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.
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?
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.
I love podcasts, which (in case I haven’t mentioned it in the last five minutes) is why I started my own, but a recent favorite discovery has been The Classical Top 5 Podcast. There’s actually been some cross-pollination, in that Richard Bratby, a Birmingham-based musician, critic, and writer, has come on the Gabfest twice now (and I hope continues coming back!)
But of course, the thing about listening to other people’s podcasts is you can’t interject in the conversation with what you want to say*, and that’s very frustrating, because I always have very much to say when I’m listening to the Classical Top 5, but thankfully I have this blog, so here we go.
The last episode was “Top 5 Most Shocking Moments in Music,” and it made for a great discussion, because each participant interpreted the brief in their own unique way. There were discussions of actual shocking moments within a piece of music (an unexpected bass drum hit, for example), shocking moments of discovery (the guest talked about rewinding the lead-up to the recap of the first movement of Mahler’s 2nd ten times after hearing it for the first time) and broader societal shocks (a lengthy discussion of why it’s so shocking that nothing had been done about the heinous acts that became #metoo revelations in the world of classical music, when it’s supremely obvious that people in high places had known about them for so long.)
Our friend Richard Bratby was a bit jaded about this whole topic — he noted that we’re constantly being told why certain pieces or moments are supposed to shock us, but but this point, audiences have heard it all. What might once have shocked is now routine, and what now attempts to shock is greeted with boredom.
But it’s that very paradigm that led me to being genuinely shocked by a piece of music, and it will come as a shock to no one who knows me that it involves the music of Alfred Schnittke.
I was in college when I learned about Schnittke from David M. Gordon, my theory TA and private composition teacher. Having been a classical music freak for all of high school, I was already well-versed in the broad narrative that supposedly encapsulated classical music history: music had been heading in a single direction for half a millennium, from simplicity to complexity, from consonance to dissonance. In the post-tonal world, music had reached apotheotic complexity with Boulez and the total serialists, whose music reflected the chaos and malaise of the modern world. Now (c. 2005) those trends were beginning to “reverse” and certain mild consonances could be tolerated in the way that certain mild dissonances were tolerated in the music of Josquin, as long as they followed a proscribed set of rules.
Then I heard Alfred Schnittke’s first concerto grosso.
The moment that shocked me more than any other — as I know it has done for countless listeners — is the end of the cadenza (18:30 in the above video). The two violin soloists have been abusing their instruments several minutes, instructed in the score to improvise the most complicated, dissonant jangle they can come up with. Then a rip in the fabric, a baroque cadence, and finally: the harpsichord.
An arpeggiated c-minor chord like black ink spilling from a jar, the likes of which you might hear in a scena from Don Giovanni or perhaps the entrance of Lestat in Interview with the Vampire. That was truly a shocking moment.
What came next didn’t shock any less. Here was music that COMPLETELY upended the narrative I had been told was true, music that actually did what the yawn-inducing music of Schoenberg and Stockhausen was supposed to do — it was bracingly dissonant, full of bitterness, rage, and turmoil, but it accomplished this using triads and tonality.
At that moment, it was plain as day: hundreds of composers had wasted decades of their lives, the entire output of their artistry and careers, studiously avoiding thirds and fifths only to produce screaming bores that intended to unsettle, but only nonplussed.
That was a musical shock that changed my life, and I’ve never looked back.
*Clubhouse is trying to solve for this problem, but I have yet to come across a conversation I’d want to participate in. The classical music “thought leaders” on that app have just scheduled their 3rd session about why classical music desperately needs to get on board with NFTs. Let me know if you need an invitation.