Yearly Archives: 2021

Lemn de Viata, op. 30

for violin and clarinet

The title of the work (Romanian for “wood of life”) refers to the wood of the Guaiacum tree, from which Peter Bauer had a clarinet constructed (likely the only such exemplar in the world.) Though the name of the wood is most often given in Latin (lignum vitae) I decided to title the piece in Romanian due to the character of the music.

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! 🌱

Flood of Waters, op. 34

for brass quintet, organ, timpani, and percussion

Commissioned by, and dedicated to, the Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble, Rodney Holmes, artistic director.

The work consists of a single movement, programmatic in nature, portraying the biblical tale of the Great Flood (Gen: 6-7) The following subheadings depict the story: Rain upon the earth – Upon the face of the waters – He sent forth a dove – The waters were abated – Upon the face of the ground – Covenant

Composed January 2018

It’s admittedly a bit of a strange piece, but none the worse for it, and it’s certainly loud.

The Seafarers, op. 44

for cello, bass, and piano

Written for, and dedicated to Katie Sauter Messick and Steve Messick. The music was inspired by a trip they took to Ireland’s Eye, a small, uninhabited island near Dublin, home to a large colony of Northern gannets who nest atop a rocky outcropping. The music seeks to capture Katie and Steve’s joy, wonder, and excitement as they approached the island on the water, hiked to the top of a hill, and beheld the birds in their full array.

It’s admittedly a bit of a strange piece, but none the worse for it, and I think it would make a fine addition to a recital program. Plus, how many pieces are there for cello and bass anyway?

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.