Short Talks

A week ago three little pieces of mine were played in Washington, DC — or actually the first three I’ve written from a projected longer set. They’re for piano, and the pianist also plays a drum. They’re based on prose poems by Anne Carson, her Short Talks. Somehow I think there will be 11 of them in all, which is one of those artist’s intuitions that’s based on pure instinct. It’s not as if I’ve gone through the poetry, and picked eight more texts. No, the number eleven just asserts itself, inside my mind.

The pianist — the pianist-drummer — was the wonderful Jenny Lin, who did a spectacular job. Among other things, she had to develop a drum technique, though the pieces are tricky enough without that. And she had to coordinate the piano and drum. And she and I had to decide what drum to use, and where it should stand or sit while she played. She and I (but mostly she) chose a small hand drum, and she went to the trouble — all composers should be grateful for a collaborator so devoted — of building a small stand for the drum, so it could be raised off whatever surface it would be placed on. It had to be raised, so as not to muffle its resonance.

I’ll have recordings soon enough of Jenny’s performance. But for now, here’s a link to the score, and to computer demos of the three pieces:

Short Talk on Ovid

Short Talk on Defloration

Short Talk on Rectification

Anne Carson, I’m very happy to say, has given me permission to use her poetry. For me, no small thing, since she’s one of the most distinguished living poets, and (closer to the bone for me) one of my artistic touchstones.

In my next posts: something about the very nice concert on which these pieces were played, and something about the process of composing, which I think is very little written about. Much of the writing on composing comes from non-composers, who analyze composers’ scores, and make comments on what they think is notable. Too often, I think, they hit on niceties of harmony or form that the composer was almost surely unaware of.

Or else they cite things that probably were sheer inspiration, things that (like the number 11 for me) just jumped up in the composer’s mind. (Or in — digression here — the composer’s boots. I once asked Little Richard what he thought of Freddy Jackson, the late-’80s R&B star, and he said, “He makes the big toe jump up in my boot!” Inspiration can be like that.)

What analysts often miss (or mostly miss), I think, is the things that composers have to work out — all the many details that (unless you’re Bach or Mozart) can take endless time and patience. In future posts, I’ll comment on some of those in my own music.

For now: there’s a small discrepancy in one of the Short Talks, between the score and the computer demo. What is it? Why is it there? What silly mistake did I make?

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  1. says

    Wow, fortissississimo rests (chordal rests!) in highly complex rhythmic groupings! You don’t see that every day…although perhaps one does hear such passages every once in a while.

    Hi, Michael. I’m glad you noticed this! One of my favorite places in my score. Completely excessive, of course.

    Here’s what I had in mind. The poem talks about Franz Kafka and Felice, the woman in his life, whom he’s thinking of marrying. And also thinking of not marrying. Meanwhile he’s in a sanitarium. He’s wildly conflicted. In the music, the piano is Kafka, and the drum is Felice. At the end, the drum bursts out in a wildly sexual dance, which is Kafka’s frightened fantasy of Felice’s “too much nakedness.”

    But before that, Kafka is thinking wild, impossible thoughts. That’s what the insane rests (with accent marks, as well as quadruple fortes) are supposed to represent. Jenny has a fabulous way of playing this piece, more luudly, with an icier tone, and more emphatically than I’d imagined it. This shows how composers don’t always understand their own music. I love what she did with it. And one thing I especially love is that just before the rests break out so crazily, she played the passage leading to them in a way that made me hear the chaos that follows in the silence. A great tribute to her, I think. I’ve forgotten to ask her if the rests inspired her, but she certainly found a way to get them into the music.

  2. Greg Sandow's buried conscience, if any says

    “[a]ll composers should be grateful for a collaborator so devoted.”

    Indeed, but one wonders what the point is. If you want a pianist and a percussionist, just ask for them. This business of having the pianist play a drum also just comes off as a silly gimmick.

    Fortissimo rests? Are you kidding?

    And you wonder why people dismiss “contemporary classical music” as trash. There is nothing classical about this. It’s silly mathematical masturbation.

    I wonder if you listened to the music, and (if not), what you’d think of it if you did. And I wish I had a video of the performance, so you could see whether playing piano and drum at the same time really did come off as a gimmick. In another piece on the program, Jenny had to juggle an 8-ball (from a pool table), and in a third piece, she played a toy piano. Another piece featured violin accompanied by computer sounds from a laptop. All this may strike you as “mathematical,” but it’s pretty common these days at new music concerts, at least in New York. It was all pretty new to the Washington audience, but as it happened, most of the people at the concert were traditional concertgoers with no experience of new music, and they loved all of it.

    In more detail: We’ve had, by now, a century of new kinds of art, using the traditional materials of art in new ways. That trend was a little late in reaching classical music, but we’ve now had more than 50 years of classical pieces that reflect it. I don’t know any other piece where a pianist also plays a drum, but I’m sure such pieces exist, and to me — based on my experience in the field — they’d be pretty much mainstream.

    Why write a piece like that? Well, of course I could have asked for both a pianist and a percussionist. So obviously I had something else in mind. There’s something much more intimate and intense when both instruments are played by the same person, and the poems I based the music on are wildly intimate and intense. I might also have been thinking of Anne Carson’s way, in much of her work, of combining many things at once — she wrote, for instance, a very long poem that’s simultaneously a history of a woman’s difficult marriage, an exploration of tango rhythm, and an essay on John Keats. I didn’t think of that consciously, when the idea jumped into my head of having a pianist play a drum, but in retrospect, I can see the connection.

