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   November 4, 2007   next

Sometimes it just gets out of hand.

I know this blog hasn't been musically useful recently -- a few rants, and some descriptions of my own "We Are All Mozart" pieces. But that's the project for the year, and it's become an obsession, particularly now as some of the compositions are being premiered.

That's the case this coming weekend. The Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble is premiering New Granite for flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello and piano. And it's a tough piece, which somehow the ensemble didn't grasp -- at least not in time to solve it easily before the premiere. The ensemble's music director found its implication of timelessness to be an enormous challenge. It was clearly composed without a defining sense of poetic shape, living in a sort of Feldmanic stasis while, unlike Feldman, consisting of stretched and definable melodies. Admittedly I had no idea how they were going to bring it together, but having delivered the initial score in mid-March, there was no reason for concern. That would be plenty of time, even with an intervening concert or two.

But New Granite has not allowed itself to be an easy composition. First let me reiterate what I wrote in March:

A few days ago I was doing some business in town -- propane bill, electric bill, bank deposit, ash bucket, chocolate -- when I passed a former restaurant turned into a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. I'd never taken notice, until this time. Its granite monument had been extended with another panel. On its grim grey blankness were engraved two words:



It was chilling. It was like the dogs of war had their mouths open, empty, hungry, salivating, waiting to be fed. I don't know how the VFW works, whether they always anticipate the dead. But there it was, a monument once again to folly and hubris, waiting patiently for the names of the fallen to erase its blankness. I hope it stays blank, but the image wouldn't leave. For all my anger over this war, I hadn't felt this, this whatever-it-is that sucks the life out of its surroundings with an artistic de-animation akin to death itself.

The piece I had planned for the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble, itself a lament, simply sputtered to a stop. (You can hear how far I got in this rendering.) It was overwhelmed by a sense of the disjointed but slow instrumental sounds, a kind of nonpop Albert Ayler Ghost, not classical in shape, but endlessly interwoven in simple shapes.

I called it New Granite...

My compositional response was one of blank mirror images, meaning what makes New Granite especially difficult are its 319 continuous measures of 6/4 time signature without the rhythmic meaning of beats. The lines are intimate and if foreshortened quite intricate, but their purpose is like roads on a path through geography: meandering, coming from a stop and ending at a stop -- in other words, to rise and fall out of silence, with no familiar chord progressions. It is a nearly blank desert landscape with people looking everywhere, anywhere, for direction. It is new granite, veined and textured, but in the large scale with a lingering self-sameness. White and black keys at random. They aren't at random, but searching for one's way in such music can induce panic. The difficulty of achieving its performance cannot be overstated. There is a roadmap, but no landmarks; a speedometer, but no odometer. Unless the performers are intimately familiar with the music's detail and interrelationships, this will devolve into a very slow chaos, a static panic.

Like many new music ensembles, the VCME is plagued by little income and overcommitted performers and, unfortunately, with such a short time between first rehearsal and final performance, no intimacy developed and the panic has set in.

It's not the first panic with this composition. Sometime in mid-summer, the group's violinist was one of those caught in a huge net spread by a director performing a Bach festival. Ah, old Bach, he gets the money, you see, and could pay all these violinists. So the director called on me to re-score New Granite for winds and piano. I began the re-scoring, and then the violinist was back in. A composer himself, he saw what the business folks call the value proposition, and bought into the new nonpop, not the old guy from Germany. But the re-scoring was partially underway, and that gave me a chance to re-write the other wind parts. Maybe they could breathe this time. So a new score -- marginally new, with strings and piano the same, and only notes being shortened for the winds -- was presented, complete with score and nicely printed parts, two months in advance of the concert.

There was a casual mention in this blog the other day that I'd be conducting this premiere. At first I thought the request was a Halloween joke. The director knew there was no room in my schedule, but the situation had become untenable for him; I'm happy not to know what went on during that first rehearsal, as the first rehearsal was only a week ago. Certainly, he said, without a conductor they would be bobbing and weaving throughout the performance, contrary to the spirit of the composition and nevertheless no guarantee that they would not get lost as it progressed. I agreed to conduct, and two full rehearsals were set aside for it -- fewer than I would have liked had they begun earlier, but all the time that remained in one week.

