Was recently alerted to this excellent performance of Crashing Through Fences, by Emma Resmini and Zubin Hathi. Quite pleased with the overall blend of delicacy and savagery, as well as the wonderfully symmetrical composition.
I’ve been anticipating this weekend’s première of Upstate Obscura for some time. The piece (a cello concerto written for Inbal Segev and Metropolis Ensemble) has been in some stage of the working process since 2014, when Inbal first asked me about writing it. I set her up with Metropolis (who are old friends, having commissioned no less than three pieces) and then we all arrived at the Metropolitan Museum, where I settled on writing a piece about John Vanderlyn’s Versailles panorama (detail above) which occupies its own room in the American Wing.
The piece itself was written over the past summer and fall, and I returned to the panorama many times during the writing process. It’s my first concerto for an instrument other than piano, a circumstance which presented its own set of challenges. Here’s a short note about the painting, and how exactly it informs the piece:
The question of what constitutes “Americanness” in art has long interested me. It’s a somewhat self-serving interest, of course, since I’m an American composer. But it’s useful to think about. It was little more than 100 years ago that composers started writing music that sounded “American,” transcending the Eurocentric pastiches of earlier efforts. It’s a recent enough occurrence that one can still imagine different paths composers could’ve taken, could still take. In this spirit, Upstate Obscura is a kind of thought experiment set in the primordial ooze of the 19th century, when American artists mostly looked to replicate European models.
John Vanderlyn was one such artist—an ambitious painter from Kingston, New York, who spent years studying in Paris. Upon his return, he formed a grand (and misguided) plan to paint a gigantic panoramic scene of the palace and gardens of Versailles, and to exhibit the 360-degree work inside a rotunda of his own construction, in the hope of securing his reputation and fortune. But Americans had little interest in paying to see a replica of a fancy French palace; the work was simultaneously too realistic and too abstract to cause anything but befuddlement among the Kingstonians of its day. The panorama was a financial failure and faded into obscurity until the 1950s, when the Metropolitan Museum built a passageway in the American Wing to display it.
I stumbled on it there a few years ago (if one can speak of “stumbling” on a thing so massive). I was taken aback by its sheer scale, and also by the tricky way it uses perspective to convey even greater scale. But the overall effect of the painting is ambiguous; it’s hyper-detailed, yet curiously abstract; perfectly utopian, but with a sombre, melancholy cast. The light in the painting is a flat upstate New York light, and the viewer feels alone in it, ignored by the well-dressed spectators milling about. In taking on a quintessentially French subject, Vanderlyn somehow came up with something that feels American; it seems to regard Versailles at a bemused distance, with that characteristically American distrust of anything unnecessarily fanciful. As a New Englander who has never been to Versailles (Vanderlyn’s intended audience, after all), I identified with this out-of-placeness.
It was that uncanny sense of contradiction and tension in the painting that started me thinking about it as the subject for a piece of music. My plan was to start with fragments of musical ornament from the French Baroque tradition—like loose chunks of masonry—and stretch them out until they no longer felt like ornaments. All the melodic material in Upstate Obscura is generated this way. Each movement takes those stretched-out fragments and points them in different directions; I wanted to use register, and transitions between registers, as a way to translate the forced perspective of the panorama into a sonic illusion of physical space. The solo cello moves through these registers, just as a viewer might explore a virtual world—at times wandering, at times with purpose.
The first movement, “Valley of strange shapes,” finds the soloist moving slowly down a grand, sweeping staircase, past stylized musical objects played by the orchestra. The second finds the same protagonist lost in a topiary maze, or hall of mirrors; the music keeps restarting, turning back on itself, refracting into smaller reflections. “Vanishing Point,” an extended coda, turns its gaze upwards, towards an indistinct horizon.
Update 4/20/18: The New York Times published a detailed look (with audio excerpts from a rehearsal) at how the Vanderlyn panorama relates to Upstate Obscura.
Maybe this year I will write in this space more than once. I used to use it as a kind of public diary and travelogue, and then…Twitter occurred? I got busier? I remember neither un-busyness nor life before Twitter; tragic, I know.
In a week, I’m flying to San Francisco, where I will play in three quite different things. The first, on January 23, is a show by LA Dance Project; I’ll play Glass’s Mad Rush in a piece choreographed by Benjamin Millepied called Closer. (Is Mad Rush a piece about the gold rush? This struck me only now).
