Saturday, March 26, 2016

Midlife on the edge

I believe I was four years old — meaning it was 1962 — when the rules of life were read to me. I didn't understand at the time that this was the only time I would hear them, or even what the rules of life meant. I was pretty busy filling a little shovel with sand and then emptying it, and figuring out which shoe went on which foot. It might also be noted here that I didn't know the names of colors yet (I failed those first few quizzes in kindergarten the next year), so any of the rules of life that included a color in them zipped right over my head. For all I know, a Blue Christmas is included in one of the rules of life, and if so, I've had only part of the life for which I was destined.

I hadn't remembered that I even knew the rules of life were until my first midlife crisis. I was 42, and the most outwardly outward sign of said crisis was the fact that I had recently purchased Elton John's Greatest Hits. Elton John! I always hated Elton John's songs in high school, with the exception perhaps of Levon, and to a lesser extent Bennie and the Jets — not that I actually liked the song, but I could play the opening couple of bars at the piano, and that always made me instantly popular in high school. Yes, popularity was simple — and fleeting — in those times. And there I was, with Elton John's Greatest Hits. Which, all these years later, registers zero plays in iTunes.

And our band The Silver Finger had Levon on its playlist. People never danced to it, because, you know, Elton John.

One of the rules of life was there will be exactly one midlife crisis. I mean, how many times can you buy albums from your childhood with music you didn't like? It turns out that's not a rhetorical question. The answer is almost five.

So about a decade later when the second midlife crisis kicked in — this one was milder than the first, and I already had a whole buttload of CDs with shitty 70s music — I was a bit amused. Amused, too, that I recognized that it was another midlife crisis. Hey, I had German measles when I was 5 and red measles when I was 16 — if there can be two measleses, there shonuff can be two midlife crises, right? I think the chief activity of this particular one was wondering how many other of the rules of life were also wrong or even misspelled. At this point, I also remember that the rule of life riding a bicycle is like riding a bicycle was there just so there'd be something meta and silly in the list. And when turning left in traffic, be sure to leave room for others to go around you is apparently one that's not on a lot of other peoples' rules of life list. In the second crisis, I do remember spending a lot of time wondering whatever happened to cereal boxtops? Caused in no small part, I guess, by the fact that I don't eat much cereal.

Beff probably said it best: You should never be the Chair. That has nothing to do with anything, but it can't be said enough. Actually, it's a nice mantra. I was the Chair once, and it was positively just about the least good year of my existence. Worse than red measles. Except no year-long scarring on my legs.

That does it. You should never be the Chair is now a rule of life, officially. Something needs to hold the place formerly occupied by riding a bicycle is like riding a bicycle, and this is it. Now when some well-meaning person at work turns on the guilt machine, I can fend it off with my rule of life.

Accolades do not cause midlife crises. That was not an official rule of life (in 1962 I didn't know what the word meant, so it's possible it was supposed to be one), and as it turns out, it's a good thing. Because I currently am going through the third midlife crisis, caused in no small part by an accolade, and it's the sort of accolade that is a kind of hump that sharply divides your life into my life until now and the rest of my life. No one said accolades didn't speak in vague and generic terms.

This crisis is kind of a happy crisis, as it turns out. The hump aspect has caused me to look back, mostly in soft focus, at the teachers and colleagues that had no small part in enabling the accolade. One of the first things I did when the accolade was made public was to write to my high school music teacher, Verne Colburn simply to thank him. And I was surprised as I was writing it just how many details I remembered from those four years. It turns out much was retained from the years 1972-76, even in soft focus. It turns out "thank you" takes two single spaced pages. Yes, that's a rule of life.

Here is a picture from 1974 — staged for the newspaper — of Verne handing me a $50 check as my prize for playing the first movement of the Gordon Jacob concerto — Verne was actually the accompanist in the performance — as Cindy LeBlanc, Steve Rainville and Bob Barker — also owed 50 bucks — look in in wonderment, and probably no small shock, at the gold rope that inexplicably encloses my left shoulder. Which probably has something to do with why it looks like I don't know what to do with my hands.

I have resisted the urge to write to others to thank them, as it turns out the list is pretty long, and at a certain point it starts to look creepy.

Another rule of life was you can take as long as you want to get to the point, and a lot of posts in this blog, including this one, have happily followed that rule. There has been no grudging following of that rule here, not ever, never.

And so without the benefit of an actual segue, we come to Paul Lansky. That took a while, didn't it? Paul is getting the same accolade, and for all I know he's pretty busy doing the soft focus thing, too. The it's about time thing truly applies in this case, though it's rarely expressed in italics. And we go back to 1980, the year I entered graduate school.

Put as succinctly as possible (too late), Paul singlehandedly transformed computer music from squeaks, squawks, and long passages of amoebas arguing to something living and breathing and with a sense of humor. He gave personality and humanity to computer music, and I know, that hardly sounds like me talking there. But his music is personal, has a unique voice, and is instantly recognizable as his. What's more, when he got tired of doing computer music — upon which his reputation was based — he simply walked away from it. Wow.

