Saturday, July 11, 2015

Furniture Music, and, How to Play "Sponge"

Tomorrow, 3:00 p.m. in Crowell Concert Hall, is the sixth in my "This Is It!" recitals of my own piano music. One of the featured works is Furniture Music in the Form of Fifty Rag Licks. This composition consists of fifty four-measure phrases of ragtime, each taken twice. The resulting 100 strips of paper are shuffled, cut by a member of the audience, and played in the resulting order. I wrote this piece in 1979-80 (most of it in '80) and it took me a year to learn to play it. The "original" version, two copies of each of the rag licks, takes about fifteen minutes to play.

On July 12, however, I am going to try something new. The term "furniture music" is borrowed from Satie, whose "musique d'ameublement" is not intended to be listened to, but simply go on in a corner of the room, as if it were a piece of furniture, just sitting there. Whenever I have played this piece I have tried to get the audience to treat it as muzak. I've asked them to converse, stretch their legs, go get a drink of water, whatever. It doesn't work. People get interested and listen to the music, and there seems to be little I can do to change that. Satie had the same problem. At the premiere of "Musique d'ameublement" a string quartet was playing in the lobby of the concert hall, off to the side. A small crowd of intense listeners converged on the quartet. Satie approached them several times, and attempted to break up the gathering, saying "Converse! Converse!" It didn't work for him, and it hasn't worked for me. (My composition is a complex commentary on ragtime, as well as an homage to Satie. I have a lot to say about it, but in this blog I will content myself with describing this particular performance, and then writing about the only rag that my piece quotes.)

It occurred to me that if the piece were to go on long enough, people would have to move, that is, take an intermission. So I have doubled it. There are now four copies of each rag lick, so the performance will last more or less thirty minutes. I will also provide a cup of cider, on stage, for anyone who would like it. (Tomorrow is Thoreau's birthday, so cider seems appropriate.) On stage, next to the table with the cider, will be a large portrait of Charles Ives. (Christopher Grundy is singing "Thoreau" by Ives to open the concert.) All of these things — taking a break, a friendly glass, looking at a painting — will be sufficient distractions, I hope, that at least some of the audience will let the music be heard as the composer intends!

The only quotation in Furniture Music in the Form of Fifty Rag Licks is the remarkable "Sponge" (1911), what amounts to a slow drag by New Orleans-born piano salesman and fighter pilot W. C. Simon. Among other things, the term "sponge" is early twentieth century New Orleans slang for "pimp." (I checked Urban Dictionary and, as I suspected, the word no longer carries that meaning, though there are many impolite connotations that remain. Language, especially slang, can change a lot in 100 years.) This rag is one of my candidates for the sleaziest piece of music ever written. It is also remarkably like the opening of "We don't need no education" by Pink Floyd, but I am certain that is a coincidence.

To introduce my piece, and provide a bit of a buffer zone between four intricate, perhaps over-intellectualized fugues and a gigantic random rag, I will be playing "Sponge." I have been playing this piece now for more or less 35 years. Every time I play it I ask myself the same question — are those eccentricities misprints, or are they for real? The title page says it is a two-step, but it is not (although the surviving piano roll from the period takes it as a two-step). It has three tempo markings: "Moderato" for the first strain; then "Broad and moderato not fast" for the second; an assumed but not marked "Moderato [tempo primo]" when the first strain recurs; and finally a reprise of the second strain (abbreviated), marked "Slow and deliberate." There is a chord variously spelled as a B flat minor seventh and a B flat dominant seventh, used in the same place in the phrase, but with no perceptible pattern as to the D flat or the D natural. There are countless irregularities in the harmonization of the second phrase. Most interestingly, the bass line for much of the piece consists of unpredictable fourths, fifths, or octaves with internal fourths and fifths. For the curious reader, the piece is easily consulted. It is reprinted in Ragtime Rarities by the late, great Trebor Jay Tichnor.

My first inclination, in the early 1980s, was to smooth out the irregularities, at least some of them. My second inclination, early in the twenty-first century, was to play it by memory and let the chips fall where they may. Relearning the piece for this event, I resolved to play the piece "exactly as written," but this is a combination of impractical, unconvincing and even almost impossible. So what's a pianist to do? The period piano roll is almost no help, incidentally. But it does confirm the fifteen-measure phrase (!) at the end, and the weird, almost ephemeral last measure, which has no low bass note to resolve the motion of the line.

