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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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The performance last night of Full House Reset was good -- a little more than half-speed, but it's a really, really fast piece. They gave it the propulsion it needed to work, so I was satisfied. The crowd loved it and, indeed, Gwyneth Walker was taken completely by surprise by the compositions. The others were by David Clark Isele (Gwyneth's B Day Zag!), Hilary Tann (Good-Morning for Gwyneth), and Carson Cooman (Springburst), each to represent a different aspect of Gwyneth's personality.

* * *

I have a little Montréal story that begins about six months ago online. Some of my one or two faithful readers know that I've been working on an opera for twenty years -- mostly planning, to get it in place on the very site of the story, in rural Slovakia. Here, the bathory.org site tells the whole tale. This spring I received an email from Daniel Davey, whose nom-de-musique is Dani Filth, lyricist, composer and lead singer for the band Cradle of Filth. There's lots of heavy metal that's crossed my earbones, and not a little death metal along the way. Most is pretentious and dull. Cradle, though, had real poetry and drama, and wasn't committed to a constant thump-and-wail repertoire. In fact, their Bathory tunes were often mysterious and lyrical. Dani wanted me to be interviewed for an upcoming book, which was a surprise. I didn't think he was even aware of me and the Bathory opera project. Not only was he, but he was curious if there might be a way to work together. We did a tentative dance, and then he told me he was off on a two-month tour, and would be back in touch in November. As most of this opera's sorry history has gone ever so slowy (and sometimes badly, for example, losing the interest of Andrei Codrescu as librettist), I wrote off the relationship as a not-likely.

Stevie and I were looking for a place to celebrate our anniversary, somewhere not too expensive where we might be near water. Maine, maybe. But Montréal actually sounded good -- despite its being only three hours away by car (closer than Maine), we hadn't visited in two years. We made reservations at a bed & breakfast and for some sailing lessons on Friday, and had a sunny ride across the quiet border in Highgate. Wednesday saw us visit the harbor and have dinner at a Portuguese restaurant (we can't get the Portuguese out of our system after April). Thursday was another wander around town, breakfast, then an exhibit of Montréal's birthing history for the past century, and finally a ride on the city's famous rubber-tire subway across to the island where forty years ago Terre des Hommes was the glittering World's Fair. There Buckminster Fuller's brilliant Biosphere still stands -- once the United States pavilion (imagine such a thing today! it would be all weapons), now surrounding a small museum, and itself surrounded by four-decade-old trees. We spent time playing the water games meant for kids, eventually heading back into town to search for a restaurant we'd remembered.

Zigzagging through the streets toward McGill carried us through the Latin Quarter on Sainte-Catherine, where I spied a theatre with some ushers lounging outside in the sun. As we got closer, the black usher outfits transmuted into goth tee-shirts, and the ushers were teenagers waiting to buy tickets ... to, yes, Cradle of Filth, whose world tour starting in jolly olde England had taken them to Montréal for that one day. We weaved through the crowd and left a note at the box office -- perhaps Daniel could call us, and we could get together after the show to talk. We found the restaurant on Rue Crescent, enjoyed dinner, and then the Can Can belched out from Stevie's waist -- oh, wait, it was our new cell phone. And it was Dani, and yes, he'd love to meet us and yes, there would be comps for us at the door.

Recall that it was our anniversary. How likely would it be for one's spouse to want to go to a death metal concert on a romantic anniversary? Especially when a nice jazz bar would do just fine? But skepticism on hold, she agreed, and at nine that night, we slid through a crowd of sullen youngters toward the box office. Who were these old people? At least we were wearing black when we picked up our VIP passes. Stevie made sure we had plenty of beer, and the show began.

They were fantastic. Tight, in tune, imaginative (except for the graphics), and compelling. She loved them, I loved them. Anniversary saved. Afterwards, we went backstage to meet Dani, who was -- irony or ironies -- showering the filth off himself after the show. Seeing the schedule calling that they were on the bus at 4a.m., we had a brief conversation where he was marvelously polite and friendly, and then left for the Maison de Jazz ... where another artist, singer Michelle Sweeney, was interested in the Birth Song project. Serendipity. Who can say. It turns out Michelle was the teacher of the sister of a WAAM commissioner. Big cities, small world.