And the first time I met him I remember rather vividly. In January 1980, Mac Peyton advised me that I should visit Princeton, where I'd applied for grad school, saying it might increase my chances, and piling on guilt for not already knowing that. So I hastily covered myself in polyester (being allergic to wool is a bitch) and took the train to Princeton, with a new fresh recording of my Dylan Thomas setting for baritone, two trios, and offstage horn that wasn't in my application. I don't remember much about my half-day spent being a nuisance in the music building, except when I met Paul. The first thing he said was, "I feel like I know you already, since I've listened to your music." Slobbering slightly, I told him I had a new tape for my application, and he said, "let's listen." He liked it, and made special mention of the offstage horn (I did not know at the time that he had been a horn player, and that he sometimes got paid for playing horn).

At the time I was writing a bigass septet that I thought would be played by a Boston group, and it was complicated and notey and full of instrumental tricks lifted from Martino scores. And when I took the computer music course taught by Paul my first semester, one of the first things I did was to make a squeaky squawky computer representation of the opening of that weirdly complicated septet. It had all the notes and rhythms in exactly the right place, and it sounded like really big amoebas arguing and throwing dishes at each other. Paul's wry comment about the realization? "That's not your piece."

At a later stage in the writing of said septet, I took it into lessons with Milton Babbitt and with Paul. I showed a big chart of pitch fields, motives, and long range voice leading to Milton, who said, "This tells me everything." I showed the same thing to Paul, who said, "This doesn't tell me anything." This was exactly when I knew I had chosen the right graduate program.

For my next trick, I decided to try and demonstrate that if choirs sang in tune, they would go out of tune — a tautology that Ezra Sims was fond of. With the computer, I had, for the first time, micro-control of pitch; thus did I take a few tonal chorales I had written for my sister's church choir, and programmed them in such that fifths and thirds were pure; over the course of just eight bars, the chorale, having pure intervals and being perfectly in tune, went flat a little more than a quarter tone. When I explained this and played it for Paul, he said, "I don't think you're doing what you really want to do."

He was talking about my turgid and notey compositional work of the time. And it's the wisest thing a composition teacher said to me. About fifteen years later, I realized he was right. Because Davy is a slow learner. You're not doing what you really want to do.

Since I had demonstrated facility with the computer — I learned the EXEC and EXEC2 macro programming languages on the IBM 3081 available to us all — I soon became Paul's teaching assistant when he taught the computer music course. Of course, a lot of the programs I wrote simply typed a naughty word back at you when you typed their names, but eventually I got good enough to write a program that would move the cursor in a search to the correct place rather than refreshing the whole screen and moving the cursor — one that Paul asked for, since he did a lot of work from home on a slow modem.

And slow. Computing was slow and cumbersome then, but at the time we didn't realize it because it was cutting edge. In the first class I TA'ed, Paul showed us how to do LPC -- linear predictive coding, it turns out (what did you think it meant? Lollapalooza Pooping Constantly?). Our minds were selectively blown by the power that it gave you to change pitch and speed independently of sampled sounds. But the sampling itself was cumbersome, and using LPC was also cumbersome — since the only storage option for such stuff at the time was very large digital tapes, upon which we would put our data, and then truck over to another building entirely for playback to see if what we tried worked. Making microadjustments meant another trip to return the tape, changing some numbers, getting the tape back, repeat.

Given all that, Paul's Campion Fantasies, which were quite recent, and available on vinyl, were miracles. While the rest of us were busy giving voice to amoebas, Paul was busy making beautiful and nuanced music. This track here was one I listened to over and over, being as I've always been a big fan of tight scoring. It was probably the first piece of electronic music I heard about which I didn't immediately think Boy that must have been a lot of work. And hey — here is Paul doing Whitacre before Whitacre was doing Whitacre. Being that said Whitacre was 8 years old at the time.

One of the other movements of this piece has an incredible moment where you hear the words "But still ... but still but still ..." where there is an opening up of ... well, of something I won't try to mansplain. Paul simply called that movement an apotheosis of the comb filter. Yeah, he was doing études before I was. And it's about more than comb filters.

One of our graduate colleagues had a Commodore 64 that he brought to our rented house once so we could play around with the goofy speech synthesis program. We played weird games wherein we would type numbers and use them as parts of words (for instance, fornik8 and 0-bber took my jewels), and then we got the brilliant idea to use the robot voice as the message on our answering machine.

You've reached 609-448-9214. Davy is bouncing on his bed. Martin is doing LIMEY things. Beth is playing with the cat. Please leave a message.

It sounded really dumb, just the kind of dumb that grad students think is really funny. Shortly thereafter, we got a string of messages left on the incoming message tape. Hee hee, hee hee it's just Lansky. I wanted to hear it again. *click* Hee hee. Lansky again. *click* Hee hee. Hee hee.

Soon after we had gotten a cat (it was an abandoned cat given to us), we discovered or rediscovered that we were all allergic in varying degrees. So when Paul came to visit us once, we were complaining about sneezing and sniffling, and Paul told us One thing you don't do is you don't rub them in your face. It was very good advice.

Paul's kids (Jonah and Caleb) were very small at the time, a fact that most people attributed to them being very young, and he brought them to the end-of-school-year picnic and softball game the department always had. I recall having to pitch to a very small Lansky in one game, and of course you want the kids to get a hit. He hit the ball maybe 6 feet, and I made a special point of fielding the ball badly and throwing to first base wildly so he would get on base. I think Paul must have liked that, or at least I hope he did. I also think he scored.

