Thursday, October 17, 2013

Some information/thoughts about Antiphonies for Charlie

THE HARTFORD NEW MUSIC FESTIVAL CONTINUES with the premiere of my Antiphonies for Charlie. The combined forces of the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra and The Generous Ensemble perform Saturday 19 October at 7:30, Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford; and Sunday 20 October at 2:30, CT Historical Society, also in Hartford. Come and enjoy! Both performances are FREE and open to the public.

Antiphonies for Charlie is my biggest piece for orchestra alone — if you allow that the combined forces of The Generous Ensemble and HICO constitute an orchestra. 35 minutes long. It is also my very individual response to a unique combination of instruments, and the possibility of arranging them antiphonally.  

Those instruments are: flute (piccolo), oboe (English horn), alto sax, tenor sax (bari), electric guitar, electric bass, two percussion (mostly traps and marimba), two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, strings (44432).

“Charlie” is of course Charles Edward Ives. I had already written a short piano piece “Homage to Charlie,” and his imprint is all over my music for solo voice. In 1913 he was at the height of his compositional powers, right in the middle of producing the Concord Sonata and the Fourth Symphony. 1913 is also the year when Henry Brant was born. Henry was, in the words of Virgil Thomson, the greatest American orchestrator, and the composer who, more than any other, awakened my interest in the orchestra.

So AFC is, among other things, my tribute to these two geniuses. One of them died when I was ten years old, the other was a close personal friend. Each has had a profound impact on me, both as a composer and as a performer. I don’t think AFC sounds particularly like either Ives or Brant, but certain Ivesian procedures, which Henry adopted and freely acknowledged, permeate the work. These include:

The spatial separation of instrumental forces
Overlapping rhythmic cycles (as in the Universe Symphony)
Stacking blocks of sound on top of each other (as in the Fourth Symphony)
Extreme stylistic eclecticism

To these I might add whimsical titles (more like Henry than Charlie) and whimsical instructions to some members of the orchestra (more like the Charlie of the Second String Quartet).

“Clumps,” the first movement, is just that. Sonorous blocks, clusters, what my orchestration teacher Steve Sample used to call “fat melodies” — these combine and recombine and even, to some small degree, develop. There are some interruptions, to thicken the plot, including a really second-rate parlor tune, ineptly harmonized, and some rather more elegant three-part counterpoint.

“Solos” are just that. Each of the 32 instruments has its own part with its own integrity. Four of the solos are melodic, the other 28 are pointillistic. “Duets” are similarly literal. Not all of the possible pairs are used, but 23 are (if I have counted correctly), including some bizarre ones. The duets are also carefully positioned within the ensemble, and if you listen closely you can hear them coming from different directions.

“Something Different” is just that, at least from the point of view of the materials it uses. The techniques of collage and overlapping rhythmic cycles (9 beats + 11 beats + 15 beats, etc.) are the same. To these Ivesian/Brantian procedures is added the Lisztian one of thematic transformation, although my use of it is extreme and is almost like serialism.

These notes make my music appear to be quite intellectual, and my modus operandi is certainly self-conscious. But one aims for a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. You, the audience, should have a good time listing to this piece. I’m not so concerned that you be able to follow the intellectual apparatus behind AFC, though it is fun to know it is there. Rather, I hope you find sections of it beautiful, exciting, amusing, or even moving.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Three Chamber Works

Hartford New Music Festival OPENING CONCERT
Sacre d’Automne: 016 New Music Ensemble
Charter Oak Cultural Center, Hartford
Friday 11 October 2013 at 8:00 FREE
featuring three chamber works of Neely Bruce,
two of them world premieres 

So much for blogging three or four times a week. There has been an explosion of activity around various performances of my compositions, and I've had increased duties at Wesleyan as well. My concert on September 29 has come and gone. The performance of "Flight Over a Global Map" by Henry Brant has also come and gone. And tomorrow begins the Hartford New Music Festival. I'm one of two featured composers. But I've had to write program notes for the first concert and I realized that I should post them on this blog! So here they are.
(I’ll get back to the piano music soon. Promise! Cross my heart and hope to die…)
Neely Bruce writes of the pieces on tonight’s concert:

The Trio for Flute, Violin and Piano was composed over a period of three years. It is in two large sections, each almost exactly six minutes long. The first of these is a long quasi-palindrome that is repeated. It was composed in small bits and pieces over a considerable period of time. If I may indulge in an organic metaphor, I wanted to see what kind of sub-microscopic bacterial stew I could suggest with three instruments very close together, churning about, evolving a bit, sticking out a tiny antenna from time to time. In addition to being palindromic, and repeated verbatim, the pitches are the result of additive processes. All of this suggests a strict approach to composing that is more apparent than real.

