I’ve been happy to see Woody Guthrie’s list of “New Years Rulin’s” being shared widely online—not just because it’s quite a worthy list, but because over the summer I set the whole thing to music, as the conclusion of a new piece called Work Songs. The set is written for three singers: Becca Stevens, Gabriel Kahane, and Ted Hearne (who leads “Rulins” with some savage high C’s)—all playing instruments, and backed up by Nathan Koci on accordion and me on piano. It’ll be premièred in March at the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York and Liquid Music in St. Paul.
The following is an article I wrote for Fortnight Journal in Spring 2012, during the course of writing Old Friend for the pianist Kirill Gerstein. Since Fortnight is now defunct, they’ve kindly given me permission to re-publish it here.
It’s not quite a conviction, more of a nagging suspicion, that I get each time I’m faced with the task of writing a new piece: it’s finally happened, the jig’s up, you’ve altogether run out of ideas. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.
There are plenty of historical examples of composers who actually did “run out of ideas”. Aaron Copland spent his last two decades conducting his own previous works; Charles Ives was stymied working on his wildly impracticable Universe Symphony, falling silent for the following 35 years; around the same time, Sibelius’s inability to complete an eighth symphony cast the last 30 years of his life into self-destructive depression. The pop world can be even harsher; there’s a kind of critical glee when an artist fails to live up to the creative promise of their 20’s.
There’s something about being a composer which feels slightly fraudulent. It’s a far less Promethean occupation than the “composer” of popular consciousness. Writing music is more like refashioning something which already existed, had always existed; it’s making a sufficiently unrecognizable collage out of other peoples’ materials. Adding to this perception is the fact that it can be so much fun (people pay me to do this?) and that much of the process doesn’t feel like “work” in the traditional sense, at least not how I do it.
This week’s “work” is starting on a new piece for solo piano. Again, by all appearances, I am not exactly working, but instead playing through Chopin’s third Scherzo rather badly. I am enjoying myself immensely. Sight-reading, as opposed to goal-oriented practicing, is very freeing. You don’t have to stop and sort out all the little technical problems of learning a piece, instead you just revel in its particular world, enjoy the sounds of the piano, the blocky chords and approximated arpeggios. In the moment, you manage to convince yourself of the brilliance of your own seat-of-the-pants interpretation—yes, that’s how Chopin meant for it to be played!—even though you’ve put in no careful thought and consideration, only tried one of a thousand possibilities. In the Chopin Scherzo, my “revelation” is to take absolutely no liberties with the tempo—I’m playing every rhythm exactly as notated. This is the kind of extremist approach that may eventually lead to a useful approach to the piece, but in its unadulterated form sounds more like a stubborn bulldozer.
Still, the bulldozer approach has some merit—particularly in the middle section, where that beautiful block chord chorale alternates with fantastic-sounding descending arpeggios from the top of the keyboard. Understandably, most pianists I’ve heard take their time here; it’s a deeply expressive passage, full of satisfying harmonic shifts and suspensions (little held-over notes which, when added to an unsuspecting chord, make it sound even better—like harmonic salt). The disadvantage of all this swooning is that one loses the sense of forward momentum. It’s just chords and arpeggios randomly situated in time, rather than a long melody stretched over a harmonic progression leading to an inevitable conclusion. Some rhythmic discipline seems to be in order.
Very few things require embedding in this website more urgently than the above video, from Andrew Yee of the Attacca Quartet.
Absorbed on the train today by an unfamiliar word in this New Yorker piece on Britain’s outlaw egg collectors: Oology, meaning the study of eggs. First, I can’t imagine why the New Yorker didn’t spell it Oölogy; and second, this is a hitherto-unthought-of category of English words that look like what they mean. It’s perfect: a pictogram of an egg, followed by -ology. The closest thing in English to Ancient Egyptian! There must be a word for this species of word, something along the lines of onomatopæia. Also, do any fonts have an Oo ligature?
The article also made me realize that I may have a budding fixation on eggs, myself; why just the other day I doodled this logo, which I offer for free to anyone planning on developing eggs.com.
I’ve been doing a bit of late-Spring cleaning around the site—poke around for awhile, see if you don’t find something new.
The reason this tidying-up comes about so late is that I’ve been feeling a bit unsettled. Not in a bad way, just peripatetic, and for me, traveling does not condone any kind of web-work. I’m the sort of person who needs to have every stray file on the desktop accounted for, every implement on the actual desk set straight, before I sit down to do any Real Work. For this reason, the month of May was lost to any composing, and I’m now scrambling to make up for lost time.
The definition of Real Work seems to shift, too; it means the thing which I am not working on at the very moment, so while practicing, it is writing, and vice versa.
I’m writing a set of “work songs” at the moment, for three singers, all of whom are also composers and friends. The text on my screen right now is a poem called “To Whom it May Concern” by Andrea Cohen, which I think is just about the cleverest thing anyone’s ever set down on paper.
Here is something else stressful. I haven’t worked a lot with preexisting text—haven’t written much vocal music, period—and therefore don’t have much experience tracking down the permissions to set texts. The whole things is quite mysterious, and it’s different for everything; sometimes you ask the author directly, and sometimes they are lovely and friendly and say Yes, of course; sometimes you ask an agent; sometimes you ask a “rights management company”, whatever that is; sometimes they want a comically small amount of money, other times comically large. Sometimes it’s dead silence. And of course, once you get around to asking for permission to use a text, it means you’ve already got your heart set on it, in which case a “No” feels like a Major Artistic Setback.
I don’t have air conditioning in my new apartment, but I do have the next best thing, which is two of these:
I am indecently proud to announce the existence of my second album, which is called Home Stretch. The disc is a product of three years of work, for which I am heavily indebted to Andrew Cyr and the Metropolis Ensemble, stellar & stalwart collaborators through it all. It will be released by our friends at Nonesuch.
Home Stretch is also the name of the first piece on the album, a concerto for piano & chamber orchestra which I wrote in 2008. It’s joined by two pieces which are, in fact, not totally by me: a “re-composition” of Mozart’s Coronation concerto (K. 537) and a Paraphrase on Themes of Brian Eno. An excellent liner note by Daniel Stephen Johnson explains the connections these rather… different-sounding things.
When will I be able to buy it, I hear you asking yourself? July 30th is the answer. There will also be some sort of Event. More soon.