On the relationship of music and place
Most people do not give much thought to the intimate connection between a piece of music and where it was written. However, even in casual conversation we hear references to “Delta blues,” “California composers,” “the Princeton crew,” etc., and everyone knows the difference between “New Orleans jazz” and “Chicago jazz.” Chopin’s style changed profoundly when he settled in Paris, and he wrote much of his greatest music in a specific country house. And Brahms always carried music paper on his walks in the Vienna Woods.
I described the Geographical Preludes to my friend Tony Barrand, who like me is deeply involved in the New England shaped note revival. He immediately said that he always thought that those great tunes by Billings, Read, et al, with the colorful place names like “Chester,” “Bridgewater,” “Greenwich,” etc., were named for the locations in which they were written. Indeed, it is easy to imagine Billings traveling to singing schools and writing a tune for a particular class in a particular town. There is no way to prove such a theory just yet, although someone’s diary may eventually turn up to corroborate it. But the geography is right. So many of those New England towns are a day’s ride on horseback from one major city or another, or are en route between two of them.
My friend and mentor Henry Brant has made many musicians aware of the relationship between music and space, a slightly different matter but closely related. While Henry tends to write his pieces at home, he composes for the most part with a specific performance space in mind. I have seen him in operation many times, on location in a concert hall or other space, thinking out loud — this group of instruments can go here, this soloist can go there, the conductor needs to be there because of the sightlines. What I hope I have done, among other things, is to transpose Henry’s careful attention to the location of performance to an equally careful attention to the location of composition.
Every compositional act has occurred in a specific place. Writing these preludes has made me acutely aware of exactly where I am when I compose. Right now I am seated at the table in my studio where I have written most of my music and most of my prose. I can hear the morning song of several birds. I am convinced that this two-acre rural plot of land is an excellent place to write. It has a rolling lawn, some semi-wooded areas, some beautiful flowers, and a seasonal brook. It is part lovely garden and part sprawling mess. It is a good place for the visual arts as well. Our sculptor-painter friend Linus Coraggio (Henry’s son) has made many on-site pieces which enhance the landscape. With a little imagination one easily realizes that millions of compositional acts, millions of artistic decisions, have all occurred in specific places about this fertile and magical planet.