The Heart of the Matter

Alex Ross has a fine article on Puccini up at the New Yorker. In addition to a number of telling insights into the Italian master's ability to hold the stage, Alex touches on some issues of central importance in the ongoing struggle to keep concert music culturally viable and to regain its place in our intellectual life.

Two quotes in particular address this issue, and as is often the case, Alex sums it up well. After mentioning two crossover events held at important venues in NYC:

The idea is not to dilute classical music with crossover novelties but to move it back into the thick of modern life. The old art will no longer hold itself aloof; instead, it will play a godfather role in the wider culture, able to assimilate anything new because it has assimilated everything in the past.

Then after discussing a Puccini performance that emphasized what is unusual/challenging in Turandot:

Even composers may have something to learn from Puccini. “Turandot” becomes a different piece when it is removed from the colossal clutter of Franco Zeffirelli’s production at the Met; it begins to sound nearly avant-garde, because it assimilates an array of modern sounds while maintaining an inexorable singing line. Berio [whose completion of Turnadot was given in the performance Alex reviewed] also superimposed old and new, but the pieces in his collages remain alienated from one another. Many young composers still play the same glass-bead game with the past, upholding artificial differences in musical language rather than questioning them. Puccini might say: Don’t make it new. Make it whole.
(If I could write like that, I'd never leave the house.)

Exactly so. What we should be hearing in the music of the 20th and early 21st centuries are the ideas that hold the different styles together, not the stances that separate them.


Marky Mark

A vigorous discussion is ongoing at the Sequenza 21 Composer’s Forum. It’s also been taken up at Kyle Gann’s blog. The topic under discussion is, nominally, the density of expression markings in scores. (I say that markings are the “nominal” topic of the discussions because I think the real topic is compositional pedagogy, a second front in the style wars.) I want to comment on the subject of markings themselves.

Among the markings under discussion are those that indicate dynamics (volume), articulation, including changes in dynamics, accents of various kinds, and phrasing. I pulled a few score off of my shelf just to look at the density of markings therein and found that they vary from piece to piece, even within the work of a single composer!

This is not surprising, of course. It seems to me that the markings in a score become too dense at precisely that marking that makes it harder for the performer to play the piece than it would be without the mark. How does a composer know this? Well, that’s a little more complicated. It comes with experience (and experience as a performer is even better). If the style of the piece demands few or no marks to be expressive (if that’s the goal) and vivid in performance, then a plethora of marks will get in the music’s way. On the other hand, if a certain level of specificity is desired in the realization of a note, chord, or phrase (or “moment”), the marks needed to help the performers achieve this are necessary.

I think most composers intuit this. I say that because in looking at a number of scores from various eras and in divergent styles, the density of these expression markings changes with pieces, so that some passages are rather full of markings and, a few pages later, almost none. There seems to be no consistency as to whether fast music has many markings or few, and the same for slower passages.

Let a thousand accent marks bloom! Or not.


Love Songs

Music for the day:

Johannes Brahms, Liebeslieder Walzer
Elliott Carter, "O, Breath", from A Mirror on Which to Dwell
Morton Feldman, The viola in my life
Thomas Morley, "Now is the Month of Maying"
Kaija Saariaho, L'amour de loin
Gustav Mahler, Finale from Symphony 3 (working title: "What Love Tells Me")
Franz Schubert, Der Hirt auf dem Felsen
Amy Beach, "Sweetheart, Sigh No More"
Hector Berlioz, "Absence", from Nuits d'Ete, and of course,
Baude Cordier, "Belle Bonne, Sage"

Bonus: George and Ira Gershwin, "I've Got a Crush on You"



A. C. Douglas is concerned that Osvaldo Golijov represents "the future" of concert music. Mr. Douglas need not worry--the multi-cultural polystylism of Golijov, whose Ayre has received reviews both rapturous and reserved--is not the future. It is a future, one of a thousand stylistic flowers that will bloom.

Golijov is indeed having a big and very visible year. But so are John Adams, Tobias Picker, Jennifer Higdon, and Elliott Carter.

Some will argue that this year's celebration of Carter is a final blooming of a Modernism that is over, but I believe (and I don't think it is merely wishful thinking on my part) the next several years will see the growth and acceptance of what I'll call, for now, "neo-modernism".

In addition to the above named, Kaija Saariaho should be getting quite a bit of attention when her second opera, Adriana Mater, premeires in Paris.

In addition to the diverse styles of the composers listed above, we have neo-romanticism, totalism, jazz-inflected improvisatory music, and live-electronic music. Minimalism and serialism also have their adherents. I'm sure, at least I hope, that Mr. Douglas can find something in all of this abundance to like and admire.



My review of a new disc of music by Mario Davidovsky, including three of the Synchronisms series, is up at Sequenza 21.


Workshop: Revision

That's an interesting word: revision.

I wrote Episodes in Anticipation (band, 2001) in longhand on 30-stave paper. I copied the parts in pencil. I wrote in longhand rather than in Finale, because of a short timeline and because I didn't feel strong enough in the software to get the piece done in time. Rehearsals and a performance had been scheduled and everyone involved was committed to a performance on a date certain.

I was happy with the piece--it did pretty much what I wanted it to do, the performers enjoyed playing it and did so with style, and the audience was generally receptive. Still, I'm sure everybody reading this has seen room for improvement after the fact in pieces, performances, or other creative work.

There are a couple of people who have aksed to see the score and I want to send it to some others, so the time was right to load it into Finale. And, since I'm having to do all that work on the piece anyway, why not do some of the revisions. The score aleady had many marks in it from the rehearsals for the premiere, including some added percussion notes, so there was already some revision there.

Which brings us back to that word,"revision".

The Merriam-Webster OnLine Dictionary defines "revision":

1 a : an act of revising b : a result of revising : ALTERATION2 : a revised version

Fine, as far as it goes. But when does the act of revising proceed to the point where the root of the word changes fron "revise" to "re-vision", to see the work anew and, so seeing, make it new again? Should you make this work everything it can be, fix it up a little, or leave it be and try again next time?

The answer is different for every artist and every work, of course, but the temptation to make wholesale changes is there, and is made greater by the ease of doing it in software. For example, in a hand-copied score, if you wanted to add a measure or (especially) two or more, it usually meant re-copying the rest of the score after the additions. With Finale (and other music-writing software packages) you can insert measures into the middle of a piece at will.

In this case, I'm adding a measure or two here and there, giving some of the players a little more to do (even adding an instrument that I inadvertantly left out), but mostly I'm leaving it as it was and moving on to the next piece.

By the way, I have an mp3 of the premiere. If anybody is interested in hearing it, let me know.