For one semester, I was the worst ear training teacher ever for Paul's theory class, and to that end, I got to see him teach a few classes. He was relaxed and straightforward, with nary a Roman numeral as far as the ear could hear. There were lots of what-ifs to show why the final composer choice was a good one. And, well, I teach theory that way, too. Except for the part about the Roman numerals.

I always looked forward to the first lecture in the computer music course when he described what sampling was. He would gesture at one of the speakers in the classroom, speculate what it would be like to have the ability to write down the exact position of the vibrating part of the speaker as fast as 28,000 times every second, and then be able to recreate that sound by spitting those numbers back at the speaker. And then he explained Nyquist frequency as being like the wagon wheels in old Westerns that seem to spin backwards. Brilliant. And since LPC worked a lot with formants, he explained how formants are how we understand and differentiate vowel sounds, and he did an ee-ow-oo-oy-oo-ee thing with his own voice to demonstrate which partials were being attenuated when he changed the shape of the inside of his mouth. Indeed, he made a cassette of himself doing the same thing, every once in a while interjecting oo-eee-oh-oh-ah...eleventh partial ... ee-oh-ee-oooh-ee...thirteenth partial .... which, if it were a commercially recorded piece, I would buy it.

In one of our lessons, and apparently after a long slog with a complicated dissertation, Paul got all cosmic and asked me, "What would your music be like if you didn't have octave equivalence?" I was silent just long enough to make it look like I had some idea what he was talking about, and said, "It'd be different. That's for sure."

At the end of my stay in Princeton, I established a dossier in the office, just in case I ever wanted to apply for a teaching job. I asked for letters from all of the faculty for the dossier, and Paul's came in pretty quick. When I was about to embark on the four unpointful years of part-time word processing jobs for hardly any money, I checked with Didi Waltman in the office about the dossier. She said Yes, and here's your letter from Paul. She looked over it, and nodded, and nodded, and remarked, "Ooh. 'a natural rapport with students!'". So yes. I guess Paul wrote me a nice letter.

Paul and I kept in touch — we always had lunch when I was in town for whatever reason, and that was perhaps a good thing. Because, you know, I had a dossier, and suddenly I found myself with a teaching job, and Paul gave me very good advice on negotiating salary — twice. The teaching jobs really wanted me to have a doctorate, and for that I needed to write a dissertation. Which I had done once, really crappily. The reader I had inherited was a sumbitch, and had no helpful hints about how to write a dissertation that he would like. He simply said no, not really, don't think so, this sucks. So you see I was at loggerheads.

And then out of the blue, Peter Westergaard and Paul wrote me and offered to lift me out of the diss doldrums, calling my situation in the letter Poor Fit With Reader. And by the way, they did that, too, with Beff, who had the same reader and the same problem. So Paul was my new reader. He, too, admitted that what I'd written sucked, but he actually told me why, and how to fix it. Woo hoo! I needed a thesis (facepalm) and I couldn't just describe things and let all my observations just evaporate. So he suggested a thesis, I ran with it, and I wrote my fucking dissertation. I'm pretty sure I would not be typing this as a doctor if Paul and Peter had not intervened.

And in the meantime — several of the chapters of my dissertation became lectures in theory classes. Indeed, this post and this post are adapted from things in my dissertation. Thanks, Paul. Dissertation: born, 1989. Filed, 1996. R.I.P. And the sumbitch? No hard feelings (not really). In gratitude, I promised to let him know he was a stud at least once per year for 16 years — which was the time from matriculation to Doctor — and I did.

Ever since we killed off the diss, Paul and I send music to each other (I have a lot of CDs from him in my collection and he probably has every one of mine) and we make nice comments about it. We have a mutual admiration society going, and I especially like listening to (and watching) the percussion ensemble music. It's inventive and fun, and, if I may, efficient. I have used the online videos in my orchestration class.

And then I was paid the ultimate compliment: he dedicated a piece to me (I had dedicated Scatter to him in 1991, so in this case, I still win).

Our most recent encounter was lunch two years ago in Princeton, where Beff and I had come for a thing with the Institute for Advanced Study. It was good to see him for the first time in quite a few years, and we asked him to pose with John Phillip Sousa, which I had procured from the US Marine Band. I'm glad he obliged. The reason he looks so relaxed is that he is mere months from retirement.

And now the accolade. I'm thrilled to share it with my teacher, my mentor, my dissertation reader, my friend. It's about time. When I wrote him to congratulate him, he responded, simply, I'm proud of you.

Thank you, Paul.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

And then I was anthologized

Yes, anthologized. Whenever I think of the word anthology, I think of the e.e. cummings poem quoted in this article. What rhymes with anthologist? Well, gist. And mist and missed and du bist, and tryst and list, and, and, and ... 

So the fourth edition of Steve Laitz's The Complete Musician (Oxford University Press) textbook is being rolled out, and it features an anthology of music used in the text, plus some other pieces with piercing study questions. I'm not aware that there is much in the way of analysizationness of the later music in the anthology. And the living composers tucked in at the end are Sam Adler, John Corigliano, Joan Tower, Tan Dun, me, and Gusty Thomas. Woo hoo! That order isn't random: it goes by date of birth. Which makes me the penultimately youngest composer in it. What rhymes with penultimately? Well, ultimately. And ately, though that's not a word.