Second, and maybe most excitingly, I’ve been preparing a new solo piano program—my first in awhile—which I’ll play on January 26th. The program is movements from Janáçek’s On An Overgrown Path interlaced with works by Caroline Shaw, Eric Shanfield, and Chris Cerrone. Here’s a short note I wrote about the idea behind the program:
There’s a good reason for all the evocative titles, which is that all the works are based on visual images, either real or imagined. What I liked was that all the pieces have to do with different mediums, or chains of mediums, like a game of inspirational telephone. Caroline’s Gustave le Gray is named after a pioneer in photography, and is half an analogue to his images, and half an imagined portrait of the photographer himself. Chris was inspired by an artist friend’s rendering of a beautiful brutalist bridge in southern Italy—the two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional form, translated into a musical form. Eric’s Utopia Parkway is an homage to the sculptor Joseph Cornell—musical “objects” move against each other in shifting positions, like the objects in one of Cornell’s shadow boxes.
And it’s not known exactly what inspired the titles of Janáçek’s On An Overgrown Path, though I believe they were given only just before being published—it seems likely they were images or phrases out of his own head. But they are amazingly evocative in a way that is pictorial but nonetheless abstract.
I suppose what I’m trying to “say”, if one can speak through one’s programming, is that the way an artist sees art and the world is not usually confined to a single form or discipline. The qualities that move me in music are the same that move me about a building, a photograph, or a piece of choreography. They’re all related in cryptic ways.
And lastly, on February 2nd, I’ll be joining the legendary Kronos Quartet for a program centered on Glass—some solo piano music, some quartet music, a bit with all five of us, and some conversation between David Harrington and me.
The fact that I’m not playing any of my own music on these programs feels almost like I’m getting away with something. It also makes me wildly anxious (am I an interesting enough pianist to be just a pianist?)
About to perform Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on two pianos at the Guildhall’s Milton Court tonight with David Kaplan, and remembered this journal entry which I wrote for Carolina Performing Arts on the occasion of the piece’s centennial. Since it’s not available online anymore, I thought I’d republish it here.
When I was in high school, a friend of mine got the opening bars of the Rite of Spring tattooed on his calf. This struck me as an entirely appropriate response to the piece, for several reasons. I can imagine that making a small sacrifice (a percentage of skin) at the altar of Stravinsky could only be good for one’s compositional development. So much the better that it involved transgression of the law (I suspect my friend was not 18 at the time). And the Rite reflected its own badassery on what is no longer a particularly badass act. For the Rite of Spring is a completely badass piece of music. It’s a musical superhero’s first display of his full powers. This brings with it a satisfying type of emotional thrill: it’s Iron Man strapping on his suit and blasting off for the first time, and our viscera rise in our throats along with him. We forgive the brashness, the arrogance, because in this case it is truly deserved: I listen to the century-old piece of music and think, I could not do that.
What makes matters worse is the poverty of Stravinsky’s materials. Like Frank Gehry’s chain-link fence house, it’s employing a brutal kind of virtuosity. How did he achieve so improbably much with so little? Here’s what I mean: try whistling some of the tunes from the Rite to yourself. Not exactly Brahms’s first symphony, are they? Stravinsky’s melodies tend to encompass four or five pitches, not really going anyplace, but circling around the same figurations in odd, gimpy-sounding groupings. Again, it feels almost insolent: look what I can do with this singularly unpromising handful of notes.
Stravinsky wields the orchestra like a dangerous weapon, with a finesse that belies the savagery of its sound. An incredible percentage of the piece is scored tutti, even in quiet passages, which make them all the more terrifying—a giant chorus of whispers and muttering. The individual parts are also remarkably interesting and involved, an especial accomplishment considering the vast instrumental forces employed. A quick perusal of the score confirms that, yes, the second piccolo is absolutely necessary, and kept quite busy at that; same goes for the second bass clarinet, the second contrabassoon, horns five through eight, and so on. There’s a profligacy to this sort of ensemble, for certain, but here it’s not a case of megalomania. Each timbre is thoroughly unconventional, carefully modulated, underscored, or subverted—it’s not a piece you can hear in your head if you look at the score, because the instruments are used in such unexpected ways.
If all this sounds like a rather cold, unemotional piece, it’s because, in a way, it is. Nothing is traditionally ‘expressive’, in the romantic sense, so there’s no heroic journey from dark to light (or vice versa). Nor is there the kind of harmonic telos that guides a listener through, say, a Mahler symphony. Instead, the dramatic structure relies much more heavily on timing, repetition, and layering. In this way the Rite works much more like a piece of minimalist or post-minimalist music: modular, not developmental. It’s a weirdly short distance from here to Steve Reich’s Drumming (as well as a short jaunt in the opposite direction, to Elliott Carter). I imagine this was what truly disturbed 1912 audiences, even if the sour dissonances and brash, multi-layered timbres were the more obvious scandal. All these elements would figure importantly in Stravinsky’s later works, but it’s easy to forget just how present they are in the Rite, for all of its sound and fury.
