This is a practical performing edition of Edgard Varèse’s 1923 work Octandre, now in the US public domain. I conducted it when I was fresh out of college, and I know that it ends up on many conducting recitals and student concerts of modern music, so I am offering these .pdfs at what I consider to be a thoroughly reasonable price point.
I have been meticulous in engraving Varèse’s ridiculously overwrought notation. I have also made a few editorial decisions:
I have translated a few tiny things from French into English or Italian.
I have changed Varèse’s “old style” notation in the horn bass clef (sounding a fourth up) to “new style” notation (sounding a fifth down, as it does in treble clef.)
I have clarified the notation for the string bass harmonics.
I have swapped the positions of the oboe and clarinet from Varèse’s original score.
I have dispensed with several of Varèse’s redundant markings such as courtesy accidentals and repeated “con sord.” markings.
I have included bar numbers and changed Varèse’s rehearsal numbers to rehearsal letters. These are continuous through the three movements of the work so as to remove ambiguity in rehearsal.
Octandre is a potent work that packs a wallop into its short running time. I think it merits its place in the canon of 20th century masterpieces, and I hope that this practical performing edition will be used widely.
I was at a party a couple nights ago — like, an actual party, not just a post-concert mixer, which is extremely out of character for me — and since it was an assemblage of musicians, there was some talk of putting YouTube videos on the home TV system.
At this suggestion, someone chimed in “yeah, but then we’re just gonna have to spend every other minute listening to ads.” This was met with general agreement, but I found it deeply shocking and troubling. I can not imagine living in a world in which I did not avail myself of the YouTube Premium service, and I think it is literally insane that the rest of the people at that party would subject themselves to a pre-2015 level of internethood.
With YouTube Premium, you get YouTube without the ads, you get the ability to download videos to your device, and you can turn off your screen while you listen to just the audio from a video.
Why do I consider this of paramount importance for musicians? Because YouTube is simply the best place to go for classical music on a number of fronts:
It’s the only service that lets you search for composers, compositions, and performers in the way that classical musicians intuitively think about music.
Basically every piece of music has been uploaded as a “scrolling score” video. I can not overstate what an advance this is over the state of affairs I was in college, when you had to go to the library and take out a score and then find a CD in order to study a work, or even over the situation just a few of years ago, when you could use Spotify + imslp to do the same.
The “skimming” function is far and away the best of any service because of the visual medium. It’s very easy to find a specific spot in a recording, even more so now that YouTube has added a sort of audio map at the bottom of its videos.
You can also find multiple live performances of every work, most of them contemporary but many of them classic performances by performers of yesteryear. This is invaluable study material as it allows you to look at fingerings, bowings, performance style, etc. and make comparisons.
The discovery mechanism, via the Suggested Videos and Home Page algorithms, is second to none, and an improvement even over the old experience of browsing the shelves at the record store.
Plus, for the price of one YouTube family membership ($22 / month) you can share the gift of YouTube Premium with five other people.
At a fundamental level, I think it’s hard for younger musicians to grock that this is a good deal. But from the ages of 14–25, I probably spent $50-100 every month on CDs alone. These days, people think you shouldn’t have to pay for anything that’s freely available online, even if it comes in a degraded form where you get interrupted all the time and can’t use its full functionality.
What I’ve always said about streaming services is this: for the price of one CD a month, you can have immediate access to every CD for a month. I’m also a Spotify user, but only barely, as it has been supplanted in every conceivable way by YouTube.
This isn’t a paid commercial; it’s just a declaration of love. I sincerely believe that every serious musician and music lover should avail themselves of this resource that is a total game-changer in so many ways for what we do.
I have a feeling that I don’t write often about conducting, but since I recently delivered some conducting performances that I was vaguely satisfied with, I’ll expound a bit:
For one thing, it’s always great to conduct from memory. It’s hard and it takes long hours to imbibe the score to the point where you can ethically ditch the music, but I like it for a number of reasons: 1) it allows you to be more connected and attentive to the performers, 2) it forces you to learn the music to your maximum capacity and 3) it’s fun.