The prose in the actual textbook is quite good, and the organization and splainin' of concepts very, very good. I've been saying I would use this textbook for Theory 1 when it came out only because my music is in it. As it turns out, I think I'll use it for Theory 1 because it is so very good. And have I mentioned that my music is in it?

It also turns out that on the first of the two pages talking about my pieces, my name is spelled three different ways, including the correct one. Though just to be helpful to OUP, I might start using the other two on occasion.

Incidentally, the two pieces are the 84th and 85th piano études. That makes them consecutive.

When this was being assembled, I was asked by Steve to do a substantial piece analyzing or otherwise talking about the two études. And it did take me some time, since I don't write about music, and I certainly don't write about my music other than liner notes and program notes. Of course, writing about your own music is like Photoshopping your own picture — I always end up with hair, and oh, what happened to that big forehead wrinkle? So I thought those notes would be included in the anthology, but mostly they were referenced by Steve's study questions. Firstly, though. Karl Larson's premiere performances of them from so long ago, thanks to YouTube. I blogged about making the trip to Mass MOCA to record this performance here. Of all the YouTube videos made with an iPod Nano, these are two of them.

And now with all that in mind, here is the silly text that I wrote on this assignment. Yes, the pieces are related — did you notice both starting on repeated Ds and ending with low C# and high D and E? Now you did.


What’s Hairpinning and Diminishing Return are part of a series of a hundred études for piano that I composed from 1988 to 2010. The études started out as compositional respites —playgrounds where I could monkey around with ideas and play games with notes when I was stuck in a larger piece.  They were little obsessive pieces designed to cultivate compositional spontaneity, in contrast to the larger pieces, which took a lot of thinking and planning, and lots of revising.

I set up four rules for étude-writing: composition time is limited to six days (because that’s how long it took to write the first one); they are obsessive about one thing, which is stated on the score; there is no a priori formal design; and revision is not allowed (only restarting the composition is allowed). The rules encouraged a sort of seat-of-the-pants compositional thinking that I found refreshing, and which affected my thinking in larger pieces. A lot of the études tended to follow a simple formal arc of expositional music, developmental music, and a crisis (an accumulation of texture, notes, and/or dynamics that create tension and a need for an explosive resolution) that spawns a kind of return. Both What’s Hairpinning and Diminishing Return follow that design.

The études, too, presented me with the opportunity to develop a way of thinking harmonically (through trial and error) that eventually brought me to a lot of what hipsters like to call jazz chords (I have a clarinet quintet entitled Take Jazz Chords, Make Strange), and I grew to love and embrace the open, third-saturated sonorities in particular voicings because they sound great on the piano. Plus there is a wide palette within such sonorities of degrees of perceived dissonance, and they tend to be very suggestive of a harmonic direction, of a place to go next. I have never used so-called jazz chords functionally (it’s more fun to make them strange), but at times it has felt like I was inventing new functions for familiar chords — old wine in new skins. Both the pieces at hand are rife with jazz chords, not the least among them the big cadential chord of Hairpinning in bar 56 and the sharp chords in Diminishing at bar 61.

In this space, I am wearing two hats: I am playing the role both of composer and of theorist; they are very different animals. As composer, I invent a kind of maze and discover a path through it that makes sense to me at one particular point in time; as theorist, I step back and get a third person aerial view of my former self making the maze and the path through it, and I try to make decisions about how I made decisions. I rarely remember anything about the actual act of composing except for intentions going in. Since the point of writing the études was to cultivate spontaneity, it is likely that at least some of what Rakowski-theorist is telling you about this music concerns creative decisions that were intuited rather than deeply considered (or at least Rakowski-composer thought he intuited them). In performing them, in listening to them, and in analyzing them, though, there is little point in making a distinction between the two. That wall is porous.

Also note that I use the words breathe and cadence in the ensuing text. These pieces clearly hew to the tension-and-release model, and they breathe like living organisms. Cadences (cadere, to fall) are for me where there is an arrival, an exhalation, a release of tension, which are accomplished in several ways: an accumulation of texture to a goal moment, a slowing of harmonic rhythm, a voice-leading goal achieved, or a number of other ways. Cadences are also hierarchical: some are weaker than others, and feel like places to breathe that are on their way to stronger cadences, which may articulate structural points. 

I consider thee two pieces to be a related pair. Both open with repeated D4s, and both end with the same sonority of C#1 D4 E5.  They both hang on to the repeated Ds for a significant portion of the piece before a thickening of texture and increase in dynamics create a kind of crisis and pushes them out; they both expand registrally in a slow and deliberate way; and in both the harmonic rhythm is slow to start, and much faster in the developmental music.

What’s Hairpinning’s premise is of strands of equal repeated notes with dynamic swells (a sort of appropriation of the pulsing chords common in Adams and Reich); the strands can go at different speeds simultaneously. The strands also swell independently, sometimes making a counterpoint of as many as four different swelling voices. The effect is that of a slow, pretty chorale that thickens and thins, with a kind of out-of-focus melody outlined by the notes emerging in the swells. The hairpinning of the title also applies to the way the texture hairpins from one to as many as six voices and back several times in the piece.