I'm still pondering the general question, "how to do this?," and still debating details. Come tomorrow and see what you think! For those can't come, I'll eventually have this recital up on SoundCloud. But give me some time! In my postings I'm still a couple of recitals behind.

For more about "Sponge" and W. C. Simon, I recommend David Thomas Robert's note about the piece (which he has recorded) and William Edward's biographical note about its composer. (Edwards is also known as Perfessor Bill, and has assembled an astonishing amount of hard-to-come-by information about ragtime and ragtime composers.) Here are the links: (scroll down for Roberts's excellent note) (scroll down to find Simon; the list is not alphabetized)

My blog today is a copout in some ways. I should write about the whole experience of writing and playing my Furniture Music, and I should get down to the nitty-gritty about how to perform "Sponge." But now we're talking musicology, not blogging. This is a blog, after all, and I've got to get back to practicing!

For what it's worth: I have a second piece of Furniture Music, and am contemplating writing a third. Details to follow in due course...

Monday, July 6, 2015

A current overview of my Friendly Fugues

On July 12 at 3:00 in Crowell Concert Hall at Wesleyan, I will perform four more of my Friendly Fugues, all of them world premieres. I have written about the technique of these pieces elsewhere on this blog, and won't go into that again, at least not right now. These fugues, specifically, are:

A Fugue for Janet. Janet is my daughter-in-law, married to my son Richard. They have two children, Eliza and Dallas, and live in Vero Beach, Florida. Her full name is Janet Catherine Gross [Bruce]. I began this fugue to show Janet the method. Her subject is one of the longer, more convoluted ones. I completed the fugue some time after I began it, on the Fourth of July. It culminates in a bit of forced counterpoint between the subject, then some of the episodic material, against a familiar patriotic tune.

A Fugue for Anna Barron. Anna Barron was the widow of my colleague Bill Barron, composer and jazz saxophonist extraordinaire. It is one of the few fugues in this series written to honor a deceased person — I wrote the first version of this fugue for Anna's memorial at Wesleyan earlier this year. It proved far too difficult to learn in a short period of time. The extra practice time has also allowed me to tweak the piece incessantly. It's far better music as a result.

A Fugue for Joyce Hubbard. Joyce and I have known each other since the mid-sixties, when were were at the University of Illinois together. She sang in the American Music Group, and recorded an unforgettable rendition of "Hard Times Come Again No More." This fugue was composed as a birthday present, and like "A Fugue for Anna Barron," it has been relentlessly revised. Actually, this fugue is probably the most revised, tweaked and edited composition in my entire catalogue.

A Fugue for Mary Burgess. I have known Mary longer than any of my friends for whom I have written a fugue. We were campers together at Transylvania Music Camp, Brevard, North Carolina, in 1958. With the exception of a brief coda, this composition is entirely palindromic.  Like Joyce's fugue, this one is a birthday present. My original intention was to have the retrograde be a bit free and easy, but in the few years since I wrote it I have made it stricter and stricter, until it is now completely and utterly rigorous.

This will make a total of seventeen fugues performed so far as part of "This Is It!" In alphabetical order by last name:

Anna Barron
Janet [Bruce]
Mary Burgess
Jennifer [Caputo] and Andrew [Dewar]
Bitsey Clark (two-piano version)
Katchen Coley
Louise Faircloth
Clem W. Hitchcock
Dr [Lara] Hoggard
Peter Hoyt
Joyce Hubbard
Mary Lounge
Urip Sri Maeny
Sophia Rosoff
Carl Viggiani
Billy Waiter
Lorry Yelding

That's a lot of fugues. There are seven more to be performed, including two I have never played. But after this particular edition of "This Is It!" I'm going to take a break from fugue performance for a while.

The preparation of the four fugues for this event has been an intense experience. All of them have been extensively revised, and I have been thinking a lot about contrapuntal writing. Last night and this morning I played through all seventeen. My intention is to compile the twenty-four extant Friendly Fugues into a volume. This might appear to be a companion to my Geographical Preludes, but it will be quite a different thing, in actuality. I was gratified to learn that the ten years I've spend addressing this particular compositional problem — how to write fugues in the early 21st century — have not been wasted. I find them coherent, interesting, and (most importantly) I'm learning how to play them.

