Wednesday, September 20, 2006
Organ recital, 24 September: I don’t get to play organ recitals very often. In fact I can only remember playing six or seven, all of them short, all of them at South Church in Middletown. On Sunday mornings I get to play what is probably the best organ in Middletown, and one of the best in central Connecticut—in the future I’ll describe it in more detail. This Sunday is my first foray into another church as a solo organist. My concerns with the King of Instruments are quite straightforward. First of all, it is the greatest solo instrument for improvisation. Irresistible, in fact. Second, there are specific collections, a bit off the beaten track (or farther), that I practice a lot and keep in repertory, namely the Fiore Musicali of Frescobaldi, Organ and Silence by Tom Johnson, and the astonishing Messe des Pauvres of Erik Satie. All of these compositions assume manual dexterity and modest pedal technique. But that raises a third concern, the strong desire to improve my pedal technique, however gradually that has to be done. To that end I’ve decided to learn Orgelbuchlein of J. S. Bach. Except for Organ and Silence, selections from all of these works are included. Toby Twining will join me to sing the Kyrie from the Satie mass and “Grandfather’s Clock” (one of the favorite songs of the deceased). And I get to improvise on Gladys’s favorite hymns and two tunes from The Sacred Harp. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Piano recital, 25 September: Back-to-back recitals, however brief they may be, are a new experience, even for me. The Wesleyan chapel has a new piano, a magnificent August Förster, brand new. After seven (!!) years of lobbying and brainstorming, and through the good graces of the current administration, we have been able to purchase this instrument from the remarkable Wilhelm Gertz (of W. Gertz and Sons, New Haven), who kindly saved the instrument for us (rather than have it go to the beach house of a perspective wealthy buyer). Thanks to Sophia Rosoff, my current piano teacher and the finest piano teacher I know of, anywhere, any time, I feel in top form. I played the recital yesterday (Tuesday the 19th) for my associate Sue Birch, and it went quite well. The variations are one of my favorite Mozart piano pieces—I have a theory that the sort of virtuosity they require (occasional fast passages in double notes and octaves, some big leaps which are occasionally awkward, left hand trills, etc.) are more like Amadé actually played that most of, say, the sonatas, which almost never require these things. Mozart boasted that he never played one of his concerti the same way twice—maybe he was adding this kind of lick, who knows? In any case, eager to experiment with this possibility, I have added MORE octaves, some extra doublings, a couple of cadenza-like flourishes, tasteful ones I hope, but more to the point quite spontaneous and NOT what’s written on the page. At least I can emulate the master in this respect, and never play the “Come un agnello” variations the same way twice!
These variations also bring to mind an old friend whom I have not seen in years, the pianist Jerome Sampson of Jackson, Mississippi. He and I studied with Roy McAllister in Tuscaloosa (University of Alabama) at the same time. Although I haven’t heard Jerry play in 44 years, I remember his performance of this piece as if it were yesterday—he played these variations beautifully.
For the past two and a half years I have been composing a series of “Friendly Fugues,” based on the names of some of my friends. Some of them, including the first one, have been composed at the request of the person whose name becomes the subject (see below). Katchen Coley approached me at a Christmas party in 2003 and asked, “Neely, will you write a piece for my eightieth birthday?” Of course I agreed, and this piece was the result. I turned her name into a fugue subject by writing down the letters of the alphabet in seven columns, thus:
a b c d e f g
h i j k l m n
o p q r s t u
v w x y z
then I mapped any letters in the various columns—below the first row—onto the letters in the first row, i.e. the letters of the musical alphabet. (For example, the letter R, which is not used in musical nomenclature, becomes the note D.) In this process I also allow the German alphabetic equivalents of certain letters, so B can be B flat, H can be B natural, and S can be E flat (my choice). Incidentally, I didn’t invent this method of transforming words into notes, and there are other ways of doing it.