The piece seems to consist of three large breaths followed by a final exhalation — or three sections and a coda, articulated by large-scale swells. Each of those swells starts with a single voice and expands to four, five, or six voices, and recedes back to one voice. Each mains section is more complex than the previous one, meaning that what I call the crisis moment (the moment of maximum textural thickness and dynamic complexity) ends the third one.

The first section spans mm. 1-22, is harmonically static, and starts and ends with repeated Ds in eighths. Eventually repeated dotted eighths are added. A six-note quasi-diatonic chord that happens to be contained within the D Lydian scale is the only harmony, fixed in register — N.B. I thought of this as a harmony with a particular neutral quality rather than a composing-out of a scale. Single notes and double notes swell, perhaps implying some sort of melody. The section ends when the notes of the chord are gradually stripped away and its opening D in eighths is heard by itself again.

The second section, mm. 23-38 adds some new complications. The armor of the fixed-register chord is slowly dismantled, (while D4 stays put), first with the introduction of G4 (paired with the familiar G# now spelled as A-flat) in 23, given a swell as it descends a half-step to the familiar F#. The descending half-step will become motivic, as G-F# happens again, seemingly dragging down the higher C# to C with it in 28, making a weak cadence. Things get stranger when G#3 at the bottom moves up to B-flat, where a new high point, E, happens. The texture expands to four parts, then five, then six, new notes are added, C# sighs to C, a new lower extreme of F# is established, and it too sighs the descending half-step to F; at the same time, the C moves to B, creating a cadential confluence on what can only be described as a strange chord. While this has happened, the number of swells has increased, and the swells have sometimes crunched together. That chord in 37 feels cadential yet strange — it is made up of B-flat major 6/4 triad with a first inversion E minor triad above it, which is a more active sonority (and an octatonic one) than the D Lydian that introduced the piece, and it feels as if it’s on its way rather than a goal (like a half cadence), and especially more active than the whole-tone sonority in 36 that we passed through on the way to this octatonic moment. The isolated repeated G#4s in eighths that emerge pile on the strangeness — it’s the first time the opening D4 is absent, and there is the feeling that we’re not very close to the beginning any more.

The third section (mm. 39-61) is the most complex, as it adds a new pulsing rhythm of quarter note triplets to the mix, while also expanding registrally and texturally, often with as many as three independent simultaneous swells (which is pretty hard to play). In this section the descending half-step explodes into all the voices, eventually spawning a long passage in which all parts are doin’ it, and pretty fast, in mm. 52-55. This seems to create the greatest instability — given how fast the parts are moving in comparison to the first third of the piece, when they didn’t move at all — that it creates a mini-explosion solved by the stasis at m. 56; this would seem to be the piece’s biggest cadence; the sense of arrival here is further enhanced by the new low extreme of F2 and by the fact that the swells in the parts are temporarily no longer independent.

I felt this arrival chord had to be held onto for a long time in order to balance the rather long stasis with which the piece began, so it holds on for six whole bars. When it finally finishes its business, the opening D — which has been suppressed for so long and only got into the chord in the sneakiest possible way — emerges, but now it’s slower than it used to be. I probably thought of that as a pretty obvious composer-signal that we’re just about done and we’re in a coda — or that metaphorically the D-machine has been ground down by the gravity of the piece and it can’t go as fast any more.

All that remained, in my mind, was cleanup, and more stasis as the final counterweight to the opening. The D stays around to the bitter end, never changing speed, and contextualized within voices in other parts that spin out a little bit of the descending motion motive in parallel ninths, from 63 to 67. Bar 67 feels cadential, like the end. The actual ending, what with the suddenly very low C#1 sustained and a brief E5 way up top is meant to feel a little bit WTF — recapturing bits of the opening harmony, but in the wrong registers. I decided this would be picked up in a subsequent étude.

Diminishing Return was written while I was pounding my head against the wall about the opening of a very big piece. Thus did I bring back the repeated D thing from Hairpinning, but this time as a wild-eyed, take-no prisoners virtuosic piece of extreme crazy. I had already been using fast fadeaway repeated-note licks in several pieces, and this was a new way for me to use them — simple, short, caveman gestures which, as the stated premise of the étude, were everywhere. As is frequently the case with gestural premises, what starts as foreground turns eventually into a kind of accompaniment, on top of which another layer emerges.

The sectional division is pretty clear, as sections are articulated by immediate textural changes. The first, expository, section — which establishes the premise, hangs onto a fixed-register harmony for a long time before slowly punching its way outward — spans bars 1 to 34. The second, developmental, section also begins stuck in register, but with octaves being the hip new thing, and, finally, an opening up in harmony and register that expands faster and faster, especially in the bass, to the downbeat of 56. The crazy rising passage that follows is transition to the coda, which starts in bar 62.

In my mind’s eye, the fast fading repeated note gesture were like blobs of paint flung at a wall and spattering. Using lots of them overlapped would not only be virtuosic and it would not only sound cool, but it gave me a visual sense of what was going on. Thus after the fadeaway gesture is established on that same D and harmonized only with B a third lower, I added the next layer: sforzando chords that were like paint guns that also shot splatters, and that created the piece’s harmony — and a really cool looking spatterwall.