On of my constant beefs with the state of new music, at least with the music a lot of composers are writing these days, is that it has little or no contrapuntal interest. At least I can say, with these fugues, I am attempting to put my money where my mouth is.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Some "new" pieces for piano four-hands

On the next "This Is It!" recital (number six) there will be some unusual pieces. More details in future blogs, but today I wanted to mention what are perhaps the most unusual ones. I have been looking through what I call my "pre-teen effusions." I have several notebooks of music and sketches from high school and earlier — I began to write music at the age of nine. Since "This Is It!" is billed as my "complete works for solo piano," I've been going through the material to see what should be performed. It turns out there is a lot more than I remembered.

There are unfinished and quasi-finished piano sonatas, for example, and I'm not sure what to do with them. I remember a waltz I wrote at the age of eleven, and played for my piano teacher Carolyn Pfau, at the Birmingham Conservatory. The waltz had a lot of black keys in it (key of F# major) and was heavily influenced by the Brahms waltzes, which I had recently discovered. I was very proud of it at the time, although Miss Pfau wasn't particularly impressed. It seems to have disappeared — in any case I can't find it. Perhaps it will turn up...

Earlier this year I announced that I would be playing some of my pre-teen music on this occasion, and indeed I will. But I'm still trying to figure out what to do with the sonata(s), and the waltz I really wanted to play may never resurface. So I have decided to make short, almost fragmentary pieces, based on sketches for orchestral works. Of course at the ages of 9, 10 and 11 I had no concept of orchestration, and no appreciable knowledge of music theory, but I had a burning desire to compose and great enthusiasm for the orchestra. I produced a lot of stuff in varying stages of completion and performability. I have taken some portions of this stuff and turned it into vignettes for piano four-hands. The working title is "Neely at Nine." (I'm quite sure that at least some of this stuff was generated at that age.) There are four of these. They are basically arrangements of materials that cannot be played with just two hands. I've kept editing and revising to a minimum. However, since they were intended for orchestra, I have indulged in octave doublings and displacements, and a few other "orchestrational" touches. I'm particularly delighted with what I did with the cymbal part, in the excerpt from "Symphony No. 1" that concludes the set. It's a very nice, conspicuous cluster near the top of the piano.

Of singular interest (to me at least) was the discovery of my first "fugue." Of course it really isn't a fugue, and it's clear that, when I wrote it, I didn't know what a fugue was. But it pleases me that this modest bit of three-part counterpoint is on the same program with four of my Friendly Fugues, written in the last five or six years and obsessively revised for this recital. Five world premieres!

The whole of this retrospective project, so far, has required revisiting my youth, and I'm very comfortable with that. I find, however, that revisiting my childhood is a completely different matter. I recognize myself as a teenager, and in my twenties — indeed, at just about any previous age, back to twelve. But I look at these notebooks and say to myself "What was I thinking? Who is this nine-year-old boy with the same name?" I recognize the energy, and I remember the tunes, now that I'm looking at them. But the state of mind that produced them, even the physical process of writing this stuff down, it's all receded into a part of my brain that is difficult to access.

This surprised me. I remember a lot about my childhood — places we lived, the names of friends, things I did with my sister and my brother, things my parents did and said, and so on. I'm starting to write my autobiography, and I'm very conscious of dates, locations, cast of characters, etc., back to the age of four, when my family lived in Buena Vista, Georgia. But the beginnings of my compositional process are mysterious, at least at this point. Perhaps that's just as well, and as it should be.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Geographical Preludes: some comments on the comments

Rereading the comments in the score of my Geographical Preludes has made me aware that a few further comments are necessary, even corrections. But first, here are the locations of the various towns:

Alpharetta, Georgia
Birmingham, Alabama
Buena Vista, Georgia
Cape Canaveral, Florida
Damariscotta, Maine
Fairfield, Connecticut
Hattiesburg, Mississippi
Hadley, Massachusetts
Homerville, Georgia
Janesville, Wisconsin
Madison, Wisconsin
Middletown, Connecticut
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Montpelier, Vermont
New Haven, Connecticut
New York, New York
   (or as Chris Johnson puts it, the great state of
Pelham, Alabama
Rochester, New York
South Bristol, Maine
Titusville, Florida
Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Waleska, Georgia
Wallingford, Connecticut
West Palm Beach, Florida
Westfield, Massachusetts
Westport, Connecticut
Wiscasset, Maine
Woodbury, Vermont