Katchen’s name becomes “D A F C B E G C A E E D,” with an appropriate rhythm of course, and Billy Weitzer (a member of the Wesleyan administration who has been quite supportive of the Music Department and helped us purchase the August Förster) turns out to be “Bb B E E D B E B F E E D,” something of a challenge as a fugue subject because of the repeated cell (EED EED), but challenges are what makes composition fun.
Friday, July 7, 2006
WHAT: A complete performance of my largest organ piece, "Tunes 'n' Timbres 'n' Time: The History of Western Music" [TnTnT for short]
WHERE: St Bartholomew's Church, New York City, Park Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets
WHO: William Trafka, director of music at St Bart's and organist extraordinare
WHEN: Wednesday 19 July, 2006, at 7:30 p.m.
HOW MUCH: This event is FREE and open to the public
The organ at St Bart's is the largest one in NYC and the tenth largest in the world. TnTnT was composed to 1) provide an overview of the history of western music; 2) showcase the unique properties of this gorgeous instrument; and 3) have some fun. It was premiered in 1997, then extensively revised and presented by Trafka at Wesleyan in the summer of 2005, as the opening event of one of that year's Pipe Organ Encounters-- a special set of programs by the American Guild of Organists to make the youth of America more aware of the King of Instruments. (The performance on July 19th is also part of a POE, but that's another story.)
Let me explain this composition a bit. It is in fourteen movements, and traces the history of western music from shortly after the invention of the organ (in the second century AD) to the recent past (the late 1960s). It consists of original material and extravagant arrangements, in roughly equal measure. On one level it serves an obvious didactic purpose. But on another level, it is an opportunity for me to make yet another large artistic statement about the nature of history, as I perceive it (and what other kind of history is there, other than the history we individually perceive?).
Those of you who have been aware of my music for a long time will recognize that TnTnT shares this character of "historical commentary" with other large-scale works of mine -- "The Plague: A Commentary on the Work of the Fourth Horseman" (this "rock phantasmagoria" takes place simultaneously in the fourteenth and twentieth centuries); the operas "Americana" (an allegorical retelling of the American Revolution with mythological characters) and "The Trials of Psyche" (which takes place in "mythological time," i.e. outside of time and space); and most recently CONVERGENCE, a mammoth work for hundreds of performers which simultaneously comments on American music in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, on the eve of the 21st. I'm going to elaborate on this aspect of TnTnT in a blog on my web site, sometime between now and the performance, should you want to check it out:
For the moment, I'll just list the movements. Your imagination can fill in the gaps. The re-GAL (not RE-gal) mentioned, by the way, is neither the modern organ stop nor the Renaissance reed instrument, but the ancient battlefield organ of the Romans, a giant noise-making machine designed to frighten their enemies and send them into disarray.
1. Regal Fanfare
2. Organum for St Hildegarde
3. A Madrigal from Marenzio
4. Quasi Gabrielli
5. La Bataille
6. Concerto in the manner of Vivaldi
7. Toccata and Fugue in D minor (a significantly abbreviated version of the famous Bach [?] piece)
8. Don Giovanni, Finale, Act One (a tour de force for the five manuals of the St Bart's organ)
9. The Beethoven Fifth Symphony (Readers Digest version, all four movements, SEVERELY abbreviated)
10. Romance a la Chopin
11. Love Music from "Romeo and Juliet"
12. The Entertainer
13. Avant Garde Fragments
14. Strawberry Fields Forever
Hope you can come. And please help spread the word about this performance. The more the merrier! There is a little narration which I will provide, and the whole event will be just over an hour.
All the best -- Neely
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
But there is real news on the First Amendment front. The Associated Press has just released information from the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum about our woeful ignorance of our rights. 22% of Americans can name all five Simpson family members, but only one in a thousand (that’s .1%!!) can name the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment. To this we’ve come. And the margin of error of their poll is 3%, so it’s possible a whopping one-quarter of us can name Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and… (What’s the baby’s name?) I don’t know off the top of my head how to reduce .1% by three percentage points and I’m not going to try (this is a blog, after all). But any way you slice it, the spread is appalling.