* * *

We left off in mid-May with the WAAM pieces. Larry Polansky is a round fanatic, and has collected a bunch of originals. He also commissioned a round from me, and I couldn't resist the idea of using a Mad magazine take off. Remember the fold-ins? Instead of fold-outs, they featured a page with a cartoon which, when folden inward, created an entirely different story. The same with An Fold-In Round.

From my instructions in the full score: There are seven original voices, shown on the top seven lines. The bottom seven lines contain the round being sung backwards, but are written out here for ease of reading (and adjustment of the few ties and note splits that accommodate the words). The voices sing in the order marked, which is the first voice forward and backward, the second voice forward and backward; etc. The voices are numbered to assist this. Up to fourteen voices can sing this round. The round may be sung through as written, or done as a “fold-in” in the style of the accordion cartoon folds in Mad magazine. These folds created a visual double-entendre. The music creates a textual and harmonic double-entendre. The first accordion fold for this piece folds so that the odd-numbered measures are sung, plus the two measures at the end. The second accordion fold reveals every fourth measure, plus the end pair. The third accordion fold shows only every eighth measure, a shortening at the center pivot, plus the end pair. There are a few rough edges in the round, but that should make it fun. It also takes, in its full version of voices entering and leaving in the tempo shown, about 47 minutes to perform. The text is entirely from the 2006 Internal Revenue Service Form 1040.

Yes, that was a treat to write, as was the next piece, for three oboes. Commissioned by Pamela DeSimone, an old friend who simply loves the oboe, it is called A Bout de Souffle (yes, I liked the Godard title for an exhausing oboe piece). Here is some of what I wrote to her about it: The oboe piece was hard to write. The timbre of oboes is difficult to work with. In pairs, it's not so bad, but in threes, the harmonics can interfere and create a whole spectrum of additional colors, some wanted, some not. So to avoid just a messy, smoggy cloud of sound, I made the intervals open and pure, and often there are solos. Where the intervals aren't pure, I put them close and edgy, so even the gentleness of the first movement is made questioning and even tense at times by the closeness ... but more often just leading to a sense "elsewhere-ness". That's not a very musical description, but there was a great deal of intuitive composition in this piece ... what sounds good, what doesn't. The first movement is in two parts. The two parts have the same notes, but in different places, intended to create a sense of deja-vu -- you know you've already heard it, but can't quite identify where. And even if you know that it's the same, it's hard to hear without multiple listenings. The third movement is what in a traditional classical movement would be called a scherzo -- a joke, a trifle. It's jazz-based with rock riffs, but done in shifting meters (9/8 and 4/4) so, aside from not being danceable, it can hint at the styles and provide a minute's worth of an alternate consideration of where they might be taken. The last movement is a simple song, based on a single ornamented note, with simple call-and-response sections. One instrument leads, the others answer. It evolves into a high solo, falling down into a section built from the same material as the end of the first movement, and wraps out in a short chorale. In other words, it's a condensed four-movement symphony, all in ten minutes. And so that's where the title comes from, the movie "A Bout de Souffle" by Jean-Luc Godard that translates in English to "Breathless" ... a double-entendre on the sense of the piece and the amount of breath it takes to play. Here is a not-so-bad Midi demo.

As you can guess, May was a real expansion of musical ideas, with so many different kinds of orchestrations. Next up was for mandocello, to which I among others react with "a what?" It's a mandolin in the cello register, like the (aha!) tenor guitar for which I've been writing for Seth Gordon and the Lunar Cascade series. Larry is an incredible avant-garde musician, and this (mandocello and piano) was his other side -- the lyrical writer of pieces for combinations of piano, guitar, mandolin, or voice based on American folk songs. So I melded the two worlds, creating a lyrical, expressive, quasi-tonal composition which would give the players opportunity to interact with arpeggios and moving chords, sliding slowly off into a typical mandolin tremolo at the end. (And yes, I did study the Vivaldi concerto for diverse instruments, which included two mandolins.) It's called Romance: Mondo-Mando and an adequate demo is here.

