I frequently talk with composition students about the difficulty and necessity of gaining multiple perspectives on one’s own music. When immersed in the minutiae of writing the thing, it’s nearly impossible to understand how a piece will feel to an actual audience. What’s more, you’re unlikely to ever be surprised by hearing yourself, to have your own expectations either foiled or confirmed, when you know what’s around every bend.
I’ve been thinking quite seriously that the best way around this quandary would be for a composer to write so much music that remembering all of it would gradually become impossible. The details of each piece would blur together, such that after enough time had elapsed—say 15 or 20 years—the composer could then listen to a performance of their own work with true objectivity and without preconceptions.
There have been occasions when I’ve felt vertiginous hints of this unlearning process, not yet for entire pieces, but in short bursts. Listening recently to a live recording of It takes a long time to become a good composer, I remembered the major facts of the piece, but found myself surprised by the way certain transitions unfolded, or how many times a figure repeated. It struck me as being one of my strangest pieces, not disagreeably so, but in the tenuous ways the chunks of music related to each other, like floating objects in a surrealist painting. It takes a long time is nearly a decade old, but it’s not a piece I’ve heard performed frequently or recorded, which is perhaps why it makes a good case study. I’m excited to neglect it for another decade, writing another 50-something pieces in the meantime, and revisit this experiment in 2029.
A short bulletin to let you know that today is the wide release of Work Songs. You can (finally!) listen to the album on the platform of your choice—I suggest Bandcamp—and you can also order a physical, tangible CD, which will ship next month. I’m pleased as punch to have this long-gestating, short-playing work out in the wide world. For much more about it, read this post.
Here’s the “single,” to a poem by Andrea Cohen:
performers Becca Stevens, voice & guitar; Gabriel Kahane, voice & guitar; Ted Hearne, voice; Nathan Koci, accordion; Taylor Levine, guitar; Timo Andres, piano & keyboard
After the past week’s flurry of premières, I’m turning back into a pianist in preparation for a solo recital at Caramoor on June 20. It’s the same program west-coasters might’ve heard in San Francisco, interlacing selections from Janáçek’s On An Overgrown Path with recent works by Caroline Shaw, Eric Shanfield, and Christopher Cerrone. Here’s a “curatorial statement” in answer to your questions: “what and why?”
There’s a good reason for all the evocative titles on this program, which is that all the works are based on visual images, either real or imagined. What I liked was that all the pieces have to do with different mediums, or chains of mediums, like a game of inspirational telephone. Caroline’s Gustave le Gray is named after a pioneer in photography, and is half an analogue to his images, and half an imagined portrait of the photographer himself. Chris was inspired by an artist friend’s rendering of a beautiful brutalist bridge in southern Italy—the two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional form, translated into a musical form. Eric’s Utopia Parkway is an homage to the sculptor Joseph Cornell—musical “objects” move against each other in shifting positions, like the objects in one of Cornell’s shadow boxes.
And it’s not known exactly what inspired the titles of Janáçek’s On An Overgrown Path, though I believe they were given only just before being published—it seems likely they were images or phrases out of his own head. But they are amazingly evocative in a way that is pictorial but nonetheless abstract.
I suppose what I’m trying to “say”, if one can speak through one’s programming, is that the way an artist sees art and the world is not usually confined to a single form or discipline. The qualities that move me in music are the same that move me about a building, a photograph, or a piece of choreography. They’re all related in cryptic ways.
Caramoor is a short Metro-North trip from Grand Central and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s beautiful and the architecture is slightly outrageous. I even composed the bell chimes which summon you To Concert, so the entire evening promises to be something of a Gesamtkunstwerk.
If “classical music” is a niche market, and “new music” a niche within it, then those of us who care deeply about recent developments in notation software must be a small fraction of the population indeed; for us, the advent of Dorico, the first new industrial-strength notation program in decades, has been nothing less than thrilling. By now the circumstances surrounding its birth have been well-told. The progress of the software has also been painstakingly documented. But two and a half years after its initial release, I haven’t seen much written from the perspective of composers about the experience of working in Dorico long-term. I’ve been using it since the first version came out in October of 2016—at first gingerly, on small side projects. At that point I’d spent half my life using Sibelius.
