Sunday, December 30, 2012

European artist residencies 1: Bogliasco

Earlier I mega-posted about artist residencies, most specifically the five (5!(five!)) I did the first year I ever did them. Since that year, I've had occasion to do some more residencies — lots more, actually. Twenty-four since that year, by any conservative count (or conservative duchess, for that matter). Of the residencies I wrote about in that post, I've been to MacDowell ten times now, to Yaddo seven times, and to VCCA six times in all. I reapplied to the Djerassi Foundation in 1996 or 1997 and was turned down — and I haven't reapplied to Bellagio, which, by the way, makes you wait at least ten years between residencies.

Pansoti — pasta in a nut cream sauce
But I have really, really, really loved the European residencies I have had the opportunity to take. For one, it's Europe, which means strange-looking money that's not all the same color and same size; it also means better and fresher food, some mysterious food, and the opportunity to use names for food that formerly lived only in language textbooks. And it means timidity out there in the real world as you slowly rehearse what you're going to say when you get to the register, and practice your "huh?" look as you're spoken to at a clip that wasn't on the language tapes.

When the street level passage is closed, use the underpass
The cohort at these residencies is far more international than at MacDowell, Yaddo, and VCCA. And at them you can try out your silly multilingual jokes on the cohort, if you have any (I always do). Italians found my use of the word acciugamano to be riproaringly funny. Mostly because it's not an actual word, and it's a pun on the Italian word for towel: asciugamano, which is a compound word meaning "dry hand". Acciugamano means "anchovy hand". Though some of the weirder jokes needed explaining, which kind of deflates them — such as noting that Night of the Iguana is from around the same time as its doppelganger Iguana Hold Your Hand.

Rim shot.

It is forbidden to cross the tracks
Incidentally. After a year at the American Academy in Rome, I forgot the English words for grapefruit and eggplant. That's how many of them I had.

So around the early part of this millennium, Marilyn Nonken up and decided I would be writing her a concerto. The way she expressed that was something like, "Davy, I'd like you to write me a concerto." She played in her own group ensemble 21 at the time, which had earlier gotten me a Koussevitzky commission to write for them, and naturally I thought she was referring to a chamber concerto, with, say, nine instruments at most in the band. I started thinking of three strings, three winds, percussion licks to go with a solo piano (I work fast when I'm alone), and luckily, and soon, Marilyn clarified: no, a concerto with orchestra. In fact, she took responsibility of pounding the pavement to get an orchestra to sign up.

And there I was, in the Casablanca restaurant in Harvard Square with Marilyn and Gil Rose — it was my first time in the restaurant, but there would be plenty more meetings happening there because Gil always decided the location — having the phat cheeseburger, and this is where Marilyn talked Gil into agreeing to program a Davyconcerto with BMOP, and where Gil decided that BMOP would apply to the Koussevitzky Foundation to commission it. Plus, he said it go on the 2007-8 season.

Bogliasco composer studio
Excellent, so Marilyn's nefarious plan was working. Whether or not the commission came through, I was going to write the piece (I mean, duh. Piano concerto. Orchestra. Marilyn), and I also recall having to supply scores and recordings for the application at the very last minute, after I had actually started the piece.

So I went to my old standby. I took the spring 2006 semester off from Brandeis in order to write the concerto in time for the 2007-8 season, meanwhile also saying yes for some other pieces .... Thus did I slave away in fall 2005 at multiple applications for artist residencies: VCCA (Dec 2005-January 2006), MacDowell (March-April 2006), Bogliasco (April-May 2006) and Yaddo (July-Aug 2006). Yeah, that was a lot of traveling and being away from my cats, but I was worth it. I'm always worth it.

Watson studio at MacDowell
At VCCA I had to write some incidental music for a Brandeis play and a hand drum piece for Michael Lipsey (finally I wrote something away from the piano!). With only a few days left to my residency, I then wrote études 69 and 70. I had six weeks at MacDowell, which I began by writing a silly titles article, plus études 71 and 72 for Don Berman, and then it was time to get down, get down, to brass tacks. I'd been thinking about the concerto for some time now, and there I wrote the first three movements. Woo hoo! says I.

