If nature is not enthusiastic about explanation, why should Tschaikowsky be?
- Ives, Essays Before a Sonata
I suppose I shouldn’t be so enthusiastic about explanation. It’s a reaction to frustrations of my youth, in which there was so much information I couldn’t get access to: all those years of knowing the names La Monte Young and Charlemagne Palestine, and not being able to hear their music, all those hints of how Le marteau was written in Boulez’s On Music Today, but the final key withheld. Composers like Boulez build up a mystique by keeping their methods secret, and I suppose it’s a smart strategy, but I swore early on I would never do it, even to my own detriment. I may only be flattering myself in so imagining, but there might be a young composer out there curious to figure out how I did what I did in my new piece Solitaire, and I’d rather empower him or her to do something similar than pose as some unapproachable magus.
Solitaire (14:05 in duration) is a piece in which I extremely limited my materials, and vowed not to deviate beyond what happens in the first few measures. My sonic idea was a continuum between perfectly familiar chord progressions and perfectly strange ones. So I started with ii, IV, V, and vi chords in the key of E-flat. (I never use the tonic chord, of course.) I added a major seventh chord on flat III, because it filled out the scale nicely. The other chords are seventh or ninth chords on the 7th, 11th, and 13th harmonics and the 7th subharmonic. For maximum short-circuiting of aural understanding, I mostly go back and forth between the Roman-numeral chords and those based on harmonics, but I occasionally relax into a normal IV-V-vi progression which, I hope, takes the ear as much by surprise as a bizarre outburst would in a more conventional piece. The 29-note scale, for people who can read musical ratios, is as follows:
1/1, 65/64, 33/32, 15/14, 35/32, 10/9, 9/8, 8/7, 6/5, 39/32, 5/4, 9/7, 21/16, 4/3, 11/8, 10/7, 35/24, 3/2, 99/64, 13/8, 5/3, 27/16, 12/7, 7/4, 9/5, 117/64, 15/8, 40/21, 63/32
In short, there’s something essentially in-between about me. A passage from the Upanishads reminds me of my composing:
In dark night live those for whom
The world without alone is real; in night
Darker still, for whom the world within
Alone is real. The first leads to a life
Of action, the second to a life of meditation.
But those who combine action with meditation
Cross the sea of death through action
And enter into immortality
Through the practice of meditation.
So we have heard from the wise.
I get my compositional kick by mediating between the objective and the subjective, the public and private, left-brain and right. It’s not enough for me to know secrets of postclassical music, I have to communicate and contextualize them. Similarly, that piano is bringing you (clarifying) the secrets contained in the harmonic structure.