Posts By: willcwhite

An Hour of Newly Recorded Music

Well, not quite an hour, but pretty close.

First up, Clarinet Quintet, op. 55, a piece that I wrote as a birthday gift for my college buddy Jeremy. It was commissioned by his siblings for his fortieth birthday. The birthday gift was the first movement. The second, third, and fourth movements were gravy because I wanted to make it into a full work. (Much the same thing happened with my trio for horn, viola, and piano.)

What was fun about this project was that I had the first movement premiered (with Jeremy in the audience) in Seattle by some friends over the summer. Hearing the first movement clarified for me what I wanted to do with the rest of the piece, and the latter movements were composed very quickly.

The demo recording was made in Portland with musicians from the Oregon Symphony, most notably their principal clarinetist, James Shields. It was a very fun day featuring a huge assortment of baked goods from Shoofly Vegan Bakery. God I miss Portland’s vegan food scene. Seattle doesn’t hold a candle.

Next up, 11 Bagatelles, op. 56 for solo piano. I also composed these in 2023, sporadically during the months of April through July (between writing the first movement of the Clarinet Quintet and the later movements.) They were written for my great piano muse Joseph Vaz.

Joey started agitating for more piano music in the lead-up to the highly successful New York premiere of the piano sonata I wrote for him. I thought he was crazy to ask for more. I don’t think of myself as a person who has facility writing for the piano, and he’s given me all sorts of guff about not writing “pianistically.” And yet, he kept asking, so I kept writing. (He’s asked for even more!!)

Joseph recorded these tracks in New York at the Manhattan School of Music. It was a great weekend; I came to town not only for the recording, but also to see Here We Are, the new Sondheim show. The night after the recording I went and screamed my heart out at Uncle Charlie’s with my friend Tim, as I am wont to do.

Last up is an older work, or, shall we say, a piece that has been in development for several years now, my Suite for Solo Cello, op. 36. It’s a little embarrassing to admit that, when I first wrote this, large chunks of it were extremely difficult, maybe unplayable; I should have had a better sense of the cello’s capabilities given my heritage as a violist.

I’d been trying to interest cellists in this piece for a while, but I think they maintained a polite distance because of the challenges. What I really needed was a cellist to workshop the piece with me, and my friend Ryan Farris finally stepped up to the plate this past summer.

We worked on the piece over a the course of a few months, making all sorts of adjustments and re-writes and recorded it in August. I give Ryan all the thanks and credit in the world for pulling off what he did, but I’m still planning to make an alternate arrangement for two cellos. I think it will be a more successful work.

I have to admit though that I love hearing the struggle of the piece in its current incarnation. It’s craggy and austere, and part of me thinks I should just let it exist as the stunted, gnarled oak that it is currently.

Clarinet Quintet, op. 55

This piece was a 40th birthday commission for my friend Jeremy Rosenberg, a fellow music major in the class of 2005 at the University of Chicago. It was commissioned by Jeremy’s siblings Michael and Shoshana. Jeremy and I go way back, so there was a lot of personal material to include in this piece.

As a starting point, I wanted somehow to reflect on my college days. I considered re-working a string quartet that I wrote in my sophomore year, but upon reviewing it, I thought it was total garbage. However, I thought I could do something with the main motivic idea. I played around with it, but it only ended up appearing in a disguised form in one bar of the introduction.

The timing of this commission — and its accompanied walk down memory lane — was interesting, because I began writing it right around the time that my former teacher, Easley Blackwood, died in January 2023. Easley’s death kindled many thoughts and feelings, but as a sort of backhanded way of honoring him, I based a couple of the principal themes in this piece on the circle of fifths, which he always said was “the last refuge of the damned,” compositionally.

Jeremy and I really clicked in college when we realized that we were the only two people who knew, cared about, and loved Leonard Bernstein’s MASS, so I quoted one of the motives from that piece in the quintet.

Before this piece, I had been keen to write a minuet for some time, and I thought this would be a nice opportunity.

Jeremy is a big klezmer fan, hence the third movement. I grew up going to plenty of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, so it came somewhat easily to me, and Jeremy said I had carte blanche to culturally appropriate from his heritage.

The final movement is a sonata-rondo form with an ostinato that moves through the string parts, and I’m very proud of how cleverly I was able to make it work while still creating variety in the harmony and recalling music from the previous movements.

11 Bagatelles, op. 56

I wrote this set of short pieces for my friend-muse-collaborator Joseph Vaz, at his behest. Joey was also the instigator / dedicatee of my piano sonata, and after he had performed and recorded that piece several times, he came asking for more.

Why a set of eleven bagatelles? Joey was very specific in this regard. He wanted short pieces as opposed to another big work. It so happens that eleven is his lucky number, and it didn’t hurt that Beethoven’s op. 119 is a set of eleven bagatelles.

The first step in writing these pieces was to figure out just what a bagatelle was. I’ll be honest, I had only the vaguest conception. It turns out that basically nobody knows (per Wikipedia: “A bagatelle is a short piece of music, typically for the piano, and usually of a light, mellow character.”) That meant that a bagatelle could be anything I wanted, but I had to figure it out myself.

