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.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Geographical Preludes: Part ONE

I have recently uploaded all of my Geographical Preludes onto SoundCloud, where all of you are welcome to listen to them. For the next few days I'm going to post on my blog the comments about these pieces in the score. Here's the first installment of four:

The basic idea

There are several ground rules which govern the composition of these Geographical Preludes. The most fundamental one is that each is based on a sketch, or other musical idea, which was put on paper by the composer in the location for which it is named. The nature of these sketches is discussed on page sixteen. Once the original object (the piece of paper) has been generated or identified the composition of the prelude can take place in any location. For the most part this has meant 440 Chamberlain Road in Middletown, Connecticut, my home and where I do the bulk of my composition. However, if a prelude-in-progress is with me on a trip, or in my office at Wesleyan, I am free to work on it if an idea strikes. The connection with the place is therefore specific and vivid, but each prelude has unfolded artistically at its own pace, in due course, wherever it seemed appropriate.

In spite of these geographical connections, however, it is not the case that these pieces attempt musical portraits of particular locations. Of course this happens sometimes, but my intention is not to “paint a picture” but to tap a deeper vein of inspiration. As a friend who advises about Feng Shui puts it, “Every place has its own energy.” One consequence of this method is the resulting diversity of the product. Even in my output, which is unusually eclectic, these preludes represent an exceptional range of styles and musical procedures.

I had originally intended only to write thirty-six of these pieces, but the method has proved to be so provocative that I have sketches for about twenty more and anticipate additions to this volume. Indeed, I intend to continue to compose a Geographical Prelude now and then for the rest of my life.

There are many composers who have written preludes. My preludes are profoundly influenced by those preludes I have played — especially those of Bach, Chopin, Debussy and my friend Bill Duckworth. It will be immediately obvious that some of them are “activated harmonizations,” for example, in the style of the first prelude in the Well-Tempered Clavier, and there are similar specific ties to Duckworth and Debussy. Aesthetically, however, I feel they owe the most to Chopin. They are frequently open-ended, provocative, even ambiguous, and can actually be used to introduce longer works (that is, they are really preludes). For example, once I played three of them to introduce the Chopin Barcarolle, and the Dutch pianist Marcel Worms has introduced entire concerts with the Fairfield Prelude.

As a further constraint I have decided there can only be three preludes generated from any one location. So there might eventually be a “Champaign Prelude No. 3” but there will never be a “Tuscaloosa Prelude No. 4.” Finally, my Geographical Preludes can only be related to places in the United States.