At least this woeful state of affairs is inspiring me to get cracking on the details of the spring tour of “The Bill of Rights,” my plan to have a download in all the states (way behind schedule), and other business pertaining to my most recent choral composition. The Unitarian Church in New Haven is going to do the whole piece in the spring. And other performances are talked about here and there across the country—more on this subject very soon. Grading midterm exams be damned! Ives performances move over! Let’s educate at least a handful of folks about their rights in this great democracy.
For more about the Freedom Museum, the poll, and the First Amendment, check out:
In case you’ve noticed that I only produced one blog in February, I’m counting today as a mythical “February 29, 2006,” In such a short month I need a couple of extra days—at least one—to fulfill my obligations. I’ll catch up with two new blogs later in March.
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
The IVES VOCAL MARATHON
Neely Bruce first encountered the vocal music of Charles Ives as a freshman at the Eastman School of Music, when he accompanied Sylvia Anderson in “Evening.” He played a few more songs in undergraduate school at the University of Alabama. In 1966 he entered graduate school at the University of Illinois, and in the late sixties began to work on Ives with his office mate, baritone David Barron. They began to present all-Ives programs and other recitals featuring this extraordinary repertory of song, and in July of 1969 they presented the earliest documented performance of “August.” In 1972, as part of the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music, they presented the first major performance of Ives songs in Poland—the second half of a concert which opened with John Ogden playing the “Concord” Sonata.
Over the years Neely continued to perform the vocal music of Ives—with his wife Phyllis Bruce, the American Music/Theatre Group (AM/TG presented an all-Ives and Foster program at the Bushnell in 1982 and participated in “Wall-to-Wall Ives” at Symphony Space, NYC, in 1984), and other soloists and ensembles. His paper comparing 114 Songs of Ives and the collection of Stephen Foster songs known as the “Morrison Foster Songbook” was published in the proceedings of the 1974 Ives Festival-Conference, An Ives Celebration.
In the summer of 2004 the long-awaited critical edition of the bulk of Ives’ vocal output, 129 Songs, was published by MUSA (Music of the United States of America). Master-fully edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock, and exhaustive in its detailed treatment of Ives’s many eccentricities, this volume, with the critical editions of early and miscellaneous songs by John Kirkpatrick and James Sinclair (Forty Early Songs, Eleven Songs and Two Harmonizations), makes it possible for Bruce to produce a complete Charles Ives song series, up-to-date, full of surprises, and drawing on forty-five years of experience with this repertory—the Ives Vocal Marathon.
Neely Bruce is joined by soprano Johana Arnold, mezzo Elizabeth Saunders, tenor Gary Harger, his old friend David Barron, other soloists, members of AM/TG, flutist Peter Standaart, violinist Paul Woodiel, and two other pianists (“On the Antipodes” and “Vote for Names” require more than one) to present all 183 Ives songs over a three-year period. This project will culminate in a festival of Ives vocal music at Wesleyan University (and other locations in Connecticut and New York) in the fall of 2007: five song concerts, with lectures, panel discussions, and other special events.
* * * * *
The first concerts in this series took place in January of 2005. Saunders, Harger and I performed two blockbuster concerts, with the assistance of my wife Phyllis, flutist Peter Standaart, members of the South Church Choir, and old buddies Toby Twining and Martha Smith (formerly Hanen) from the glory days of AM/TG. That summer Gary Harger and I did a chunk of the tenor songs at Wesleyan, and called it “Round Two.” On Saturday 24 September 2005, we did two more concerts (“Round Three”), the shorter one in the afternoon and the bigger one in the evening. To introduce the first concert there was a panel discussion—Ives scholar and conductor Jim Sinclair, my colleague Yonatan Malin who studies art song, and myself. There have been spinoffs: a recital with Harger at the Hartt School, a couple of previews at South Congregational Church at Middletown, and other previews planned for local educational venues. The Connecticut Humanities Council has given us a handsome grant to do Ives songs about religion at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, in conjunction with the current exhibit of American paintings (1780-1920) entitled “Finding Religion”—check out the details at their web site, www.flogris.org.
