I wrote a symphony. It came to pass in this wise. I visited my friend Robert Carl at Yaddo. He was telling me his plans for his next two symphonies, one of which would be an orchestration of a two-piano piece he had written. I replied that I had a two-piano piece myself, in five movements (Implausible Sketches) that I think of as an unorchestrated symphony. He said I should arrange it for orchestra. I replied, Nah, I wouldn’t do that. The next morning I woke up obsessed with the certainty that I needed to make an orchestral version of Implausible Sketches. Of course, all the movements needed to be expanded as well as orchestrated, so the Symphony is forty minutes long, as compared to the two-piano piece’s thirty-one. Because of the source and because no performance is remotely anticipated (I haven’t been able to get Implausible Sketches played either, despite several piano duos looking at it), I call it the “Implausible” Symphony. I’m thinking of following it up with Symphony No. 2, the “Irredeemable,” and Symphony No. 3, the “Unforgivable.”
And that’s not all, for I’ve unaccountably been spending every spare minute composing. Alex Ross has called blogging “public procrastination,” and I haven’t been blogging because I haven’t been procrastinating. In the past two months I’ve written a 23-minute song cycle – unusual for me to complete so much music during the semester, especially when as division chair I am overwhelmed with administrative meetings lately. But I had always, for thirty years, wanted to set a group of Transcendentalist poems to music. I had written a few small ones, only two of which I’ve kept, but singers are so hyper-cautious about taking on new repertoire that I never felt encouraged to expand my song output. Some of them I had written enough of in my head to go around humming vocal lines from them all these years. After I finished my Ives book (which is now stewing over at Yale UP, no news yet), I felt an urge to linger in a Transcendentalist mode, so I got out Perry Miller’s anthology and plunged into a project I’d carried around in my head for decades. I came up with seven new songs, on poems by Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Henry Hedge, Christopher Pearse Cranch (two songs), and Jones Very; Emerson and Thoreau are not the most settable poets, and the poems that had always been most urgent to me were philosophical ones emblematic of Transcendentalist thought, Cranch’s “Enosis” and Hedge’s “Questionings.” Hedge was central to the Transcendentalist Club formed in 1836, and his poem is a statement of the epistemological problem of solipsism:
Hath this world, without me wrought,
Other substance than my thought?
Lives it by my sense alone,
Or by essence of its own?
Will its life, with mine begun,
Cease to be when that is done,
Or another consciousness
With the self-same forms impress?
Doth yon fireball, poised in air,
Hang by my permission there?
Are the clouds that wander by
But the offspring of mine eye,
Born with every glance I cast,
Perishing when that is past?
And those thousand, thousand eyes,
Scattered through the twinkling skies,
Do they draw their life from mine,
Or of their own beauty shine?….
So it’s rather the philosophical song cycle I’ve always wanted, to complement the raft of philosophy courses I took at Oberlin and Northwestern. The other poems can be read here, and the score of Transcendentalist Songs is available on my web site. My songs may seem puzzling to new-music fans, because I write them imagining how the poem itself would want to be sung, and if it’s a 19th-century poem, it’s likely to come out in a 19th-century harmonic syntax; the whole song cycle may seem an effort more scholarly than creative. I don’t care. What interested me in this case was to translate the intellectual atmosphere of Transcendentalism into a musical atmosphere congruent with it, and since the American musical idiom of that era lagged behind the poetry and philosophy, I had to retrofit a kind of appropriately mystical, American-sounding impressionism. As with the symphony, I have no performances in sight, but Bard has so expanded its vocal program in recent years that I’m hoping someone there can be persuaded to take an interest.
Thursday, invited by composer Michael Hersch, to whom I am grateful for it, I gave a lecture on my music at Peabody Conservatory, and I give another this Wednesday at Hartt School of Music. I hadn’t done such a thing in two or three years, and my composing has become such a private, impulsive, unmotivated activity that I hardly know how to talk about it anymore. Plus, I’m creating a backlog of unperformed and unrecorded pieces, so to play examples I have to go back a ways and try to remember what I was thinking seven, eight years ago. But I feel like what I have to explain lately is how I got to where I am, because the composers who were my major reference points are ones students no longer hear about. The young composers seem totally attuned to Europeans these days – Haas, Dillon, Ades, Lindburg – and the ones at Peabody were accustomed, as guest lecturers, to orchestral regulars like John Adams, John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon, and Christopher Rouse. So here I come out of left field, with my microtones and Disklaviers, and while the students were welcoming and curious, their questions expressed a skepticism understandable in context. I have to explain myself as an alien visitor from that mythical Brigadoon called the American Experimental Tradition. On the other hand: now I’m a symphonist. That ought to count for something.