A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   January 30, 2007   next

Continuing to learn, I am. The ideas that folks bring to their commissions can be remarkable. Not the "please make this accessible to our audiences" line from the Ye Departmente of Marketing Feare, but rather "this is what I've wanted, and now it's possible." This is thrilling, and challenging.

Coming off the intertwined, picture-painting character of Mountains of Spices, I had to approach the next piece very freshly. The request was for a piano piece for Jason Armstrong's sixteen-year-old son, on his birthday. Jason thought the number 16 might be valuable, and he wanted something polyrhythmic. How could this be manifested without cliché? The solution was to move from thin and jagged chaos to thickness and hints of modality to pounding tonality, with a breathing break in the middle. Sixteen became four sixteens for the first part, one sixteen for the middle, a repeat of the four, and then a coda of one-quarter of a sixteen. Within them, polyrhythms of two, three, four, five, and seven built up phrases independently in four parts.

As mentioned at the end of yesterday's commentary, there was a lot of stress capped with a six-hour round trip driving to support a family member. Yes, all ended up fine -- but after finishing nine pieces in eleven days, my body declared it quite through with the self-flagellation of composing and driving. An afternoon break wasn't enough, and on three hours' sleep, it wasn't possible to take this morass of numbers and rhythms and phrases and mold it into a coherent composition. I collapsed before midnight, slept, and finished just past noon today.

My composer and actor friend Robert Bonotto wrote, "Now that you have your seventy (-two) commissions, and you don't want to hear it, you do have to admit that you might not have had the luxury of writing a 7:23 minute piece if you had 365 bowzers to write..."

Yes, point taken -- but luxury wasn't the word that came to mind. It would be much easier if I didn't have to perform the day-job 'stuff' of engraving and writing and editing. And in the "We Are All Mozart" planning I accounted for travel, but eternal optimist that I am, not for emergencies -- such as not only a family crisis, but also running out of heating propane (our monthly auto-fill was forgotten by the company's computer). So I spent that luxury day splitting wood and doing other house-keep-warm activities (it was below zero for the past week, as low as -16F). Those temperatures were attended to instead of working on the Mountains of Spices commission. There was extra wood splitting, plus since it was so cold without a clear end to it, we didn't want to use the driest wood and baked the greener stuff in the wood oven. Lots of attention required to ward off smoke and flame in untoward locales, but it fills the house with the luscious smell of maple.

So far, so good after composing fourteen pieces this month. Emergencies have shifted the schedule, and in those terms, Robert is right that actually receiving 365 commissions might have been a serious issue -- though with only 73 commissions (still plenty of time! step right up!) I've also been time-budget lazy. Knowing 365 had to be written, I would have been very strict about the schedule and disciplined in not allowing the distractions of friendly conversations and the normal human aspects of life. But lacking the full schedule and full money, I have to continue the daily hunt for opportunities to edit and engrave, and kept up home life and friendships.

Which brings me back to the new piano piece, Delivery. The outward-moving tonality and polyrhythmic components were rendered in four linear parts, allowing the work to exist for single performer or four piano four hands; it was, I thought, a nice touch if by some chance Jason's son also played the piano. At that point it became a matter of keeping up with the piece as it unrolled. You can listen to it roll with this Midi demo and read along with either the one- or two-player version.

* * *

Milan Kundera wrote a very compact but full essay in the January 8 New Yorker. Entitled "Die Weltliteratur: How we read one another," the article discussed the differences of viewpoint among readers of literature from other cultures -- even nearby ones. Particularly intriguing are the sections "The Provincialism of Small Nations" and "The Provincialism of Large Nations." He discusses the peculiar notion of Central Europe being defined as a world apart from the West.

What caught my attention was a summary of a worldview in Witold Gombrowicz's "Ferdydurke". Kundera writes:

Gombrowicz got at the fundamental shift that occurred during the twentieth century: until then, mankind was divided in two -- those who defended the status quo and those who sought to change it. Then History began to accelerate: whereas, in the past, man had lived continuously in the same setting, in a society that changed only very slowly, now the moment arrived when he suddenly began to feel History moving beneath his feet, like a rolling sidewalk; the status quo was in motion! All at once, being comfortable with the status quo was the same thing as being comfortable with History on the move! Which meant that a person could be both progressive and conformist, conservative and a rebel, at the same time!

Whether Gombrowicz or Kundera should be credited with the extrapolation doesn't matter. But it explains something we 'long-term' nonpop composers have faced, and one that certainly has not been expressed well in these commentaries. If people have looked to music for inspiration, consolation, reflection, contemplation and imagination, then a moving sidewalk of cultural change does not offer that opportunity. Shorter and shorter music (think popular song, NPR or "American commissions") or simpler and simpler music (think minimalism, Pärt, or chill-out rooms) is required to enjoin listeners carried along on the rolling sidewalk. Even music that is confrontational needs something to confront, and the confrontee changes dramatically and constantly; musical modernism becomes wracked with sonic rheumatism, carrying its protest signs against silence, the evanescent musical ghosts of the past.

And, similarly, Mozart and especially Bach and Vivaldi fit this listening model, as the past seems stable at such a present-day distance, just as the Rockies seem to be immovable as we travel the eastern Colorado interstate toward them. The short movements and stable, understood, expected harmonies paint the car's interior, stable here, stable out the windshield. The roads roll, the car rolls, listeners roll along the well-paved road.

Three years after Ferdydurke came Robert Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll," whose story I've known for years and now find oddly connected to (Kundera's) Gombrowicz in time and concept. Heinlein's story is science fiction masked in politics, but the idea of roads moving instead of vehicles is modernism incarnate.

* * *

Tomorrow I'm working on a birthday piece for Patricia Goodson to present to her husband Ivan. Patricia is a brilliant pianist living many years in Prague, and whose recordings of new nonpop are carefully crafted and revealing of the music.

Wood baked and checked
End of a chunk of maple baked and checked and ready for the burning.

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