In future blogs I will have a lot to say about this project—what Ives means to me at this time in my life, how the songs are typical (and atypical) of his output, what I think “the Ives method” of songwriting is, grouping these songs into topics (not just Ives/religion, but Ives/nature, Ives/peace/war, Ives/politics, etc.), the special challenges and rewards of this venture, and many other things. For now, suffice it to say that this is turning into the most meaningful performing project of my life. I’ll explain later.
Notices about future Ives performances (and there are lots of them in the works) will be listed on the web site.
For Ives aficionados and those who may be curious, here is a list of the 121 songs (out of 183) we will have performed by the end of February 2006, in alphabetical order. For details about the way we have grouped this material into concerts and other points of information about the Ives Vocal Maraton, please feel free to contact me directly.
At the River
Because Thou Art
Canon (first version)
Chanson de Florian
The Children's Hour
A Christmas Carol (the one in 114 Songs)
The Circus Band
Far in the wood
General William Booth Enters Into Heaven
The Greatest Man
Her Gown Was of Vermilion Silk
I travelled among unknown men
Ich grolle nicht
In My Beloved's Eyes
In the Alley
In the Mornin'
Kären (Little Kären)
The Last Reader
The Light That Is Felt
Like a Sick Eagle
Luck and Work
Memories: a. Very Pleasant; b. Rather Sad
Mists [II] (second version)
My Lou Jennine
My Native Land
Night of Frost in May
A Night Song
Nov. 2, 1920 (An Election)
Old Home Day
The Old Mother (the version with Ives’s text)
Omens and Oracles
On Judges' Walk
On the Counter
"1, 2, 3"
The One Way
The Only Son
Qu'il m'irait bien
The Rainbow (So May It Be!)
Rock of Ages
Romanzo (di Central Park) [five different versions!]
Rosamunde (first setting)
The Side Show
Slugging a Vampire
A Son of a Gambolier
A Song–For Anything
Song for Harvest Season
Song without words [I] (world premiere)
Song without words [II] (world premiere)
The South Wind
There is a lane
The Things our Fathers Loved
Those Evening Bells
Through Night and Day
Two Little Flowers
Two Slants (Christian and Pagan): Duty/Vita
The Waiting Soul
Weil' auf mir
When stars are in the quiet skies
Where the eagle cannot see
Wie Melodien zieht es mir
PLUS: The following piano pieces as change-of-pace items:
Some Southpaw Pitching
From the Concord Sonata: “Hawthorne,” “The Alcotts” and “Thoreau”
(performed on different programs, in relation to different songs)
AND: The following songs by German composers (Ives set the same texts):
Romanze, aus dem Schauspiel Rosamunde, by Schubert
Widmung, by Robert Franz
Wie Melodien zieht es mir, by Brahms
Wanderers Nachtlied, by Schubert
Ein Ton, by Peter Cornelius
Die Lotosblume, by Schumann
AND: The following miscellaneous items:
The first “Song Without Words” as a violin and piano piece
The arrangement of “A Christmas Carol” by Paul Echols for voices SATB
Whew! What a workout.
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
Thursday I finished the “translation” of the text that the chorus sings at the end of the Grand March—see below. The German is the result of pseudo-random operations on selected pages of The Abduction from the Seraglio. The English version was begun by Peter and Mary Hoyt, with assistance from their niece Lizzie. I had a good time finishing it, although the finished product makes rather too much sense, considering the almost totally arbitrary nature of the original. It can be read aloud so that it makes even more sense, if that effect is desired.