As artists, and especially as composers, our tools matter. We’re using them to make musical scores, which are essentially tools for other people. Anything we can do to make our work more readable, standardized, error-free, and beautiful is something we should feel compelled to do. But our tools have to be well-made and streamlined enough for us to want to use them, too (otherwise we’d all be writing in SCORE). I can’t overstate how nice Dorico is as a daily tool. The interface is clean, crisp, and non-distracting; fonts and icons are sharp and tasteful; palettes and dialogues have efficient and sensible workflows. All the small design choices add up to a coherent whole, just like the details in a well-engraved musical score.
The process of composing is different for everyone, of course. I like to write straight into the computer, sitting at either a piano or a MIDI keyboard. And the actual day-to-day indecision of composing is fluid and graceful in Dorico—jotting down ideas quickly and then wrestling with them over long periods, transforming, cutting, splicing, and rearranging them every which way. You can edit without fear of triggering a cascade of errors and messes elsewhere in the score. The program will never protest about a tuplet; extramusical lines and indications move in lockstep with notes; extraneous rests are cleaned up for you; beams are re-beamed correctly. Its handling of rhythms is so good that it surpasses mere convenience and becomes an actual creative tool. All of these things initially felt, and continue to feel, like small miracles.
The New York Times ran a nice feature today surveying a handful of artists on their favorite five minutes of piano music. (They’ve been doing more pieces like this lately, and fewer reviews—which I suppose is good—they are useful for a broader audience). It’s an impossible question for me to answer, so I decided to narrow it down: what are the most piano‑y five minutes of piano music? What takes advantage of the particular qualities of the piano in such a way that it would be unimaginable to play on any other instrument?
The piano is unique in that it contains its own acoustics, as well as the tools to modulate them. A violin or oboe needs a proper concert hall to sound its best, but all a piano needs is its own case. Inside, 200 or so criss-crossed strings vibrate sympathetically, producing ringing stacks of harmonic feedback—a kind of built-in reverb module. A sensitive pianist can control all of this using minute gradations of the sustain pedal.
I ended up choosing Debussy’s enigmatic prélude La terrasse des audiences du claire de lune (or “the other Clair de Lune”), mostly because I’ve had Debussy on the mind lately, having just finished Stephen Walsh’s excellent new biography (thanks to the thoughtful people at Knopf for sending it to me). Otherwise I think my “alternate” would’ve been the Nocturne Op. 62 No. 1 by Chopin, a piece similarly dense with astonishing twists and details.
In other nocturne news: cellist Caitlin Sullivan has released her début album, which is full of new music from friends & colleagues. It includes a recording we made of my 2008 piece Fast Flows the River for cello and Hammond B3 organ. I’m quite pleased with how the recording turned out; producer Dan Bora created exactly the “warm bath” enveloping the cello that I had in mind. You can listen on Bandcamp or the streaming service of your preference.
I’m thrilled to announce that Work Songs is coming out on New Amsterdam Records.
I’m grateful to many people for helping Work Songs along its winding journey, but most of all I’d like to thank the people who play on the album, and for whom the piece was written: Becca Stevens, Gabriel Kahane, Ted Hearne, Nathan Koci, and Taylor Levine. Alex Venguer mixed the album, and the cover was drawn by Pixar’s own Harley Jessup.
Here’s the liner note I wrote about the piece:
Artists’ working habits have always fascinated me—Matisse sculpting in bed, Charles Ives’s Bach-ian eye-openers, Alice Munro’s strict quotas (very useful)—not so much for the insight they provide into the actual work, but more as an idealized template for how to organize one’s life.
The Work Songs project began to form eight years ago, in the spring of 2011. I had wanted to make something having to do with American song traditions. One of the first musical “scores” I encountered in my childhood was the Fireside Book of Folk Songs (a 1940’s edition, I think, with beautiful spot-color illustrations) which my parents owned. There are many work songs in the Fireside anthology, mostly about different kinds of manual labor. I gradually formed the idea to write a kind of artist-centric set of work songs, using similarly straight-backed, aphoristic texts. Some are songs of hardship and complaint, while others are meant to provide comfort, empathy, or possible solutions to problems. But they all, in some way, attempt to address existential questions—what do “artists” do, exactly, and how should we exist in the world?
