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We did a Bastille Day* special on the Gabfest all about French music this week, featuring Maestro Ludovic Morlot:

One thing we were trying to get at was “what makes French music French music“? While I’m skeptical of nationalist essentialism, especially in art, it’s a fun discussion question, so I want to further the discussion here:

One thing Ludo brings up is that French music is the music of “harmonic ambiguity.” He was talking about the extended 7th chords of Debussy in particular. But let’s get real — when you think of “harmonic ambiguity,” the first name that comes to mind is Richard Wagner. The Triiistaaan Chooord.

It’s a known known that Debussy was influenced by Wagner, then rejected his influence, then found mocking amusement in his influence. But the influence was there, and it’s unmistakable. But then of course, there’s a lot of other influences, famously, Javanese gamelan and Chopin’s pianistic imaginings, which are also non-French sources. (Though Ludo might contest the case of Chopin.)

But here’s the thing: to me, these extended 7th harmonies in Debussy have precisely nothing to do with harmonic ambiguity, i.e. with chords that could go any which way. In Debussy’s hands, they’re the opposite — pictures of coloristic stasis.

The example of Debussy is illustrative of how this nationalism thing can get tricky. Ludo talked a lot about Stravinsky being a “pseudo-French” composer and listed Rimsky as being the “French” influence on him. What? Paging Richard Taruskin!

But of course, he’s not altogether wrong, because the Russians were heavily influenced by the French. But they were also doing their own thing and that’s true of no one more than Rimsky-Korsakov who is responsible for all sorts of discoveries concerning octatonic harmony that Stravinsky would later go on to use. So what’s Russian and what’s French? It’s pretty hard to disentangle.

I suppose I’m left where I started, wondering if there is truly any through line that binds Rameau to Berlioz to Franck to Debussy to Boulez to Grisey.

Probably not, but I’ll finish by recommending another excellent book, a favorite discovery of mine in recent years, but with a warning that it is very hard to come by: Martin Cooper’s “French Music from the Death of Berlioz to the Death of Fauré.”

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*Yes, I am well aware that the French call it “le 14 juillet” or the “fête nationale” and not “Bastille Day” — it’s literally the only thing anyone ever says when you say “Bastille Day”!

Is piano sonata the best genre?

My former student, current friend, and Classical Gabfest “official unofficial intern” Joseph Vaz has just recorded the piano sonata I wrote for him and I can hardly get my head around how amazing this performance is.

I’ve listened to this recording several times since he recorded it last week, and there have been times when I’ve gotten so engrossed in his performance that I’ve literally forgotten that I wrote the piece. It’s as if I’m listening to a sonata that Joseph composed that I just happen to know and like.

I like to think that part of this successful music mind-meld thing is due to the fact that I wrote the piece for Joseph, but that’s giving me too much credit — I could say that I tailored the glove to fit his hand, but its more like he refashioned his hand to fit the glove. Or, to use a less strained analogy, it’s like I’m the gardener and he’s the chef.

I’ve never had a performer of Joseph’s talents and musicality devote their entire virtuoso apparatus to a large, complex, challenging piece like this — he recorded the piece from memory for heaven’s sake — and the unalloyed success of this project also has me reexamining my thoughts about the relative potential of the various genres and forms of classical composition.

Let me put it this way: I’m an orchestra guy, and I’ve always felt that when it came to instrumental music, the symphony is the end-all-be-all of musical genres. But now I’m not so sure. A symphony is a beast, but it requires the total commitment of 60-100 people in order to achieve its effect. Yes, a sympathetic conductor can go a long way to achieving that goal, but it’s an awfully heavy lift.

But a piano sonata? There, you just need one talented, committed interpreter to bring it to life. It’s really only one step away from a novel, which goes directly from the brain of the writer into the brain of the reader. (In the case of the communication from composer to performer, it’s exactly the same.)

Of course, the piano lacks the coloristic possibilities of the orchestra, but it’s not exactly bereft of them either. It retains an awful lot of the grandeur of the orchestra, and what it lacks in size it makes up for in incision. I don’t know, I just think it’s pretty great. I still want to write symphonies, but now I am also very enthusiastic about writing piano sonatas, and piano music in general, which used to inspire tremendous fear in me, not being a trained pianist myself.

(One thing worth mentioning is that Joseph helped me tremendously to overcome my phobia of piano writing by teaching me one simple fact, namely, that Claude Debussy never marked pedaling in his scores. Pedaling notation was always a major hangup for me — as far as I’m concerned, it’s an issue best kept between a pianist and their foot!)

Joseph and I discuss the piece, the process, and the genre in more depth on this week’s Classical Gabfest, which also features discussion of some equally fascinating recent projects that my co-hosts have been involved in:

Film music

I’ve recently recorded and posted two pieces that are, in part, inspired by films.

The first is a piece from a few years back, a duet for violin and clarinet titled Lemn de Viata. The title is in Romanian because I was very into the movie Aferim! when I wrote the piece. Aferim! is a historical drama set in rural 19th century Romania. I have precisely zero recollection if the music in the movie itself (I think it was all diegetic music performed live on set) but I remember so much about the tone and mood of that film and the world it created.

I’m sure I’ve talked about this before, but there can be quite a bit of confusion when I say that a given piece was influenced by a movie. People always think I mean it was influenced by the score, but most of the time that’s not the case. (Though sometimes it is!) Usually it means that I’m trying to capture something about the vibe of the movie — the drama, the setting, the atmosphere — the type of things that music is so good at capturing.

In the second case, the situation is more complicated, because the movie is about music, and that music is at the heart of my own piece.

The film in question is Tous les matins du monde, which for me is one of those indispensable music movies, right up there with Amadeus and Bleu. It made me fall in love with early baroque viol suites, and to this day I will go weeks at a time listening to nothing but Marin Marais and Sainte-Colombe.

I had been wanting to write something that interacted with that music for some time. When my friend Will asked me write a solo bass piece, it seemed like the perfect fit, given that the modern string bass is the last surviving member of the viol family. (Well, among modern orchestral string instruments, at least.)

The soundtrack of Tous les matins du monde is a cornucopia of chamber pieces for viols, among them a composition by M. de Sainte Colombe titled “Tombeau Les regrets” and one by Marin Marais titled “La Rêveuse”. So when Will asked me to write a piece about the death of his father and the birth of his son (which I discuss more here) it was further evidence that this old music might supply the necessary tools for the job.

As a musical term, a “tombeau” (literally “tomb”) is a composition that memorializes the dead. As far as I know, it was exclusively used by French musicians (I’ve never heard of a tomba or a Grabkammer.) Most modern-day musicians know the word exclusively from Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin.

The other side of the title, “Les Rêves,” refers to the dreams, hopes, and desires that we imbue our children with. In a slightly complicated twist, I use a quote from Marais’ “La Rêveuse” not to represent the dream music, but rather the sorrow music (I mean, just listen to it!)

The concept of the piece ties into the movie in yet a further way. In the climactic final scene (spoilers, I guess) the old teacher, ever obstreperous, reveals what he believes to be the sole purpose of music: not to win the glory of kings or to delight the ears of the cognoscenti, but rather, to speak to the dead.

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.