My Own Secret Drone Program

cooman Carson Cooman, Harvard organist, musical polymath, and extraordinarily prolific composer, wrote to me a couple of weeks ago after reading my blog and asked if I’d ever reconsidered writing something for organ. It was something we had talked about long ago. In the mid-1980s my friend Gerhard Stäbler, German political composer and also an organist, had told me if I ever wrote something for organ he’d play it. I had tried, but the medium defeated me several times. As much as I love a lot of music that uses drones, I had never come up with a good strategy for employing drones myself, and the organ’s capacity for endless ones tempted me too far, so that I was in danger of trying to write a piece that was basically all one chord.

But this time I had just been playing the end of my instrumental suite Catskill Set, which closes with a chord that I found attractively poignant: from the bottom up, and voiced only this way, Eb, Ab, Gb, Db, F. The great thing about getting commissions is that the moment someone expresses an interest in my writing something, a musical image springs into my mind and I can frequently hear the piece before they’ve finished asking the question. In this case I realized that that voicing would sound lovely on organ – large intervals, no seconds, with the smallest interval on top – and that by putting the lowest (and thus hardest-to-reach) note in the pedals I could weave chromatic counterpoint around a long series of such chords. Carson also gave the perfect invitation: “For some time,” he wrote, “I’ve imagined broadly in my mind a extremely nice Gannian organ piece in your quiet, beautiful, tranquil/gentle vein. No particularly significant dynamic or timbre change, but just happening.” He also cautioned me against the first-time organ composer’s amateur mistakes of trying to get too fancy with the pedal work and using all the instrument’s bells and whistles in one piece. Given my habitual style, they were hardly miscalculations I would tend toward, but it was a good recipe for writing an effective organ piece. In the next eight days, two of them snow days in which leaving the house was hardly an option, I sketched out a fifteen-minute piece escapistly titled Summer Serenade, and then spent another week revising it. For me, that’s very fast composing; for me to write so much in mid-semester and around class-teaching is just about unheard-of.

But I am as a snail compared to Carson. I sent him the score yesterday, and he, with his tireless and endlessly competent steamroller energy, recorded it last night. He noted that the copy I sent him had no dynamics, and that he presumed it was to be soft throughout. Actually, while I think mezzopiano on a little Baroque organ is probably better in general, I could also hear in my mind the charms of a very loud church organ, the latter preferably heard from several blocks away. And so, mirabile dictu, he recorded both versions for me. I strongly recommend that to listen to the soft version you plug your computer into a sound system with decent-sized speakers, because the bass drones are very low, inaudible through my computer speakers. And to listen to the loud version, I recommend that you turn it up really loud, leave your door or windows open, and stroll down to the end of the block.

(The entire music composition world will be unanimous in its mandate that I MUST DECIDE what dynamic the piece should be played at, and notate it as such – and the entire music composition world can go suck an egg, and I mean just one egg, which they can pass around, just as they all suck their received wisdom from the same teat.)

Spoilers follow, so the easily influenced might want to listen before reading further. Summer Serenade uses a form that I’ve been gravitating toward and using more explicitly lately, which I call “relenting minimalism.” That is, the bulk of the piece seems austerely static, but simmering beneath the surface is a melody which finally, after the static part climaxes in some way, emerges, mediating an apparent disjunction between modernist strangeness and tuneful “normalcy.” “Rewarding the listener,” if you will. More technically, there are nine chords in the piece, transposed to seven keys chromatically from D to Ab (the pedal notes), and they are fairly similar: either minor, dominant, or major seventh chords with various added notes. So the piece’s romantico-minimalist wall-of-sound stasis is more or less built up bebop-style through a series of modulating ii-V and ii-V-I progressions, with added notes contributing to the smooth voice-leading. I do delight in using familiar musical materials in unfamiliar contexts, another thing about my music that composers commonly object to. The PDF score is here.

And I’m very grateful to Carson for his advocacy and numerous superb talents.



  1. David Bohn says

    Looks like fun. And I love the idea of a piece that can be played at different dynamic levels to different effect.

  2. Paul Beaudoin says

    I’m reminded of Loren Rush’s Soft Music/Hard Music – perhaps you should keep both as separate compositions.

    KG replies: To do so would be to acquiesce to what I consider the neurotic fetishization of dynamics in the current compositional world. I would prefer to, like Bach, leave it unspecified.

