Saturday, May 27, 2017

My Naumburg speech

In 2006, I was elevated (if that is the word) to the Walter W. Naumburg Chair at Brandeis. At the time, all new Endowed Chair people were feted at events honoring them, at which the Provost and Dean attended; the Provost did the introducing, and there were refreshments afterwards. This doesn't happen any more, and I kind of wish it didn't happen then.

Nonetheless. I wrote and delivered a speech. Here's what happened.

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I don’t do a lot of public speaking — actually, I don’t do any — and I’ve certainly never been called on to give a talk before such an accomplished and erudite crowd such as has gathered here. I did read somewhere, though – or maybe I saw it on TV – that public speeches are supposed to begin with a joke. And since this is such an accomplished and erudite crowd, I realize I can’t use just any joke – all the ones I know are either beneath such an accomplished and erudite crowd, or are musicians-only. So I made it my summer project (along with a few other things) to make up just the right joke for this occasion. For such an accomplished and erudite crowd. I don’t mind saying I’m at least as proud of this joke as I am of the piano quintet and the flute trio I wrote this summer.

Before I tell it, I should let you know that the joke has been test-marketed. I was at the artist colony Yaddo this summer, and I ran it by the writers, visual artists and composers who were in residence there. Maybe fifteen percent got it right away. Another fifteen percent got it after long pensive stares. The other seventy needed it explained. The same seventy percent said it wan’t funny anyway.

I then test-marketed the joke to my Music 103 class at Brandeis. There was a 100 percent laugh response. Which goes to show you: Brandeis students are incredibly sophisticated — either that or they’re really good at sucking up to faculty.

I realize that it’s too late now to start with a joke. So I’ll just tell it, and move on.

There’s no “eye” in Oedipus.



I’m honored and humbled to be awarded the Naumburg Chair in Composition. The composers who have preceded me in it are in the history books – literally. Irving Fine, Arthur Berger and Harold Shapero represented the American neoclassical school along with Copland and they were represented in a substantial portion in the textbook I had when I took music history as an undergraduate in 1977. Fine’s String Symphony, Berger’s Septet, Shapero’s Symphony – all received serious disquisition. And I must note here that I had very significant encounters with the music of all of them as part of my undergraduate experience. In particular, I sang in the New England Conservatory chorus when it toured with and recorded Fine’s Hour-Glass Suite (I could probably write out the “White Lily” movement from memory); and I went nuts over Berger’s Septet when the NEC Contemporary Ensemble played it – I bought the score and record and studied it pretty closely on my own. Yehudi Wyner wasn’t in my book in 1977 but the work he did after coming to Brandeis – the Horntrio and the piano concerto in particular – most certainly has put him in the latest edition.

These are pretty daunting shoes to fill. By comparison, I feel like a beginner, someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing.For once I can say I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants and not sound pompous. Hmm, actually, I can’t.

I also want to say that I am honored to serve in the same program that has had as faculty Seymour Shifrin, Eddie Cohen, Conrad Pope, Allen Anderson, Marty Boykan, Eric Chasalow and Yu-Hui Chang – every one a composer of great distinction, personality, originality and imagination. Despite our program’s small size, we continue to be one of the most distinguished in the country. And the unfailing support we have had from Brandeis has been crucial in gaining and retaining that distinction.

The first Naumburg Chair was awarded to Irving Fine when I was one year old. Now I’m more than twice that age, and I am tickled to report the fact that, full circle, I am now teaching Irving Fine’s granddaughter, Nina Hurwitz, in music theory. Nina declared a music major last week, on the composition track – I wonder what it’s like to enter a building and every time be greeted by a bust of your grandfather, always with the same expression. And by the way – Nina laughed at the joke. No “eye” in Oedipus.

Many thanks to Palle Yourgrau, the first Chaired professor to give such a talk as this, for his advice on what to do in mine. I can only hope one day to know as much music as he does — he already knows at least as much philosophy as I do. I’m going to say a bit about my formative years, and sorry about this, I’m going to get a little technical on occasion. Then there will be a little video.