But there is also something which, to me, sets the Rite apart from much Stravinsky’s music—I find it extraordinarily moving. I don’t mean this as a slight to those other pieces; I love and admire them, but in a more intellectual, reserved way. Faced with the Rite I am powerless to analyze. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that I’ve been listening to it for quite a long time; it can be difficult to gain an adult-like perspective on the things which defined my childhood and adolescence, almost as if I’m still listening to that music with 14-year-old ears.
I first heard the Rite listening to the radio in the car with my dad, driving home from school. He wasn’t quite sure what it was but he thought it might be the Rite of Spring. Over the radio it sounded like a wild but not at all disagreeable tangle of notes; the colors and the hugeness weren’t lost in translation, but I could tell that they were being hemmed in. I bought the Abaddo recording on my next trip to New York, at the Barnes & Noble across from Juilliard. It still sounded like a thicket, albeit one I grew familiar with little by little.
And after awhile, it began to take that powerful emotional hold. Its affect on me has only intensified over the years; the piece has the odd property of getting stronger with age and repeated exposure. It doesn’t matter if I’m listening through small, tinny speakers, as I was that first time, or to a great orchestra live in a concert hall, or watching a minuscule version of the ballet on my iPhone—I find the Rite of Spring hypnotic and completely immobilizing.
Another summer draws to a close; here’s a mawkish seascape to commemorate the occasion.
I spent mine finishing one piece (Everything Happens So Much, for the Boston Symphony) and starting another (a yet-to-be-titled two piano concerto). I practiced little and gardened abortively (you should see how well I do in the winter).
A new 2016–17 season calendar is up, too, with bold new formatting that’s kid tested, mother approved.
Closing in fast: a lovely new concerto for piano and chamber orchestra that Ingram Marshall’s written me. The later part of the season will fill out as things get confirmed. I’m particularly excited about a series I’ll be presenting at National Sawdust, and a couple of additional events in London.
I was happy to read Timo’s response to David Allen’s article; it put his comments from the article in context, and revealed that he and I have much common ground in how we think about these “response pieces” (I’m not a big fan of the word “sequel”, here).
Because much of the article focused on my Beethoven/5 Project, of which The Blind Banister is the first fruit, and because my own aspirations in embarking on the project did not really make it into the piece, I’m happy to have this opportunity to clarify a few points. Early in the article, Mr. Allen asks: “Why this, and why now? After all, in an ideal world composers would be allowed to write whatever they please.” And soon after, he boils it down to this: “The core assumption is that many, if not most, classical concertgoers have a built-in distaste toward modern music.” While I certainly cannot speak for every performer or concert programmer, I can say that that is not my “core assumption”, nor my motivation in soliciting new music that is, somehow, inspired by old music.
I’ve often felt troubled by the way the classical world segregates new music from old. Ensembles and presenting organizations devoted exclusively to new music provide a vital service—facilitating the creation and giving brilliant performances of new work in a volume that would be impossible without them. But the notion of “new music” as its own genre, and the attendant implication that it lacks a deep connection to music that was written 20, 50, and 200 years ago, is distressing to me. It is a notion that flatters neither old nor new music. To my ears, anyway, a truly great performance of Mozart or Beethoven will always be relevant, but it’s deeply dangerous to think of them as exemplars of an art form that died in 1917 after a long illness. And while yes, in an ideal world, composers would be able to write whatever they please, I hardly think that that ideal world would be some sort of vacuum. A piece of music’s relationship to the past needn’t be explicit, or admiring, but I have a hard time imagining that any piece worth listening to would be disconnected from it.
So, that was the genesis of Beethoven/5: my desire for everyone involved—composer, performer, and listener—to think of old and new music as existing on the same continuum. And why Beethoven specifically? Because composers have been using him as inspiration, source material, and lightning rod since his death nearly 200 years ago. Schubert’s A Major Piano Sonata (Beethoven Op. 31 no. 1), Mendelssohn’s String Quartet Op. 13 (Op. 132), Schumann’s Fantasy (An die ferne Geliebte), and John Adams’s Absolute Jest (several of the late string quartets) are just the first four examples to occur to me. Given that composers have been wrestling with him for close to two centuries, I thought that asking a diverse and fascinating group of composers to think about Beethoven was sure to produce diverse and fascinating results.