[I have a secret fourth reason for memorizing masterpieces: since my goal as a composer is to write masterpieces, it’s the best way to learn my craft.]
Memorizing choral-orchestral works is particularly challenging, and this is only the third time I’ve done it with a major, multi-movement work. The first time was with Vaughan Williams’ Dona nobis pacem, a piece I did not choose to conduct, nor would I ever, because I don’t particularly care for it*. But I learned it unto memorization because a) I wanted to give the piece the benefit of the doubt and b) I was doing it with young musicians and I wanted to be able to give them my full attention. The next time I did it was with the Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.
Learning the Dona nobis pacem was particularly challenging because I don’t much care for Whitman, and make no mistake: if you conduct a vocal work from memory, you’d better start by learning every last word of the text.
With the Mozart Requiem, lots of the text was straightforward, because it’s part of the regular mass: Kyrie eleison, Sanctus sanctus, sanctus Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini, Agnus dei, etc. But the weird thing about the requiem is the “Dies irae.“
The “Dies irae” is a genuinely weird text. It’s what’s known as a “sequence,” which is a genre that essentially grew out of vamping. (“Vamping” as in stretching a musical phrase to cover stage action, not as in Hard-hearted Hannah.) Sometime around the 12th century, some person or person wrote this spooky-ooky 18-stanza poem all about hellfire and damnation, and the church elders were like, “hmm the mass for the dead needs some spicing up… let’s go with it!”
The “Dies irae” has proven to be catnip for composers, of course, since it’s full of earthquakes, trumpets, infernal flames, tremendous kings, and tearful pleas.
You’d think it would be fun to memorize a text like this, but it’s kind of not, because the order of these various images follows no logical progression. It’s not like you can memorize it a stanza at a time by thinking “ok, first the fires, then the floods, then the king, then the queen of heaven” etc.
But hey, it definitely improved my understanding of the Latin case endings, so that’s a win!
*With each passing year, I become more and more convinced that Herbert Howells was the only truly great 20th century English composer. It’s a shame that nobody knows his music, but if you’ve always sort of liked RVW and Britten but felt that they were lacking something important, you might want to look into his stuff.
I wrote rather extensively about Tár in the Classical Gabfest Newsletter this week. [If you haven’t been paying attention, my beloved podcast, The Classical Gabfest, is sadly on a hiatus that is probably going to be permanent, but never say never. However, it has morphed into The Classical Gabfest newsletter on Substack, so if you’re hankering for a weekly dose of news & opinion about the world of classical music, head on over and subscribe!]
I have still more to say, but first, the trailer:
Things I can identify with about Lydia Tár:
She sits in her faux bois-lined childhood basement watching VHS tapes of Leonard Bernstein, crying at his genius. Extremely relatable content.
She demands that matcha lattes be delivered at a moment’s notice.
She unthinkingly and illogically switches between languages while running a rehearsal.
Lydia’s style — and the actual scenes of bespoke tailoring — are one of the true highlights of the movie. Major props to the costume designer, Bina Daigeler, whose other credits include Volver and Todo Sobre Mi Madre!!!
Did I cringe watching Cate Blanchett conduct?
Actually, no. That’s not to say her conducting wasn’t bad — it was terrible. But there wasn’t much of it, and in a way, when she was conducting, it functioned as a bit of comic relief and distracted me from the utter insanity of the rest of the movie.
The REAL cringe moment was the scene wherein Lydia addresses her orchestra and proposes that they pair Mahler’s 5th with Elgar’s cello concerto. It would actually be a bit of a spoiler to explain the circumstances surrounding this, but suffice to say, nothing in the real world works this way, and I was chewing my knuckles in discomfort.
Other things that don’t make sense
In a pivotal early scene, Tár criticizes a Juilliard conducting student in the context of a masterclass for conducting a work by an Icelandic composer (Hildur Guðnadóttir, the actual composer of the score) for a small, 7 or 8-instrument new music ensemble. And here she was right — it did suck — but then she asks him why he didn’t choose Bach’s Mass in B minor.
