticism though, which is that in the scene depicting Napoleon’s invasion of Vienna, there are two shots that are edited out of order. See if you can spot them!
4. England, My England
Now we get into one of my weird hobby horses, which is the fact that when I was a teenager, Bravo TV â€” yes, that Bravo TV of â€œReal Housewivesâ€ fame â€” was an extremely highbrow channel that ran a steady stream of artsy-fartsy European films; it would be hard for me to explain how much of a formative impact this had on me. (Exhibit A in just how obscure most of their programming was: Bernt Capra’s Mindwalk, which I also watched several times, barely understanding any of it.)
Anyway, England, My England is the story of Henry Purcell, easily one of my top 10 favorite composers, and it’s a very good movie. Once again, it’s slightly experimental, but it works incredibly well and the music is fantastic. Simon Callow plays Charles II and he can essentially do no wrong (see below.)
3. Tous les matins du monde
This movie has everything. First off, it’s the paradigm of a moody French art film with almost no dialogue. Second, it’s all about sulky old French viol music from the early Baroque. Third, it’s got smokeshow Guillaume Depardieu rocking the most luscious locks in all of Europe (sadly, he died shortly after making the movie.)
The movie itself is a sort of dual-biopic about the composer Marin Marais (played by both Guillaume and Gerard Depardieu) and his teacher, who is only known to history as M. de Sainte-Colombe. MdSC was a petty nobleman who revolutionized the viol as an instrument and the music written for it. Jordi Savall does the music and it is first rate. I wrote a piece inspired by this music (and, in a way, the movie itself.)
This really is one of the best movies ever made, and not just about music. The performances are â€” without exception â€” superb. Tom Hulce paints a portrait of Mozart that is so vivid it has no chance of ever being matched. Simon Callow was born to play Emanuel Schikaneder, and of course F. Murray Abraham is perfect as Salieri.
I just finished reading Jan Swafford’s recent biography of Mozart, and after 750 pages, my big takeaway was that Amadeus gets Mozart so so so right. Now, the scolds among you will complain that the contents of the movie are ahistorical. I take the point, but in a broader sense, I think this movie’s history is perfect. The plot is not factually accurate, but the costumes, settings, style, and background detail are all spot on. And of course, the plot wasn’t trying to be perfect â€” it was Peter Shaffer’s retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. Mozart and Salieri were polite (and even friendly) rivals in real life. (Salieri did Mozart the honor of conducting his 40th symphony with an orchestra of 180 people!)
Ok this is it, easily one of my top 2 or 3 favorites movies of all time. Moodier, Frenchier, and silenter than any other film on this list, Bleu is the story of Julie, a contemporary composer living and working in Paris in the early 90’s. When her husband â€” also a composer â€” dies in a car accident (along with her daughter) she is forced to reconstruct her life from the ground up.
Why did I click so hard with this movie when I was 13? Who can say. I was in the formative stage of my lifelong loves of the French language, of classical music, and of art film. Later I came to find out that this is widely considered Kieslowski’s masterpiece and that it was Juliette Binoche’s breakout role, but I had no idea of either of those facts at the time.
The music in the film is one of the focal points, as several of the main characters are composers. The score by Zbigniew Preisner has come in for a lot of criticism over the years, with many listeners finding it overwrought. And in a way it is, but it’s also hauntingly beautiful if you give yourself over to it, and of course, encountering it as a young teenager, I was easy prey for its intensity.