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Saturday, January 22, 2011

#3 - Arvo Pärt - Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten

The next entry in the "Influential Works" series is the one work that has probably affected me the most, both personally and professionally. Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer who is strongly influenced by Eastern Orthodox Church music, as well as Gregorian chant. He is the only composer still alive (born in 1935, he continues writing to this day) who appears in this series. In his music, one gets a sense of the sacred and holy that is made more explicit by the setting of religious texts in other works of his, such as Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem, wherein he sets the entire Passion of Christ from the Gospel of John. This work is a very good example of Pärt’s minimalism. Minimalism means that the materials of the music have been stripped down to their essentials, and generates its sense of forward motion from a process that gradually unfolds rather than the more dramatic, narrative sense of progress such as that of the prior works in this series, Ravel's "Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte" and Barber's "Adagio for Strings." Here, see how the violins begin very high, and move downward to their lowest range by adding one further descending note at the end of each larger descent. Meanwhile, the lower strings move at slower rates that are multiples of the high, descending violins. Then, the bell tolls continually on the same note, imparting a sense of finality that is fitting for a work that is in the memory of someone who has passed away. Indeed, the last thing the listener hears is the decay of the bell, while missing the bell’s striking. This whole process makes the music meditative, rather than progressive like most music. The person being remembered is the British composer Benjamin Britten, who himself appears in this series, and who certainly has earned with his own work such a great memorial as this Pärt work here. If you enjoyed this, get ready for more: Pärt will certainly be appearing again, as he is one of my favorites! Again, see the wikipedia page of Arvo Pärt's Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten if you'd like to know more. Enjoy!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Meeting George Crumb

       Over the summer, I had the opportunity to meet George Crumb, a very well-renowned composer who would be found in any textbook on contemporary or 20th-21st century music. It all started when I watched a documentary on Igor Stravinsky (certainly one of the titans of classical music), and he recalled in vivid detail a childhood experience that greatly affected him for the rest of his life. He recounted a time when as a young child he went to a concert and he saw Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a great Russian classical composer of the Romantic era. I thought to myself, I want to have an experience like that! Luckily, I reside in an area where there is a lively classical music scene, with concerts, operas, etc., held regularly, and with many pre-eminent educational institutions in the area. Surely, I would be able to find someone in the area who I could meet. And indeed I did.

I first went to check the alumni of the music schools in my area, and decided to try and meet one of them. The composer I came upon is a composer by the name of George Crumb. Crumb was born in Charleston, West Virginia. He received his degrees from Mason College of Music, University of Illinois-Champaign, and then the University of Michigan, before he began a long-term relationship with the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught from 1965-1997. Because Crumb has been so widely published and celebrated, he is one of the few composers who has made enough money from writing music that he did not need to teach (as almost all composers do today.) However, he chose to do so anyway. He, in turn, taught many talented and accomplished composers who write today, including a teacher who I took a class with before, Prof. Stephen Jaffe. Crumb liked Penn enough that he decided to remain in the area, and has done so until today. I looked him up online, and found an address. I sent him a letter, asking him if he’d like to meet. I received the following letter in response:

Eventually, I got back to him, and we set up to meet on a weekday in July.

I pulled up a house that looked pretty unassuming. Now, I should make it clear from the outset that I had no idea what to expect. If I was going to meet the equivalent of George Crumb in another field, like a famous rockstar or rapper or something, he or she would live in a giant house, have a ton of money and cars and stuff like that, and there would be no way that I’d get the chance to meet him. However, my meeting with Crumb was no less surprising, or rewarding. The house looked just like every other. I parked out on the road, and walked up to the door and knocked. Immediately, three or four dogs come swarming to the door, barking their heads off. If I did not know that I was at the right address from having dropped off the letter earlier in the month, I would have thought that I was definitely at the wrong house. But a woman came and opened the door for me, the dogs acting up the whole time behind her. I explained who I was and what I was there for, and she let me in. She introduced herself as Dr. Crumb’s daughter, and unfortunately, I forget her name. While we were waiting for Dr. Crumb to come down, she explained that she ran a sort of shelter for dogs. She took in dogs that needed help and kept them until they were ready to go elsewhere.

In fact, Dr. Crumb still lives with his wife and son as well, and I met them also. When Dr. Crumb came down, I nervously introduced myself. I was speaking to a man whose name could be found in any textbook on 20th or 21st century classical music. And yet, you would get no sign of this just by talking to him. He was very nice and patient with the questions I asked him when we went into his workplace in the back of his house. At 81 years, he is still going as strong as ever. He seemed very lively and in great spirits, and willing to talk about anything musical. He showed me works that he was currently working on, a song cycle of some American texts. One of the notable things about Crumb’s oeuvre is that it has come out steady ever since he began writing. He has released works in 7 different decades, and I’m sure will soon add an 8th in 2011. It was inspiring to see someone who showed no signs of anxiety at all when it comes to composing. He showed me the tools he uses to work as well. They consisted of many rulers, black permanent markers of all kinds of point sizes, as well as protractors, compasses, and rulers. It was great to see how Crumb produces his beautiful scores, which in themselves are works of art. I was amazed to find out that he does all of them by hand, such as the following one:

I got the chance to ask him a couple questions, such as where he got his inspiration from, what his favorite piece that he had written was, and we talked for an hour or so. I showed him some of the requiem I’m working on. He played through some of it, and made some corrections and other comments. I was delighted to find out one thing in particular, however. If you aren’t familiar with Crumb’s work, he is noted for his exploration of unusual timbres, his use of alternative notation (as seen above), and extended technique. Timbre is the quality of a musical note or sound or tone that distinguishes different types of sound production; it’s what tells a person that a violin is a violin and a saxophone is a saxophone, even though they are both playing middle C. For instance, in his seminal work “Black Angels” (for string quartet), Crumb asks the performers at one point to play crystal glasses filled with water. Extended technique means that he asks performers to do things with their instrument that aren’t very common; for instance, in some works he asks the performers to tap on their instruments. His work is also marked by symmetry; for instance, a work of his might start and end the same way, or the chords he uses are constructed out of the same interval overlaid on top of itself. I recalled this when I was at Dr. Crumb’s when I saw that the piano that he uses, in fact, was (and I presume, still is) out of tune! It seemed like he had been dealing with that (and not just dealing with it, but taking advantage of it) for a while. Almost any other composer would have had the piano tuned immediately. But I think he liked the dissonant sound of it; it spoke to his use of unusual timbres and extended techniques.

Finally, I got him to sign a copy of “Black Angels”, and got some pictures taken with him, which I’ve posted below. I will remember my meeting with Dr. Crumb for a long time. It made me really hope that I get the opportunity to do what he’s done, and it motivates me to take advantage of the chance I have. Hopefully, one day, I will be where he is, working on music, and having young composers contact me to talk!

As a foray into Crumb’s music, I suggest you check out the work I’ve referenced herein, “Black Angels.” Be forewarned, it is unlike anything you’ve heard before! It’s a work for amplified string quartet. Crumb takes advantage of the amplification to get certain effects and timbres out of the instruments that you just couldn’t with their acoustic counterparts. The work is structurally based around the numbers 13 and 7. The Wikipedia page for the work can be found here:

This is the first movement to “Black Angels”, called “Night Of The Electric Insects.” Just click below. Enjoy!

Friday, January 7, 2011

#2 - Samuel Barber - Adagio for Strings (for string orchestra)

The next installment in the "Influential Works" series is "Adagio for Strings", for string orchestra. Samuel Barber is very similar to another composer who's very influential in my work, Aaron Copland, because they are both American composers with a European sensibility. That is to say, their music sounds a lot more like their kindred spirits on the other side of the Atlantic, like Maurice Durufle (who also appears on this list,) rather than that of their compatriots, whom I think of as the "eclectric" group. This group would include Henry Cowell, La Monte Young, Harry Partch, and others, who all did their music-making in a very unique way, and in doing so greatly expanded the definition of what music was and could be. But this piece has a very special place in my listening library because I believe it is a wonderful example of the ability of music to express emotion. This has always been a huge debate in the history of music, with almost every major music critic, theorist, or composer taking part in it. If anything could be proof of an answer in the positive to that debate, it would be this piece. Listen to the chords about 3/4 of the way through the piece: each one heightens the tension until you're not sure if you can take it anymore. And just when you think you've reached your breaking point, Barber relents, and brings back the material from the start of the piece. It's very evocative. Look for other works in this series to also try to demonstrate the ability of music to express emotion. And if you're interested, again, the Adagio For Strings Wikipedia Page. Enjoy!

Monday, January 3, 2011

What is Inspiration?

Okay, inspiration. Let's start with a saying I've heard before and really like: composing is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration. Now, what that means is that composing is almost all hard work, and just a little bit of inspiration. I think a lot of people think that composing is all inspiration (or more than it really is) because of how we experience music. When we pick up a copy of a masterpiece, like a Beethoven String Quartet (let's say, the one with the Grand Fugue in it, although I'm certainly no expert on LVB so I don't know which it is,) all we see is the finished product: perfect and immaculate, every note in its right place and having a purpose, without which the whole thing would fall apart. It seems like it all came out in one fell swoop of inspiration and love-making with the muse. What we don't see are the pages and pages of complete rewrites, edits, revisions, etc., that were a vital stepping stone on the path to the complete product. If you look at a Beethoven manuscript (where one is really able to feel the agony of the creative process... mangled pages, blotches of ink everywhere, written so quickly it's hardly legible,) you'll see that sometimes he begins with just an awful, banal idea. Then, after a little tweak here, and a little tweak there, repeated over and over (and over,) you're left with an amazing melody like that from the ode to joy (again, no expert, I forget which piece that's from.)  In my own work, I must be constantly reminding myself that even if I throw out a whole section of work that I worked on for hours and hours, I still have made progress. Why? Because I had to go down that path to realize it wasn't the right one. This makes my idea of what I'm looking for sharper and clearer, and focuses my ear for what I'm looking for.

