A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
Europe was an essential experience. I was 42 years old, and had been throughout the continental U.S. and into Québec, but never across either pond. The opportunity to be in a public environment where new nonpop was respected and welcomed -- ah!
It was also confounding. I was under the spell of some very strong personalities with exceptionally certain ideas about composition. It was disturbing, and four full handwritten journals attest to that confusion. Some of it was summarized in the aforementioned Construal of Musical Process Architecture, in which I'd hoped to set out where I had been and where I was going. It was muddled thinking.
Aside: I mention that I was 42. The Douglas Adams number. My fascination is with ordinary number combinations, not special ones. It impinges upon "We Are All Mozart", which began life as "The 365-Day Project". I am 57 now, three primes. I will have been a composer for 49 years when I am 64. One a square of two primes and the other 26. Of course, it was a key part of Mantra Canon, and occurs again as I work. Simple, small numbers.
After returning from Europe, and following the success of Softening Cries, I was confused as to where to go next with my musical life. It seemed important to propose some sort of theory of composition. On the other hand, my music now seemed old -- the 1991 Cries was the stuff of spectral composition, still au courant, but the game was on: Go somewhere else. Now!
A somewhat objective examination and analysis of the previous two decades of compositions revealed a trend away from traditional progression, away from modernist motion, away from atonality, away from minimalism, away from most expectations of compositional style. Like the proverbial pinball, my work was touching each style and bouncing quickly away from it. And like the pinball, it would drop to the bottom in a depression of inactivity, only to be sprung involuntarily back to the top of the maze, touching styles again. But all of them had been touched now, and out of the corpus could be distilled the commonality. That common motion could be found in a 'breathing' style that I called Expansion-Contraction Linear Modulation. Quietly, a microscopic manifesto was written -- the Seven ECLM Studies for two instruments, canons at the pitch-class unison, but with breathtakingly different character in each of the voices. Retitled Seven Chocolate Eclems to give them a disguise ('Eclem' pronounced 'uh-clem' in tribute to the Firesign Theatre character) before handing them off to a duo, they were seven very simple pieces that might be considered a Schenkerian striptease.
With the Eclems out of the way, finding new material that was not preconfigured to snap into the ECLM theory became my new prison-break. Emerald Canticles, Below was the piece. It explores the layering of sound and time and technique to create a kind of dreamworks. Time is suspended, tumbles fleetingly by here, provides a firm sensory grip elsewhere. Although the work is in the formal shape of a two-theme chorale-passacaglia, with internal rondo and theme overlap and doubling, none of that really matters to the hearing. The themes are long, winding ones, whose repetition provides more of a feel than a demand for learning the tunes' existence. In other places, even the notes are generalized: for example, some clouds of piano pitches are specified in the score, but may be altered so long as the physical and aural effects remain unchanged. Themes develop by their placement, not by their mutations. And certain complex demands for performers -- such as tuplets shrinking as the tempo accelerates, an audible effect with inaudible complexity -- allude to the relativistic implications of the work's title. The tightly-knit rhythms occur as if each player lives in a separate world, held together by some extrasensory force. It was the perfect antidote to the theory while, if examined closely, adhering to the theory. No matter. The sound works, and I'm a sound guy.
Build, Make, Do, 1994
This piece had no chance. As part of a concert entitled "Clusters," we were directly across the street from Laurie Anderson's yearly appearance in Burlington, Vermont. An audience of perhaps a dozen arrived. The music was meant to sweat, and instead it was delicate. Build, Make, Do is a melodic module that grows into harmonies and counterpoints. It plucks the chant style from Cy-Gît, the pulsing from Mantra Canon under a spell, the sequences from ancient caccia style, and the modulation from, well, everything else. It's a non-minimalist trance piece with West Asian underpinnings -- and my struggle to continue to shake out of my stylistic trap. I found it thrilling, despite the empty hall.
If anything could destroy the spell of fussy ECLM, then Xirx would do it. As part of a collaborative composition with David Gunn entitled Circular Screaming, it was a single, concert-long composition of some 90 minutes length that included sound-sensitive lights shining up through a metal net filled with a quarter-ton of melting ice blocks, and a ventilation system fed into the audience bleachers with aromas ranging from vanilla and garlic through sulfur and perfume. Very little documentation remains from Circular Screaming, although the original electronic materials are in storage, and will probably run on old Windows systems. Extracted from the larger piece were David's Fogwalls and my own exirxion. The breakthrough of Xirx was its audacity in presentation to an ordinary concert-going audience combined with its scope as a through-composed work done in two interlocking, parallel but separately created compositions. And the audience stayed, entranced.
Detritus of Mating, 1997
Xirx was a return to electronics. Save for three pieces, since In Bocca at Lupo and the shift from handbuilt hardware to boxed-up Mac and PC devices, I had abandoned the medium. But once back into the realm of direct realization of ideas with my own hands, I thrived. Meeting sculptor Pavel Kraus -- a refugee during the 1968 Prague Spring now splitting time between New York and Ludlow, Vermont -- pushed me further into the medium. But now I was searching for a way to incorporate a very human sense into my work, and building an installation for his Sex and Death: Offerings exhibit provided that opportunity. Detritus of Mating was created almost entirely from acoustic manipulation of three speaking voices, to which occasional sampled instruments were added, producing a slowly unfolding soundscape of delicacy and power, suspending time and space in a captivating world of elusive sound and echo. The opportunity to complete a long-term piece was also offered, as the Detritus six-channel original version could run for more than 27 years. (In reality, it ran for about a month, much like Bocca.) It also gave birth to Zonule Glaes II, based on the same source materials but composed for string quartet and electronics. Zonule premiered to a Kraus exhibition in Prague in 1999.