From 11:30 to shortly after 1:00 I rehearsed with the chamber choir of Dutch Fork High School. They are a fine group, and their director, Marjorie Turner, did a fine job of preparing them to sing my piece. I worked mostly with the text, hoping to get them to enjoy nonsense in German as keenly as they might enjoy it in English. We also listened to part of the Overture to Abduction, the Vaudeville that precedes the final chorus, and the brilliant little hymn of praise to Pasha Selem itself. They got the point, and sang with gusto and real pleasure. Just before I left I was treated to a performance of the “Dies Irae” from the Mozart Requiem. They sang it very well indeed. I told them to get some of the hell and brimstone of that piece into their part of the Grand March and all would be well.
Thursday evening was spent en famille with the Hoyts. Their little girls danced a bit around the piano, and we made a plan to have more dancing later in the trip. I spent the morning on Friday preparing for the talk I was to give for the composers’ seminar in the afternoon and the first rehearsal that evening. Specifically, I went through the score and the various photocopies I had used as source material, matching the results with the sources. (Not surprisingly, I had forgotten the details and my notes on this matter were incomplete. I was able to identify thirty-seven quotations, and the source of all but seven of them—not bad, but sooner or later I have to complete this little bookkeeping task.) I was also able to practice “Hawthorne” by Charles Ives a bit. USC composer John Fitz Rogers, Peter Hoyt and my buddy Ellen Schlaefer from the Connecticut Opera (now the opera director at U of SC) had lunch together. Reginald Bain joined us later. Then final thoughts about the talk, the talk itself (with good questions by the U of SC composition students) and a beer with my friend Tayloe Harding, now the dean of the School of Music there, whom I hadn’t seen in years, a quick supper (Mexican again) with Peter, and a brisk walk to the stage of the Koger Center, where at last I was to hear the orchestra start working on my piece. Whew!
The first person I saw backstage was Dr. Benjamin Woodruff, a.k.a “Woody,” whom I knew both from my teenage years at the Brevard Music Center in the late 1950s and also from graduate school at the University of Illinois. For several years Woody has been the librarian for the South Carolina Philharmonic, and though we were in communication about the score and parts for the Grand March it was the first time we had seen each other in about forty years. We caught up on several decades of news in several minutes, and then I went into the hall to sit with Peter and await the downbeat!
The rehearsal itself was not without the normal problems of working through a new piece for the first time. Most of the orchestra was reading, and the style that was needed was not completely clear to everyone. The entrance of the chorus, three-quarters through the piece, injected some much-needed energy into the proceedings. Some singing with gusto triggered some playing with panache. After checking out a few cues with the Turkish percussion and a few notes from the podium the rehearsal was over.
I felt the orchestra needed to know more about the ideas behind this piece. Later that evening I re-formatted Blog No. 5 (elsewhere on this web site) and printed it out on Saturday morning. Peter photocopied it in the School of Music offices and I left copies backstage for the orchestra. I was also able to quietly circulate and tell some of the players a few details—a bit louder here, a bit softer there, not too many things but crucial ones. Somehow it all worked. The second rehearsal (actually a run-through, dress rehearsal sort of thing) was about 400% better. I had high hopes for the performance, and indeed it was quite good. Here’s what Gregory Barnes, the reviewer, had to say in Tuesday’s The State (Columbia’s daily newspaper).
Careful examination of Columbia’s Mozart Festival schedule reveals an abundance of delightfully creative musical ideas.
Take Saturday night at the sold-out Koger Center: The Philharmonic paired Mozart’s first and last symphonies, the Palmetto Opera sang enchanting arias, the perfect composer for the job premiered a new musical homage to the master, and a Philharmonic principal performed a work by a Mozart contemporary.
…Neely Bruce’s Introduction and Grand March…” proved a great, if under-rehearsed, festival opener. Disguised quotes from Mozart operas marched in strict rhythm to Ivesian bi-tonality and juicy dissonance, but the musical result was clearly the-one-and-only Neely Bruce.
Eau Claire and Dutch Fork high schools contributed percussion and chorus, the latter unfavorably positioned, singings words unfortunately not reproduced in the program.