The sforzando chords create what is, at first, static harmony — arpeggiation of an octatonic sonority around D. Once I had all these balls in the air, I simply played with trying to move the harmony, one voice at a time, as if this were a slow chorale (which in the deepest sense it is), at first around the pedal D, then displacing it, and then returning to it. As in Hairpinning, the register remains quite constricted even as the sforzandos become more frequent and wilder, yet none of them represent something cadential; the piece is failing to take anything but the shallowest of breaths. By m. 31, the opening D has been pushed out, and it is as if a crazy melody is trying to emerge in the left hand. The failure of the melody to emerge, along with the very shallow breathing, created a crisis and an upbeat for an explosive re-emergence of D, this time in octaves. The piece takes a big, big breath, and thus does this feel like a sectional ending.

The second section starts in m. 35 when that D re-emerges, now paired with octave C#s a minor ninth lower (rather than higher, as at the outset). This was a conscious reference to the ending of Hairpinning. Octaves starting the fadeaway gestures were the next level of difficulty for the pianist, to which, beginning in 39, brief octatonic motives were added in the middle finger group of the right hand while the Ds continued.

The static D-C# that starts this section was felt like a traditional pedal point — one that begins as a stabilizing tone which is eventually pushed out by being made dissonant. It felt like the gestures and the shifting octatonic harmony were creating a big need for release — which finally happens in 44 when the C# moves to C natural. This moment felt like such a dramatic release that, from here, things changed quickly. The frustrated left-hand tune tries starting again in 46, and eventually the repeated notes in the right hand break apart into zonky descending bebop licks, in 49 — that’s the melody that was trying to emerge in the first section, and finally it is able to do so. The bebop licks continue unfettered, making their way down to the bottom of the instrument, thus creating another crisis (there’s no room to go any lower, is there?) that reaches its apex on the downbeat of 56. In response, the piece very methodically picks itself back up, overlaps rising fadeaway gestures, culminating in two explode chords in 61.

It seemed like the only possible thing to do next was return to the opening, fragmented, as a coda, with a tail of bebop licks going down again. This time the licks stop at C#1, to which D and E, as in the end of Hairpinning, tail off, creating a parallel ending to Hairpinning.

I find it rewarding to listen to these two pieces in sequence, in either order. It feels like looking at two faces of a many-sided polygon.


And so that is literally what I wrote. That's what was written, and by me.

Wait, I was anthologized? That rhymes with hypnotized. And recognized. And, and, and...

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Études Volume 3

YouTube made this playlist — the third étude CD on Bridge. Liner notes will be found a ways down here. You can also view this playlist on YouTube, where you can see the entire list.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Metadata is forever

So Michael Lipsey commissioned a bunch of us to write hand drum pieces for him about a decade ago, he concertized with them and recorded them, and the recording made it onto all the streaming services — with the usual host of metadata boo-boos.

To wit, my piece for talking drum and tabla which I called Mr. Trampoline Man (me so funny) got entered into the metadata as David Rakowski, by composer Michael Lipsey. Want it fixed? Never gonna happen. Metadata is forever.

Also of note. YouTube autogenerated this movie for reasons unknown.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ten of a Kind

My first band piece since high school, and I benefitted from Michael Colburn's advice "don't write a band piece. We have lots of band pieces. Write your music, for band." You need ten virtuoso clarinetists in the same room, which doesn't happen all that often. As Beff noted, "even the alto clarinet part is virtuosic."

Not only did I get paid to write it — the guys in the production room did the parts, and I got a free trip to Lucerne (the one in Switzerland) at taxpayer expense. for the 2001 WASBE Conference. What I remember most was a complicated coffee maker right out there in public for anyone to use. So I did. Also the instrument collection at the former Wagner summer house (we saw the staircase where Siegfried Idyll was premiered) and the Picasso museum — mostly late-in-life pornographic drawings from Picasso's dirty old man period.

This is the edited studio version, recorded in 2001 at George Mason University. It also appears on my Martian Counterpoint album on Albany records.

There is an idée fixe-cantus firmus thing in all the movements. Its most obvious manifestation is the double reed solo in the B section of the third movement. It's also the trumpet melody in the fanfare that opens the whole piece.

I. Labyrinth. This movement was written last, thus it benefits from knowing everything else that's going to happen in the piece. It also has a whole bunch of metric modulations, and some pretty apeshit writing at the end.

II. Song Stylings. This was the first movement written, and thus the tune that emerged became that cantus firmus thing. It ends with an expanding chord progression, the last being ten notes. The two notes not in that chord become the opening tutti of the next movement.

III. Yoikes And Away. A scherzo about overstated climaxes, each more overstated than the last. The last gesture is like Daffy Duck slamming into a tree and then sliding down it. Hence the title.

IV. Martian Counterpoint. Some of the most complicated counterpoint I've ever written. Of the bass clarinet solo in the middle, the original player said "you must really love or really hate your wife." The ending reprises the ending of II, lingering on that ten-note chord, followed by a silly flourish to end.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Bogan songs

These are my first published songs, and were the first vocal music I had written in 10 years. 1989, when these were written, is a very long time ago, but it didn't seem that way at the time.

Judy Bettina was my colleague during my year at Stanford, and we hit it off. So she asked for songs, and this is what happened. The third song, To Be Sung on the Water, took a very, very long time to write because I kept chucking stuff — and thanks, of course, to Ross Bauer, for whom I played an early draft of that song, and his reaction was lukewarm. "Not up to your usual standards" is how I remember it being phrased. See, that's what a good composition teacher does. Ross was not my composition teacher.