In Part ONE I mention sketches for seven more of these preludes. In actuality there are many more than seven. I’ve been working off and on for years on the Metter Prelude (see below), but it is difficult to bring to conclusion. There are some other sketches that are in pretty good shape and might get finished, but actually I have other compositional fish to fry at this point, and I’m not sure there will be many more of these pieces. This particular compositional vein seems mined out, or close to it.

My admiration for the Chopin preludes has only grown in the last twelve years. I have always loved them, but they seem more and more one-of-a-kind, more and more original, more and more enigmatic. They are so familiar that sometimes one must work to recapture their freshness. (Scrupulously noting the original pedal markings is a big help.) Appreciating their emotional complexity is also useful. Morbidity, for example, is an emotional state that few composers have attempted, but the A minor prelude is my candidate for the most morbid piece ever written.

I mention in Part TWO that many of these preludes are based on recycled materials. These are by no means my only “ecological” compositions, in this sense. A Book of Pieces for the Harpsichord, for example, is entirely based on old sketches, and I am currently writing some short pieces for piano-four-hands that repurpose some of my juvenilia.

Part THREE suggests a future that will not happen. My brother, who was to have showed me the various places my father worked, died unexpectedly earlier this year. We talked repeatedly about the trip, but it kept getting postponed, usually because of his health. My mother died suddenly in 2003, at the age of 89, so I can’t ask her about any of Daddy’s work locations either. My only sister is also deceased, so whatever hints she might have offered are not going to be forthcoming. And my wife Phyllis, who accompanied me on so many trips to so many of these places, (where Daddy worked and where made sketch after sketch) is also deceased.

I could look up town records in the places I know of where my father worked — in the score I mention Arab, Dothan, Okeechobee, Hinesville and Wiggins — but it wouldn’t be the same as soaking up my brother’s inimitable, jocular banter about these little spots on the map. So I don’t think the Dothan Quickstep, the Okeechobee Waltz, etc., will ever be written.

Similarly, as I mentioned above, I have many, many sketches for other Geo Ps, but I don’t think they will become full-fledged Geographical Preludes. A few of them might become miscellaneous ones (in the manner of the Chopin Prelude in C# minor, opus 45), or parts of larger, as yet unimagined works. But a second set of these pieces, on the scale of the first, is not in the cards.

As I said earlier in today’s blog, at the top of the list of possible future pieces in this vein is the Metter Prelude (sketched in Metter, Georgia, not too far from Savannah and county seat of Candler County). It is well along and I am determined to finish it. The problem is — it has now been in the works for fifteen years, and I have to reconstruct my train of thought. Any composer knows this is a tricky task, but as I say, I am determined.

I stand by Part FOUR.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Geographical Preludes: Part FOUR

Here is the last installment of four — the commentaries on the Geographical Preludes that are found in the score.

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.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Geographical Preludes: Part THREE

Here's the next installment of notes about my Geographical Preludes, or "Geo Ps," if you like.

Some special places

One of the unrealized compositional projects which has fed this realized one occurred to me shortly after my father died in 1984. He was a contractor, sometimes working for others, sometimes running his own company. His specialty was the construction of water and sewer systems and other types of pipe work. He built such systems many places throughout the Deep South: Arab, Dothan, Okeechobee, Hinesville, Wiggins, etc., places most people will never visit but which are indelibly impressed in my memory. I wanted to travel to each of the dozens of towns where he worked and write a short dance piece named for each one.

This trip has not taken place, but is tentatively scheduled for sometime in 2003. My brother, who worked with Daddy on many of these projects, will be my guide. (Maybe some of the resulting Geographical Preludes will be appropriate for dancing.) I have, however, taken a trip with my mother to her childhood haunts in Mississippi. The sketch for the Hattiesburg Prelude was written immediately after visiting the vacant lot where the house we occupied used to stand. On the way back to her home in Waycross, Georgia, we stopped by Buena Vista, where our house is still standing.