"But!" You say, "What about someone like Mozart! Certainly, he was at one with the muse, a man who wrote no less than 41 symphonies by the time he died at the young age of 33!" (Not to mention the days of other music that he composed.) Well, let's think about that. First, Mozart, by his sister's account, started practicing at the piano by the time he was 4. Second, his earlier works are, certainly, of a lesser degree of quality then his other works. Consider the idea that Levine espouses in "This Is Your Brain On Music", as well as others, like Malcolm Gladwell. Apparently, 10,000 hours is a pretty reasonable estimate for how much you must practice before you become a master at something. I'll leave it to them for the evidence, and trust you to just go with me on this one. If Mozart was an extremely, incredibly hardworker, it is possible to see by calculation that he came up with those 10,000 hours by a very young age. This would explain his amazing output by hard work then and not inspiration. In fact, if you go and look at any of the composers who are remembered today (Wagner, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Debussy, Bach, to name some of the biggest,) they were all extremely hard workers. It's amazing and inspiring, really. Once I figured out that being a good composer was more a function of being a hard worker than having some unquantifiable, God-given attribute, I was set!

But if you want to talk about inspiration as the thing that instead is inspiring you to keep going, gives you that fire in the belly, then that's something else. Look, I'm not surprised your high school fugue wasn't good. Who can get really passionate about a high school fugue?!? It's hard to do so. One of the first things a young composer must do in their maturation process is find something to write about that they really, really, really care about. I mean, love-with-your-whole-heart care about. For a lot of people (including myself), this means involving material that is connected to some part of your history, whether it's your ethnic, racial, religious, or personal history. For instance, think of all the "folk" composers (there's practically one for every country): Bartok for Hungary, Dvorak/Janacek/others-I-can't-remember for Czechoslovakia, Stravinsky/Rimsky-Korsakov/Tchaikovsky/so many others for Russia, Vaughn Williams/Britten for England, ah the list goes on and on, we could do this all day. They all had a tremendous love for their country, and were inspired by that to write really great music. Religion really got people going for practically everyone you've heard of before the 20th century practically about (Bach especially, as just one case, and a pretty darn good one at that.) As for me, I'm Catholic, so right now I'm writing a requiem mass. I have plans to write a setting of some original miner songs from mining areas, because that's where my mom's family is from. To a young composer, I would say, think about where you and your family are from, then go find some text (poetry, a play, etc.) that connects to that, and set it to music! Then, the ideas will really come. For me, writing pure music with no words, or not trying to evoke a scene, is very difficult; I'm just not sure what I want to say, or what emotion I what to convey. But text bridges that gap and makes it easier for me (and others, I suspect.)

And if you really love it, then you'll work on it as much as you can; and then, at the end of the day, when your mind is just so completely garbled from being so intently focused on finding that next just right note, or next just right rhythm, that you can barely get a single coherent thought through your head, music will still be there to be listened to and to let you know everything is more than fine, it's great. And that's all you can really ever ask of music.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Influential Work #1 - Maurice Ravel - Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte

The first entry in our "Influential Works" series is "Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte" (in English, "Pavane For a Dead Princess"), by French composer Maurice Ravel. The pavane is a slow processional dance that was popular in European courts in the 16th and 17th centuries Although Ravel is widely considered French, he is also associated with Spain. His mother came from the Basque region of Spain, and he experienced the music of Spain through her. The only way I know how to describe this piece by Maurice Ravel, a French impressionist composer who lived from March 7, 1875, to December 28, 1937, is breathtakingly beautiful. The "impressionist" moniker means that often, one is left with the effect of having heard a piece, rather than remembering any specific part of it. Ravel, a couple years younger than the composer Claude Debussy, is invariably linked with the older Frenchman, as both a contemporary and as a influence (while Debussy is often himself considered an influence of Ravel.) Debussy and Ravel will continue to show up in this series. Although one might not hear much of Debussy and Ravel in my music, it is more like I have tried to borrow their aesthetic rather than use their materials and techniques, which I consider at this point in my education to be too advanced for me to use correctly. Their aesthetic is a soft, thoughtful, sweet, gentle one, in many instances, like here. Check out the wikipedia page for this work if you're interested and would like to know more:  Pavane Pour Une Infante Défunte. Enjoy!

Welcome To The Composer's Corner!

Hello, and welcome! There is not much to see just yet, but I will be taking care of that soon. I have a couple initial plans for the blog:

1. I will be posting a lot of info and articles on my current project, the "Requiem For Victims of the 2010 Earthquake in Haiti." It's a composition for carillon, choir, percussion, and brass quintet that I've been working on since January 2010. But more on that later!
2. There will be a series of "Influential Works", where I post links to musical works that have been influential in my composing; more specifically, in the composing of my current piece, the requiem. They will be accessible to the average listener, and I will do my best to make some insightful comments on each work. Look for them to come out every week or so.
3. I will also post and discuss articles on classical music of general interest that explore the current topics being debated in classical music today, including questions of how and why classical music is still relevant today, why it's listening audience is so small, and what can be done about that (or if anything should be done at all!)

So, check back every so often for these projects. I will do my best to work on the blog pretty regularly, but if I'm rather busy (hopefully working on the requiem!), there might be some delays.

See you soon!