Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Blog #6, 1st Performance of Introduction and Grand March

I’m back from Columbia, South Carolina and the premiere of my “Introduction and Grand March.” It was a very full and eventful trip. I arrived at the Columbia airport late Tuesday night, January 17 and was duly ensconced at the home of Peter and Mary Hoyt. Wednesday morning I picked up a rental car and drove to Durham, North Carolina (four hours there, four hours back!) to see my teacher and mentor Lara Hoggard, his wife, his daughter and his grandson. (On the way I stopped at South of the Border for a quick couple of tamales.) The Hoggards were in fine shape, all things considered. Dr. Hoggard will be 91 in March, and hasn’t been in the best of health. But he is as lively as ever, and we had a wonderful visit, filled with music and reminiscing about Indian Springs School. I improvised for a while, and played the Chopin B minor sonata for him. Then we listened to almost half of the recently released 2-CD set of the ISS Glee Club under his direction in the late ‘50s (gorgeous stuff). Then there was more improvising, a little Mozart, a bit more Chopin, and a performance of my new harpsichord piece for the Physics Department at Wesleyan, albeit on the piano—“Albert’s Chaconne,” in honor of Einstein and the 100th anniversary of the theory of special relativity. I left about 7:30 and drove back to the Columbia airport where I picked up Phyllis about 11:30.

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

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

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.

Saturday, January 7, 2006

Blog #4, Happy New Year

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 (!!!),


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.


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!