In February of this year my wife and I visited various relatives in Florida and Georgia. I realized that we would be very near Titusville and Cape Canaveral, where my father and mother were employed during the construction of the Kennedy Space Center. I consulted my mother for the address where they had lived, which was easily located — the trailer park is still in operation, more than forty years later. The second Titusville piece was sketched while parked in the car beside the very trailer, at least the one which now has that address. Titusville Prelude No. 1 was sketched earlier in the day, at lunch in a restaurant overlooking the ocean, with a clear view of the Vehicle Assembly Building in the distance, where my father and brother had once worked at the Kennedy Space Center, installing electrical conduit.

By now I am in the habit of carrying manuscript paper on all trips, ready to sketch new preludes when ideas strike. A recent jaunt to Maine yielded three preludes in this volume and a sketch for a fourth. I have told several friends about this project — the reaction has been uniformly one of interest and support, even enthusiasm. Phyllis and I sat in a local bar with another couple who found the project of unusual  interest. They wanted to see how it was done. I went to the car, took a manuscript book, and sketched what became Middletown Prelude No. 2 only a day later. I described the project to another couple in a Korean restaurant in Hadley, Massachusetts with similar results. Perhaps the most enthusiastic response was from a friend who lives on a farm in Waleska, Georgia. Seated on her beautiful porch I listened intently to the diverse sounds of animals, birds, and occasional distant traffic.

When I attended Indian Springs School it was in Helena, Alabama. Now it is in Pelham. The Helena Prelude is based on two unfinished sketches which ended up on the same piece of paper; I was sixteen, maybe fifteen, when I wrote them. The Pelham Prelude was sketched in a motel near ISS; the school is in the same location, but the boundaries of the towns have changed. The occasion was my fortieth high school reunion.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Geographical Preludes: Part TWO

On Monday 1 June I posted the first of four commentaries on this set of pieces. Here is the second post. Several hundred people have been listening to these little pieces, which is gratifying! Here's how I wrote them.

The nature of the source materials

The first Geographical Prelude was conceived in a motel room in Alpharetta, Georgia. It may be found on the first page of this collection. I was in Alpharetta to attend the Georgia State Sacred Harp Singing Convention in March of 1999. Between sessions of the convention I was furiously composing under deadline, a short orchestra piece called “Some Melodies From Alpharetta” which I had promised to my colleague Angel Gil-OrdoƱez for the Wesleyan Orchestra. The idea for these preludes had been vaguely rattling around somewhere in the back of my brain. Suddenly I realized that the hexachoral progressions at the heart of this modest symphonic work would, with appropriate simple figuration, make a good piano prelude. The realization of this idea proved to be more difficult than its inspiration, and the final version of this prelude was only completed a year and a half later.

Geographical Preludes, then, could be spin-offs from other works. The next to be composed, Middletown Prelude No. 1, was in fact a radical reconfiguration of a vocal piece written and recorded (never publicly performed) several years earlier. The Homerville and West Palm Beach preludes similarly reconfigure and/or develop portions of earlier compositions, my variations for harpsichord (1961) and “The Year of Jubilo” for piano and pre-recorded sound (2001) respectively. And the New Haven Prelude is an arrangement for piano of one of the bell pieces in my major work “CONVERGENCE: Some Parades for Charlie’s Dad.” In all cases, of course, the pieces of paper — the physical objects — were hand-crafted in the eponymous locations.

The third to be composed, the Champaign Prelude No. 1, is based on chord progressions I wrote as compositional exercises while in graduate school. I saved these pages, as I have saved dozens of other pages of progressions, melodies, rhythmic and orchestrational conceptions, etc. over the years. The Birmingham, Helena, Rochester and Tuscaloosa preludes are the result of similar recycling ventures from my student days and even my childhood.

More often, however, these preludes are the result of on-location sketches, made specifically for this purpose. I have attempted to sketch spontaneously, that is, to write what comes to me quickly, without editing. Sometimes it is a melody; sometimes it is a progression; sometimes it is a mode. Some of these ideas are fragmentary in the extreme; others are longer and more fully developed. Making the prelude from the sketch can be laborious or easy; it took me a year and a half to figure out what to do with the fragment which became the Buena Vista Prelude, but the Hadley Prelude practically wrote itself.