I only had a little less than a week after MacDowell to prepare for the Bogliasco experience, so I used it wisely. I walked through the Assabet Wildlife Refuge, and played around with buzz magnets, which I had discovered at a store near MacDowell, and used as part of the closing gesture of the third movement (if you like banjo playing, don't click on the buzz magnets link).

Bogliasco is the name of the town that borders Genoa to the east, on the Mediterranean coast of Italy, and it's definitely a tourist-type seaside town. The place run by the Bogliasco Foundation is called the Liguria Study Center, and it is open for eight fellows at a time during the usual academic semesters, three five-week residency periods each semester. So I was catching the tail end of the spring semester, and at a great time in mid-spring when it's warming up and everything is blossoming. That's a big woo hoo, too, pardner. The residency is without cost, but you have to get there — you fly into Genoa airport, which is a relatively small one. The Foundation sends someone to the airport to bring you to the grounds, and brings you back when your stay is done.

Since there aren't any direct flights to Genoa from Boston, I changed planes in DeGaulle Airport, and that was fairly stress-free. Indeed, there was a long security line to get to where my gate was, but I found another security line downstairs that was deserted. This seems to be how things happen in Europe. I made my plane easily.

Shorefront Bogliasco foundation buildings
It was cool flying over some Alps on the way to Genoa, then going over some of the Appenines so close to the sea. The plane had to overshoot Genoa by a fair piece, and then gradually spiral down to land on the airport's one runway, built on landfill extended out over the sea, and parallel to the coast. And of course Bogliasco had sent Mr. Gregarious — all the residencies seem to have one of these — to pick me up. It was a  40-minute ride to the foundation through a lot of tunnels and tight curves — hey, did I mention the Appenines rise up pretty quickly from the coast? — and Mr. Gregarious engaged me in a simple conversation, in Italian, about the area and other stuff. Of course, the terrain was quite hilly at the Foundation, and the driveway in very narrow with tight curves. He carried my suitcase into my — gorgeous! — room, and when it dropped on the floor it started ticking.

My metronome. I am reasonably glad that didn't go off in the airport or when being handled by baggage people.

View from my veranda towards downtown Bogliasco
And, wow. The views were spectacular. I had a private room with a bath, a study, and my own veranda with a view south toward the Mediterranean. I immediately e-mailed Beff to try and get her to come for how ever many days she could carve out of her academic schedule, even if she could only stay two days, that's how crazy beautiful it was. I even sent her this movie of my digs. Of course, Beff couldn't by any stretch of the imagination do it. But maybe one of these years.

So the Foundation has several building carved out of the town of Bogliasco, including a large mansion on the sea, a large building for administration and groundskeeping, a grotto underneath the mansion, various lovely paths out over the sea, and ... further up into the Appenines, two sizable villas, gardens, a tennis court, and, just above the tennis court, the composer's studio. Also, on the way to the composer's studio, the two-level artist's studio. In between them — flowers. It was April.

"Davy cleans up real good"
The structure of the residency was thus: breakfast items would be left out in the morning in the villa where the composer and artist stayed; there was a Saeco coffee maker there that got the job done with no fuss. Lunch was at two locations: the four artists in the villas up the hill gathered in my villa, and the writers staying in the mansion had a parallel lunch there. For dinner, we were compelled to dress nicely, those of us coming in from up the hill saw this when we entered the grounds, and we all gathered at a glass table and were served dinner, dessert, and wine, followed by aperitifs. There was a drinks cupboard that was always open so we could gather beforehand and look sophisticated by having a drink in our hand. So on the first night I met the rest of the cohort: living in the mansion were an historian from Duke University and her writer husband (yes, Bogliasco lets you bring your spouse); a translator from Russia working on an Italian-Russian dictionary; an historian from Vanderbilt University; and a columnist for the Times of India. Living up there in artistville were, in my villa, me and a sculptor from northern Italy; and in the other villa, a filmmaker from Ireland and a curator from Milan. Some of the other fellows had brief visits by their spouses. Otherwise, there was plenty of working and walking around time.