This is just patently absurd. For one, when you participate in a masterclass, you don’t get to pick the repertoire. But let’s say this wasn’t a typical masterclass — perhaps this young conductor was preparing for a performance, and the rehearsal was used as the setting for a masterclass. But even then, I can not emphasize the absurdity of the idea that the student’s repertoire choices would have been a) a contemporary chamber work, or b) a sprawling, hours-long Baroque oratorio for voices and orchestra.
If she wanted him to conduct Bach, she should have suggested a Brandenburg concerto!
What’s my motivation?
My lingering question is this: Was Todd Field trying to express something about contemporary society, and then decided that the classical music milieu was the correct setting? Or was he attracted to the world of classical music and decided to explore it, and this is what he came up with? I guess I could read an interview or something, but I don’t feel like it.
On texts of Abu l-‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri as translated by Kevin Blankinship
I wrote this piece as a passion project in the late winter and early spring of 2021, just as the U.S. (or my portion of U.S. society) was beginning to come out of the pandemic.
I began laying the groundwork for this piece much earlier. I discovered the work of the great vegan, antinatalist, pessimist philosopher-poet Abu l-‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri early in 2020, and I immediately began researching his work with voraciousness. Never in my life have I been so instantly and overwhelmingly moved by the work of a writer.
Al-Ma’arri was a Syriac-Arab hermit who lived in a cave outside Aleppo in the early 11th century. He turns up in far-flung corners of the vegan internet for a poem in which he admonished his fellow humans for eating meat, drinking milk, and harvesting honey. While the history of vegetarianism has its roots well into antiquity (Pythagoras, some early Christians, and many others), Al-Ma’arri’s is the only example outside of Jainism and certain Buddhist sects of full moral veganism prior to the modern era.
I first read Al-Ma’arri in translations from the early 20th century, and I would have used them as the basis for this work, but before doing so, I was lucky enough to be put in touch with Kevin Blankinship, professor of Arabic at Brigham Young University, who happens to be the leading scholar on the works of Al-Ma’arri. I wrote Kevin in October 2020 asking if he knew of alternate translations of the Al-Ma’arri poems that I might consider.
This is when things got interesting. It turns out that Kevin is not only a scholar, but he is also a tremendously talented poet in his own right, and he had translated some Al-Ma’arri poems himself. He proposed a collaboration, and I was thrilled to accept.
Kevin’s versions of the poems are masterpieces in themselves, which you can easily glean from comparing the earlier ones against his new ones:
Reynold A. Nicholson, 1921:
World-wide seems to spread a fragrance From the sweetness of the flowers. All praise Him, the All-sustainer, Clouds and plants and rocks and water. We — we burden Earth so sorely That she well-night sinks beneath us
Kevin Blankinship, 2021:
her blooms spread like perfume her streamlets praise the Master so do the shrubs the water the stones
and here we are heavy on her soil she fairly groans with the weight
Not only are Kevin’s translations beautiful, concise, and direct, but they are also lyrical. What I mean by that is, they are written in a way that allows music to lift them up. They work perfectly well on their own, but I felt that they were ideal words to set. I’ve never had the pleasure of setting something so exquisite, not even by Martha Stewart.
Why did I want to compose a concerto for chorus, and what even is a concerto for chorus? The term comes from the Orthodox (Slavonic) Church tradition, and it’s basically an extended anthem, usually on a hymn text. At least, that’s how the term was used from the 17th century up until 1984 when Alfred Schnittke totally redefined the genre with his epochal Concerto for Mixed Chorus, a four movement symphony for voices that was, is, and ever shall be among my very favorite pieces.
Schnittke’s concerto is dark — musically, at least. The problem I’ve always had with it is that the text is uplifting, and so I don’t think it really matches the music. I wanted to write a large-scale choral work that would build on Schnittke, but match the darkness of the music with an equally dark text. And holy mother alive did I ever find some dark materials to work with.
I recorded the work, at my own expense, in London in late July, 2022. The purpose of the recording was to bring the work to the world, as I do not anticipate that it will have any life as a piece of performing repertoire. It’s simply too dark. If you’re a choir director who wants to prove me wrong (at the risk of alienating your singers, your friends, and your community) be my guest!