Unlike a typical commission, Work Songs is a piece I wanted to write, for a specific group of friends and collaborators: Becca Stevens, Gabriel Kahane, Ted Hearne, and Nathan Koci. Becca, Gabriel, and Ted sing, as well as help play whatever instruments are at hand—a hodgepodge of guitars and keyboards—with Nathan and me on accordion and piano. The indispensable guitarist Taylor Levine joined the band further down the line. Since I wrote Work Songs for specific people, I was able to tailor each song to their particular individual strengths. The piece feels like a team effort in this regard, which is appropriate, since these fellow artists not only inspire me with their work, but help me find answers to those existential questions.
By way of introduction, “Art”: Melville lists the contradictions inherent in its creation (always comforting to think, when frustration arises, that Herman Melville felt it too). “Unemployment” describes a musician so burnt-out—artistically, emotionally, financially—that he is unable to hear the music anymore. “To Whom it May Concern” gives playful voice to a familiar feeling: that the grass is greener on the other side of the Atlantic (ah, for that progressive, democratic-socialist, Scandinavian grass). “Poet’s Work” is about whittling something down to its essence—a poem pared down to an aphorism, set over a slowly contracting musical process. And finally, Woody Guthrie’s list of new year’s resolutions— “Rulin’s”, he calls them—are as good and simple advice as anything I’ve read. Write a song a day. Learn people better. Change bedclothes often.
The new Sufjan Stevens/Justin Peck ballet that I orchestrated has, at long last, a title—Principia, after Newton. Or rather, after Étienne-Louis Boullée, whose Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton (above) inspired the piece. Knowing this, I’d been imagining the dancers as subatomic particles constantly rearranging themselves; others, it turns out, were reminded of artichokes. Since dance is maybe the second-most abstract art form after music, and vegetation is in the eye of the beholder, you’ll have to come decide for yourselves—the ballet opens this Thursday.
Update: here’s a little interview I did about the Principia working process.
Here’s a solid list from art critic Jerry Saltz about “how to be an artist”, much of which is applicable to musicians as well. (I don’t know how artists relate to Saltz—I suspect with the same circumspect suspicion with which musicians regard our critics. But that’s fine—we’re not their audience.)
I liked the following chunk particularly; just replace “statement” with “program note”.
Don’t use art jargon; write in your own voice, write how you talk. Don’t try to write smart. Keep your statement direct, clear, to the point. Don’t oppose big concepts like “nature” and “culture.” Don’t use words like interrogate, reconceptualize, deconstruct, symbolize, transcendental, mystical, commodity culture, liminal space, or haptic. Don’t quote Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida. Those guys are great. But don’t quote them. Come up with your own theory. People who claim to hate or have no theory: That’s your theory, you idiots!
Important things are hard to write about. That’s the way it is. Deal with it. And if it’s pretentious to say, don’t say it.
I find that most program note writing suffers less from overuse of technical “art jargon” than simply from a reliance on bromide and cliché; Jeremy Denk goes into this in his indispensible manifesto from a few years ago.
A Thanksgiving show alert: Anna RG & I will be playing a combined set at The Owl Music Parlor in Brooklyn this Saturday, November 24th. It’ll be a variety show of the best kind, that is to say, a bunch of music that might have vague things in common, but I’m not a musicologist, so I’m not really sure (Anna is more of one than I am, with her vast firsthand knowledge of American folk music traditions). That is to say: Robin Holcomb, Charles Ives, Hobart Smith, François Couperin, Laurie Spiegel, and Samuel Barber will all be represented.
Last week I was happy to be part of a different variety show, which was Gabe’s iteration of “Nightcap”, the NY Phil’s new late-night series hosted by Nadia. The entire affair felt convivial and relaxed in a way that “CONTACT!”, the Phil’s previous new-music effort, never did; Gabe’s deft programming and Nadia’s low-key erudition surely had something to do with it. I’m looking forward to playing on another edition of Nightcap in March, curated by John Adams.