Ok. So, I know I haven't written in the Music With Friends series in about two months. To be honest, I was a little burnt out. And it started right at the beginning of a two week trip to Houston. I've been working on quite a few things that I would like to share that have been keeping me from writing the blog.
1. The trip to Houston.
The purpose of going to Houston was to work with and ultimately hear the Rice University Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra perform my dissertation work, Warning Colors. That piece represented the culmination of my musical life as a student. I poured everything I had into it. Long, countless nights in Kurt Stallmann's office writing, orchestrating, editing, etc. But, at the end of it, I felt like I didn't have a good sense of it anymore. I took many risks which I thought would work but, then again I hadn't written an orchestra piece since I was 18.
I cannot say enough about the SSSO. They are such badasses. They played the hell out of the piece. Their dedication was incredible. It is not an easy piece at all. The majority of the 8 minutes are fast, lots of notes, microtonal sections, solos, and some sections were a complete balancing act to get to sound correct. Jerry Hou, the SSSO assistant conductor was amazing to work with and he really took the time to listen to my ideas and make great suggestions based on those. Larry Rachleff made great suggestions and really helped shape the piece in places where it needed it. The experience was amazing. Have a listen for yourself.
So before heading off to Houston, I was planning a concert on March 17 to coincide with a visit from Cole Ingraham and Stefan Schultze who had been touring around Asia and Germany performing as a duo with prepared piano, flute, and computer. The problem was filling the rest of the concert. I wanted to get a couple different pieces of mine done but the timing of the concert being so close to after our break and scheduling conflicts made those impossible to program. So...I went a different route. I wrote a new piece.
I wanted to write something for our flute and clarinet professors since last year. I wrote the majority of the piece in about two weeks. The electronics were done in about a week. The engraving took about three weeks...kill me dead.
One thing that has been weighing on me recently is how long it has taken me to write music in the past few years. I still have a piece that I am working on that I started before Warning Colors. The thing is, I really enjoy working on the conceptual part of the piece. It is like creating an ecosystem where everything works together and is interrelated. But, I have found that the getting into the minutiae of the work is where my soul starts dying. I want to find ways of producing the music I want to hear that doesn't take so long and is such a laborious process. I find the following graphic is representative:
In an attempt to engage with Chinese music more interactively, I selected two pieces for Chinese flute (dizi) and used the melodic shapes to compose my work. When you look at Chinese music notation, it is a series of numbers and lines conveying pitch in a diatonic system and rhythm. It looks like this:
Because of the way I work - top down approach - concept - large scale (form and structure) - medium scale (phrases and subsections) - small scale (notes and rhythms) - any number of note combinations could satisfy a given concept or gesture choosing one with no particular criteria seems arbitrary. One could argue that is where the true artistry comes in. I’m not about to get into that can of worms. My view is, if the composer doesn’t want to design every single thing from scratch but instead wants to invent a system that will take care of making the things he/she wants from scratch, isn’t that the same as making everything from scratch? Maybe. Maybe not. To each his own.
So I wanted my notes to mean something. I didn’t want them to be arbitrary choices, which often turned out to not be arbitrary because I kept falling back on things that had worked in the past and I still enjoyed. Thus: rut.
So, back to the piece. I took the numbers from the Chinese works and then applied them to my invented scale. In regards to rhythm, almost the entire work except for the climax is written in stemless noteheads which give the performers the freedom to organically shape the melodic material. Working in this way, I was able to produce the piece very quickly. It had the sounds I was looking for and many I wasn’t, which was exciting. I’m still not sure about it. But, that signals to me that I might be growing. If you are always comfortable with what you are writing it means you are in complete control of the material but are not necessarily doing anything from which you can grow as a composer. Anyway, here it is performed by Clara Novakova and Dr. Ma Xiaoting.
A piece for percussion quartet written for the Suzhou Percussion Ensemble. Again, I wanted to get this piece out pretty quickly. I didn’t want to get bogged down in creating to complex of a concept for the work but just write music that I would want to hear (note the theme of this year – write some damn music, Rob).
This piece stems from a PowerPoint I put together for my Electronic Music I class last semester. In it I was describing what the barebones, simplest definition of music could be, or at least in what medium music was composed. So I went through all of the arts.
In photography, the medium is light. Without light, there is no photography.
In sculpture, the medium is space. Without space, there is no sculpture.
In dance, the medium is space and time. Without the two, there is no dance.
In music, the medium is time. Without time, there is no music.
John Cage has taught us that the absence of intended sound is equally important as intended sound. Sound needs time to exist. So as composers we are not shaping sounds. We are shaping time. And since time is not constant for each listener, we shape their experience of time by articulating it with material.
So, that is what I did in this piece. There are 14 possible cells of simple material for mostly non-pitched instruments (the only pitched instruments are timpani). Each player has either durations of no sound or durations of sound in which to play a given cell. The durations of playing were taking from real life. I recorded various events and analyzed them for their temporal flow of sound/non-sound or action/non-action. The four recorded events were overhearing a conversation in Chinese between a man and a woman in which I only paid attention to the woman’s speech, construction sounds in which I only paid attention to a circular saw, my daughter Violet playing with pots and pans, and a bus ride in which I recorded the time in motion vs. the time stopped.
The point of choosing these is that they were all real life events that one could hear on a daily basis (substitute any child for mine). And there was something interesting in their temporality if one actually pays attention to them. I wrote the piece in about a week. The score took longer to make than the actual time composing. The concept was developed over months. But, once it was ready, composing the piece really flew.
So I am writing more music than I have been. I am doing things that I’ve never done before. I don’t think I’ve written a piece in quite a while that was simply a sit down and write a piece of music for the sake of writing a piece of music. All of my pieces have been engaging with aspects of science, technology, non-musical life events, etc. I don’t think I could even do that any more – choose to write a piece about water and then just write music that makes me think of water (for alto flute, accordion, banjo, and tuba). There is always a process, there is always research, and yet, there is very little music until the last moment.
The method has become more streamlined. The concepts have become less musical in their origin. The results are new and more exciting to me because they are not comfortable. I feel like I’m getting somewhere. And it has come from a place of being fed up with working so slowly.
2015 is the year of “Dammit Rob, just write some music.”
P.S. I don’t know when I will start writing Music With Friends Again. Right now, I am focusing on writing music, teaching, and playing with my daughter. But, when I start to have the urge to listen to music on a consistent basis, I’ll start it back up.