Two days later, the director contacted me again. The piece, he thought, was too long to sustain itself with the audience, and because of its subject, they wanted to do it in dimmed light. How about, he suggested, a slide show? Perhaps a Powerpoint? He'd get the photos from various online sites, but not political ones, just atmospheric. Now I see myself as a laid-back kinda guy, so I worked toward a solution, and grabbing random photos from the web just wasn't going to do it. If I were to be involved, it was not going to look like ass. So last Friday night after the third performance of Turn Around, Bustle and Blaze, I began collecting photographs from my collection of the past four years (as far back as I wanted to go, since that much alone involved, says my computer filing system, some 48,643 images; regular readers of this blog from the beginning will recognize some of the photos).

I selected two hundred twenty images for the visuals, grouped as flora, wood, ground, water, snow and sky, all telling a story in stillness and motion that moved from spring and summer through deep winter, from morning to end of day. Each group told its own story, and together they had the arch of life and death, a visual contrast to the static, questioning music itself. Flower clusters moved to individual shots, those to apples and grapes and rose hips; from there to roses, violets, tulips, lillies, sunflowers, morning glories, poppies, and daturas; onward to railroad ties and stacked firewood; then to the ground and stone and shells, still and flowing water, and seaweed; some autumn weeds; then snow in its bleakness and also the beauty of hoarfrost; and finally to the sky in a display of red clouds at sunset. And not a single piece of granite.

By mid-Saturday, the chosen photos were ready to sequence, when another concerned call came from the director. Could I please, he asked, also provide cues (beyond measure numbers) in the score so that should anyone get lost, there would be an easy way to get them back in? I was losing confidence and patience (it had been a late night and an early morning, and I have distinct disagreements with the latter), but took aside some time to create cues and forward them to him -- no, a new score and part set would not be forthcoming ... he could use crayons, I suggested with the best humor I could find among the detritus of my mental state.

Back to the visuals. There was some missing connective tissue, and many of the photos were too bright. So I darkened the bright ones and chose to connect the images with the score itself, rendered into negative image and moving, system by system, across the screen. The photos might completely obliterate the score for a while, but it would reappear, its page turns forming natural visual boundaries. Some of the still images were set in motion, and transitions were selected to make the relationship evident but not blatant. (And since I was also watching Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire at the same time, its marvelously depressive quality of hopeless hope infected my point of view.)

Despite the tightening WAAM schedule that is seeing compositions fall behind, the visual stream was finished two hours ago, several DVDs are sitting here ready for tomorrow's rehearsal, and as I write, a Windows Media stream is encoding so that you can grab it shortly. (The glimmering barlines are a function of the encoding, not my full-size video; and for those interested, I used Sony Vegas Movie Studio for production.)

There are lessons to be learned from this experience, no doubt. Stevie will offer any additional ones that I might not have discovered, as her patience for such events is significantly shorter than mine. Whatever the results, be sure to tune in here in about ten days to read the news, good or bad or worse.

* * *

Others are WAAMing, among them David Gunn and Daniel Wolf. Daniel, who has written kind if skeptical words about my project in the past, has embarked on a project to compose a piece of music each day in November. You can read all about it in his Renewable Music blog. He's composed four pieces so far, all diverse and excellent.

* * *

Crushed grapes and remaining seeds
Crushed grapes and remaining seeds ... these are the wild grapes shown a few days ago in the photo here in this blog. Picking and separating the grapes, no bigger than 5mm in diameter each, was meditative time well set aside in this day of WAAMadness. It took about two hours to cook down far enough to press all but the seeds and tougher skins through the strainer.

Jam in progress
The grapes are on their way to becoming either jam or turnover filling. As it gets closer to dinner (standard time now), the idea of turnovers is looking mightily yummy. (The brighter color above is contributed by added apples and the color of the camera's flash.) I like to make a mess in the kitchen, too.

Back to the Blog Index
Back to the WAAM Page
Back to my Home Page
Please Write to Me
Previous Day | Next Day

WAAM Info Feed RSS feed for this site