Bogliasco town beach and train tracks and the Appenines
I got to work pretty quickly and had early days — in fact, the sculptor noted to others how I was in my studio working by 8 every morning — that's normal for me at residencies. And since it was spring, around 9 every morning there was an explosion of bird calls near the big window of my studio. In fact, I started noticing a lot of the individual bird calls and how different they were from the American bird sounds I knew so well.

The outer movements of this concerto were planned to be big ones, and both with slow introductions to fast movements. Because each was based on an étude from the Marilyn chronicles (first movement was repeated notes and the last scales) — the plan was for both slow introductions to have the same harmonic plan and voice-leading, from which in I. the repeated notes are extracted and developed, and in IV. the scales are extracted and developed. Woo hoo! I already knew the first note, and as a challenge I was going to try to imitate, in a way that gives tribute, the opening of Gusty Thomas's Ceremonial — a solo clarinet line that splits apart into counterpoint, eventually birthing a bunch of crunchy chords. I had tried to do that in II., but I got distracted. This time I got it to work. I marked in Con Gusty. In a few days I had written the slow intro, gotten it to speed up, and readied the allegro. I saw that it was ... well, at least it wasn't stupid.

On one of those hikes in the hills
Confident that the work was going well, and with the weather getting progressively warmer, I started taking frequent walks. The walk into town was only five minutes, so I did that pretty quickly. The hills around our villas were steep, and the area had been inhabited for so long that stairs and trails and the like had been built into almost all of the hills, so that we could take lots of hikes that would be different each time. The curator and the filmmaker and I took a good number of them just after we would lunch, or in the middle of the afternoon.

On one fine warm day, we got ambitious and kept going higher and higher to see if the built-up part — trails and stairs — ever ran out. And yes, it did, and we were still maybe a quarter mile short of the peak of the hill. Then we looked behind us and saw that we were truly pretty high up there. And we took pictures. And movies.

Meanwhile, the concerto movement was going as well as could be expected. Writing really fast stuff destined for Marilyn — shooting fish in a barrel. I recall how proud I was of the octave cadence on E after the first big round of scales. Patted myself on the back, I did. The string parts, though — fiendishly hard. As Gil would note repeatedly in rehearsals.

And it turns out string sections doing repeated notes — don't at all recall piano repeated notes, as in the first movement. That's both good and bad, and sometimes it's both, but it's never cranky.

A week into the residency, we were taken by Alessandra, the Associate Director, on a tour of Genoa; this involved riding buses, being shown what might have been Christopher Columbus's house, now surrounded by a sea of vespas, various museums, a walk on the street of palaces that Goethe had called the most beautiful in the world (obviously Goethe didn't get out much, and now most of the palaces are stores or businesses), a few visits to incredibly gorgeous churches, and a special insider's tour of an old monastery not ordinarily open to the public. Now there's a woo hoo for you.

As the weather got nicer, post-dinner became walks into town or walks away from town to a bar that turned out to be at the head of the Passaggietta del Mare. Whoa, a long wide path directly on the sea more than a mile long and businesses, and views, and oh my. This changed everything. My daily exercise now included walking the Passaggietta or hiking the hills, or walking into town, or all of them. Nice.

The cohort became familiar enough that we could talk about anything, and even share multilingual jokes. One of us taught the Italian curator her first English multilingual joke, which was really funny in an Italian accent: why do the French have only one egg at breakfast? Because in France, one egg is un oeuf. It's much less funny in Italian. Perchè i francesi mangiano solamente un uovo per la prima colazione? Nella Francia, un uovo è basta! You could make an aria out of that. But you wouldn't want to.