    About fortissimo rests — yes, I can imagine that some people can’t see the point of that. Some people, as I’ve noted here before, see things very literally, and obviously, from any literal point of view, a fortissimo rest is meaningless. But on the other hand we’ve had (see above) a hundred years now of conceptual art of various kinds, starting at least with Marcel Duchamp. And we’ve had at least 50 years of creative extensions of music notation. In that context, what I did isn’t surprising at all, especially since its metaphorical meaning — a lot of commotion happening, inside the mind, during a silence — could hardly be clearer.

    I guess it comes down to this: We have many different cultures these days, all coexisting with each other, sometimes overlapping and sometimes not. Musically speaking, this commenter and I don’t share the same culture.

  3. says

    Comment #2 is unnecessarily hostile, and I hope it will be removed. However, I’ll admit that my first reaction to the ffff rests was along the lines of “how stupid is that!” The interesting thing was, I found that looking at all those nested tuplets and stacked eighth-note rests was both frustrating and yet satisfyingly frustrating, if that makes any sense. It was as if someone had put on paper what it feels like to want to scream, and to be left shaking with silent rage. So, in a bizarre way, the notation gave voice to my reaction to the notation, although I don’t think I was as worked up as Kafka or Commenter #2. I’ve found myself showing this page to many people, partly for a laugh, but partly because it’s curiously captivating.

    What this does for an audience who can’t see the score? I can’t say. On some level, it’s like an extension of the kinds of vivid verbal descriptions one might find in a Mahler score – suggestions which, as much as anything, provoke the performer. On that level, I can see how this passage might be successful. I often find myself telling students to make music of the silences – this is a more explicit way to direct the performer to feel tension in silence. I think.

    Michael, I’m just delighted with what you wrote here. I did something that first struck you as silly. Then you were kind enough to think about it, and it started to make sense to you. I think your reading of it is exactly right — or, anyway, it’s exactly what I was thinking of. (There might be other right readings of it that I’ve never thought of.)

    About the meaning for the performer — well, exactly. Of course the audience can’t hear what I notated. But it suggests to the pianist how the silence might feel. Jenny, as I said in my post, found a way to play the music just before this, which made the silence then feel the way the crazy rests look. More generally, musical notation is (at least for me) both literal, and poetic. It tells you what notes to play, but it also suggests, much more poetically, how those notes should be played. Sometimes you find things in musical notation that aren’t really possible, or anyway not audible. Like (to cite some examples from more or less conventional scores) the low F sharp for the violins in a passage of 16th notes in Salome — the violins can’t play it, but they’re supposed to phrase the passage, I guess, as if they could. Or an accellerando over a series of rests, in the last movement of Webern’s Piano Variations. Or the direction, in Mahler’s Second Symphony, to pause for five minutes between the first and second movements. Or the dynamics you find in Verdi’s last operas — ppppppp, and the like. Obviously (or at least obviously to me) he’s not talking about how soft the passage should be, but rather about how strongly he wants it to be soft. I think there’s a piano piece (by Schumann?) where one section is marked “as fast as possible” and the next is marked “still faster.”

    The most obvious ancestor of my chopped up rests would be John Cage’s silent pieces. The first and most famous of them, 4’33”, is supposed to be in three movements, which the performer has to somehow indicate. Not everyone understands that, or wants to understand it, and I can imagine that not everyone will want to understand my accented rests. Which is fine. But when someone like you, Michael, is willing to enter my world, and figure out what I meant, I’m very happy.
    I’m not going to remove that other comment, by the way. It raises some issues that are worth discussing, and the hostility doesn’t hurt me.

  4. By Greg Sandow's buried conscience, if any says

    Yes, I did listen to the music, and I thought… what’s the point?

    As for the rests…

    “In that context, what I did isn’t surprising at all, especially since its metaphorical meaning — a lot of commotion happening, inside the mind, during a silence — could hardly be clearer.”

    Commotion? You mean “violent or tumultuous motion; agitation; noisy disturbance”? Maybe you wouldn’t characterize the piece in question as a “noisy disturbance.” Neither would I. I would, however, characterize it as pointless. (Apologies, Mr. Monroe, if “comes [thy] fit again.”)

    Yes, Verdi wrote ppppp. But he wrote if for tones that were being sounded.

    If your tones meant anything at all, there would be no need to indicate the “dynamic” of the rest. The meaning would reverberate in the silence.

    Well, clearly we don’t share the same culture. No shame in that.

    But plenty of people do share the culture I’m in, and others are happy to cross over to it, as shown by the response of the audience in Washington (not just to my piece, but to a whole program of works you’d very likely think were pointless). This being the case, I’d be curious to ask why you need to attack something that you don’t understand. You could just stay away from it. Why are you so angry? My little pieces can’t possibly do you any harm.

    A story about myself. When I was in college, back in the early ’60s, I went to a concert where pianists played on the inside of the piano, plucking the strings. I’d never seen anything like that before. My musical culture was traditional classical music. I didn’t even know classic 20th century works.

    So I got angry. Furious! I thought the piano would be damaged. I might even have caused — yes — a commotion. (Big smile.)

    But now, years later, I’ve seen people play on the inside of the piano so many times that it’s not remarkable in any way. The pianos, for generations now, have survived, and sometimes the music made that way is powerful. Sometimes not. But my anger, way back when, showed a little short-sightedness on my part, not to mention a lack of curiosity.

    It’s interesting, when I think about this, to remember that in those years I was a big fan of the latest art films, by the likes of Antonioni and Godard. Antonioni, in particular, was ridiculed by mainstream film critics, or at least he was before his breakthrough film, L’avventura, was hailed by a group film professionals as one of the greatest films ever made, and the critics were (to their shame, I think) intimidated into praising him.

    Why was I open to new directions in film, but not in music? I’ll have to think about that.