Yearly Archives: 2020

One of those “everyone records themselves” videos

After holding out for as long as possible, I finally gave in and did one of these composite videos with my group, Orchestra Seattle / Seattle Chamber Singers.

If you’re wondering why was I holding out, you are either insane, or you have no idea how many hours these things take? I myself would find it impossible to create an accurate accounting of my time. I lost track, along with my fool brain, while I was doing it.

[At least I wasn’t alone in this. All my colleagues have talked about how intense it is making one of these things, including the great Dr. Tiffany Lu; we talked about it on my podcast this week.]

I made a very savvy decision early on though: I chose one of my own pieces as the subject of the recording. This, I knew, would be the one thing to compel me to stick with the task to its completion.

Here, for posterity, is the email I wrote to the members of my ensemble when announcing the completed video:

Ciao tutti,
I know that I had originally slated tomorrow night for Zoom games, but I want to postpone those until Sunday evening at 7:00, because I’ve run out of time to make any games.

“Why?” you ask?

Because it turns out that video editing — the kind I’ve been doing to assemble the project that so many of you submitted recordings for — is, for someone who has precisely zero idea what he’s doing, a soul-sucking, RAM-busting enterprise that literally dissolves the stuff of which time is made.

But the video is “finished,” or at least has been uploaded, so instead, let’s assemble virtually to watch it together tomorrow night at its YouTube premiere tomorrow, Tuesday, December 22, at 7:30 pm. Here’s the link:

You all did such a great job performing and recording yourselves for this project, and I want to commend you for your labors and thank everyone who participated. I also especially want to thank those of you who didn’t participate, because with every additional video, I lost 5% of my sanity and 2% of my lifespan.

You might wonder if it will be worth watching this video. Will it, for example, be “good”? This is a great question. Having lost all perspective on the matter, I would say that the finished product exists outside the dialectic boundaries of “good” and “bad”. It is a-hermeneutic and anti-epistemological; it is a sequence of 1s and 0s that, on some metaphysical level, can be said to exist, and even that is an assertion I am hesitant to make.

But I also kind of think you’ll love it.

Maybe you’ve seen other groups’ videos, outsourced to professional editors, with their slick, sleek, perfectly-shaped boxes and faultlessly synced sound. This isn’t that. It’s quirky and colorful and weird. On the editing level, it’s akin to that experiment from the 1960s where members of the Navajo tribe who had never held a camera before were given professional film equipment and told to make a movie about their society. So just be prepared.

Anyway, I’m excited for you all to see it, and if, after seeing it, you have any constructive criticism or feedback, please know that I absolutely do not want it, and would even go so far as to argue that it is literally impossible to judge a digital “object” such as the one that you will have witnessed.

I’ll send a reminder tomorrow night. Until then, happy solstice!

The Finale Problem

I recently published a demo recording, produced — against all odds — during the past two months. It’s a piece I composed over a year ago, but you know how it goes with these things: first you have to write the piece, then the players have to practice, then there’s the premiere, then there’s the recording, then the editing / mixing / mastering, and finally you’ve got yourself a recording. Add several months for a pandemic.

A friend I was texting with kindly said that the last movement was his favorite of the three. I thanked him and told him that upon reflection, I felt that that movement was my best solution yet to the Finale Problem.

I’m not talking about Finale the music notation software from MakeMusic, which indeed has a LOT of problems (I’m still eagerly awaiting Tantacrul to drag them.)

So what is the Finale Problem? It’s this: how does one craft a final movement of a multi-movement work that is both satisfying unto itself and conclusive of the entire work?

Here are some options:

  1. Write a short, flitting, breezy last movement that leaves your audience delighted! This is what composers did before anyone realized finales could even be problematic.
  2. Try to bring it all together. As far as I know, Beethoven started this trend, and thus the problem was born. The fifth symphony finale references back to the third movement; the ninth famously brings back strains from all three previous movements. Musical theater composers are big into this for their Act I finales (see: Into the Woods and Les Mis)
  3. Write a grand, sprawling movement that counterbalances everything that came before it. It may or may not reference earlier musical ideas. This was Mahler’s gambit.

My overall approach to finales tends toward the “short & sweet” camp. I think that a large-scale work should accelerate to it’s conclusion — it keeps the whole thing propulsive.

I’m also in the camp that in order to sound like the conclusion of the whole piece, you really want to give a nod to what came before. But a little of this goes a long way. In a grand symphony you can have many themes wend their way in and out of movements (I love this Franckian “cyclical” approach), but in this quintet — clocking in at just 16 minutes — I limited myself to a recapitulation of the first movement’s second theme.

I think it works quite nicely; it breaks up the predominant mood of the movement and recalls what happened before; it’s both unexpected and familiar. But I don’t think that if the movement were played on its own this reminiscence would sound “wrong”. Can’t ask much more from a solution to the Finale Problem than that!