And it turns out the song is pretty. Plus it has one fractional time signature.

Cassandra was originally written as an unaccompanied song, and I heard Judy do it that way swimmingly soon after I wrote it. The lush textures of the other two, though, convinced me I should add a piano part to it. Which I did, while keeping the vocal line exactly the same. And adding more wedges to the counterpoint at the end.

Late might have been loosely aggregate-based, I don't recall exactly. Marty Boykan liked it, and assigned it as a generals piece in about 1991. So three papers have been written on it. One of them speculated that I like pop music.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The interval études

One of the what's-the-étude-about strands is intervals, as in Debussy's piano études. Here are a bunch of them. Missing from this cavalcade are Twilight (on melodic thirds) and Pitching from the Stretch (on tenths), since there are no videos or auto-generated videos on YouTube.

Seconds (N.B. this is the first étude video ever shot. Note butterfingers camerawork)


no video or recording of Twilight.








no video or recording of Pitching from the Stretch on YouTube.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Zio davino dot net

This blog now has its own domain, Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Incidentally, check out the mobile blog. It's my new tumblr/old mobile blog. Its new URL is

The music blog is now at

And my old, classic blog is

All of them for less than the cost of a bottle of Brunello.

davy@ or zio@ any one of those domains will send an e-mail to me.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

I can arrange that

And then there is the issue of arranging existing pieces. A lot of composers make a special effort to go to a Polynesian restaurant just for the Pu-Pu Platter so that there is plenty of resonance when they pooh-pooh the notion of arranging arrangements. There is, after all, a cult within a cult within a cult within a cult of composition-by-buttstik in which the music and the ideas for the music flow from the nature of the instruments themselves. You know, you don't write open-string double stops for saxophone — am I right? Am I right? Ich hab' recht. Kein scheiß.

The other thing, of course is the spelling of pooh-pooh. If you poo-poo something, then literally it is scheiß, and if you pu-pu it, well, at least there's a lot of variety in cuisine, and it's largely bite-sized. But in the pooh-pooh spelling, are we setting up a Winnie-Winnie situation? Very small minds want to know. Which is why I'm glad I don't want to know.

Well, okay. Famously, lots of Bach's music is transcriptions of his other music. For you see, he was a cult within a cult within a cult, having never broken through to the fourth level. Beethoven orchestrated one of his piano sonata movements in order for it to serve as incidental music (thanks, Dalit). And how many of us would know Pictures at an Exhibition without Ravel? Hey, we had a whole pile of supermarket classical CDs in the house (bound together on metal rods and secured by flywheel screws) and, though we never listened to it in the house (Judy Collins and Bobby Vinton singing in Polish were on auto-repeat), I do remember seeing that there was a composer in the pile whose name was Moussorgsky-Ravel. A hyphenated name from the old country. And incidentally, I added a syllable in my mind: Mussogorsky, possibly a relative of Piatogorsky, who, at the time, I hadn't heard of. And the last two syllables? Pronounced exactly like the last two syllables of unravel. As in, at the time, Saint-Säëñs was the Un-Ravel.

In the fifteen minutes spent on copyright issues in grad school, you learn that arrangements are derivative works. If composer B arranges composer A's work for different forces, then composer A owns the copyright on composer B's arrangement. Composer B can fret and fume about non-payment for all his or her work, but since the underlying music belongs to Composer A, so do all the arrangements of it. To wit, when I was an undergrad, a colleague-in-undergradness wrote Bernstein's publisher to ask if there were a saxophone version of the clarinet sonata. The publisher wrote back saying no, but they'd give him $100 (or something like that) if he would arrange it. Which is a lot more than if he had taken the initiative to make the arrangement and then just sent it to the publisher. In which case, the publisher would have been within their rights to send him a MWA ha ha It's All Ours Now letter.

I first arranged something of mine way back in high school. I had written a pretty, auf-Persichetti piano piece that I would play whether or not anyone was within earshot. A clarinetist and a saxophonist from our church, thinking it cute that I was a composer now, asked if I'd write something for them to play together. Rather than revealing the truth that they both sucked as players, eew, I arranged the auf piece, and made sure I was never within earshot when they played it.

Then somehow through conservatory training, and the prevailing gestalt, I joined that cult within a cult within a cult within a cult. It was a lot of work to do that, since I had to learn four different secret handshakes. My handshakes brought all the boys to the yard, and that was just weird. That violin and piano piece I wrote for Ken Sugita? WOW, was it all about the violin and about the piano. It was serious, and full of thought. Thought oozed from every pore of it, and even though the "ugh" was silent, it was something experienced by all who looked at it. For it was one of those pulseless, highly syncopated things using lots of ink that, in 1979, were supposed to get awards.

Yes, ink. Not toner.

And then I got into Tanglewood.

On my, uh, seventh try. Each try was a different year, by the way. I didn't send in seven applications all in the same year. Because that would be silly. And expensive.

Good things come to them what waits.

