I have a new work being premiered at Bard College’s Olin Auditorium on Wednesday, November 2 – and repeated next January 24 at the Knitting Factory in New York. It happened in this wise. Pat Spencer, flutist of New York’s Da Capo ensemble, played in my microtonal opera Cinderella’s Bad Magic, which we performed in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Pat is, of course, (with apologies to Walter Piston) an incredible flutist. She has mastered much of the world’s most difficult flute repertoire, and is a relentless perfectionist. She once showed me a rhythm in a work that only an insane or incompetent person would have written, a quintuplet inside a septuplet with rests and dotted notes or something, and was berating herself for not being able to get it perfect. I said to her, “Has it ever occurred to you that the composer wouldn’t be able to play that rhythm accurately himself, and that maybe it’s his fault for writing an unplayable rhythm, not yours for not being able to play it?” It had never occurred to her. That’s the kind of musician she is. If it can be written, it can be played, and the composer is never wrong.
So she played in Cinderella’s Bad Magic, which uses thirty pitches to the octave. It’s kind of a graceful, lyrical, light-sounding piece, as you can hear in excerpt here if you want, and you never suspect how devilishly difficult it is for the flutist. Basically, the only pitch she could play unaltered was A, and the other 29 all required fingerings and lip alterations foreign to conventional flute music. The ordeal would have made any sane woodwind player swear off microtonality forever, but Saint Pat, martyr to new music, not only wanted me to write another microtonal piece for her, she got Da Capo’s clarinetist Meighan Stoops interested, and they both wanted a microtonal piece. Well, a microtonal flute-and-clarinet duo sounded like an exercise in futility – why go through the horror of microtones for only two lines, which would barely let you hear the in-tuneness of the intervals? So I added a virtual piano part (which will be played on keyboard sampler by Blair McMillan, who recently had a nice profile in the Times), a fretless bass (played by my son Bernard, who’s been putting up with dad’s bizarre tunings his whole life), and a layer of background reference chords on sampler which I’ll play myself. In short, Bernard and I are playing with the Da Capo ensemble, and I have the easy part.
The 13-minute result, which you can listen to a fake MIDI version of here if you’d like, which I made to help the players find their pitches, is called The Day Revisited. That’s not the title you’ll see on the program, however. For some reason I’ve been kind of obsessed by my music of the early 1980s lately, and the idea that came to me was to take some themes and chords from a little piece I wrote in 1982 called As the Day Is Long, for semi-improvising flute, drums, and synthesizer with a tape background, and reuse them in a purely-tuned context. (Actually, you can hear a really poor-quality recording of As the Day Is Long from my web site here.) So the piece looks back on that moment of my life from a 23-year perspective, with all the tendencies purified into something smoother. Once again there are 30 pitches to the octave – different ones this time. For awhile I called the new piece As the Day Is Long (Revisited), but that seemed a little clunky, and it gradually shortened in my mind to The Day Revisited, which still captures the rather nostalgic flavor. I didn’t make that change in time to get it right in the program – but such complications can make the history of a work all the more interesting, n’est-ce pas?
Anyway, if you’re not near Bard November 2, I’ll put in a reminder about the January 24 performance in New York.