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.