Russell Hershow, Theodore Antoniou, T'wood premiere
And it was well known by me that a piece of mine would be played at Tanglewood by some of tomorrow's stars (tomorrow was only a day away, at the time), and by lots of them if I wanted. I wanted a performance of a big piece! Size mattered! But full orchestra was out of the question, and my one orchestra piece (the one I wrote in order to have an orchestra piece for grad school applications) sucked anyway. So, quickly and without much thought, I arranged the violin and piano piece for violin and a chamber orchestra of eighteen instruments. Why eighteen? Because I thought I could reuse it if I ever got into the Johnson (now Wellesley) Composers Conference, and I used pretty much the whole complement of instruments available. Greedy me. I was taking all the complementary angles I could.
Davy takes bow after premiere. 1982.

So of course the instrumental writing was full of overwriteyness, but it got played, and played very nicely. The soloist was but 18 at the time, and now he plays in the Chicago Symphony. And there were two or three nice things in my arrangement, including a breathing place where a D# seemed to resolve to E in an A-majorish atonal context.

But only eight minutes of music for those big forces? Was I crazy? (One word answer: ask again later. Yes, that's three words because I'm a heavy tipper). So I made up a story. This is the finale of a concerto. Yeah, that's the ticket. The finale of a concerto. They bought it!

And, oh, by the way. When I got back to graduate school after Tanglewood, I wrote two more movements to go in front of it, which became known as the first and second movements. And by the time I did go to the Composers Conference the next year, there were two movements for them to play. With Rolf Schulte as the soloist! For a while that recording was my big (literally) hit, and it was on cassette. Good things come to those whose big hits are on cassette.

Years later, CF Peters took the violin and piano piece for publication, it got engraved, and sold almost, oh, 37 copies. It's a big score. Since I signed over copyright, that meant they also owned the concerto — because it is a derivative work! At the time, when I was seeking resumé lines, it was cool, because two new published works turns out to be twice as many as one new published work. With STEM in place now, that ratio is under review.

And the issue of arranging? Assigning arrangements of piano pieces for various instrumental forces is the way I (and billions of others) teach orchestration. One fine February vacation when I only had a few blank working days to spare, I decided to orchestrate my Zipper Tango piano étude, possibly in the future to be a demo piece for Orchestration of How I Did It, See?. Which was immediately and unexpectedly weird, because I was hearing saxophone for the opening tune, and saxophone is an "extra" in the orchestra (they don't get tenure). Thus were gears shifted for me (in my head), and I arranged it for band instead. Even though the only band music I'd written to this point (other than in high school) was stuff with ten clarinets going apeshit all the time.

And then, dammit, that opening tune kept going higher and outside of the saxophone range. So I got to demonstrate, for myself, that handoff thing that I always talked about in Orchestration. Sax hands off the tune to clarinets, rolls right, and the clarinets gain 4 yards. The play is now under review. Then, metric modulation, oh baby. Because bands do metric modulations all the time, right? Or at least soon they would. Because, you know.

I sent it to Michael Colburn at The President's Own for his feedback. He said a 3-1/2 minute band piece doesn't have legs (and it would be weird if it literally did, and if it did, how many would there be?). If it's part of a set that's 10-15 minutes, well, then he said the band, and other bands, might give it a go. No, he didn't suddenly become British.

Moosehead Pond in Maine
And so that summer (we were vacationing on Moosehead Pond in Maine) I revisited the four existing so-called vernacular études — tango, bop, stride, rock and roll — and arranged them for band as best I could in the mornings, given the size of my brain. Of course, since Peters owned the rights to the piano études, thus did they also own the rights to the new derivative work. Woo hoo!

And the band premiered it/them at the Midwest Clinic that year. They sprung for a schmancy hotel room for me and Beff, and I got to introduce it, standing there as if I wore a suit regularly. At the event, I met Donald Hunsberger (woo hoo!) who went out of his way (he had to step around an oboist) to praise Ten of a Kind, and we were off.

Incidentally, I didn't hear a runthrough before the premiere because the Marine Band's plane was co-opted by a General who was certain he needed it more. Thus were they a day late to the festivities, arriving just in time for the sound check.

Years later, Michael recorded the piece for a whole CD of piano pieces arranged for band, and today the band posted the recordings on Yout' Oob. How good are they? When he sent me the second edits for commentary, my comment was We fall off the edge of the earth. He probably thought I was talking in code, and he was polite enough not to send a return e-mail containing only the text "????".

Here they are in all their glory: the band arrangement of each étude, followed by the original piano piece. So there. Thanks to the vagaries of Yout' Oob, it's possible to listen to both the arrangement and the original simultaneously, if being so inclined to do so is something you are right now.

Zipper Tango, tango-étude on grace notes. Originally written for Amy Briggs's tango project.

Bop It, bop étude. Geoff Burleson asked for it after I'd written a stride étude.

Strident, stride piano étude. Amy Briggs asked for it. (In the arrangement, I cop to harmon mute abuse and especially to vibraslap abuse)

Moody's Blues (suggested by Rick Moody), rock and roll étude, Jerry Lee Lewis style, on repeated chords.

And they all rolled over, and one fell out. I use it in Orchestration as an example of arranging piano music for band. Winnie-Winnie.

Post Scriptum. I was asked, but not in the passive voice, about orchestrating a piano glissando into band. Here's what I did. Thank goodness for the miracle of cut and paste in Finale.