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   October 31, 2007   next

It's Halloween, a time when my eye doesn't turn to clever getups, silly string, echo chambers or candy (well, maybe candy). Instead, I look at those costumes and television advertisements and hokey plastic skeletons and think of death.

Wait, don't go. You see, my family was and is long lived -- eighties, nineties, one hundred and older. Lucid until death, all of them. In the elevator with my wife, mother and grandmother a few years ago, Pasqualina Russo -- then one hundred years old -- turned around, grabbed my man-breasts (a trait that I inherited from her husband Frank, my practical-jokester grandfather, engaged in one of those little jokes in the photo below) and exclaimed in her New Jersey-accented laugh and the unrestrained social abandon of old age that I needed a brassiere. She died at one hundred one in 2003, a little lost but still marvelously sardonic.

Esther and Frank, 1974, engaged in mischief

My grandmother Pasqualina (her real name was Esther) was a wonderful cook, always filling the air with aromas of olive oil and rosemary and basil and oregano. Fried peppers and eggs were a daily lunch, with potatoes, too, all cooked in the great iron skillet that is now the pride of our kitchen here in Vermont. No one could visit without being fed, nor leave without ears filled with stories and jokes, punctuated with snippets of song and doggerel.

But as a young person surrounded by all this life, I always maintained a strange sense of mortality; perhaps they did, too, but the times demanded privacy and those thoughts never surfaced. Yet I remember sometime in my eighteenth year realizing that I wouldn't live past twenty-eight (and maybe I didn't; this could all be an invention in the last seconds of life, for what sense does an interconnected electronic network make, anyway?). I couldn't shake that sense, and burned my life wildly as a musician and artist, creating sprawling events and shoveling new compositions out the door to squeak in every sound before the final exhalation and perpetual silence. (Perhaps from this experience many years later came this "We Are All Mozart" project, with its sense of urgency.)

Esther at 100 on our way to dinner

And so in looking at the plastic skeletons, I'm brought back to the morning when I awoke on that mid-March day and found that I was twenty-nine. Alive, and twenty-nine. At first it was bewildering. The woman who would become my second wife (and ex-wife) was there with me. It was still decaying Trenton, New Jersey, and would be for six more months. The room still had a plant, and two cats (no doubt) slept quietly. It may have been sunny or rainy, but the fog of my mind was clearing into bright white light, and no, not that tunnel of light but merely the light of consciousness. Here I was. Alive. And mundane.

How could this be? I was disappointed and angry; all those years of work at panic pace, all that unknown dying artist memorialized by a few friends in the rain, now meaningless. There was still time. Then I was elated. More years of work could be ahead. Would it last days? Months? A year, even? The suspicion that the sixteen-ton weight would still fall from the sky remained, yet here I am this morning thirty Halloweens later with butt sagging and gums receding and hair thinning on my head and on my calves and thickening on my man-breasts -- those old man signals that I've always loathed -- alive, well, and at fifty-eight still working on my music and still thinking about that odd young man of twenty-eight, preparing to die.

Happy Halloween! Enjoy the candy -- and maybe I'll make some peppers and eggs with potatoes and thank Pasqualina for long life and good health. Alla salute!

* * *

I finished that viola piece a few days ago, and am now struggling with a monumentally loud piano composition. But a few words to catch up the project...

Last time it went unmentioned that with additional work taken on to meet the daily budget, I had not only fallen behind on compositions but also was finishing them out of order. A Partial Summer came in a day late, and it wasn't until the twenty-fourth that I finished the two Meta-Dream violin solos, more than two weeks overdue. You can look at the WAAM page to see the actual order of composition, but in these descriptions, I'll follow the order they were expected.

Lunar Cascade in Serial Time is one of my favorite compositional tasks. Seth Gordon had asked for a piece each month for tenor guitar, a performance piece that might also be played on another instrument of similar tuning -- or not. The enchanting idea led from the abstract to the concrete and back. August, a time just on the front edge of apple picking in Vermont, is sparkling. Not yet frosty, it has the buzzing sounds of later summer, all the aural clattering resulting in another "notey" and regular-shaped composition. Tonal and light, it includes only one odd element -- here is the score to August, which on close examination will reveal that oddness. And yes, there's also an electronic demo, but that won't give away the secret.

