We need a work song about working on Work Songs.
Beginning to realize that I dislike repeat signs, notationally and conceptually. They are tiny wormholes in music during which I seem to give up on anything interpretive; I don’t know what to do with them.
I sometimes feel a creeping dissatisfaction with my performances of the first section of Kreisleriana (and yes, I realize my obsession with Kreisleriana)—even when the phrases were phrased, the notes hit accurately, and the pedaling clean, the overall form had an inappropriately sing-song quality, the over-neatness of rhymed couplets. The relentless modulations and impulsive rhythms felt pinned down.
The problem, I think, is with the little air-spaces between repeats—between achievement of the high D and return to the initial A—during which the whole thing slackens and comes tumbling down; the visual disruption of moving one’s eyes backwards over a chunk of music becomes a few milliseconds of helplessness. My theory is that this all could have been avoided by writing out the repeats, so the music was simply continuous, which of course is how it should sound.
According to a global search of my iMessage database:
you don’t have a laptop.
you don’t have to justify your evils to me.
you don’t have a printer?
you don’t have to punish yourself :)
you don’t have that problem
you don’t have a performance?
you don’t have this problem, do you?
you don’t have my extra rugs, do you?
you don’t have to fuck to be a fucker.
you don’t have a score, do you?
you don’t have to worry about how you stuff it in your pocket.
you don’t have to drank.
you don’t have to give me a comp.
you don’t have 5 seconds to respond saying “sorry i’m busy”
you don’t have an iPad
you don’t have any interest in selling a tux, do you?
you don’t have almonds?
you don’t have an iPhone 5?
you don’t have to say why.
you don’t have a Japanese girlfriend
you don’t have to come all the way here :)
you don’t have to make your own quesadilla
you don’t have to tell me
you don’t have HIV
you don’t have to kill them to get the feathers!
you don’t have to thank John Adams.
you don’t have to go to school tomorrow!
you don’t have iOS 7 on your iPhone?
you don’t have a toilet-side table?
you don’t have your songs played on the radio
you don’t have to wait an extra month
you don’t have to get on a plane
you don’t have a thermometer.
you don’t have a big ego?
you don’t have any money?
you don’t have to write them out, but they’re confusing how you’ve got them
Leaving town tomorrow for a three-stop tour of sorts. First, it’s University of Notre Dame for the première of Austerity Measures, a 25-minute quartet for Third Coast Percussion. I’ve written briefly about the piece here.
Next I’m meeting Gabe(riel Kahane) in Vancouver for two nights on the Push Festival, presented by Music On Main. We’ll be doing our two pianos/song and dance routine, featuring our own music alongside songs and pieces by Britten, Ives, Adès, Norman, Schumann, Schubert, and Bach.
I’ve been happy to see Woody Guthrie’s list of “New Years Rulin’s” being shared widely online—not just because it’s quite a worthy list, but because over the summer I set the whole thing to music, as the conclusion of a new piece called Work Songs. The set is written for three singers: Becca Stevens, Gabriel Kahane, and Ted Hearne (who leads “Rulins” with some savage high C’s)—all playing instruments, and backed up by Nathan Koci on accordion and me on piano. It’ll be premièred in March at the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York and Liquid Music in St. Paul.
Alert, alert! The Living Earth Show CD is loosed upon the world. It includes a piece I wrote for them, You broke it, you bought it, alongside a terrifying piece by Adrian Knight, two beautiful Tension Studies by Samuel Adams, and a piece of “catastrophic metal” by Jon Russell. Also it’s mastered really loud, which is quite the right choice. The perfect stocking stuffer for anyone in your life with really weird-shaped stockings.
The following is an article I wrote for Fortnight Journal in Spring 2012, during the course of writing Old Friend for the pianist Kirill Gerstein. Since Fortnight is now defunct, they’ve kindly given me permission to re-publish it here.
It’s not quite a conviction, more of a nagging suspicion, that I get each time I’m faced with the task of writing a new piece: it’s finally happened, the jig’s up, you’ve altogether run out of ideas. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.
There are plenty of historical examples of composers who actually did “run out of ideas”. Aaron Copland spent his last two decades conducting his own previous works; Charles Ives was stymied working on his wildly impracticable Universe Symphony, falling silent for the following 35 years; around the same time, Sibelius’s inability to complete an eighth symphony cast the last 30 years of his life into self-destructive depression. The pop world can be even harsher; there’s a kind of critical glee when an artist fails to live up to the creative promise of their 20’s.
There’s something about being a composer which feels slightly fraudulent. It’s a far less Promethean occupation than the “composer” of popular consciousness. Writing music is more like refashioning something which already existed, had always existed; it’s making a sufficiently unrecognizable collage out of other peoples’ materials. Adding to this perception is the fact that it can be so much fun (people pay me to do this?) and that much of the process doesn’t feel like “work” in the traditional sense, at least not how I do it.
This week’s “work” is starting on a new piece for solo piano. Again, by all appearances, I am not exactly working, but instead playing through Chopin’s third Scherzo rather badly. I am enjoying myself immensely. Sight-reading, as opposed to goal-oriented practicing, is very freeing. You don’t have to stop and sort out all the little technical problems of learning a piece, instead you just revel in its particular world, enjoy the sounds of the piano, the blocky chords and approximated arpeggios. In the moment, you manage to convince yourself of the brilliance of your own seat-of-the-pants interpretation—yes, that’s how Chopin meant for it to be played!—even though you’ve put in no careful thought and consideration, only tried one of a thousand possibilities. In the Chopin Scherzo, my “revelation” is to take absolutely no liberties with the tempo—I’m playing every rhythm exactly as notated. This is the kind of extremist approach that may eventually lead to a useful approach to the piece, but in its unadulterated form sounds more like a stubborn bulldozer.
Still, the bulldozer approach has some merit—particularly in the middle section, where that beautiful block chord chorale alternates with fantastic-sounding descending arpeggios from the top of the keyboard. Understandably, most pianists I’ve heard take their time here; it’s a deeply expressive passage, full of satisfying harmonic shifts and suspensions (little held-over notes which, when added to an unsuspecting chord, make it sound even better—like harmonic salt). The disadvantage of all this swooning is that one loses the sense of forward momentum. It’s just chords and arpeggios randomly situated in time, rather than a long melody stretched over a harmonic progression leading to an inevitable conclusion. Some rhythmic discipline seems to be in order.
Very few things require embedding in this website more urgently than the above video, from Andrew Yee of the Attacca Quartet.