Monthly Archives: May 2010

On Style(z)

I just finished reading Orhan Pamuk‘s 1998 novel My Name is Red, a superlative piece of literature set in late 16th century Istanbul concerning a murderous group of Ottoman miniaturists.  Pamuk interweaves his brilliantly constructed murder mystery with extensive discussions of art, style and apprenticeship.  I found this quote particularly interesting:

“Nothing is pure,” said Enishte Effendi.  “In the realm of book arts, whenever a masterpiece is made, whenever a splendid picture makes my eyes water out of joy and causes a chill to run down my spine, I can be certain of the following: Two styles heretofore never brought together have come together to create something new and wondrous.  We owe Bihzad and the splendor of Persian painting [above] to the meeting of an Arabic illustrating sensibility and Mongol-Chinese painting.  Shah Tahmasp’s best paintings marry Persian style with Turkmen subtleties.  Today, if men cannot adequately praise the book-arts workshops of Akbar Khan in Hindustan, it’s because he urged his miniaturists to adopt the styles of the Frankish masters.  To God belongs the East and the West.  May He protect us from the will of the pure and unadulterated.”

What a wonderful description of the relationship of artistry to craft – new art arises when someone masters craftsmanship in multiple styles and figures out ways of combining said styles to illuminate and enhance each other.  I bring it up as part of my ongoing diatribe against those artists, musicians in particular, who seek to purge their work of all perceptible influences.  A) good luck and B) it seems to me that in so doing all they end up with is a bunch of voiceless muck.

I know that this was a trend in many artistic spheres, but as far as I can tell, this blight – that is, the aesthetic wherein novelty was prized over artistry – seemed to have hit Music (i.e. Western Academic Art Music) worse than other disciplines in the 20th century.  But I am continually heartened that this generation of, shall we say, “classically trained” composers takes music quite seriously and realizes that we are competing with popular genres (whose musicians are increasingly devoted to music as art), with other artistic media, and with the larger world of entertainment.  [Ed: I think that competition among musicians is a wonderful, healthy thing.]

It is in this regard, and many others, that I would like to offer my highest praise for Timothy Andres‘ new album, Shy and Mighty, released by Nonesuch.  I bought it just a couple of days ago and have been glued to my speakers ever since.  What a debut album!  This is really an album, both in the classical sense and in the contemporary sense of a recorded-album-cum-artistic-work, consisting of ten single movement pieces.  I hesitate to call them miniatures – most of them are quite substantial pieces, with only two serving as brief interludes, but even these are part of a larger framework.  This is really first-rate writing, and what’s more, it is a brilliant melding of influences as diverse as Steve Reich, John Adams, Olivier Messiaen, Dave Brubeck, Aaron Copland, Claude Debussy and a coterie of popular artists (“Out of Shape” really sounds like a pop song).  To my ears, one of the strongest influences is Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

From a sort of dogmatic approach, one thing that I really admire about this work is that Mr. Andres speaks in his own voice and delivers a personal artistic message, but he never hides any of his influences.  And yet, it’s not like they’re awkward or hovering on top of the writing or anything like that – rather, they’re beautifully interwoven.  To me, his music proves my previous point: an individual voice is a product of taste, assiduously cultivated and ultimately refined.  And to make things even better, in listening to this album (which I have done several times over the past couple days) one never stops to think about any of this – the influences move in and out organically – listener simply relinquishes himself to pure aural enjoyment.

Back to the opening idea of style, however, I often find myself wondering the job of uniting different styles is more difficult for composers today than in previous eras, for the obvious reason that there is a has been such a proliferation of musical styles in the past century.  Not only that, but we now have access to recordings of all of these styles.  It’s hard to say whether or not it’s harder or easier though.

Take Bach for example, who diligently learned and interpolated so many different stylistic strains in his music (look at any given Cello Suite for the range of nationalities and historical eras that informed his approach).  From his youth through his maturity, Bach copied out manuscript after manuscript by hand so as to familiarize himself with the music of his forebears and contemporaries.  He traveled incredibly long distances to meet musicians and learn their music.  But was his job of rendering his discoveries into a new and unique voice more difficult than ours is today?

I haven’t the faintest clue, but I often wonder, because every time I compose a piece, it seems so difficult.  The truth is probably that it’s always been incredibly difficult, but Bach was just such a master that he left no traces of its difficulty!

Actus Tragicus

The White Columned Church

In 2010, members of the Presbyterian Church of Barrington, IL, commissioned me to write a hymn for the church’s 50th anniversary.  I relished this opportunity, both as a chance to give back to a place that was very special to me, and also just because I really wanted to write a hymn.

Writing a hymn is a tricky little thing – you’ve got to come up with something that is singable by a large body of untrained singers but that isn’t so bland you can’t remember it.  The music has to relate to the text of the several verses but still encapsulate the overall theme.  Plus, there’s an enormous body of literature that you’re competing with and being inspired by.

There’s also a huge body of repertoire, namely hymns written since 1960, to actively despise because of its saccharine popiness.  I tried to write a hymn that had something of the grandeur of 19th century English hymnery, Southern Baptist languor and maybe even a touch of popiness (anybody who’s heard my music before knows I just can’t help myself in that regard.)

The text was written by the pastor of the church, the Rev. Dr. Curtis Baxter.

Fantaisie en noir

My second foray into the world of electronic music is decidedly unelectronic, more just a low-tech remix of some examples of my favorite genre, film noir.  I tried to create a sort of collage-fantasy of the themes in these movies, a distillation of the central tropes of 1940’s grisled Hollywood cinema.

The source material comes from 4 films:

  • Suddenly (1954) starring Frank Sinatra (a major boon for a huge Sinatraphile like me, I can use his voice in my piece because this film is in the public domain), in which he plays a deranged assassin out to kill the president.  Download
  • The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) starring Barbara Stanwyck (my favorite Hollywood actress of all time), Lizabeth Scott and Kirk Douglas, is the story of a complicated love triangle (rectangle), power, deceit and secrets.  Download
  • Scarlett Street (1945) directed by Fritz Lang and starring Edward G. Robinson, is a sultry tale about petty con artists taking a sensitive, demure painter for a ride.  Download
  • The Second Woman (1950) a melodramatic story of a man who was responsible for his first wife’s death and how enacts his guilt in increasingly destructive ways.  Interestingly, the entire score consists of arrangements and re-orchestrations of music by Tchaikovsky.  Download