By Detritus, the ECLM concepts were in full bloom but also entirely subverted by the music's sonicness, its soundingness, its resonance and entrapment. I was released from the unwelcome spell I'd put on myself -- and I had a chance to return to Europe to purge the demons of spectromorphology and numeracy. The occasion was a honeymoon in Janailhac, near St. Priest-Ligoure in southern France, where a blank book and a pen served as the only tools for composition. In the book, Into the Morning Rain appeared almost unbidden. Again, in retrospect, it uses the viral techniques, but they were hidden even from myself. The opening and closing notes in every appearance of the bass clarinets rise from and dissolve into the accompaniment, playing the same melody and evolving it with shared unisons and octaves. When they meet, one hands the tune off, holding a pedal tone as the other 'walks away'. The accompaniment consists of three palindromes of 93 eighth beats, each repeated 16 times. Using these palindromes, the violin and cello play a very short but stretched-out duo; eliminating repeated notes reveals a simple chorale. The percussion has its own arch, rising until 12 palindromes are played, and then falling as the play order of the six percussion instruments reflects that arch. Despite the apparent regularity, the music is unbarred. Phrasing is everything. As mentioned a few days ago, this sort of contrast between melodic bass clarinets and rhythmic percussion is one that's fascinated me since hearing and being astounded by Ornette Coleman's Lonely Woman.
The confidence in writing strictly notated pieces also helped support others, particularly the noble LowBirds. It was the second piece written for The DownTown Ensemble and Daniel Goode, after the first (Y2K-Compliant Music) was deemed unplayable -- and LowBirds was much more in keeping with their spatial style and lustrously leisurely playing. LowBirds is modular with a score, so that the structure and order are determined and the individual modular items are composed, but how they lay against each other shifts laterally with each performance. (The performers keep both 'menu' and full score together.) Unlike minimalism, however, these modules are expansive and chosen to build a tonal-emotional shape rather than engage in linear transformation. Like an arriving cluster of birds, the sound begins quietly and moodily, rising to a great chorus, eventually breathing out to nothing. The impact of LowBirds has been surprising. At the premiere, the performers themselves thought the piece was less than half its actual time. At a subsequent performance at Pauline Oliveros's space in Kingston, New York, birds gathered in the tree at the open door, joining in the massive chorus (and yes, it's on the recording). And finally, in a performance in Amsterdam, the breathing out at the end was accompanied by quiet snoring from a member of the audience.
Sourian Slide, 1999
How can one respond when asked to write a pretty piece? Catherine Broucek Orr, conductor of the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra, made that request. "Pretty" does not comfortably attach to my music -- beautiful, perhaps, transcendent, even, at its best. But pretty? The challenge was answered after three false starts, with a simple canon in dorian mode. Placed across eight strings with a ninth (the contrabass) playing pizzicato, the canon is disguised by the slow tempo and wide range. It rises slowly into a quasi-major key, and settles back into a meeting of the minds in a pure dorian cadence. The Slide stands almost alone among my music up to that time, belonging more to the small chamber ditties, and somewhat akin to the slow movement of the never-performed Four Sharks. It was a departure that I didn't initiate, and as such was confounding. Of course it was pretty. But then what? How much pretty should I write?
That answer will wait until tomorrow. For now, it's a jump back to the ECLM style, and what it has meant to me. Balled up in this simple phrase is a combination of elements that I believe create sensual, memorable music:
There are several intimations here, the most important of which is apparent lack of surprise. Another is the de-emphasis of harmony, but it is not so much de-emphasized as treated, like texture and placement, as a significant tool but as a secondarily frontal stylistic approach. Also missing are formal theories of sound, conscious confrontation, mathematical experiments, and other tools in the nonpop composer's bag -- they're not missing, really, just not consistently present or useful ... it's that eclecticism I mentioned a few days ago.
As for surprise, in fact, there is no lack of surprise, but it is not the Haydn or Hollywood variety that arises from coming face-to-face with an unexpected event. Instead, it is the surprise of walking into the woods and finding yourself with little idea of how you came to be there. It is a surprise of being rather than of happening.
The 'surprise of being' takes preparation, which accounts for the length of the music, with some pieces upwards of several hours. Pieces for entertainment (such as the short chamber works) also use this approach (but their brevity means the surprise is only revealed with repeated listenings), and so does music for occasions or specific commissions -- which I, accused of being a "professional composer," am not disinclined to write. Writing for amateurs or specific performances keeps the technique in practice.
For example, the bass clarinets in Into the Morning Rain use the techniques. Although the music isn't predictable and doesn't use poetic or dance forms, its changes can be sensed as an organic growth of thematic seeds. Each thematic expansion moves away from a tune's first occurrence while carrying enough elements to take root in the listening memory. So it's not exposition-development, it's evolution. Musical evolution is uncommon and very personal, so listeners unfamiliar with my style are carried along unexpectedly. Even the performers may make discoveries.
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