The second large section is a reaction to, or even a rejection of the first. Rather than amorphous primordial soup, one hears clearly delineated melodies and the sonorities of individual instruments. Instead of quasi-rational process one hears counterpoint and balanced, almost neo-classical phrases. Instead of activated static sonorities, full of activity but with little direction, one hears large-scale harmonic progressions. The first section was written with enormous attention to detail, and took two and a half years to write. The second section was written spontaneously, in a matter of days.

This piece has grown out of several artistic considerations and one deeply personal one. Over the years I have written a great deal of music for flute, violin and piano, in specific theatrical contexts. I wanted to produce an abstract work for the medium that would revisit some of the abstract techniques I had used in the past. I wanted to achieve maximum contrast between the two sections.  Like many of my pieces, this Trio was written for me to play with two of my friends. But the speed and intensity with which the second part of the work was produced are the direct result of the passing of my wife Phyllis from this world to the next on November 8, 2010.

Meditation for Solo Cello. In 1968 I set the 23rd Psalm to music for unaccompanied voice. I have a dim memory that the original version was for soprano, but I cannot confirm this. If this is true, I probably intended the piece for Jean Geil, a remarkable soprano at the University of Illinois. She had perfect pitch and was much in demand as a performer of new music, and I had written other pieces for her. In any case, the piece was difficult to sing and difficult to program and
was never performed. In 1984 I took it out and recast it as a piece for baritone voice without accompaniment. It was no easier to perform and still hard to program.

The piece has stuck in my craw, so to speak, for 45 years. It is wide-ranging and chromatic in the extreme. When Jordan Jacobson and I were discussing what music of mine would be appropriate for the 016 New Music Ensemble he was particularly interested in a piece that would feature the cello. Our conversation was a lightbulb moment. Perhaps the difficulty with “Psalm 23” was that it was not a vocal melody but an instrumental one. So I have recast it for solo cello. This involved minimal rewriting of the pitches and a lot of editing. I am delighted that after all these years this not-so-hummable but memorable melody will see the light of day.

I met the great trombonist Stuart Dempster in the mid-1960s — not too long before writing the psalm setting that turned into the Meditation for Solo Cello. I was asked to play the piano parts in a recital he gave as part of the Festival of Contemporary Arts at the University of Illinois on March 10, 1965. We became friends for life, performing again as a duo several times at the U of IL, and on tour in the Northeast in the late 1970s, after I had come to Wesleyan. In 1971 I got up the nerve to write a piece for the two of us to play together. It was performed twice at Illinois, shortly after I wrote it, and again as part of our tour.

The Grand Duo for Trombone and Piano is the first of several grand duos for various solo instruments and piano: soprano sax and piano, percussion and piano, trumpet, viola, flute and cello. Others were projected, and I actually began to work on GDs for double bass, euphonium and Eb alto clarinet — however, none of these have been forthcoming.

Ideas that relate music to information theory have had a deep and lasting impact on me. One of my principal professors in graduate school was Lejaren Hiller, whose pioneering work in computer music is well known and invaluable. He introduced us to Abraham Moles, whose Information Theory and Aesthetic Perception remains a classic in the field. Between classes with Jerry and classes with Herbert Brün I developed a fine appreciation of statistical probability as a compositional tool. I also learned from Jerry how one can use stylistic juxtaposition as a way to increase the information content of just about anything.

The main event in the GDTP — the first and longest section of the piece — is the gradual transformation of the probabilities of the penultimate A major section into the probabilities of the final G major part. The former has literally hundreds of As and Es, with other pitches in lesser number; the latter has only a few Gs and Ds. Neither section contains all twelve chromatic pitches. The section is divided into twelve “variations.” Scores of As and Es gradually give way to considerably fewer Gs and Ds. The transition from an implied A major to an implied E major is concurrent with a gentle thinning of the texture. All is sweetness and light, and one hopes that the audience is sufficiently surprised by what happens next.

Thus the main body of this piece is based on what follows it, rather than what proceeds it. The composition manipulates basic notions of cause and effect, as well as statistical frequency. It is the converse, so to speak, of musical development in the Beethovenian sense. All of this would not mean a thing, of course, if the piece were ugly or boring. But it is neither, though one could certainly discuss wherein lies its particular beauty and fascination.