Repeating Myself

I have often written about the 1989 review in which John Rockwell called my music “naively pictorial,” and the fact that I liked it so much that I’ve ever since adopted “naive pictorialism” as my stylistic moniker. Recently I ran across the 1944 review in Modern Music in which Elliott Carter disparaged Charles Ives’s music as – guess what? – “naively pictorial.” This is company I will gladly keep. I wish Charlie and I could share a good laugh over that one.

I wondered, when I was writing the 4’33” book, whether a renewed involvement with Cage’s music would have any effect on my own. I don’t think it did. But I do think my recent semester spent with the Concord Sonata has had some impact. Most noticeably, I’ve become more open to the idea of re-using material from piece to piece. I could never do it before. I hate repeating myself. I don’t like giving the same lecture twice, I don’t like repeating a class without a long time-lapse in between, and I’ve never been able to re-use material. Even quoting someone else’s music is difficult for me, though I’ve managed it several times. I get into a musical context and I’m feeling my way through it, and the idea of lifting a passage from a previous work or sketch and dropping it in (as Ives did with that Country Band March in “Hawthorne” and so many other pieces) just upsets everything. I don’t seem able to re-say sincerely something I’ve said before. The music leading up to it never quite fits, and I can’t hear the lifted passage as flowing naturally from the preceding new material. I’m amazed Ives could do it. It may come from a habitual tendency toward organicism, which I’ve tried to overcome, since I really don’t think organicism is an essential musical virtue. But if I write a lecture, the first time I read it publicly I feel impassioned; the second time, I feel like I’m lip-synching, like I’m slightly guilty for not having come up with something new to say. Isn’t that odd? As though I change so much with the passage of time that I couldn’t possibly mean the same thing twice (yet all my friends know what a creature of immutable habit I am).

Nevertheless, I have just finished making an orchestral version of the first movement of my Implausible Sketches for piano four-hands. Listening to the piece, I started hearing various lines played by strings, horn, harp, and so on. The piano wasn’t big enough for how I imagined the piece. So I started to orchestrate it. John Luther Adams had just done something similar with a chamber piece of his own, and he told me, “It’ll be a bigger project than you think.” Of course he was right. Starting a new piece from scratch might have been easier, because I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time whittling away at material I had already perfected, and relinquishing assumptions I’d already grown committed to.

First of all, since the Implausible Sketch (first movement: “The Desert’s Too-Zen Song”) was for piano four-hands, it used all seven octaves of the keyboard almost continuously. Some quarter of the music, if not more, would have had to be entrusted to contrabasses and piccolos, which would be ridiculous. The bottom had to be brought up, the top brought down, middle lines subsequently disentangled. Much of the piece has a drone on a low C, and keeping the basses so continuously on that pitch seemed ineffective, if not cruel. I had to reconfigure the piece’s long, long ostinato to let them move around. Then, at eight minutes, the piece seemed too brief for its orchestral incarnation, so I had to perform heart surgery, and move major events further apart. I had to produce three minutes of filler material that didn’t sound like mere afterthought. Repeated-note lines that sounded resonant on the piano sagged in the bassoon. Probably 90% of the piece had to be rethought. I’m still tweaking the details, but I do think I find the result – more simply titled Desert Song – grander than the original.

(To answer your next question, no performance is impending, I just followed an inspiration. But last summer I wrote three string quartets with little hope of performance, and now a friend’s quartet has offered to play them all. One big change in my life is that I’ve quit following Cage’s advice to never write a piece without a performance lined up.)

The only time I’d done something similar before was to base my string quartet Love Scene on the brief third act of my opera The Watermelon Cargo – though I did that because I noticed that I hardly ever had more than four lines going at once. The number of measures and basic content didn’t change, though I did have to make some lines more string-idiomatic. And I’m slowly orchestrating my octet The Planets, though since that has strings, wind, and percussion to begin with, it’s an easier conversion so far. As one gets older, I can imagine that it might be profitable to be able to rely on earlier, more vigorous inspirations. There was certainly a period after 1990 when Nancarrow’s inspiration failed him (he was 78 and had had a stroke after all), and he started pulling out earlier, unused sketches to rework. It does seem a useful part of a composer’s economy to have a cache of previously used or unused material to draw on, and with Ives as a model, I’d like to get over my reluctance.