The month ended with a ridiculous romp, a round for Vermont Chess Camp. Last year I wrote quite a bit about the camp, a family operation attended by about forty kids. Stevie's mom (who owns the camp) wanted to give kids more enthusiasm with a camp identity, so this year we made cloth banners and a new color tee-shirt, and as part of WAAM, a camp song was commissioned. Having taught elementary school for six years, I had a pretty good concept of what worked with kids of varying ages like the Vermont Chess Campers. So I wrote another round -- two easy melodies, one word-filled melody, and two accompaniment lines. Everybody loved it, except that the camp leaders (including the counselors and instructors) got too shy to teach it. So it's now online for the kids themselves to learn for next year. The score and a pitiful moi singing all the lines. Next year I'll replace this with the real thing.

Tomorrow: June, with some serious stuff.

Playing chess on the ferry to New York
Midweek during Vermont Chess Camp, the entire group heads across Lake Champlain to Fort Kent, New York. On the way, the ferry is filled with chess players -- on the deck, at tables and above the life preserver cabinets near the portholes.

I promised the journal from our residency in Nodar. Here is the fourth installment. Please write to me if you want a copy of the full journal in PDF format with photos.

Saturday Morning, April 14

Friday the 13th was, for lack of a more colorful word, interesting. It was our day to make breakfast--American pancakes and maple syrup. With local eggs, the pancakes were delicious, and disappeared quickly. The mysteries (to us, anyway) of the pressure coffee pot have also been solved, so there was plenty of strong coffee to go around. Stevie went for another hike around Nodar, this time on the opposite side of the river, while I stayed in to begin work on short compositions for the presentation in Seia. The pieces would be made from the simplest materials (some of Manuela's funny sounds during conversation in the kitchen a few days ago, and the creaking door), and be a set of two or perhaps three. My studio is a table near the west door of the large living room, bright and cheerful, and set up for me with speakers and power.

The minimal arrangement is conducive to concentration, although the absence of food grazing has taken some getting used to. Luis brought me back some chocolate from Parada de Ester the other day, so I have some hunger suppression stacked up next to my computer. It seemed that yesterday I had indeed hit some rocks during my fall, and my back was sore. Stevie looked at the shirt I was wearing, now dry after hanging outside for a day, and there were dirt marks from the rocks.

My progress was slowed on the musical project not only by the equipment problems, but also because of my creakiness. But the real damage was to the trusty camera, which was now completely dead; its flashing lights and motor grinds from yesterday had stopped, and it was quiet. The flashcard recorder was showing signs of life as it dried out, and by late afternoon it had, section by section, been restored to operation. The microphone survived as well, so the real casualties were one expendable micro drive and the precious camera.

Just as I finished the first of the new compositions and Stevie made her way through a new batch of online research, Luis returned from Viseu with Cristina, a young resident here last year, who would help out with this year's program. Stevie and I took a short walk--short mostly because of my rib ache--as Luis, Manuela and Cristina caught up on the past year's events. Aaron was long gone to the hills to record a sound palette on this day without rain, and returned just as dinner started: baccala (salt cod) with a white sauce made from nata, firm orecchiete pasta in tomato sauce, and spinach with cheese.

Conversation has been broad across many topics from music to farming, and after the first multilingual puns of this trek, we walked around the tiny alleyways of Nodar and down the main street to the home of Fernando and his wife Nazaré, who specialize in making liquors for themselves and friends--carrot, anise, orange, coffee, and other combinations of tastes, all sweetened with honey.

Luis and Aaron kept pouring each other drinks, and they were soggy by the time we left Fernando and Nazaré and arrived back at the house about 11:30. We were already tired and I was aching, so we settled in to sleep before midnight--and as I lay down and turned over to turn off the light, there was a loud pop and stabbing pain in my ribs. It took all night to settle down; it may just have been some rib motion, but by morning it is still painful. The presentation is in about nine hours, and I don't want to be distracted.

So now, medicine consumed, it's back to work.