I came up with a Theory of Bagatelles:

As is so often the case with my music, I mostly followed this set of rules, but I mostly broke all of them at some point. I guess the big self-imposed no-no that I broke was that the pieces are all supposed to be self-sufficient, because I ended up making the last bagatelle a gloss on the first bagatelle. What can I say — I’m a cyclical girl at heart. 💁‍♀️

Other rules broken: they’re all too hard for me to play (except nos. 4 and 6), I did used received dance forms (the Poulencian waltz no. 8 — but I made up for this by writing an anti-waltz for no. 9). Many of them are spunky and spontaneous, but many are not.

I didn’t get around to including any African Pianism techniques (an academic specialty of Joseph’s) but I did include an homage to my favorite Tuvan folk group (as if I knew more than one) Huun-Huur-Tu (no. 7.) Number 10 is an ode, naturally, to Sondheim. No. 4 is an arrangement of the Basque folk song “Ezin ahaztu” in honor of Joey’s last name (which may reveal some sort of partial heritage.)

None of them are exactly programmatic, but no. 6 includes the instruction “con la dolcezza semplice del giovane amore in una notte d’estate illuminata da stelle e lucciole” (“with the simple sweetness of young love on a summer night illuminated by stars and fireflies”) and no. 11 was inspired by the feeling of freedom I felt at being done with a particularly onerous task.

Nos. 1 and 2 feature trick endings, and I considered doing the same for the rest, but I realized that would get tiresome.

Do the Right Thing

A post-mortem on Stephen Sondheim’s posthumous production

I went to New York this past weekend to see the world premiere of Here We Are, the musical that Stephen Sondheim was working on at the time of his death in November, 2021. If he’d only been alive to complete it, it would have been wonderful. But he didn’t, so what we have is an incomplete masterpiece.

The existence of a masterpiece left incomplete at the time of its author’s death compels a question upon the people left responsible for the work: what’s the “moral” way forward? Do you let the public hear it in its incompletion? Do you guard it? Do you destroy it? How do you do the right thing?

Before I get into the solution proffered by Sondheim’s estate and his co-creators — and my opinion thereof — let’s take a brief diversion into musical history.

The Classics

The two most famous incomplete works in the classical canon are Mozart’s Requiem and Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony. 

In the case of the Mozart, they did the wrong thing: the widow Constanze brought in two of her late husband’s colleagues to comb through his remaining sketches and bring the work to completion. Franz Xaver Süssmayr did the lion’s share of the work and wrote some of his own original music to fill in gaps (including complete movements) where no Mozart sketches existed.

This collaborative version of the piece was accepted into the repertoire early on, and it now has a performing tradition of well over two hundred years, so most folks have decided to be okay with it (including me.) But in recent years, musicologists have come to think that they know better than musicians who actually interacted with Mozart while he was alive, and it seems that new completions are cropping up with increasing regularity. This is doing even wronger things.

In the case of Schubert’s B minor symphony, the unfinishedness was leveraged as a selling point (doubtless due in part to the romanticized history of Mozart’s Requiem) and even though Schubert left behind a third movement in short score (and even about a hundred measures in full score) this movement has never caught wind, though it has been completed by scholars. The completion has occasionally been performed and it has been recorded, so you can listen to it right now if you’re interested. This is doing the right thing: the greater public can hear what Schubert actually wrote, and the cognoscenti can listen to a realization of what Schubert might have written, understanding the context full well.

The Stage

Opera offers more gray areas than purely instrumental music, because a composer generally composes the music of an opera to a fully-formed pre-existing libretto. So if the music of the opera is close enough to the finish line, it can be possible — and justified — to finish the piece by bringing the composer’s work to its logical conclusion using sketches and grafting on music from earlier in the show (particularly in music dramas that use leitmotivs) as was the case with Puccini’s Turandot and Berg’s Lulu (one of Sondheim’s favorites.)

I think both of those completions fall into the “do the right thing” category because it would be such a loss not to be able to hear the work that these great artists did write, but you can’t just truncate the story ten minutes before its conclusion. In theory, you could stop the music and have the singers simply speak the rest of the libretto, but this would be jarring to the point of distraction in a thru-composed work and would completely ruin the effect of everything that had come before.

However, this is not the case with musicals, and this brings us to the curious case of Here We Are.

Words and Music

The development history of this show was chronicled quite ably by Frank Rich writing for Vulture. To sum it up, the team (Sondheim, writer David Ives, and director Joe Mantello) had been working on the piece since the early 2010s. Lacking any real production deadlines, Sondheim did what he was wont to do and chipped away at the songs bit by bit, putting it together in a procrastinatory fashion. 

(To give the guy a break: he was in his ninth decade, he was managing several film adaptation projects and stage revivals, and he was — seemingly — responding personally to every random scrap of paper that had ever been addressed to him.)

In September of 2021, Sondheim went on Colbert and announced that the project was picking up steam again, and that he hoped it would be produced in the coming season. Two months later, the day after Thanksgiving, he died.