Actually, from where I was sitting, I could hear the hot-shot singers from Dutch Fork quite well, and they sounded wonderful. As for the words, here they are (as I said earlier, the result of pseudo-random operations on the text of various pages of The Abduction) with a “translation” by me and Peter and Mary and Lizzie. Would it really help if this material had been reproduced? It would have been fun, of course, but helpful? I doubt it.
abgetan geschlagen Schlag
die Bastonade Himmels Charlie sei
belehne Aufschub Himmels drein
Treue Segen meiner Streite
Selim Ränke Lagerstroh
frisch zum gute Leopold
lange Freud und Jubel marsch
Wir gehn hinein, ich mögen dich gefragt!
mag Hurtig muss fliegende sein
zeihe trefflich Eifer Mozart
Weibern Scheitel fache George
Welche anderen Gefahr
Teufel Brust fort großen Tropf
Ich schlage dran entschlossen Flut gewagt
ein Mann zuletzt doch Jubelklang
Freuden wegen Könnte teuer
prange zitten Göttertrank
willig Singen herlich Lust
wieder Huld mein Dank der ganz
Erdross sein Wolfgang Scheitel marsch bekannt
und prophezeihn in Eigentum
Tücken kampfe Liebe gaffen
lebe mit Verachtung Platz
Bacchus schenken es sei Ives
du bist unverdrossen ganzes Türe Scherzen Eigentum
schändlich Winde Blonden schwachen Aufschub Amadeus Wort
früh aufstehen wahrhaft dummen Wagen feiger umzugehn
Mädchen passen wonne Stärke Arten gehn hinein Gesang
disposed of beaten
disposed of beaten whipped cream
heaven’s cudgel is Charlie
invest with postponement heaven therein
true blessing of my quarrel
the schemer Selim is a batch of straw
long march Joy and Jubilation
we’re going inside I have to question you!
get moving must be flying
accuse the excellent eagerness Mozart
the apex of women fans George
such a different danger
devil breast be gone big moron
thereby I beat the resolute, risky flood
finally a man a jubilant noise nevertheless
joy because of expensive possibility
the drink of the gods glitters and trembles
voluntarily we sing magnificent pleasure
again kindness my thanks for the whole
strangulation his Wolfgang the top of his head is famous for marching
and prophesies in possessions
malicious pranks struggle to stare love
live with contempt place
Baccus presents it is Ives
you are unflagging the whole door jokes possessions
shameful winds feeble Blondie postponement of Amadeus word
rises up early true dumb carts cowardly going around
maiden is suitable delightful strength the species going inside to sing
A SOCIABLE FOOTNOTE: Saturday afternoon we went on a successful hunt for the house in Columbia where Phyllis lived in 1958 and ’59. The landmark was the Colonial Heights Baptist Church, no longer in the phone book but clearly recognizable now at the renamed Family Worship Center. Saturday night My sister Linda and her husband the painter/sculptor Jerry Luke of Savanna met us at the concert. We had a couple of meals together and a very good time. After breakfast with Linda and Jerry on Sunday Phyllis and I played hooky from church and drove to Rocky Mount, North Carolina to visit Ben and Betty Johnston. (Another eight hours on the road, round trip! On the way we stopped at South of the Border for ice cream.) It was a wonderful visit, though a short one. The highlight of the trip was hearing the new recording of Ben’s Ninth, Third and Fourth string quartets in new performances by the Kepler Quartet. (The Second Quartet is on the same CD, but we ran out of time.) Recently released by New World Records, these amazing pieces, in cleaner, brighter-than-ever performances with ferocious attention to detail, are a must-buy for serious collectors of twentieth-century music, string quartets, or even different versions of “Amazing grace.”
For an excellent descriptive review of this CD, and an informative interview with one of the members of the Kepler Quartet, see http://dram.nyu.edu/dram/_html/news.html. Ben is the featured composer and the date is January 12, 2006.