Quintet for Oboe and Strings

op. 43
for Oboe (and optional English horn), Violin, Viola, Cello, and Bass
The oboe part may be played entirely on the oboe, but the composer’s preference is that the second movement be played on the English horn.

The second movement, “Slow Dance,” is also available as a standalone work for English horn (or soprano sax) and string orchestra (or quintet).

Program Notes

This piece was commissioned by George Sjöberg of Cambridge, MA as a 50th anniversary gift for his wife Linda.

I. First Sight
A sonata-form movement that begins with a bold and Beethovenian statement, a theme dominated by strings. The second theme is a long melody for the oboe, demure but romantic. The development section is a dramatic working-out of the first theme, which finds its way back to a recapitulation of the opening material. This is followed by a bluesy coda.

II. Slow Dance
This movement begins with an introductory theme for the trio of violin, viola, and cello, which is followed by a jazz ballad for the English horn. The interior section of the movement is a solo for the bass, followed by a second statement of ballad theme, with a few ornaments and variations, along the lines of an improvisation.

III. Wedding Day
This movement begins with church bells ringing and then opens onto a festive dance scene. The music makes an allusion to Beethoven’s “Waldstein” sonata and then gives the strings brass-like fanfares, which become a central motif.

The fiddle launches into a country reel (a variation on the first theme from the first movement), but the music eventually finds its way back to the first movement’s romantic second theme. After that, the dance tune returns, as do the fanfares and the church bells from the opening of the movement.

Underneath these, the bass intones an “Amen” cadence as the music winds down. There’s one final surprise though, a virtuosic coda based on the reel, leading to a an energetic conclusion.

The Wagner Equation

We’re reading Alex Ross’s Wagnerism for my podcast right now, and it’s got me thinking: who would be today’s Richard Wagner?

The truth is that no single person could provide a perfect analogy. But if you add a bunch of people together, I think you’d get close. Here’s the equation I’ve come up with:

1 part Julian Assange

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy in central London, 5 February 2016

Before he wrote The Ring or Tristan or Meistersinger, Wagner was a political rabble-rouser, a leftist revolutionary actively involved in the civil unrest of 1848. He was a hero of the movement for democratic reforms across Europe.

Wagner fled Germany when it looked like he might be imprisoned (or executed) for his actions, and lived in exile in Switzerland and Italy for close to a decade. During this time he published many political and philosophical tracts, including some of his most repellent antisemitic essays.

In the end, he was more than willing to play ball with government powers if they would fund his projects. The impressionable King Ludwig II funded his opera house in small-town Bavaria (with additional financial assistance from the Khedive of Egypt and the Ottoman Sultan), and the opening of the Festspielhaus was attended by emperors, kings, and aristocrats.

1 part Morrissey

I had to put a musician on the list, but there’s no classical composer today who has wound people up in their sound world like Wagner did. But people sure as hell do worship The Smiths.

Like Wagnerites, Smiths fans have to confront the complicated opinions of their idol. On one hand, Morrissey is a vegan animal rights activist, something for which I admire him. Wagner was a vegetarian by way of Schopenhauer, who came by his ethical stance from studying the recently translated Hindu vedas.

On the other hand, Morrissey has adopted a far-right, anti-immigrant political stance that can’t be ignored. His extreme outspokenness forces the people to love his music to decide if and how they can separate the art from the artist.

1 part James Cameron

Hollywood filmmaker James Cameron

Film is the obvious 21st century parallel to Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerke. But how to settle on which filmmaker properly represents the Wagnerian ideal?

I could have gone with Peter Jackson (especially since LOTR — including the score — borrows so much from Wagner) or Steven Spielberg (someone you often see put forth as the Modern Day Wagner), but I’ve chosen Cameron because of his inventiveness and grit.

By inventiveness, I mean just that: he literally had to invent (or have invented) new technologies to realize his film projects. He wrote the treatment for Avatar in 1994. It wasn’t released until 2009 because of all the new motion capture technology that had to be created.

What did he do in the meanwhile? He made Titanic.

It took Richard Wagner 26 years to write the Ring cycle. After writing the second act of Siegfried, the third of the four operas, he stopped work and wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg , two colossal projects that would have defined the careers of any other composer. After eleven years away from Siegfried, he picked up his pen and carried on where he had left off.

Once had written his tetralogy, he had to work with inventors and architects to create the theater that could stage it according to his immersive vision. His designers pushed the boundaries of the stage technology, from the size and depth of the pit, to the lighting, to the acoustics. The building remains one of the largest free-standing timber structures ever built.

And let’s not forget, that even on the musical level, Wagner needed new technologies. After all, where would the score of The Ring be without the Wagner tuba?