  3. GW says

    “neurotic fetishization of dynamics” …funny, but I heard Brian Ferneyhough use exactly these words in Darmstadt. Very continental of you.

    KG replies: Did not know that Ferneyhough was from continental Europe.

  4. Jonathan Een Newton says

    Love it. And at both dynamics! If I’ve hit a wall in my practice routine, I’ll sometimes play a piece using opposite dynamics just for the heck of it. Keeps things fresh (and throws that “received wisdom teat” a curveball hehe). It never fails to amaze me just how much dynamic change affects the work’s mood despite playing the same notes and rhythms. Thanks for this. It’s the perfect tonic to ease us out of the polar vortex armageddon that is this winter.

  5. GW says

    Of course Ferneyhough’s not from the Continent, but he studied in Freiburg and made his career outside of his native England, famously engaging in his music, writings and teaching with Continental thought from the most obscure of the alchemical and esoteric writers to Walter Benjamin and the post-structuralists. “Fetishization” is one of the most typical post-Adorno terms in Darmstadt-style rhetoric, very typical of those around both Lachenmann and Ferneyhough. So, welcome to the club!

    KG replies: There are many, many Americans conversant in Adorno’s music essays (which I’ve been reading and assigning to students for decades), and Susan Gillespie, who translated the big book of his essays on music, works at Bard College in the building just up the road from mine. There is no reason to associate Adornoan language with only the Darmstadt school. Hell, I was writing about Adorno in the Village Voice 20 years ago and in the Chicago Reader 30 years ago. And you’re trying to make fun of me for knowing the basic vocabulary without which I could not function in the academic circles I inhabit? Ludicrous.

  6. jk says

    I read the spoilers first… but they didn’t spoil it.

    KG replies: Well, ya never know. Thanks.

  7. Kyle says

    dug it. The voicings and static texture gave it a kind of monolithic inevitability that reminds me of Gorecki a little bit.

    KG replies: I’ll take Gorecki.

    • David Bohn says

      There’s also some aspects of this piece that remind me of Christopher Fox’s “The Missouri Harmony”.

  8. eh says

    as a harmonically unschooled, anonymous lurker, my humble opinion is that this is a fantastic piece!

    KG replies: Best kind of audience, thanks!

    • gloria coates says

      These two pieces really are different!! I believe it is the registration that Carson is using that helps create this contrast. In the soft version, it sounds like ‘you’ on a very deep level…rather microtonal and unusual progressions…but it is also difficult music for me to hear. (Have I become more conservative in my progressing years?) Of the two versions, the softer is the most “new” sounding. For the louder one, that is more upbeat…and one can feel the movement in it … It is more appealing in general, but not as unusual sounding. Still, it does sound like you too. Congratulations on two new works!!

      KG replies: Well, thank you, Gloria. There is no one whose praise would mean more to me, coming from a composer I so much admire.

  9. gloria coates says

    I just read your reply to Paul…that you wanted the dynamics left up to the performer…I suppose you could also cut the metronome reading so it is faster or slower too…and try the piece out in p and f….Why not? but I still feel the pieces truly change with the dynamics. g

  10. mclaren says

    If tempo and registration get left to the performer, that opens the door to a version of this piece done for 400 electric guitars amplified to the point of physical pain, at a metronome marking of 0.05, which would last 25 hours.

    And why not a Csound version with algorithmically composed harmonic-series timbres? Actually that sounds like it might be pretty cool…

    KG replies: Perhaps. But the tempo, half note equals 50, is clearly marked. Much deviation from that would wreak havoc with the melodic aspect of the piece, intermittent though it is.

  11. says

    It’s really lovely, Kyle, especially in it’s softer invocation. The harmonies come out more clearly there and they slay me, as your progressions often do. But the second is beautiful too, one like the sun setting and the other rising.

    While listening to the two back-to-back, I had a memory of another organ work: Scelsi’s In Nomine Lucis. I’m sure you know the two versions – strangely numbered I and V – and how the quarter-tone version feels like a slightly more luminous version of the the other.

    KG replies: Wow, what a flattering comparison – those In Nomine pieces are great.

  12. David Bohn says

    Would you want the registration to remain unchanged throughout a performance? On a larger organ (especially those of early 20th century America), it would be possible to maintain a more or less consistent dynamic while allowing the gradual mutation of timbre over the course of the piece.

    KG replies: I’ve been thinking about that. Seems like it could be very effective.