That those four works I cited have roots in Beethoven’s music is not debatable. But equally, those roots are not the reason those pieces are being performed again and again—if they weren’t captivating on their own merits, their antecedents wouldn’t make them so. And that is the thinking I’ve applied to Beethoven/5: I want the composers to take the Beethoven concerti as a starting point, and in their first airings, at least, I want them to be heard in that context. But beyond that, I’ve specified nothing—I haven’t asked for the works to contain a quotation, or resemble the Beethoven in length, or form, or any other particular. And I greatly look forward to the day on which I sit in the audience and listen to The Blind Banister played by another pianist, in the context of a completely different program. The specifics of the commission will no longer matter; the work will have joined several hundred years of concerto repertoire. And if a composer is in that audience as well, perhaps The Blind Banister will itself provide the germ for a new piece of music. To me, that isn’t inertia, but artistic regeneration: a key component of my ideal world.
David Allen’s article in this weekend’s New York Times looks at “sequel” compositions, a topic well worth exploring. I’m using “sequels” to mean: pieces written explicitly as companions to preexisting, often well-known, works. The article, in which I’m quoted a couple of times, portrays sequels as a pernicious programming trend initiated mainly by conservative administrators, afraid to scare off their audiences with anything truly “new”. But I think the real story is something quite a bit more nuanced.
When I was just starting to write music, the impulse grew out of my piano playing. My early pieces were imitative of the music I admired and knew best: Brahms, Ravel, Prokofiev, Beethoven, Copland. This is how any anybody starts writing music—pick a template you like and fill in your own notes. As my knowledge of the world (musical and otherwise) increased, so did my confidence to start designing my own templates, taking charge of the bones my pieces.
I’ve always found this process extremely interesting—the transformation of raw materials drawn from the great heap of music history into something totally new. So writing musical companions was something I originally did of my own volition and became somewhat known for, which resulted in commissions to write more such pieces. As present count, 19 of my fifty-something pieces have historical antecedents, beginning 10 years ago with I Found it in the Woods, which takes two chords from Brahms’s A major violin sonata as its generative material. I’ve since used several different compositional processes to refer to, learn from, or simply have a good time with preexisting music: Austerity Measures and I Found it by the Sea work backwards, finding their way to the source material through layers of my own variations; my “re-composition” of Mozart’s Coronation concerto imposes my own music directly on top of its source; the Piano Quintet and The Blind Banister abstract Schumann and Beethoven, through oblique structural references rather than outright quotation. Writing these pieces has not been an exercise in pastiche or postmodernism, but rather an integral part of my compositional development—investigating distant connections, filling in the space between.
I also think the article didn’t give a true sense of what it might be like actually to write such a piece of music. Simply working in the classical music tradition is, for me, a great source of material (by which I mean: writing detailed instructions in a document which is given to performers, who then follow the instructions, producing a version of my piece). And part of this is acknowledging that people have been making music in this strange, roundabout way for a thousand years. So it’s understandable to want to look backwards once in awhile, maybe now especially, as the history-renouncing teleology of Modernism recedes.
But is it a kind of pandering? I don’t think it’s pandering to think about your audience now and then (and I know that by saying that, I’ll have lost a certain number of the people who read this). Any music can pander—if not to audiences, then to grant panels or tenure committees. Simply putting new music on the same program as Beethoven may not be enough to convince audiences of their commonality; a well-considered response can show without telling.
The context for my quote in the Times about nearing “the end of my rope” was in discussing whether or not these commissions have become a hackneyed programming trend. As with all trends, there are of course thoughtless and bad examples. Not every living composer can respond to every long-dead one and expect to illuminate. Perhaps not every masterpiece of the past demands a response. Winking quotations or musical inside jokes are a blind alley, a self-appreciative pat on the back. And an overdose of nostalgia for lost musical idylls tends merely to remind us who was excluded from the supposed “golden age”—women and minorities, who are still hugely underrepresented in contemporary music commissioning.
David Allen’s article failed to differentiate among the forms of responses composers have written, as well as the conditions under which they might succeed or fail. If composers were in fact being talked into writing certain kinds of pieces by new-music-wary orchestral administrators, as the article seems to imply, this would indeed have a chilling effect on creative freedom in our field.
But in my own experience, this couldn’t be further from the case. For The Blind Banister, the pianist Jonathan Biss approached me with an idea for a project that he had devised independently (the Beethoven/5 commissions). So I had one more piece of information than I usually do when beginning a piece: the soloist, the instrumentation, the duration, plus Beethoven’s second concerto. A handful of orchestras signed on to commission it (on the strength of their faith in Jonathan, more than anything else), the piece was premiered, another small handful of orchestras decided to program it (one, audaciously, Beethoven-less!)—and so a new piece of music makes its tentative way in the world.
Jonathan Biss will respond with his perspective as a performer and commissioner later this week; watch this space.
News flash: I still play the piano sometimes! Here’s a recent performance of Chopin’s gloriously slippery Polonaise-Fantasie, and a few Chopin-adjacent notes, recorded at the Green Space last month.