Thursday, January 12, 2006
Never in my wildest dreams would I have conceived of such a work. While I am quite pleased with the result, in no way can I take credit for the idea. That goes to my good friend Peter Hoyt, Mozart (and Haydn) scholar extraordinaire. Peter and I first discussed “Ives Meets Mozart” last July, over margaritas and dinner at Rosa Mexicali. This fine restaurant is right across the street from Lincoln Center, where he had just given an excellent talk on Mozart and travel (which quickly broadened itself into “travel in the eighteenth century throughout the continent of Europe”). Peter has heard a great deal of my music over the years, and is completely aware of my love for the music of Ives and the impact Ives has had on my compositional career. But more to the point, as a Mozart scholar and new music enthusiast he was quick to speculate about appropriate ways to commemorate Mozart’s 250th birthday (January 27, 2006)—he argues that we, the musical public, should look at the influence of Mozart on composers from his time to ours, and we should get lots of composers writing new Mozart-influenced works. Ergo, specifically, I should write a piece in which “Ives Meets Mozart,” and it should be a march.
The idea appealed to me from the start. In August (2005) Phyllis and I visited Henry Brant and his wife Kathy in Santa Barbara. Henry and I went for long walks and talked about lots of things musical and political. I asked him to help me brainstorm about what to do with the Mozart orchestra that wouldn’t sound like Mozart orchestration. We came up with lots of ways to do this. I continued to think about appropriate Mozart source material. Though Ives’s works contain literally hundreds of musical citations, in all his compositional output he never used a Mozart tune or fragment or even a suggestion of a Mozart texture. Actually Ives did not like Mozart very much. In this respect Charlie was very much a man of his time—the late nineteenth and early twentieth century musical world had little use for Mozart, with the predictable exception of Don Giovanni, (especially when the statue drags the vile-seducer-as-hero off to Hell).
I began to think about what Ives and Mozart had in common, which is more than one might think. Both composers had a keen sense of musical humor, and composed elaborate musical jokes. Both wrote small experimental pieces that informed their larger ones. Both boldly escaped from ecclesiastical patronage, though in totally different circumstances with totally different results. Both liked games. Both had a keen sense of orchestral color. And both were very idealistic about the power of music to ennoble and transform human life. Maybe Ives would have had a different opinion of Mozart if he had seen The Magic Flute a few more times. Or known about Mozart’s dirty jokes.
So I decided to write a giant musical collage of fragments from the seven Mozart operas mentioned above. The first step was to go through the vocal score of Abduction and make photocopies of pages that could easily be transformed into march music. This turned out to be a lot of music, far more than I actually used in the composition. Then I faced the problem of making a random selection from the other six operas. I wanted a system that would give equal probability to any page coming up in six volumes with a wide spread of page numbers (Figaro has over twice as many pages as Flute). The method I came up with had two stages. First, I drew three digits from zero to nine out of a plastic container. This allowed numbers smaller than ten (007 for example) to turn up with equal probability as much higher ones. Then, rolling a single die, I assigned an opera to each resulting page number. In this manner I came up with sixty number+score combinations. Predictably, some of these did not exist, though I was surprised at how many phantom pages there were on the list. I ended up with thirty-nine real pages of music, which I shuffled and divided into three piles of thirteen pages each.
I made an outline:
A1 (a la marcia, based on Abduction)
B1 (first collage based on the other six operas)
A2 (a second passage based on Abduction)
B2 (second collage)
A1 with variations
B3 (third collage)
A2 with variations
I was ready to start serious work on the piece.
The first step was to play through all of the material at the piano and improvise connections from one thing to another, see what might be superimposed on what, how to reharmonize this or that, and so on. This was an exciting process, one that took several days. I was struck by several properties of this music. First, it was very easy to combine passages with each other, in a most natural manner—a comment on the homogeneity of the Mozart œuvre, perhaps. But there were some surprisingly quirky passages, especially in The Abduction—the Lydian-sounding first chorus of the Janissaries (implying an oscillation of triads a whole step apart, C major and D major) proved particularly useful as my march developed, and some distinctive lines of Osmin morphed into the double-reed solos of my introduction. I also rediscovered some repetitive figures, used almost obsessively, which give certain Mozart passages a proto-minimalist quality. Two of these—the main motive of the overture to Cosi Fan Tutte and the string figurations at the end of the finale to Act Two of Abduction—were to figure prominently in the final moments of my piece.
