Ceci n’est pas un blog entry

Forgive me for not blogging. I have little to say to the world at the moment, and, aside from the heinous political stuff in which you are as expert as I, the world doesn’t offer much to attract my attention. I am involved in the little ditzy administrative tasks of getting my music in order, and since I gather that 96 percent of you reading this are composers, you are, or have been, or will soon be, involved in the same species of tasks, and so there is little point in describing them. I acquired a PDF merger (a free one – PDFmergeX), and so am getting all of my multimovement works into single files, which will make them more convenient to download. Mike Maguire and I are redoing the electronic backgrounds to Custer and Sitting Bull, which ought to improve the sound quality immensely. I’m getting new or improved copies of scores printed up, and mailing them off. And I have program notes to write.

This last task is one that almost all composers seem to hate, but that I rather look forward to as a final bit of dessert after the feverish and anxious effort of writing the piece. I love writing about music, and I especially love writing about my own music. I am not, as I suppose I hardly need repeat, one of the predominant “The music should speak for itself!” confraternity to which most composers belong. The music should speak for itself, and I hope it will, eventually. Until then, even the most experienced listeners benefit from a little noodge as to what there is to listen for in a new work, until its style becomes so familiar that many people can hear it for themselves. Relationships that will become obvious on a third hearing may at least be sensed on a first if attention is drawn to them, creating better odds that there will be a third hearing. Nonverbal musicians greatly romanticize “pure” experience, but, except for perhaps the first five years of my life, I don’t believe I’ve ever had a “pure” experience. An artistic culture results not only from perceiving but from discussing what we perceive, putting it into context, comparing it with other experiences. A thousand “pure” experiences, never interpreted, never analyzed, never compared, would lead, it seems to me, to very little. I would not rather be a novelist than a composer, but I have always envied novelists and their world: since words are their medium, no one ever questions the appropriateness of writing about novels, and at great length. I consider music more like the novel in that respect than most people admit. No need to write in and disagree; I take it for granted that I am nearly alone, among composers, in my belief that words have much to contribute in making music digestible and memorable. In fact, perhaps it’s not so much that I have little to say to the world at the moment as that I am simply tired of being disagreed with.

In any case, I have written program notes for Sunken City, my piano concerto. I also, since there is scant chance that anyone else would try to perform the piece before its premiere in Amsterdam next October, release a PDF score. (Warning: don’t click unless you really want to deal with a 135-page PDF.) These aren’t the most literary notes I’ve ever written, but they explain some important things that happen in the piece, and since I have nothing else to offer at the moment, I offer these:

Sunken City (Concerto for Piano and Winds in Memoriam New Orleans) was a departure for me, whose direction was determined by the medium. Anthony Fiumara asked me for a work for piano and the Orkest de Volharding of Amsterdam. Being an American of postminimalist tendencies, I could have responded with a one-idea piece of continuous textural transformation, which would hardly have been outside my stylistic proclivities. But to write a slowly changing sound continuum for brass, reeds, and piano seems impossible; the piano will barely have space to be heard. The first requirement that imposed itself was that orchestra and piano would have to alternate, which led me to the dramatic shape of a true concerto. I’ve always wanted to write a piano concerto, but had always thought of strings, woodwinds, drums. I considered the few classical models for piano with brass, and was not impressed. (I am familiar with two wonderful concerti for piano and winds, Stravinsky’s and Kevin Volans’s; but both employ woodwinds, which I didn’t have available.)

The successful model for brass, reeds, and piano that came to mind was 1920s New Orleans jazz. At the same time, I had just been deeply touched by Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke, detailing the tragedy of the government-allowed destruction, and subsequent forced evacuation, of much of New Orleans. (My childhood was dotted with visits to southern Louisiana, where my mother grew up, and some of our oldest friends became Katrina evacuees.) In the documentary, officials from New Orleans visit Amsterdam to see how levees are supposed to be built. So there was my Amsterdam connection, dovetailing with the New Orleans jazz, and I acquiesced to my subject matter as irresistible. The title Sunken City, I thought, might draw a link between Amsterdam and New Orleans – though, hopefully, never with similarly catastrophic connotations.

