Thursday, January 12, 2006

Blog #5, Introduction and Grand March

My new orchestra 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.” It is a collage of dozens and dozens of tunes, fragments, and stretches of recitative from seven operas of Mozart: Idomeneo, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, The Magic Flute, La Clemenza di Tito, and especially The Abduction from the Seraglio. It was commissioned by the South Carolina Philharmonic, Nicholas Smith, conductor, with funds from the School of Music from the University of South Carolina. It will be premiered in Columbia on January 21, 2006—details of the performance can be found elsewhere on this web site.

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.

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