And sometimes at lunch we were silly enough to make movies like this one.

the view from my room at night was nice, too
So then I had to write some apeshit music for while the piano was silent, so that it could feel like something was breaking and the piano could rescue it. So I did that. Then I wrote a brief tantrum for the piano, and started dissolving so the toy piano could have its solo. When the piano and toy piano play together, I used the marking va scimmiamerda, or "go apeshit".

And right around then I got an e-mail from Michael Kirkendoll, a graduate student in piano at the University of Kansas, asking for a piece for flute and two pianos, and we'll go inside the piano, anything! I said okay, and that was just another thing on my plate for when I got to ... Yaddo! Woo hoo! So of course I started putting imagined licks for that weird ensemble in the back of my mind. That's just what happens.

Then I finished with the toy piano stuff and got to a great place to put a cadenza. A cadenza! My first piano cadenza! Not a credenza, mind you, which would just be silly. This was fun. Marilyn was thinking she might want to write her own cadenza, and I said, sure, okay (I said it in the score, too), so I didn't know if whatever I would write would even be played. And I recall knocking my head against the walls for three days while writing the cadenza and trying to get in all the materials from the rest of the piece. My head was fine. The cadenza turned out to be fantastic. It brought the orchestra back in so cool and nicely that I wrote the ending music — some of it recapped from earlier with that hard string writing — in about an hour. And then, and then ...

So I'd finished what I came there to do with four or five days left to my residency. What was I going to do? Ah, an idea! I'll start the piano quintet that I promised the Stony Brook Contemporary Players. I worked on that for a day, and at the end of the day it turned out to suck really, really big ones. So I discarded it. I tried another idea for piano quintet. It sucked slightly smaller ones, but they were still reasonably big.

Then I remembered the birds. And the birdsongs. Which were denser still every morning at 9. If I'm going to write a piece with a flute, and maybe a piccolo, too, to go along with (eww) two pianos, I could maybe make it about birds. Yeah, that's the ticket. So after lunch I took a chair and a piece of music paper to various parts of the grounds and started transcribing the local birdsongs, to the best of my ability. All with the idea of using them as the materials for that piece. And so that I did. (This movie has a lot of Bogliasco bird sounds in it, and my favorite was the one you hear just as the second big door is being opened) In July and August, when I was at Yaddo, I took out the transcribed birdsongs and used about four or five of them as various materials, and I called the piece Gli Uccelli di Bogliasco. Wow. And here's what it sounded like when it was played in November 2006. At 3:40, those are the birds outside my studio.

I recall Mike actually had more than half a head, but I may be wrong. And I thought it might have been the lower half that he had.

The time of the residency was coming to an end, and we all said our goodbyes and went out to the pub some more — where we also used an Italian delicacy called ketchup for our fries — and our end was marked by a gorgeous full moon over the Mediterranean, easy to capture from the window in my bedroom.

But then I realized that the concerto was not actually finished.

There was dreamed music in the concerto — what I had dreamed a boombox was playing to keep distant lions from charging — and that music had had a life in the first two movements, and was even referenced in the cadenza. My ending was pretty safe, as they say on Project Runway.

But in the front of the mansion were these two really tired lions. I had come there to work on a piece that had lion music in it, and here I encountered these tired lions. I had to acknowledge that in the piece somehow, even if it meant ending with a non sequitur. So I tacked the lion chords onto the ending, docile this time.

The end.

And people either love that ending, or hate it to pieces. Excellent, Mozart. You're coming along.

I was given a ride to the airport by Mr. Gregarious, and we had a different elementary Italian conversation. This time the change of flights at DeGaulle was very stressful, but I made it back. And I now had a finished 35-minute piano concerto. What did I write next? For the next two months, nothing. And boy did that feel good. And then, at Yaddo, I wrote not one, but two fifteen minute pieces plus a piano étude in five weeks. For you see, artist colony time is not the same as human time.

Later, the Koussevitzky commission came through, so I was actually paid to write the piece. Woo hoo!

Here's a Spotify link to the Bogliasco movement of the piano concerto, and here is a link to a scan of the sketch. Now behave.