The first movement is pure fun, the Mardi Gras New Orleans of my imagination, a stylized portrait of the energy level and harmonic language of the 1920s music of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Bix Beiderbeck. There are two simple main themes, or perhaps only motives, used in the piece: an alternation of two notes a step apart (sometimes expanded to a third, as in the opening), and a rhythmically irregular repetition of a single note. Only one actual quotation appears in the first movement, a re-voiced chord progression from Frankie Trumbauer’s song “Jubilee.” Premonitions of the tragedy cloud the coda, which ends in a hasty retreat. The much longer second movement is a kind of interrupted chaconne, based on its opening 17 chords (spelling out the repeated-note theme). Successive variations suggest stages of grief, outrage, nostalgia, and acceptance, but finally the piano drifts into Jelly Roll Morton’s “Dead Man Blues” (or rather, its chord changes, with some abstracted bits of the tune), which spreads into the orchestra. The last few minutes return to the chaconne chords, no longer in strict order. The single pitch that runs through all 17 chords is A; the “Dead Man Blues” passages are in B-flat, and the major seventh A above B-flat major provides the movement’s rare moments of solace.

The obvious model for a two-movement work with a vastly larger second movement, of course, is Beethoven’s Op. 111 (also Mahler’s Eighth Symphony). With Beethoven in mind, I had planned to suggest some sort of transcendental acceptance, but as a friend [John Shaw of Utopian Turtletop] reminded me, there can be no acceptance of what happened in New Orleans; not the natural tragedy, which was so foreseeable (and actually didn’t happen, since Hurricane Katrina downgraded into merely a level 3 storm before reaching the shore), but the unforgivable political tragedy: the levees never built to last in the first place, the uncaring abandonment of the population to heat, thirst, and death by drowning, the politicized gutting of government agencies meant to respond to disasters, the turning back at gunpoint of honest citizens trying to escape the city by walking over bridges. My friend was right, and the piece ends as it must, in bitter inconclusiveness.


  1. says

    I’ve never heard the phrase “one-idea piece” before, though it definitely refers to my own music and much of the music that I’m interested in. Thanks for enriching my ability to write my OWN program notes.
    KG replies: You’re welcome. You know, I’m sure the idea predates him, but I first picked up the phrase from Kevin Volans, who complained in a liner note that he didn’t want to write “one-idea pieces” anymore. It seems to me that some of the pieces he’s written since are arguably “one-idea” – which is no complaint. He wrote some of the best “one-idea pieces” in the repertoire.

  2. says

    The first time I heard the term “one idea piece” was in 1980, as a graduate student at CalArts in Morton Subotnick’s seminar. He asked us all to bring in a piece built on only one idea. We all tried.
    One by one we presented our pieces, and in every case Mort proved that no less than two ideas were at work, and that without the second idea, the first one couldn’t be expressed, maybe wouldn’t even exist.
    Not making an argument against anyone’s one idea. Just sharing an experience that came to mind, and a good memory of a fun seminar.

  3. says

    Many Amens for you good sir. Wish I could hear the piece in person. I’ll peruse the score later with the piano when I feel brave to its challenges…

  4. says

    I love writing program notes too, but I’ve cut back a bit recently, dismayed by the amount of paper I’ve chewed up. But this sounds like an epic piece, and a bit of a departure from the kind of musical rhetoric I usually associate with you. Will we have a live report from the premiere?
    KG replies: Heavens, Lawrence, unless you’ve put your name on the “Do Not Call” registry, you’ll be spammed with recordings of it.

  5. says

    As a grad student in musicology I’ve been thinking about music writing for several years now, but not so much from a composer’s angle. Your perspective helps me see more of the value in writing about music than I’ve felt previously, and your post pushed me to go ahead and write about some of my own thoughts on the matter here. Thanks for the post, and many thanks for sharing your blog with us!
    KG replies: You’re welcome, and thanks for your own blog post, which I just responded to.

  6. says

    Congrats on getting all those chords voiced!

    BTW… you’ve got a typo at rehearsal A: “chamge to flute”…

    KG replies: Isn’t that the Dutch spelling? Aw, geez, Adam, I can always rely on you.

  7. says

    Well, Kyle, after having been away from blog culture for 10 days, it was somewhat alarming though not displeasing to see someone taking a suggestion from me; and touching and delightful to see myself referred to as a friend. And now since you seem to be in an unusually suggestible frame of mind, if you could find some way to swing your friend a free ticket to catch your piece’s premiere . . .
    Seriously, congrats on finishing, and best wishes with it, and please include me in your distribution list when you get a recording. Wish I could be there!