Part of the problem with orchestration for those of us of a certain age – and it applies not only to writing orchestra music but to working with classical musicians in general – is that some of our music originates in an electronic paradigm. For instance, my “Neptune” from The Planets has a gradually changing synthesizer chord that plays solidly throughout, a kind of cloud from which the other lines emerge. In the orchestra, that cloud will get transfered to the strings. So I find myself wanting to use long, long chords with staggered bowing in the strings, though I had a rather disastrous experience trying this with a subprofessional orchestra in my piece The Disappearance of All Holy Things. I handled it better in Desert Song by having lines move around almost unnoticeably within the cloud. I notice, though, that in Alvin Singleton’s Shadows – one of my very favorite recent orchestral pieces, and there are damn few works I’d apply that phrase to – he keeps the strings holding notes for dozens of measures at a time, and the Atlanta Symphony does a great job with it. It is not very fair, though, to the string players that I want them to be a massive synthesizer. I’d be interested in hearing from others who’ve wrestled with this postminimalist technical dilemma.



  1. Matthew Whittall says

    For my two cents, based on what experience I have working with orchestras, I’d say write what you want to hear and forget what the players might find stimulating. Fair? Bah! As a former orchestral player myself, I constantly find it surprising what orchestral players get off on, or don’t. My recent bass parts are unrelentingly dull to play, mostly a series of pedal tones (or rests) because my music just doesn’t use much in the way of bass functionality anymore. But I have one bass player friend who not altogether jokingly checks over my orchestra scores to make sure there’s at least one low C. Imagine what a whole part full of them might do to a bass section. They’d get to really lay into that rarely-used note on the ironically-named C extension over and over and geek out to the sound of it – and it does sound awesome.

    As to your string clouds, they’re pretty, write them! It’s an orchestral color that doesn’t get enough play, unless the cloud idea is moderned up in some way by inner activity in the Ligeti “Atmosphères” micropolyphonic vein, or with boxes of repeated legato figures or some such. But truly static string clouds are a beautiful, rarely heard texture that more people should have the guts to write. The players might chafe at it, or they might enjoy not having to practice endless passages of fiendishly difficult scale runs for a change. I guess my point is you never really know how an orchestra will react. Once I overheard the percussionists at school talking about how little they had to do in orchestra. When I wrote an orchestra piece, I wrote a huge percussion part with tons of stuff for them to hit, and all they did was gripe about all the gear they had to carry for the concert. Go figure.

    KG replies: Good points. Let me counter, though, that part of the problem with my piece Disappearance is that a mediocre orchestra finds those long sustained chords *really* difficult to play, and I’ve had a series of bad performances of the piece. Who knew tied whole-notes were so difficult? And I do pride myself on writing pieces that the performers enjoy playing, which 1. many composers don’t care about, and, 2. as you say, is a bit of a guessing game anyway. But thanks.

    Oh, and I’m not using that low C extension. I tried it in a piece many years ago and found it too flabby and pitchless for what I’m doing. Also I need the adjoining B-flat as a neighbor note. Instrumentally, I tend to avoid all extremes.

    • Matthew Whittall says

      Fair enough. I’m also the type who likes writing music players enjoy, and I’m probably more bound by orchestral tradition than you are, coming at it from the inside. But one does get tired of hearing orchestral players go on about what’s fun or boring, or too hard or too easy, and wants to just write what one wants to hear. Having had performances by mediocre orchestras, though, I can sympathize with wanting your music to sound good with the players you’ve got. Really, you’d think “play that note and don’t move” would be a fairly easy instruction to execute.

      Many thanks for the tip on Alvin Singleton, by the way. He’s a composer I’d heard of, but never heard. My need for instant gratification had Shadows downloaded within minutes, and I really enjoyed listening to it. There’s a sense that he could have compressed the argument of the piece into about half the length and more fully explored the coda music, but I kind of admire his doggedness in not doing it. That relentlessness makes the piece less obvious, and the coda more special. Lord, how I’d love to hear a performance of it without the spastic vibrato in the entire flute section!

  2. mclaren says

    Evidently none of these masterminds ever read Schiller’s classic 1795 essay “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry” in which he makes the crucial distinction twixt the two creative mindsets.

    Typical. Only in a benighted country like the United Snakes of Amnesia would a well-known and eminently respected term like “naive” get used in a pejorative sense.

    As for the string players, tell ’em “If you play this orchestral piece just right, all 70 of you can replace one synthesist!”

    KG replies: McLaren, I don’t say it often – but you’re an absolute gem.

  3. ucplayer says

    I find it odd that you don’t like to repeat yourself.

    On the one hand, your compositions are “repeated” by the performers.

    On the other hand, no two performances are exactly the same.