But the biggest surprise was the amount of recitative that turned up in the thirty-nine pages. This was a possibility I did not foresee, and one that gave me pause. Statistically, of course, this should have been no surprise at all. A great deal of Mozart opera is recitative. But how to deal with nine out of thirty-nine pages—23%—of brutal formulaic material of no thematic interest? (By the time the piece was complete, an even larger percentage of the total—123 measures out of 373, a whopping 32.9%—was based on this stuff!) I decided this was a golden opportunity to exploit hitherto ignored properties of such passages. I would concentrate on the rhythm. Played in time, as march music, it turns out that recitative rhythms are quite distinctive. Also, I harmonized these passages with tight, dissonant chords based on the pitch content of each recit. Finally, a constant texture dominates these passages. The two French horns in unison play the speech-based melodies, the two trumpets play close harmonies below the horns, and the clarinets and bassoons double on a narrow-range bass line. So the B passages are held together by characteristic rhythms and a unique orchestral texture, although the melodic material is never repeated.
All this intellectual gamesmanship had to be turned into music, of course. It had to become the ebb and flow of phrases, it had to build to some rhetorical high points, it had to have a climax and a denouement, it had to work as orchestration, it had to engage the audience (and the performers) on a deep enough level that it became fun, even exciting. I hope I have succeeded, and I hope some of you get a chance to hear it for yourselves.
A NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION: I will be writing at least two blogs a month in 2006. Eventually I’ll be able to write one a week. There is certainly enough to write about.
Saturday, January 7, 2006
It’s January 7, 2006, and I am WAY behind on these blogs! I have a good excuse—a commission for a new orchestra piece from the South Carolina Philharmonic. But the score is bound and in the hands of the conductor, and the parts are safely in the hands of the orchestra librarian, so I can catch up on the rest of my life. The piece is entitled “Introduction and Grand March: An Orchestral Homage to the late W. A. Mozart of Salzburg and the late C. E. Ives of Danbury.” I’ll write about it in Blog Number Five, but let me finish up Number Four first. It was eight weeks ago (!!!),
WHAT I WROTE THEN:
I wrote to Lila Ferrar, who intended to perform the First Amendment at her church last Sunday (November 6, 2005). She wrote back right away:
“Yes indeed! We did sing the First Amendment in church, yesterday, and I was very pleased and proud of how it went.
I just finished putting a copy of the order of service along with our November church Newsletter, in the mail to you.
I read the First Amendment aloud to the congregation before we sang it.
I am very happy to hear you are making progress with singing the whole thing in DC and elsewhere. I have had at least one choir member (besides Rob Adams who came with me and sang with you at Wesleyan) express interest in doing the whole thing. I don't know about logistics, but am eager to hear more. Thanks for keeping me posted.
Best to you
And here’s a follow-up comment from her a few days later:
when I met with the minister today, she said that at least a dozen different people came up to her after the service Sunday and said, what a wonderful service (the whole thing) She herself was blown away by the First Amendment.
CONTINUING AND FINISHING UP, JANUARY 7, 2006:
There have been some other performances of the First Amendment since that time, but I don’t know anything about them. There are also plans in the works for a tour of the Bill of Rights, under my direction, in June 2006. It’s premature to talk about the details, but soon I hope to share more information.
I didn’t achieve my goal of a download in every state by Thanksgiving 2005. However, there was a December download (and possible performance) in Georgia, and a second one in Pennsylvania. The New England states still lead in the number of downloads. It’s time to seriously get to work on the other twenty-nine states where my setting of the First Amendment has not seen the light of day! That’s one of my New Year’s resolutions, and one which I should be able to meet, with a little help from my friends.
A CD of the performance at Wesleyan last September of the entire Bill of Rights is just about edited and ready for limited release. More on this subject in the next blog.
HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone!