Sunday, April 24, 2011

Notes On Two Concertos

On Tuesday, April 26th, if all goes well in the digital world, I should see the welcome and long overdue release of two concertos I had written a few years ago. Since this release is an austere matter, it being available on itunes, Amazon and their ilk, rather than in, say, a fancy edition with a booklet and notes I thought I should write a blog containing personal notes on my own music.

I had thought writing on the music of Ahmad Jamal and Wayne Shorter was difficult enough, but to write on one's own music seems the hardest. I shall write briefly, with both a musical and general audience in mind, and also indulge in a little polemic concerning why I write the way I do.

THE FOUR HUMOURS (From Robert Burton's Anatomy Of Melancholy) Concerto for flute, clarinet, and orchestra

The longer and most ambitious work is The Four Humors a double wind concerto for flute, clarinet and orchestra. The clarinetist is Richard Stoltzman, the flutist Michael Finegold. Though Stoltzman is arguably the more famous of the two, both are equals in terms of virtuosity and versatility. Since both are skilled in both the jazz and classical worlds, I made sure to include an enormous amount of jazz language in their parts, modern bebop in particular.

Though the piece follows a traditional three movement structure, I decided to make the three movements musically continuous with no breaks, using transitional figures to bridge what are essentially two musical styles, one which is rooted in Latin American and South American dance rhythms, the other being austere and haunting in mood, rooted in European baroque and neoclassical traditions. The title comes from Robert Burton's Anatomy Of Melancholy (1621). Starting with Hippocrates and extending well into the 18th century, there was this doctrine of the four humors: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic. These referred not only to four substances in the body, the excess or deficiency of which were believed to be the cause of illnesses, but also four states of consciousness, or even personality types. Of course the doctrine, taken literally, is false, but as I was inspired by the wit and deep wisdom of Burton's book, and above all by the idea of extreme contrast, I thought the metaphor of four temperaments could provide a model for musical language as well.

In the first movement I begin with a (literal) bang, sounding the motif that determines the whole piece: the interval of the third. The use of the grace note, however sets the stage for the indeterminancy between minor and major that is a hallmark of the blues scale and other expansions of the "major/minor system". This sets the stage for an Afro-Cuban vamp over and under which the two soloists play jazz lines.

However, since the piece of music is about extreme contrasts, such as one would see in dramatic personality changes, the middle movement is longer than usual. It is asymmetrical and in such contrast to the first as to be from a different piece of music entirely. However a close listening will reveal the underlying motive of the third. The austerity of the lines gives way to a brief burst of unabashed romanticism (for about two measures) of the kind rarely heard in contemporary concert music before a return to a dryer or more restrained climate.

The third movement is a return to the impish or jaunty spirit of the first, except the dance quality is even more explicit and developed, based on a motif in fact from Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim: Waters Of March, also based on the motivic interval of the third. The last movement is quite minimalist in spirit since it uses repetition rather than traditional development of motifs. Indeed the entire movement is a repetition of what jazz players call a "turnaround", normally an in-between transition to get to or from a main section of music. I use the same four bars for the duration of the movement, with the addition of whatever the soloists decide to add to complicate the score. Since the movement is the turnaround, it aids the meaning of The Four Humors: to combine ideas of trance-like consciousness one finds in minimalist and some dance related popular work with the kind of chromaticism and harmonic development one normally finds in both jazz improvisation and classical concert music so that there is a balance between repetition and variation.


Both The FOUR HUMORS and The SWINGING SEVENTIES are explicit about and in the use of popular elements. I had always thought that contemporary composers had a great opportunity to use elements of jazz and rock and other popular musics. It seemed to me the only thing preventing their use would be a dogma against tonality per se and a desire to compose strictly within a serialist or aleatoric structure. I was also aware that popular themes could be expanded and in many cases improved upon through extra effort.

At one time, in high school, I was rather interested in going down a strictly avant-garde road. I was excited about mid to late 20th century composers. However jazz was one of my first loves and I wanted my own music to have lots of jazz in it. Moreover, the kind of jazz I loved was more classic in character.

