Monday, August 5, 2013

Forty Times Forty

The Complete Piano Music of Neely Bruce: THIS IS IT!
The first of twelve recitals will take place on Sunday 29 September, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut

 (A brief note about blogging frequency — it is clear to me that I’m not going to be able to post on this blog every day. Not that I’ve ever been able to do that. But a pattern is emerging. I think I will be able to post three or four times a week, on a regular basis. Just in case you’re wondering…)

“Forty Times Forty” is a birthday present for Jacky Miles. Jacky is the wife of Bill Brooks, my closest friend from graduate school. I was best man when he and Jacky got married. Phyllis and I were invited to contribute something to an elaborate book that Bill assembled on the occasion of one of Jacky’s birthdays that ends in a zero. Phyllis’s contribution was an elaborate verbal fantasy on the word “forty,” a single page of text surrounded by a border made up of the word “forty” repeated over and over as it threaded its way around the edge of the paper. My contribution was this piece.

“Forty Times Forty” is a title that says it all. Forty one-beat licks, each played forty times. Ten measures of four-four time, forty ten-measure units. What you see is what you get. The reaction to this piece always brings me some amusement. Some people are very dismissive of it, others like it very much. I recently played it for a young Dutch couple I met. He couldn’t find little enough to say about it, and was almost intent upon changing the subject. She, on the other hand, liked it. When I played it in Birmingham in 2004 the reviewer singled it out as the best piece on the program. And when I played it last semester for the students in my twentieth century compositional techniques class they really got into it.

I think the people who like this piece react to it by counting the licks. Even if I don’t explain what I’m going to do, they catch on and begin to count sooner or later. It takes between nine and ten minutes to play, so sooner or later the pattern becomes irresistible, at least to those who get into it. For the performer, it is strenuous and virtuosic — an endurance contest that becomes more and more flashy and more and more dangerous.

My goal in compositing the various one-beat licks was to make memorable, brief gestures of maximum variety. The reader of this blog, and others who are familiar with my music, may have noticed that I am shameless about saying where I get my ideas. So it will surprise no one that some of these licks sound like Stravinsky, some like Chopin, some like all that motoric stuff by Prokofiev, some like Mozart, etc. There is even a lick modeled on the repeated chords at the end of “The Banjo” by Gottschalk.

For the most part this piece speaks for itself. There are some surprises, and I don’t want to go into any more details. But in preparing this piece, as in preparing this entire series, there is a general problem that rears its ugly head. I’m a composer in my late sixties, relearning a lifetime’s worth of work. The urge to edit, tweak or even revise, or (God forbid) rewrite can be irresistible.

As a matter of principle I believe that “What I have written, I have written,” as Pontius Pilate would say. So even if I have learned something about compositing in the fifty years I’ve been doing it, I refuse to second-guess my youthful self. No Hindemith am I — rewriting and revising are out. But tweaking is another matter, and editing is essential. In relearning all this stuff, and making final copies of much of it in FINALE, I found outright mistakes that had to be corrected.

But when one is practicing one gets ideas. A really good one turns out to be placing four specific pitches in the sostenuto pedal at the beginning of this piece. (They have to drop out on the second page.) These pitches, vibrating sympathetically, reinforce the opening licks in a very pleasing way. I didn’t think of that in 1995, but I sure thought of it in July of 2013. I decided to do it. This is certainly not an edit. But is it just a tweak or is it really a rewrite? It’s a conception that is far from my concerns when I wrote the piece in the first place. So I can call this a tweak, but to an outside observer it’s probably a rewrite. Tweak or rewrite? Truth or rationalization? You decide. (In the immortal words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.”)

Finally, a word about minimalism. This is not my only minimalist piece, but minimalism is a relatively small percentage of my output. (More on this topic when I talk about my Esercizi two years or so down the pike.) But I like the idea, I like the aesthetic, and I’d like to express my unreserved admiration for certain minimalist pieces. These include virtually the entire output of Tom Johnson; certain works of Alvin Lucier, especially “I am sitting in a room” and “Music on a Long, Thin Wire”; the haunting Time Curve Preludes of Bill Duckworth (OK, that’s postminimalism,, but let’s not quibble). And above all “Music for Eighteen Musicians” and “Drumming” by Steve Reich. Phyllis and I had our first date when “Drumming” was performed at Wesleyan in the late 1970s. After the concert we went to the old Lake Beseck Café in Middlefield and danced well into the night.

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