When Sondheim died, he had written all the songs and scene for the first act, as well as the first three numbers of the second act. That’s a substantial amount of material, enough that a case could be made for going forward with the project. But how to go forward? Should they fill the gaps in the second act with reprises from the first? Should they hire a composer to write ersatz-Sondheim, perhaps based on his sketches? Should they simply end the show with the third song in the second act? What’s doing the right thing — by Sondheim, by the producers, by the audience?

To the immense credit of the producers of Here We Are at the Shed, the solution they have chosen is both the simplest one and the right one to boot: after the third song the second act, the second act of Here We Are becomes a straight play bereft of singing. As you may have read in the Frank Rich piece, the final 45 minutes of the show do include a few instrumental cues based on earlier music, but these cues come fewer and further between as the show continues, such that the greater part of the second act feels notably different than everything that preceded it.

These Are My Takes

I love everything that Sondheim wrote for this show, and I am eternally thankful that the show has been produced so that people like me can have a chance to see and hear it. But there is no question of it being a completed work — it is not. And I say this in spite of what Ives and Mantello told Frank Rich, namely that this “two-thirds sung, one-third spoken” concept was a deliberate dramaturgical decision made by the creative team prior to Sondheim’s death, on the grounds that the material demanded it.

Their claim is that because the characters in the second act find themselves stuck in one place, it doesn’t make sense for them to keep singing. My counterclaim is that this is complete and total bullshit.

I’m not saying that Ives and Mantello are necessarily lying, because it’s possible to believe that they had actually reached such an agreement with Sondheim. The scenario I imagine is this: 

With a production announced and a deadline finally looming, Sondheim was struggling to finish the score (par for the course with him), and his co-authors didn’t have the deftness of touch that Hal Prince and James Lapine had had in compelling him to work. So they created a well-intentioned excuse that would let him off the hook, but also let them move forward with the production, and Sondheim leapt at this “gentleman’s agreement.” 

That may well be what happened, but if it is, I think it’s important to acknowledge the reality that these three creators chose to enter into a shared delusion for practical purposes; this was not a path born of legitimate artistic values.

All you have to do is watch the show to reach the conclusion that it was meant to have been musicalized. There’s nothing in the libretto after that third song of the second act that is so radically different from what preceded it that it begs for dry recitation. In fact, there are several moments that positively cry out for songs, the two most notable being a long conversation between two characters about the meaning of life, and the very end of the show, where you’d expect a big reprise.

Now, assuming that my hypothetical scenario was what actually transpired – that there was a tacit agreement to move the show forward as a musical-play hybrid and thus let Sondheim off the hook – I know in my heart of hearts that Sondheim would have seen this version and written the remaining songs in show. Sondheim had a long history of building the plane at 30,000 feet (not unlike most other musical theater writers) and there are many spectacular examples of him writing his best work on short notice during previews (“Comedy Tonight”, “Send in the Clowns”, “Children and Art”, etc.) I think it’s a good bet that he would have completed the show even more brilliantly than he had begun it. 

So my one and only complaint in this whole saga is that Ives and Mantello are propagating this white lie that the show as it stands is what Sondheim really wanted it to be. It’s just not, and that’s ok. These guys have done the right thing by mounting the show with the songs that Sondheim wrote and letting us see the rest in draft form, thus allowing us to understand the full shape of the piece. But there’s no denying that it goes from color to black and white.

Once again, I’m purely grateful and not at all sorry that I got to experience Here We Are. (Speaking of which, they should have gone with Sondheim’s title, Square One.) I doubt this show is going to get produced many more times. Maybe they’ll take it to London, and perhaps a few regional theaters will mount their own productions, but this work can’t be said to be part of the canon. I’m sure they’ll film it, and I hope they’ll release the video and audio recordings.

Here We Are is a little world unto itself, but it’s a stump. It will always be a stump, but with this production, we can appreciate it for what it is and imagine what it might have been.

UPDATE:

My friends Kyle and Colm and I recorded a conversation for Kyle’s podcast after seeing the show for the second time, and you can listen to that here:

Suite for Solo Cello, op. 36

I composed this piece during the first few months of 2018 when I didn’t have much else to do. Why? Who can say? One always wishes to test one’s skills against those of the great masters. Funnily enough, I’m not especially keen on Bach’s cello suites, but I consider his solo violin partitas and sonatas the pinnacle of what a composer can write for strings.

I tried to interest people in the suite for several years, either to record it or perform it or both. Alas, several passages were unplayable as written, kind of surprising when you consider that it was written by a violist. I tend to write daunting music for strings because I was never a particularly good string player, and I just assume that real instrumentalists can play anything.

My friend Ryan (the cellist featured in the demo recording on YouTube) was the person who finally took on this project, and he improved the piece tremendously; any further cellists who take this on have him to thank.

One reason that I got myself into so much trouble is that my listening habits veer strongly toward music for viola da gamba. As I wrote about in the blurb on my solo bass piece “Tombeau / Les Rêves”, I’ve been obsessed with that repertoire since encountering Tous les matins du monde as a kid. The problem is that the viola da gamba typically has six or seven strings, and they’re tuned closer together than on the cello. So the sonorities ringing in my ears are not necessarily the most idiomatic on the cello.

And yet, it can be played, as Ryan has proven.