I want to start by relating a personal story about the beginning of my formal education in composition. I came to New England Conservatory in 1976 as a composition major from St. Albans, Vermont, deep in a dairy farming region, not exactly wild about the arts, and a city economically depressed since the railroad business it used to do moved to Canada. I knew very little music, but my ears perked up at the gentle “modern” music I played at music festivals – what I was writing in high school blithely imitated that music. When I got to NEC, I was told that composers sang in the chorus for two years, and that I would have to audition to sing a really tough piece that was being done with the Boston Symphony in a mere month and a half. It was a large atonal piece called “Chronicles” by a composer named Seymour Shifrin from some nearby college called Brandeis. In the audition I had to sightread some frightfully disjunct lines with difficult rhythms, but I made it through, and I was admitted into the chorus. Lorna Cooke deVaron drilled us mercilessly, got us to feel and sing the lines as real melodies, stopped often to tune the strange chords, and slowly whipped us into shape. It was a real challenge, especially for the voice majors who would rather have been singing Mozart arias, but the more we rehearsed, the more natural the music felt. Eventually we were ready to sing our part for the composer. A nice looking man came to a rehearsal, sat in the back and nodded and smiled while we sang, and afterwards said only, “Thank you. I know it’s hard. Bravi.”

Then were the not enough rehearsals with the BSO and Ozawa. Hearing an orchestra in front of us playing that music that we had hitherto associated only with a rehearsal piano was quite amazing. The way the last movement moved to the final eight-note chord – an A minor seven in the men’s voices – I had the G at the top – and a second inversion E-flat minor 7 in the women’s voices was glorious. I had heard nothing like it before, and there’s no adequate explanation for the feeling of singing that note, being in the middle of the big sonority, and knowing, just knowing it is right, in every sense of the word. The week after that performance I changed my writing style completely. And the cool chords from Chronicles were still in my head and were all over what I wrote. That last chord – I’ve used it or a derivation of it at least ten times. If not a hundred.


I tell that story to emphasize how much an encounter by a young musician with just one piece can change everything. The experience I had with Chronicles and other pieces is always in the back of my mind when I teach pieces in music theory or music appreciation, and it is most gratifying when I am able to be the one who changes someone’s ideas about art, about music, or about life — with something as simple as an encounter with a piece of music. I suspect that my story of becoming a composer is very much like that of many others – you hear a piece you like, and imitate it. Then you write that piece over and over until you hear another piece with stuff you want to steal, and incorporate that, and so on. Every once in the while the encounter is so intense as to cause an epiphany. Chronicles was one such piece for me.


A few words about my DNA. There is no history of musical aptitude on the Polish side of the family. Indeed, my father was tone deaf, which made singing hymns in church something of an excruciating experience. His father grew up in Warsaw; the reason the family moved to America was that in 1918 my grandfather had a, um, difference of opinion with someone in a poker game, shot, and killed him. Shortly he was living in Springfield, Massachusetts raising a family. He scrimped and saved to send my father to Northeastern University in 1940 to study chemistry.

The English branch of my mother’s side of the family came to America in 1823, a Mr. Benjamin Hill who was brought from London to teach at a new conservatory established in Rochester, New York. His daughter Julia was a piano prodigy who toured the European continent at age 14, played for royalty and the great musicians of that time. When she turned 21, the city of Rochester gave her a piano with the stipulation that she present a free recital on it. Then she married, stopped concertizing, and began the domestic life that made me possible. Julia’s granddaughter sent her daughter – my mother – to BU in 1940, to major in vocal performance.

My parents met at a mixer, went out for two years, and my father was drafted. He spent the second world war in Burma, by his account mostly getting drunk on grain alcohol. After the war, he finished his degree and moved to my mother’s hometown to take a job at a paper mill. The two offspring who preceded me into this world were forced into piano and violin lessons, which they hated – my brother told stories of being chased across a playground because he had a violin case. My parents learned their lesson: the baby – me – would not be forced into music lessons. It was a good move.

So my sister, older by 6 years, apparently had no friends her own age to play with: she spent her play time teaching me to read music, to play the piano, and to read – I have no memory of not being able to do any of those. We had a piano in the house, and I tinkered endlessly. We also had a meager collection of classical records – just the stuff that the local supermarkets sold as weekly subscriptions to the “World’s Greatest Classical Library in Your Own Home!” Nonetheless, the only classical music we ever listened to at home before I got to college was Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and The Messiah.

For school band, I picked up the trombone and became serviceable at it without practicing much. I got good enough to go to All-State and All-New England festivals, where I had my first encounters with so-called modern music. In retrospect it was very tame stuff, but at the time it perked up my ears, simply because it was different. When I learned that our All-State festival had a composers competition with actual money prizes, I wrote a piece – my first piece ever -- for my high school band – it pretty much stole all the licks from what I played at music festivals, and it lost the competition (I got to conduct the premiere with my own high school band, and the third clarinetists were all drunk) – but I got hooked. I asked my band director, Verne Colburn for advice on where to find new strange music that I should be listening to, and he gave me his Time-Life collection called Music of Our Time. I find it hard to believe that in this day and age Time-Life would do something like that again.

There were a lot of different styles of music on that compilation, but the very, very modern pieces by Milton Babbitt and Pierre Boulez stood out as completely unlike everything else. I was mesmerized by them, even though I didn’t really understand them. And I listened to them over and over. Mr. Colburn also lent me his theory textbooks, where I read about some of the technical aspects of this weird music, but had no idea how to imitate it. I did some pretty serious wearing out of grooves, though.

Then came my encounter with Shifrin’s Chronicles. I knew what to do next.

My undergraduate years were spent mostly acquiring technique and learning pieces. I would listen to pieces like the Rite of Spring, Messiaen’s Chronochromie, Berger’s Septet, Davidovsky’s first Synchronism, study the scores, to try and figure out what was in them that I could steal (you’ll note this preoccupation a lot with composers. Stravinsky is said to have remarked, “good composers borrow. Great composers steal”). I wrote music by the bushel, and I wrote it very fast. Most of it was complicated, and most of it was about technique alone. Which is to say, if anyone asked me what I was trying to “do”, or what my piece was “about”, I would present a disquisition on where the notes came from.

Then in my junior and senior years both my parents died, a little more than a year apart. My mother’s struggle with depression ended when she took her own life; and my father died when the car he was driving struck a train at an unmarked intersection. In the time after my mother’s death, my father and I got much closer, which made his passing even more tragic for me. I stopped writing music for quite a while, and when I did write it came out very slowly. I don’t know, maybe I was finished with learning mere technique and now I realized that what I really needed in music was – something to say. Or maybe what I really needed to learn was enough technique to express grief.

It turns out I didn’t have to wait very long for my answer. When I got to graduate school, Berg’s opera Lulu was being produced at the Met, and Princeton grad students were allowed to sit in on the rehearsals. I made it to six of them, getting to know this glorious opera really well, and in the last rehearsal, I had my epiphany. At the end of the opera, Lulu is forced to London to escape the law and becomes a prostitute. Her three clients are played by the same singers that played her three now-dead husbands, and the music associated with those characters returns. If you know the opera at all, you know that her third client is Jack the Ripper – yet he looks like Doctor Schön, the only man Lulu ever loved. While the gorgeous “love music” plays, Lulu and Jack yammer about the price of the trick. The many layers of meaning and irony to this scene and the music itself somehow overwhelmed me, and when the opera finished I was so full of emotion that I literally could not move for several minutes. My compatriots seemed to be similarly effected, as the car trip home was uncharacteristically silent.

For a graduate seminar on the opera, I analyzed the “love music” which I just mentioned, and found it to be so tightly constructed that you could bounce a quarter on it. Moreover, the melody was written simply by repeating, several times, the rhythm that is associated in the opera with death – yet Berg’s treatment of the melody with the accompaniment made it sound anything but repetitious. What I think seeped in gradually from listening to this music was a sense of how counterpoint works in music, most specifically what is called in music theory the “fourth species” of counterpoint. Put simply, a tone is stable with its surroundings, and sustains while the surroundings change, thus making it unstable, or dissonant. The tone then has to move in order to fit with the new surroundings, which then change again, etcetera. Imagine by analogy being in a space and being comfortable, and the space itself changes to something forbidding, and you don’t belong. You have to move to where you belong. The continual artful use of such a device is part of what makes great music move, and is a big part of what gives it, for me, affect and expression. Berg had figured out how to get that affect in an atonal context, and I thought that was revolutionary.

I know it’s boring to talk continually about acquiring technique, but this was a big one for me. Without technique it’s hard to say anything with eloquence; but technique by itself is worthless if an artist has nothing to say. Meanwhile, while I was figuring this stuff out, everything I wrote for the next ten years bore the unmistakable imprint of Berg. Within a few years I had written an elegy for strings for my parents that worked – I had learned how to write good slow music. It is the first piece I wrote that “worked” from start to finish without any dead moments. Now I just had to figure out how to write music of other speeds.

After graduate school I did crap word processing jobs and wrote very little music. I had decided not to try for a teaching job, but then another Brandeis connection comes in – a job landed in my lap. My friend Ross Bauer, with a PhD from this department, was leaving a lectureship at Stanford for another job at the last minute, and he recommended me to replace him for a year. I was offered the job on my 30th birthday, and I decided to try a year of teaching to see if it was for me.

I think you know what the answer was. By virtue of having to figure out pieces of music in order to teach them, I rediscovered stuff I hadn’t thought about for years. Since I was engaged with music full time, I was drawn back to composing in a big way. Soon I wrote a big Romantic symphony that all my friends called “Berg’s Third Symphony” – my friends aren’t very subtle – and when I finished, another Brandeis connection came calling: Rhonda Rider, who used to be the cellist of the Lydian Quartet, got her piano trio to commission me. I don’t know why, but the music that came out had an unusual rhythmic freedom, very strongly referencing the rhythms and gestures of be bop and even of rock and roll, yet harmonically it sounded like me. I had figured out how to write fast music. Moreover, it was fast music with fourth species counterpoint. With this piece I think I found my voice – at age 33. 33 is the number on the Rolling Rock bottle. Coincidence? I think not.

I’ve brought the story up to 1991 and don’t have much more to say about my development as a composer. I have been constantly looking for new challenges, and ways to grow as a composer, and I’m fond of saying the only way to do that is to approach each new piece as if I don’t know what I’m doing. Because, as I have found out the hard way, convincing myself I know what I’m doing leads to laziness, sloppiness and to repeating myself.


Speaking in such abstract terms about music, which is already abstract, is getting tedious, I think. Rather than talk a lot more, I’d like to share with you a teeny sliver of my music.

I have several parallel strands in my output – there’s the serious, long pieces; the not as serious serious smaller pieces; pieces for children; and a whole mess of piano études. Piano etudes are for me sort of a compositional playground. I enforce very strict rules when I write one: it must be written quickly (within six days), have no a priori ideas about its form, and something once written down cannot be revised. An etude is by nature an obsessive piece, so by trying to do as much as I can imagine, and quickly, that is about just one thing keeps my chops sharp. And because the pieces are written so quickly, I feel like I can have as much fun as I want. And explore different aspects of piano virtuosity – make no mistake, these are really hard pieces. Some things from the etudes have made it into my larger pieces, but I’d have to do another technical disquisition to say what.

To date I’ve written 73 piano etudes. More are on the way. I’m going to play the 14th, called Martler, on a video screen for reasons that will become apparent.

Traditionally etudes are about some particular aspect of piano technique – parallel intervals, pedaling, broken chords, particular accompaniment figures, specific fingering patterns – and one class of etudes is about crossing hands. It’s not uncommon to find piano music in which the right hand plays an accompaniment figure and the left hand switches back and forth between bass and treble, thus crossing over the right hand. Probably the most well-known crossing hands piece is found in the movie of The Music Man in the scene that sets up the song “Goodnight My Someone”.



I wrote Martler at an artist colony. Both I and my wife Beth were resident at the colony, and we showed each other our sketches daily. On the second day of writing my piece, Beth suggested I slyly quote something I might have played when I was in a rock band in high school. I protested, but I liked the challenge of sneaking something nearly incongruous in there. So I quoted “Smoke on the Water” and hid it within some long notes in a very busy texture, and I showed it to Beth. She said the quote should be more obvious. Well, I couldn’t take my really subtle quote back – remember, the rule is no revisions – so I then made a second, more obvious quote. It is okay for you to laugh if you recognize it.


Writing an appallingly virtuosic piece for crossing hands means that there is not only musical structure to think of (by the way, the two dueling tonics of A and E-flat are suggested by the first two sonorities of the piece, which fly by like the wind), but also the ballet of the hands themselves. So it ends up being a very visual piece. It is a real treat to watch an artist of the caliber of Amy Dissanayake play this piece – I have been very lucky to find players of her artistry who like to play my music, and who can pull it off with such fierceness. You will note that about two-fifths of the way through Amy stops looking at the music and plays from memory. Amazing. The video was made at the American Academy of Arts and Letters after Amy had spent three grueling days making a CD of 22 etudes of mine, all of them with similar technical demands, and she did this performance because the recording engineer asked to watch the piece being played.



By way of conclusion, I simply want to say, somewhat tautologically, that I want to make music that is everything that it can be. I’m sure my colleagues share that philosophy, and it has been my teaching philosophy as well. My new goal in life – now that I wrote my joke – is to write something so good that the next Naumburg Chair says in his or her speech that it was one of his or her formative pieces. Or at least that he or she could bounce a quarter off of it.


I want to thank Marty for hosting this event, and Rick Silberman and Trudy Crosby for taking care of the logistics. I also want to thank Adam for giving me the courage to wear this tie. I want to thank Brandeis, for throwing wonderful undergraduates into my classes and for the support and space it’s given me in the decade I’ve been here. The last ten years have been the most productive and exhilarating of my life. I’m honored to be awarded this Chair, but still I ask for your patience with me. I’m still learning.

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 pail 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.


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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.


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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...