Sunday Morning, April 15

Last night we gave our presentation in Seia, a successful one. Once more, Stevie was up and out in the morning, and I was working on the new pieces based on the door creak and Manuela's voice. For me it was a not-much-to-be-told work day, listening to the samples and transforming them, and then outlining the talk for the evening. During her hike, Stevie took some lovely photos of Tia, as well as of the architecture and flora. She was also sure to photograph the rock off which I fell.

Lunch was a brilliant suite, with slices of fresh mozzarella and tomatoes (ensalata capriese), eggplant parmesan, and a salad of various chopped vegetables in a base made from bread--dried, soaked, squeezed and crumbled. I saw it in the making, and it seemed an unappetizing mash, but once the crumbled bread had soaked up the vegetable flavors, it had almost the texture of a tuna salad. There was, as with every meal but breakfast, more vinho verte.

Aaron went to make field recordings, and we packed for our presentation. It would be some two hours' drive from Nodar to Seia, and Luis wanted to give us time for a proper setup at the conservatory. Aaron was late returning, and we would leave without him in one car; he arrived just as we stood ready with our bags, so we split into two: Manuela and Cristina with Luis, and Aaron with us. My ribs were still painful, so some extra ibuprofen was brought on board.

The ride out of Nodar to Castro Daire was as beautiful as our arrival, with the terraced villages and tightly winding road. We picked up the main highway to Viseu, and circled around the town southeast, leaving the highway to rise into the mountains. We were following Luis because my mis-luck with finding turns and road splits was already legendary (and the virtue of that choice had already been reinforced by the confusing set of choices on the Viseu 'beltway'); he told us that if we got separated simply to head for Seia and go to the center of town, where we could not miss the conservatory. After leaving Viseu, the main road through Nelas was cobbled, and the area had a typical irregular mix of housing and commerce and industry, with the rural aspects off the main road and out of sight.

We arrived in Seia a few minutes late, and swept around a half-dozen traffic circles to the center of town, where Luis promptly got lost looking for the conservatory. He stopped to ask, and was directed back from where we'd come. We parked, unpacked our gear, and walked across the square. Wrong square. More directions, more misdirections, walking along parallel sidewalks on different levels, and eventually turning several corners to the conservatory where Jaime Reis was waiting for us. The can't-miss-it concept is suspect. Stevie and I spread out our computers and hooked into the projector, and Cristina set up the video camera. Jaime gave us a tour of the conservatory--an old converted jail with three classrooms and a nascent electronic music lab--which is supported by town funds and tuition. A handful of students relaxed just this side of sullenly on the steps of the school, which was a high school for music rather than a university conservatory.

Luis gave an introduction to the audience, which consisted of students and adults, and I began with a summary of our joint project, followed by a gloss over my electroacoustic work from analog days to the present, an explanation of the "We Are All Mozart" project, and a presentation of the new Three Songs for Manuela. After a few brief questions, Stevie gave her presentation about birth, including the slide show developed for her University of Vermont talk last year. The contrast between us was marvelous, and the audience--confounded at first--warmed up to Stevie's talk and soon (from my perspective in the back) became animated and enthusiastic. Neither of us knew what sort of audience to expect, and we were both pleased that there was actually a good balance of women and men--even a majority of women. After the talk, Jaime and his family took us to dinner at a local restaurant (the 'Jardim', a popular name in Portugal; our car rental was Auto Jardim), where we had a lovely soup of vegetables with what seemed to be a carrot and potato base. There followed puffs of fish paste, crispy cod (bacalhau), meat, rice and salad, with a white cinnamon custard and chocolate mousse for dessert. Jaime dominated the conversation at our end of the table; isolated as he is, the opportunity to talk about his influences (Stockhausen, Nunes, Risset, Pape, Vandergomme, Murail) and his dislikes (simple rhythmic structures, in particular American minimalism--he was especially upset that Philip Glass received an enormous commission in Lisbon) was evidently welcome. He is just 23, so his energy level is high and his prejudices strong--though one can understand the resentment of Glass.

Jaime presented us with a large loaf of local bread and a box of fresh cheese, and we started back to Nodar at 11:30, with a recommended shortcut that actually took longer. Luis drives slowly, so we got into bed after two.

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