The pleasure of writing for children came back. After The Nine Rabbits of Valladolid for teacher and student, now there was a piece for two students -- trombonist Christopher Smith's children, who played flute and piano. Again I sought challenge without confrontation, and created a little classically shaped tune with a few special effects, and good counting expected. Called Evidently Skittles (a reference to both the candy and the chess challenge), it uses piano knocking and whistling and humming as well as traditional pitches. The ABA structure also affords fairly quick rewards for practice in the slow middle section, and then juices it with whistling and humming, eventually tumbling back into the rapid and rhythmically jerky opening. Here's the electronic demo.

The series composition has actually been surprising. Carson Cooman has asked for four organ preludes on early American themes. One of my personal favorites is "Honor to the Hills" by Jeremiah Ingalls, a tune which I studied in the first days of the renaissance of early American music in the 1960s with Carlton Sprague Smith and Gordon Myers. The drop from stark open minor into the almost-Welsh rich parallel major chord had always grabbed my attention, and I used "Honor to the Hills" in an orchestral composition (A Fanfare for Peace: The Lily and the Thorn, the score in pencil but the premiere performance here) and also recorded it for the title-named recording "Honor to the Hills" with the Roxbury Union Congregational Church Choir, which I directed for several years. In the organ prelude for Carson, the theme is fragmented first and its completion presented in hints, eventually (as with all the preludes in the series) blossoming into the original setting. The score to From the Mountains is here and there is of course an electronic demo. (I should note that if you're reading these commentaries a while into the future, those demos will be replaced by actual performances at the same links.)

Since these compositions were written out of calendar order, the composition requested by the anonymous "John Speede" was written before Evidently Skittles. With the same orchestration (flute and piano), the new piece, The Imagined Moons of Autumn, was more expansive and incorporates a very French-Twentieth-Century sensibility, along with a certain swing and jazziness. Its impressionistic opening is soon replaced by flute jazz à la Claude Bolling (not imitation; just the sensibility it creates once any composer swings the flute), with references back to the opening and a wild ride in the piano left hand. Moons was a surprise from Doug and Peter McIlroy for their respective wives, Barbara and Alison. And Doug did it up right, bringing Barbara to our home one Saturday morning. She was surprised and confused, the ideal reception for such a peculiar gift ... but later, as Doug wrote in a card, it turned out the two spouse-musicians were thrilled. Here is an electronic demo, but soon there will be a real performance in its place.

I've already described Morning in Nodar and its remarkably successful performance by Tom Peters, so on then to Low Clouds and Evening Wind, for Patricia Goodson. Patricia lives in Prague, and we crossed paths a few years ago after I'd heard her recordings of new music, with the sense of adventure and the creativity she infuses in them. That can be a composer's joy or curse, and I prefer the former -- if any performer wants to put a deep imprint on my paper-bound compositions, I'm happy for it. Back in January, I wrote for her Starry Night, which has enormous freedom of rhythm and concentrates on textures and verticalities. The new composition kept the sensibility but veered notationally in the opposite direction, with carefully notated rhythms and fixed architecture. Low Clouds has a simple premise, not really one of picture painting, but of additive and subtractive expression. It opens with a fragment of very high notes, and as these move downward, they pick up neighbors until the hands shake before the ears a curtain of sound. It continues downward, adding notes to the bottom that it then leaves from the top, as a middle voice of simple intervals trades hands in a continuous song. The notes drop off the bottom into a rumbling and disappearing rhythm, and then the filligree figure gains body and substance, and develops into an accompaniment for more stark melodic figures, returning eventually to its shape of continuous note spill, adding the initial patterns to the hands until it just tumbles out into quiet. Here is an electronic demo. I'm especially pleased with this composition's ability to create a sensibility and momentum without making its technical actions too obvious -- a goal with all of my music, but one rarely achieved. Hearing "here comes the variation" is what loses my interest in older classical music.

* * *

It has been a busy week. Aside from the compositional struggle, we had the first meeting of the Consortium of Vermont Composers in nine years, a great pleasure. We had to bring in the frost-sensitive plants, repot house plants, build some bits & pieces of house stuff, install some stained glass windows that had been lingering in shipping crates, and finally had the opportunity to frame and display (for ourselves in the bedroom) the twelve rose print proofs that Thomas Scott Nelson had given us many years ago. There's more winter preparation to do. Two cords of wood have arrived and need stacking. The car needs new snow tires. And I'll be conducting the premiere of New Granite with the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble next week. Busy times.

Thomas Scott Nelson's rose prints
Thomas Scott Nelson's rose prints, using a then-new technique of hand-engraving multiple color images on plastic lithograph plates. These spent nearly twenty years carefully tucked away, and now occupy the dreaming space above the windows in the bedroom, between the beams and behind a curtain of plants. Only we can see them all from the bed; just a little hint for you!

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