My decision to not pursue that kind of strict avant-garde music came from my experience playing in a big band and my wondering what would happen in a composer decided to use some of the language one normally finds in "commercial" music but without the restrictions of a strict arrangement. Why had classical composers, at least those outside film scoring, or other than exceptions like George Gershwin, refused to use elements of a Count Basie or Thad Jones in their music? Could it be an assumption that tonality had exhausted itself? Could it be that the conviction that popular song was to be kept separate from concert writing? Such divisions would have been unknown in the 19th century.

That is, I suspected there was still a lot to be done within the major, minor, and modal systems. Once thing I was struck by were the voicings of the big band writing and the sticking with extensions of basic triadic harmony. I felt the coloration of these basic harmonies was lost when composers used structures that disavowed or extended those structures to outside of the triad altogether. (Conversely of course, people like Boulez or Elliot Carter make things possible not found in these simpler big band arrangements).

The question I came up against was one of form and feeling. Certain musical effects create rather specific meanings and I had to decide what I wanted to communicate. I also really liked certain things in Geroge Gershwin and Duke Ellington and wanted to hear things like them in music for the concert hall. Out of these ideas I eventually formed my own musical style. As George W. S. Trow concludes in his masterful book My Pilgrim's Progress: "I laughed and I thought to myself, 'Well you can't help who you love'."

In the terms set out by Theodor Adorno in his book Philosophy of Modern Music, I decided Adorno was wrong and I choose Stravinsky over Schoenberg.

THE SWINGING SEVENTIES, Flute soloist, orchestra, one drummer:

The second concerto, The Swinging Seventies, is an outrageous piece, at once serious and a bit of a joke. I had wondered what would happen if I were to write a jazz flute concerto but use elements of commercial disco and R&B, but in the context of a classical concerto setting. One of the reasons I did this is that I wanted the audience to have to listen without distraction, and in a concert hall, to a musical style not normally associated with close attentive listening. Moreover I wanted to write one of the most difficult flute parts I could, since I had a flutist who was more than up to the challenge, a flute part that had the appearance of an improvisation, but would be all written. I started out with these patterns you heard in a lot of funk, but then decided to distort them, much in the way Charles Ives would have distorted the folk material he used. There are some fairly blatant quotations in the piece but it was written mainly as way to show off the gifts of flutist Mike Finegold and also to try to push ideas of using popular material as far as I could while still being fairly complex about musical development. Like The Four Humors, the whole piece has no movement breaks and builds in tension until the end, when it it becomes most dissonant, using polytonality in the orchestra and the soloist. There is a continuous beat from beginning to end as in rock and funk music. The piece is an experiment in destroying the boundaries of genres and labels.

The critical listener will hear that I give the acoustic basses and cellos lines duplicating the playing of electric bassists from the seventies. I was excited to take these great inventions of that decade and give them a seat on the stage of a concert hall. My intent was to try and force the listener, if that is not too strong a word or motive, to treat such motives as having intrinsic aesthetic value rather than as background music or for dancing. For this I was heavily criticized by music critics. But other artists in other art forms had been doing similar things, using unconventional material in new environments. I saw disco musical elements as colors in my palette. In this sense, the work has connections to conceptual art. My use of funk and disco is like John Cage's use of silence: a way of getting the listener to ask questions about what music is and is for and about how we organize boundaries separating the popular from the unpopular.

Without getting overtly programmatic about it, the piece tries to express, in musical terms, the dilemma of the sexual revolution in the 1970s. That is why the tension builds. It is rare that I use a single composer as stylistic inspiration for an entire piece of music, but Charles Ives' collagist ideas were a model for this work.

I decided to use a drummer on the concerto, one with some background in funk drumming. I had hoped the piece would be both fun and a provocation.

I hear all of the world's music as having certain connections. My music does not respect the usual boundaries of genre. The only matter upon which I insist in my music is that it have dramatic value and take the listener somewhere in the course of the piece.

NOW AVAILABLE ON itunes CON MOTO Modern Works For Orchestra Volume 1 Parma recordings

1 comment: