Grandmotherology

November 30th, 2016

In the 19th century, when Columbia University was getting ready to appoint its first faculty member in musicology, a board member scoffed at the notion of musicology, saying that there might as well be a professorship in “grandmotherology.”

Yesterday, my family lost my grandmother, Doris Farber, at the age of 89.  She was the only person I knew reasonably well who knew people who remembered the 19th century.  Her mother, my great-grandmother Edna Baum, was born in 1898, and I knew her as well.  My grandmother’s father, Elijah, fought in World War I, and four of her brothers fought in World War II.  My grandmother was a “Rosie the Riveter” during the war at a ceramic plant up the road from the town where she was born, lived the bulk of her life, and suffered the stroke that led to her death.

She was a woman of her time and place.  Raised in and faithful to the Lutheran Church, she rarely missed a Sunday, even as the congregation dwindled around her to the point of an eventual merger.  I don’t know the circumstances of her birth–I’m hoping to learn more at the memorial this weekend.  Once my then-girlfriend, now my wife Becky, and I asked her about Christmas in her childhood–during the Great Depression.  She replied that since her family owned a farm, there was always plenty of food, but never much in the way of Christmas.  After all, she was one of twelve siblings.  She came to adulthood at the end of the war, and married my grandfather, Thom William Farber.  They began to have children–my mom and my uncle close together, and then my aunt a few years later.  A lifelong fan of the Cleveland Indians (they had been playing for only eighteen seasons when she was born), she listened to their last World Series win on the radio while she was pregnant with my mother.  My grandfather was not well, however.  He had a weakened heart as the result of a childhood case of scarlet fever–a disease that subsequent generations don’t have to worry about, and a condition that would be readily repairable today, but their generation was born into a world with few vaccines, and no antibiotics or open-heart surgery.  He died in the mid-1950s, leaving my grandmother a widow and single mother of three.  He was buried in the town cemetery, across from the Lutheran church, in a plot that had room for my grandmother.  He waited sixty years for her there.

Grandma didn’t know how to drive a car when Grandpa died.  She had a large family who helped, but she didn’t rely on them, remained in the house that she and her husband had bought.  The social safety net in those pre-Great Society days was of limited help as well, and I’m sure there were my grandfather’s medical bills as well.  So she took her ninth-grade education and went to work.  Some of it was the backbreaking work that she would have been familiar with from the farm–my mother describes being taken to a farmer’s field with her mother and brother to weed the corn by hand.  I know that she also cooked in a restaurant, and did factory work.  I will always remember her, though, as the cashier at Crossroads Supermarket, at the intersection of Ohio State Routes 800 and 183–the origin of her Universe in so many ways.  When we lived nearby and shopped there, before we moved out of town when I was eight, she rang up our food, and sometime after we left, made the transition to barcode scanners.  Like so many things, that store, which seemed enormous to me as a child, is actually a relatively small supermarket, for a small community.  But Grandma worked there for decades, until she finally retired in her late 70s.

There is much of the pre-history of my life in my family, of course.  Grandma was 50 when I was born, and sometime during the 1970s, she was remarried and divorced to a man named Chuck, who I’ve never heard her speak of, and whose name is usually accompanied by the word “jerk” when my parents mention him.  She moved with him to South Carolina, bringing my teenaged aunt along, but quickly returned–less than a year, from what I understand.  It was the time when my mother and my uncle had found their spouses, and my parents had moved to Texas.  Perhaps Grandma worried about being left alone.

Ironically, that would never happen.  My uncle, a carpenter, added a large living room to her home, the first of several renovations and additions.  During the energy crises of the 70s, this room would be closed off during the winter months, but I remember it mostly for the way that it was always filled with guests.  Grandma lived in the kind of place where people just dropped by, and if she wasn’t at work, she was usually at home.  There were comfortable chairs for the grownups and always a stash of toys for any kids who came along.  My son and daughter played with some of the same toys in Grandma’s living room that I did, some of which belonged to my mom and my uncle.  My great-grandmother was also around–I always remember her living in a mobile home behind Grandma’s house.  I knew Doris as “Grandma Farber,” and Edna as “Grandma Baum.”  There was also a “Grandma Kellogg” who lived on the West Coast, and who sent me a jar of volcanic ash spewed out of Mt. St. Helens in its eruptions in 1980.  In the 80s, by aunt moved back in with Grandma, bringing her daughter, my cousin Pam, for whom Grandma was a second parent in may ways.

Grandma was a fastidious housekeeper–I always knew that if I came over and you couldn’t eat off the floor, that something would have gone wrong.  She lived in her home, in her town, until last Friday, when my uncle found her on the floor of her bedroom, having suffered the stroke that would end her life.  She would not have wanted to have her life prolonged by life support–she had made this clear to her family–and she would have hated the idea of spending any time in a nursing home.  On Saturday, I’ll see her home one more time–soon it will still be there, but it won’t be hers anymore.  It was the center of her long, eventful life, and where I remember Christmas, and sleeping over, and visiting, and showing off my children to the family.  I now begin the part of my life without her, and we are the poorer for it.  I love you, Grandma, and you will be in our thoughts every day, as you have always been.

The Trump Post

October 29th, 2016

I have never been very political on this blog, or much on my facebook page.  I have a wide array of acquaintances and family members of all political stripes, and I want it to stay that way–I want to be able to read differing opinions in my feed and not just have my own ideas reinforced.

But Donald Trump changes that.  Here are the reasons I find him reprehensible, and, if you’re still reading this, why I think you should vote against him.  I’m not going to tell you who to vote for in his place, because I’m not pleased with any of his opponents.  In the Ohio primary in March, I voted as a Republican for the first time so that I could vote against Trump by voting for John Kasich–a man who, as governor, has made cuts and systemic changes to the educational system in Ohio that have hindered public education from pre-K through college.  I will vote for Hillary Clinton, because that is the best way to keep Trump out of office.  When no candidate appeals immediately, it is necessary to vote strategically.

I understand that no candidate will ever completely align with me on every point, but Trump offends me in nearly every aspect of my being.

He is a bully.  He understands only power, and even his conception of power is limited to the idea that only he has power and that all others will yield to his authority.  He throws his weight (money, fame, charisma) around to accomplish whatever makes him feel better in the moment, at the expense of others.  His sole purpose for running for President seems to be to poke his finger in the eye of all of those who have stood in his way.  He uses the bully’s tactics of intimidation, name-calling, and denial of his previous actions, constantly belittling those who do not support him.

He is willfully ignorant.  He acts like a man who has never read a book, nor paused to reflect or consider ideas.  He has been unable or unwilling to do serious preparation for the presidential debates thus far, so how can we expect him to engage in the sustained intellectual effort that is required for effective presidential leadership?  His policy suggestions, where they exist, are no more nuanced nor achievable than a candidate for elementary school student council promising that Coca-Cola will run through the drinking fountains.

He is capricious.  He woke up one morning and decided that 2016 was the year he would buy the Presidency, since he was bored with reality TV.  He leaves marriages when a woman no longer amuses him.  He is unable to follow through with the script of a speech, seemingly speaking ideas that come into his mind without considering them.  Who is to say that in 2018 or 2019 he might not just stop doing the job?

He is immoral.  If my Christian friends are still reading this, I’m sorry, but we just don’t have a Christian candidate in this race, and even though Trump has tried to pander to the Christian right, he is not a part of it.  Nor is he a part of the Christian left.  The only God he worships is Donald Trump, which is probably true of many politicians.  He is a greedy, sociopathic, adulterous man with no clear grounding in any moral system beyond “the ends justify the means.”

I have heard and read my fellow Christians citing Romans 13 as evidence that God is sending us, in Trump, the leader that he has chosen for us.  Paul does indeed call Christians to submit to the authorities, but Trump is not the authority yet, and we cannot simply give in to a man who has called for open discrimination by the government against members of any faith, because that is a slippery slope.  Legislating a religion does not convert people to that religion.  The freedoms that Christians enjoy in this country are likely to come under attack in a Trump Presidency, and once they are limited for one group, they can be limited for others as well.

He is disrespectful.  The office of President demands a strong leader, but not at the expense of the dignity that is to be gained, for the officeholder and for the country that person leads, by a fundamental respect for all, shown in word and deed.  He has said things about women, minorities, the disabled, veterans, and his political opponents that would have many people fired from their jobs if said in the workplace, and yet he acts this way during the extended job interview that is the campaign.  He has single-handedly lowered the level of discourse in Presidential campaigning to a place where it is impossible to even discuss issues or policy.

He is inexperienced.  He has never held elected office, and doesn’t even seem to understand how government works, or what his Constitutional powers would be (or how they would be limited).  Compare him to someone who has served in two branches of the Federal government and who has been around government her entire life.  If you required brain surgery, would you choose a board-certified medical school graduate who has made a few mistakes or a CEO who would be cutting for the first time on you?

I know many people hate Hillary Clinton.  I will be the first to admit that I would rather have a different alternative in this campaign, but if she is elected, she will be as good at her job as she can.  She is as much of a fighter as Trump is, and she has forty-five years of experience in politics.  In a perfect world, she would have been able to run in her own right in the 1970s and 1980s instead of having to play the Stepford Wife to a womanizer.  Please be sure that you are not hating Hillary Clinton because of her husband, who she stood by (for whatever reason), through the nightmare of adultery and scandal.  Please be sure that you are not hating Hillary Clinton because she is a woman.  A woman can lead her country–Margaret Thatcher, and Angela Merkel have proved that.

This all boils down to my children.  The winner of this election will be the first president that they will remember.  A two-term president will set up the foreign policy that will be in place when my son is of military age.  My daughter will be able to observe either a strong, powerful woman as the leader of her country, or a man who clearly hates women and treats them as objects.  They will both learn things about how to lead and how to act by watching the winner of this election.  They will live–longer than my wife or I–with the consequences of the decisions undertaken in the next four to eight years, whether those are Supreme Court appointments, foreign policy decisions, tax-code rewrites, trade deals, changes to federal college funding, environmental regulations, or entitlement spending.  Disastrous decisions now could ruin their lives and turn the nation that bore them into a banana republic, a dystopia, or a dictatorship.  Are they to have meaningful, fulfilling lives and careers, or will they be ground between the gears of an economy that wants them to be the equivalent of Uber drivers?  Will they be able to know their cousins in Germany?  Will they have access to high-quality, affordable higher education?  Will they be able to see qualified physicians when they are sick?  My mind runs quickly to the worst-case scenario, but that appears to be where the culture dwells–movies of societal collapse, mass destruction, and apocalypse, zombie and otherwise, have loomed large in our popular culture the last fifteen years or so, and now we appear poised to bring it about politically.

I am frightened, but not too frightened to speak out.  In this small, limited way, I am taking my stand against those who would create an explicitly unjust society in my native land–the country that has given me so much, that has made the world a better place by its might and by its example.  America is great–not perfect, of course.  If America has to be made great again, it will be because of the damage done to it by a Trump Administration.

Breakfast Cereal

September 29th, 2016

A few weeks ago, Becky bought a box of Cocoa Pebbles. As with all chocolate-flavored cereals, I had no interest in eating them–I don’t like the way they turn the milk brown (I also don’t like chocolate milk, so there you have it). Melia liked it, though, and in giving her some for breakfast, I noticed some letters splashed across the front of the box, advertising the cereal’s tendency to turn the milk “chocolatey.” As it turns out, the very thing that makes the cereal repellent to me is the thing that some people find to be a salient feature, and is, perhaps, a reason for buying it in the first place. The same is true with art.

Nail Polish

August 9th, 2016

My daughter, Melia, is two-and-a-half, and in that phase where she wants to do everything for herself.  She is fairly convinced that she is a fully-grown human and not just a larva.  She loves to open the refrigerator, and actually can be quite helpful at times, too.  On the other hand, I’m sitting at a desk right now where she discovered a green marker yesterday.  There are marks on the paper that was left out, the desk, and the computer screen.  No serious damage done.

But three mornings ago, Melia was up and about before anyone else and found a bottle of nail polish.

With boys, the equivalent temptation to nail polish seems to be the hornet’s nest, which, when combined with a few nearby rocks, seems to provide a story for many a grown man.  I’ve known as many women who remember getting themselves into trouble with nail polish or nail polish remover as girls.

Becky has painted Melia’s nails, both fingers and toes, on several occasions.  She is training Melia to be a girly-girl, probably to make up for the 100% boy specimen across the hall in the form of our son Noah, but also because it really couldn’t be any other way.  Becky loves to do her own nails, as well, and a couple of bottles of nail polish are often to be found on the little shelf about a third of the way up the stairs to our bedroom, on the opposite side of the baby gate from Melia’s room.  We have never locked this gate at night, thinking that to have to fiddle with it in a fire might be dangerous, so it was only pulled closed, but not latched.  Melia usually wakes herself up, and has lately been in the habit of just playing alone for a while as I work in the cool quiet of the morning.  The door to her room sticks during the summertime, and she can’t always open it, so I usually come downstairs first thing to find her books, puzzles, and Barbie dolls scattered across the floor.  She greets me with a smile and says, “I wake up!” and I change her diaper, and we eat breakfast, with Noah joining us as soon as he is ready.

All this will change soon, since Noah is headed to first grade in about ten days, but this has basically been the routine this summer.

On Saturday, I heard a few noises while I was working, as I often do, but I was making good progress in my composing, and so I didn’t come downstairs right away.  When I found a stopping point, I shut down.  As I came down from the bedroom, I heard water running in the bathroom.  Melia had let herself out of her room, and was washing her hands, another of her favorite activities.  She apparently hates sticky hands, and often tries to get up mid-meal to go to wash up in the bathroom.  This particular morning, however, she looked at me sheepishly, and I could see that the first three fingers of her right hand were bright pink, bordering on fuchsia.  I knew immediately what she had been up to.  She gave me a sheepish look as I dried her hands, noticing the swipes of pink on the sink and the faucet.  She had been caught with polish before, and knew that she had crossed a line.  I just need to determine the level of damage done.

I went into her room, and saw the offending bottle on her bed, still upright fortunately, with the lid and brush in the bottle, but not screwed on.  I closed the bottle up, and as I did, that’s when I noticed the quilt.

My mother has taken up quilting in her retirement.  She selects the fabric and designs and pieces the quilts, and outsources the quilting itself, and the results are amazing.  The beds at our house all have full-sized quilts on them, with matching pillow shams and throw pillows.  We have the best-looking beds I’ve ever slept in, and the bedding provides a real incentive to get the beds made each day, at least for me.  The time and effort and money that go into these creations is significant, and I view them as heirlooms to cherish, fancier versions of the crochet afghans my grandmother was forever creating as she sat in her recliner watching the Cleveland Indians on TV.

Melia is still not potty-trained, and after a significant nighttime diaper leak, we decided to put a store-bought comforter on her bed and fold her quilt from Grandma at the foot of the bed.  It is a white floral pattern with pastels, and it serves as well as an accent as a full bed covering for now.  I looked at where the bottle of nail polish had been on the bed, just glad that it hadn’t been dumped over.  It rested on the comforter, but there was a spot of polish on the quilt, a half-inch or so of pink in the middle of a white patch.  I knew immediately that it probably wasn’t coming out.  Acetone (nail polish remover) is a solvent, not an emulsifier.  It dissolves nail polish (or furniture lacquer, or Toons), but it doesn’t cause it to bead up and away from whatever object it may be stuck on.  It needs to be wiped away, and a porous surface like fabric, is excellent for wiping, but isn’t all that good at being wiped.

Becky tried to get rid of the spot, but it isn’t going anywhere.  Secretly, this doesn’t bother me, and I think there is a composer-type reason for this.  My mother made that quilt for Melia–not for anyone else.  It is, in a sense, a collaboration.  My mother made the quilt, and it is up to Melia to use it, and now that it has a spot of nail polish on it, it isn’t good for anyone else.  It is indelibly Melia’s quilt.  A quilt demands to be used as a quilt, to cover a bed, to keep warm the person in the bed, to absorb the essence of that person.  Two-and-a-half-year-old Melia loves nail polish, and now we will always remember that.  It has become a part of the history of her quilt, and the history of our family.  There is something beautiful about it.

I see my music in a similar way.  I may work largely alone to create a piece of music, investing my time and money in a project.  I then give the piece over to musicians, who must make it their own, and it isn’t truly a piece of music until they have done so.  They complete and validate my work through their performance of it, through, what might be broadly construed as doing violence to my work, since they will come to conclusions about the work that I may or may not have intended or considered.  At any rate, I need them to burrow into the piece and to live with it and to instill it with their essence in order for my work to be full-realized.

So I’m not mad about Melia’s quilt and the nail polish.  It was inevitable and necessary.

 

Harmony

June 23rd, 2016

Yet another post in response to a question from my student Cooper Wood, who sent a text message yesterday asking, in part, how I work with harmony, and how I structure chords.  Early on in my lessons at Ohio State, Donald Harris put a similar question to me, and I don’t quite remember my answer–I’m not sure that I was able to answer him at that point, so here, twelve years later, is an attempt.

I have often thought of composers falling into three groups–harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic.  Beethoven and I are rhythmic composers, and for us, if the rhythm is correct, the harmony and melody will fall into place around it through the application of motivic constructions and a sense of when the harmony needs to change.  It is not that a rhythmic composer ignores harmony but that the musical meaning isn’t concentrated there.  As interesting as Beethoven’s harmonic language can be, there is no equivalent to the Tristan chord in his work.

Two things I don’t do, at least not regularly:  I don’t consider my work from a functional/tonal perspective, at least not during the writing of it, and I don’t simply sit at the piano and let my fingers fall where they may, to see what kinds of chords come out.  That is to say, I rarely think of chords in either sense–neither as units functioning in some system nor as groups of notes played simultaneously.

Here, then, are some of the ways that I think about harmony:

Thickness of texture: Is this a moment in the piece where a more complex, richer sound is required? This makes harmony into a timbral decision, where there is a continuum, something like this:

Single line—Octave doubling—Non-octave doubling—Two or more parallel intervals—Voice-leading—Clusters

My 2010 Piano Sonata displays almost all of these at some point.

Scale and Mode: While I rarely explicitly choose a specific scale or mode, melodically, my music often behaves in modal ways, and I feel that introducing an accidental is a change in harmony.  On the small scale, this may happen quickly.  I notice a distinct preference in my music for flats over sharps, and my feeling about accidentals is that they point, so I am frequently choosing notes that point down a half-step.  My trombone concerto Homo sapiens trombonensis (2005) includes examples of this sort of thinking.

Consonance and Dissonance: I spent several years before graduate school trying to come to terms with my personal approach to dissonance, as nothing, at least to my thinking at the time, says more about a composer than his or her use of harmonic language.  I still hold to Vincent Persichetti’s idea, laid out in Twentieth-Century Harmony, that the degree of dissonance is something that a composer must tightly control.  So, in my work, I tend to make harmonic decisions based on how consonant or dissonant a passage needs to be, adding notes when appropriate, and thinning out the texture when necessary.  For me, chord constructive is an additive conception.

Organum: William Russo’s book Composing Music was at one time a standard title on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, and though I never bought the book, I certainly read large chunks in comfortable chairs.  One idea that stuck with me is what he calls organum–doubling a line at a parallel interval to increase the complexity of the timbre.  A key feature of my style for at least the past ten years has been melodic doubling in sevenths, usually minor sevenths, although sometimes following the diatonic scale.  Much of my piano music uses these parallel sevenths, beginning with 2008’s Starry Wanderers.

Set Class: In some of my works, I have, early on in the process, discovered a set that appeals to me, and based the work on that to one degree or another.  This is usually an outgrowth of my work with motive, and in some ways, the set becomes a harmonic motive.  In my most recent work for solo piano, The Rainbow’s Daughter, I found myself drawn to the set [0236] during the composing of the first movement, “Polychrome’s Prism.”  Its two thirds (which I wrote as two sixths) slide easily into a minor triad, giving the sense of refraction that I wanted to suggest.  In the subsequent movements, I found that I could turn [0236] just as easily into an augmented, diminished, or major triad, and the structure of what is one of my most harmonically-conceived pieces became clear.

Counterpoint: I often attempt to combine melodies, resulting in harmonic structures.  My training in 16th-century counterpoint (begun with Dan Trueman in music theory at CCM, and continued in self-study, most significantly in Schubert’s Modal Counterpoint: Renaissance Stylewhich I used as a teaching text) and in 18th-century counterpoint (with Jan Radzynski at Ohio State), had the desired effect–it gave me a sense of the possibilities of the ars combinatoria and as a result, I think about the direction of each voice in a composition, with the resulting variety of rhythmic and melodic direction.  I don’t, however, generally include canon, fugato, or strictly fugal sections in my work.  I don’t find that these techniques provide sufficient reward for the effort involved.

Layering: In place of imitative counterpoint, I often choose a layered approach, in which small, repeated melodic/rhythmic units either build a texture through successive entrances or appear simultaneously.  I used this extensively in my 2010 band piece Moriarty’s Necktie, and the idea of adding a layer is never far from my mind, although this rarely results in a simple melody+figuration texture.

So–I don’t know that I have answered the question put to me now by both my teacher and my student, but these are some of the things that I think about as I work.  For Cooper, I hope this helps.  For Don, just know that I am still working on that answer for you.

On Memorial Day

May 30th, 2016

I’m struck by Memorial Day this year, partly by seeing social media posts reminding us of the differences between Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Armed Forces Day, and then seeing so many people confused by the meanings of the three.

This year, I have a profound sense of gratitude.  In Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, we were always involved with Memorial Day–placing flags on the graves of veterans in cemeteries many years, but I particularly remember the observances in Upper Arlington in the late 1980s.  The VFW or American Legion (I don’t remember which) organized the ceremony, and this year, I particularly recall the presence of two “gold star” mothers–women whose sons didn’t return from World War II.  They would have been in their eighties then, and are surely gone now–it was my great-grandparents’ generation who bore the children who fought that war–and they were accorded places of honor, and escorted by the veterans while we all stood at attention.

The sacrifice that so many made in the bloody conflicts of the past does not go unnoticed.  My mother won’t be a gold star mother, in all likelihood, and the men I graduated high school with have lived in peace.  Some of them joined the military, including my close friend Brad Klemesrud, but none did so against their will, or in the face of an existential threat to our nation.  There has been war during my lifetime, and there have been combat deaths, and there have been the specters of nuclear holocaust and terrorism, but my life has been the result of a long peace purchased at high cost, and maintained at a high cost.

Founding father John Adams wrote, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

I am privileged to live in Adams’ third generation, and I am intensely grateful to those who made the sacrifices that our nation observes today.

In memoriam Donald Harris

March 29th, 2016

Tonight I received the news that Donald Harris, my graduate advisor at Ohio State, and mentor since then, has passed away.   His obituary is here.

I quickly wrote a facebook post:

In 2003, Becky and I went to Ann Arbor to see the composition program at the University of Michigan. That day I met an alumnus of that school, Donald Harris, who was there to present his Second String Quartet to the composition studio. A week later, we met on his home turf at Ohio State, and not quite a year after that, I joined his studio. His guidance was gentle but always true, and I was privileged to be hooded by him in 2007, the same year we co-curated the OSU New Music Festival. In the years since then, he continued to be an encouraging mentor, and gave his seal of approval last summer of my first piece for a professional orchestra. All his students will have to finish music without him now, but I will hear his lessons every time I sit down to compose. Thank you, Don, for making a music teacher with ideas into a composer, and for letting me into your world over the last thirteen years.

But there’s more to the story. I lucked into Ohio State, and I lucked into being Don’s student. It was the right program for me, in the right city (my hometown), at the right time.  I wasn’t coming straight from undergraduate studies, but from six sometimes-great but mostly not-so-great years of public school teaching. When I visited Michigan, I felt like just another prospective student, but the faculty at Ohio State, especially Don, made me feel welcome from the moment I set foot on campus. Even that first day, Don took me to his favorite place on campus–the cafe in the ground floor of the Wexner Center for the Arts, a building he had built during his time as dean. I came to regard the Wexner Center as my place, too, always making a point to take in the exhibitions, and grabbing a quick study session in there between class and rehearsals (and several times nearly losing my balance on the slick marble strips in the sidewalk whenever it rained).

I was fortunate at Ohio State to study composition also with two other great teachers–Jan Radzynski and Thomas Wells, both of whom helped shape the composer and teacher I am today–but I kept coming back to Don for guidance and instruction. At some point, he began to play his works-in-progress for me as well, starting with Kaleidoscope, the piece that would eventually grow into his Second Symphony. He was in the midst of a period of, for him, increased productivity, perhaps the pent-up work of his years as an administrator, perhaps just a sense that it was time. He had made the transition from pen to computer by the time I met him, and perhaps the change of tools was a part of this as well. As I gained his confidence, he gave me responsibilities as well as assignments. I turned the pages for the pianist on a recital that included his Fantasy for violin and piano, a simple thing, on the face of it, but a real challenge in its way, given the music involved. He urged me to take the OSU Composers Workshop concerts on the road to Port Clinton, Ohio, and I found myself organizing and leading my fellow students in this, two summers in a row. In my last year at Ohio State, he not only guided me through my candidacy exam, DMA document, and graduation piece, but also asked me to co-curate the New Music Festival for that year.  These are the things graduate students do, of course, and I had done some of them before, and may have done some of them with another teacher, but with Don’s guidance and advice, they always made sense, and they were never too onerous. He was making me into a composer, but also into a colleague, a point he underscored just before my oral doctoral exams when he told me that the committee was testing me out to decide whether I was fit to be a professor.

He is my connection to the core of the profession I have chosen for myself.  His teachers were Ross Lee Finney, Max Deutsch (a pupil himself of Arnold Schoenberg), and the great Nadia Boulanger. He knew all of Les Six, as well as Messiaen and Boulez, along with Copland, and so many other great American composers. He produced the first French performance of Ives’ Fourth Symphony. He was pals with Gunther Schuller and Lukas Foss. Along the way, he learned how to handle any situation, musical or professional, with both candor and grace, something I aspire to as much as his compositional ability.

After I graduated, I didn’t see Don as frequently, since Becky and I moved to Oklahoma to take my first teaching job (partly on the strength of his letter of reference).  I visited from time to time, and we were comfortable enough together that he would let me see him at his worst–after his broken hip, and during his fight with Parkinson’s disease. We would share coffee or a meal, and catch up, and I would always bring my latest scores and he his. He arranged for me to be commissioned to write a piece for the 2010 edition of the OSU New Music Festival, held in his honor, and the result was one of the works I am most proud out, Moriarty’s Necktie. The last time we met in his apartment on Long Street in Columbus, I played my piano sonata for him, and he played the Second Symphony for me. Every time I came to their home, he and his lovely wife, Marilyn, were gracious and kind hosts, even when there was work to do.

The last time we met, Don was in assisted living. He still wanted to see my latest work–forever my teacher–and I showed him the newly-finished score to …into the suggestive waters… He said that he was still composing, and with luck there is at least one more premiere for Don in the future.

I am grateful for our thirteen-year relationship–first student and teacher, then colleagues, then, I hope, friends. My sincerest condolences to Marilyn and their families on their loss.

Seven Last Words: A Primer

February 10th, 2016

The Prodigal Blogger returns, after a busy season of holidays and the first month of the New Year have passed!

I am looking forward to the premieres, one at a time, of my new set of organ pieces, Seven Last Words, over the season of Lent.  Rob Shuss, organist at Shoregate United Methodist Church in Willowick, my home church, will play a new piece in the set during the 10am worship service at Shoregate.  The premiere will stretch through Lent, beginning on Sunday, February 14, continuing every Sunday until Palm Sunday, March 20, and concluding with Good Friday worship on March 25.

I wanted to take a moment to put down a few ideas to help explain the piece, how it is put together, and what it means.

This work was the result of a conversation Pastor Jon Wilterdink and I had about the role of art and music in Christian worship.  Shoregate has a strong, diverse musical tradition that incorporates many members of the congregation in both vocal and instrumental music, and the church where I grew up had a similar relationship to music.  It is safe to say that much of who I am as a musician was formed in the church, both by participation and by listening to the music of others.  At the time of our conversation, Pastor Jon was planning a more music-centered worship for Advent, and wondered if something similar could be done for Lent.

The Lenten season is central to my experience of the Christian faith.  The Scriptures for Lent emphasize Jesus’ humanity while at the same time underscoring His divinity, and there is a relentless intensification as the Church once again follows his ministry as it begins in earnest, culminates in triumph and ends in seeming tragedy.  I thought immediately of the theme of Christ’s Seven Last Words from the cross, the utterances (not words, but phrases, really) that the various Gospel writers recorded during his public execution.[1]

I thought immediately, too, of Rob Shuss, Shoregate’s wonderful organist, who provides the support for so much of our music making.  A set of solo organ pieces would be an opportunity to show his talents and abilities in a new light.  It would, also, be a challenge for me as a composer–although I have included organ in music for larger ensembles, and arranged the music of others for organ, these are my first solo organ pieces.  Each instrument has its quirks and unique abilities, but organ is special because each instrument has a somewhat unique set of capabilities, and even instruments manufactured to be identical are installed in different locations.  A piece for organ, then, will, more so than for other genres, rely much more intently on the skill of the performer to make decisions about the overall sound that will work best on any given instrument.  Not being an organist myself, I have made suggestions regarding the registration, or specific sounds to be mixed and blended, but in the end, I have to trust that Rob will work with my notes and Shoregate’s instrument to produce a clear, effective performance.

Since my new work was to be seven pieces, each about 4 minutes long, but spread over 40 days, I looked for ways to organize the entire set and make them coherent and relevant.  Each piece is a short meditation on the “word” at hand, and each is influenced by one of the Psalms, which Jesus often quoted and turned to during his agony.  But, to ensure that the pieces would not be seven independent pieces bunched together, I found three musical ways to unify the set.  If, someday, someone chooses to play all seven pieces in one sitting (which would take about 30 minutes), I hope the work can be heard as a unified whole, more than the sum of its parts.

An overall plan emerged, then, before I had written a note of music.  This is not unusual for a composer, and for any large work, one needs to have a road map of sorts in mind.  There may be detours along the way, or the journey to a complete piece may end up with a completely different destination, but without an ending in mind, the route will either ramble aimlessly, or simply never leave home.  Since there is nothing better for the creative process than a good spreadsheet, I fired up Microsoft Excel and laid out my ideas, one row for each of the seven pieces, and a column for the various Scriptures and attributes I hoped to incorporate.

To hold the seven pieces together musically, I used several devices.  First, all seven pieces have the same pitch, C, as their tonic, or musical home base.  Each piece, however, uses one of the seven diatonic modes.  Without going down the rabbit hole of music theory, a mode is a major scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) that chooses a note other than do as its tonic pitch (home base).[2]    At any rate, each piece has C as its home base, but uses a slightly different scale.  Over the seven pieces, the modes are organized so that the first piece uses the brightest mode (Lydian) and the last piece uses the darkest mode (Locrian).  Each mode has seven pitches, and between any two consecutive pieces, six of those seven pitches are held in common.  The result is a gradual shift from light to dark as the tonic pitch remains the same while the other pitches change, symbolizing the progression to the darkest day of the Church calendar, Good Friday.  Each piece begins and ends with a cluster of all seven pitches for that mode played at the same time.  The cluster is repeated three times, to remind us of the three nails that held Jesus to the cross.

Lastly, each piece is centered around a musical interval–the distance between two pitches.  Musicians number these intervals by counting the number of note names involved–a third, for example, might be the notes B and D.  Counting those note names and the note C between gives us the name “third.”  (Incidentally, we name intervals this way for the same reason that we speak of Jesus rising from the dead on the “third day”–because the Greeks and Romans didn’t have a concept of zero.) I’ve chosen these intervals for their traditional symbolism, and they remind us of various aspects of the Crucifixion.

Here is a summary of all seven pieces:

1.  Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.  Luke 23:34.  To be performed the First Sunday in Lent (February 14).  It uses the Lydian mode (a G-major scale, starting on C), and centers on the interval of the second, symbolizing duality, important here as Christ’s nature as fully man and fully God.  It is associated with Psalm 3.

2. Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.  Luke 23:43.  For the Second Sunday in Lent (February 21).  It uses the Ionian mode (also known as the C-major scale), and emphasizes the interval of the unison (or first), symbolizing unity, the final covenant that God makes with us through the Crucifixion.  Is is accompanied by Psalm 62.

3. Dear woman, here is your son… here is your mother. John 19:26-27.  For the Third Sunday in Lent (February 28).  This piece uses the Mixolydian mode (an F-major scale, starting on C), and focuses on the fourth to represent the church and the imperative that we have to care for each other as if we were born into the same family.  Psalm 2 is the reading for this piece.

4. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34.  For the Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 6).  This piece uses the Dorian mode (a B-flat-major scale, starting on C).  This middle piece, using the middle mode, is inspired by the only one of the Seven Last Words to appear in more than one Gospel.  Its musical interval is the sixth, symbolizing Satan, and the temptation that is memorialized in the whole Lenten season, and that must have been renewed for Jesus as he hung on the cross.  The text is the wrenching Psalm 22, also the source of Jesus’ words.

5. I thirst.  John 19:28.  For the Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 13).  This piece uses the Aeolian mode (also called the C-minor scale).  The number five has often been used to symbolize humanity, and since this Last Word underscores Jesus’ own human needs, the interval of the fifth plays a prominent role.  Psalm 42 restates this literal thirst as a spiritual thirst.

6. It is finished.  John 19:29-30.  For Palm Sunday (March 20).  The dark Phrygian mode (an A-flat major scale, starting on C) contrasts the triumph of Palm Sunday with the suffering to come.  The musical interval of the seventh, symbolizing God, reminds us that what is finished at this moment is not only the man Jesus’ life, but God’s plan to finally redeem his creation.  At this central moment of history, it is only fitting to consider Psalm 118, the literal middle book of the Protestant Bible.

7. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.  Luke 23:46.  For Good Friday (March 25).  The darkest mode, Locrian (an D-flat major scale, starting on C) completes the cycle of modes.  The interval of the third symbolizes the Trinity, reunited at the moment of Jesus’ death.  Psalm 31 provides the accompanying text.

I hope that hearing these pieces through the season of Lent will help you focus your attention on the topics of the season and consider, as I often have, the grandeur and majesty of God’s grace, through Jesus’ suffering as a human being.  It is my hope that, after Good Friday, we will feel the depths of that darkest moment, and that Easter will thus be all the brighter for us as we celebrate anew the risen Lord.


 

 [1] These seven verses have often been a theme for composers over the centuries.  The two most famous pieces are Théodore Dubois’ oratorio Les sept paroles du Christan 1867 work for vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra; and Hadyn’s Die Worte des Erlösers am Kreuzein versions for orchestra, orchestra with chorus, and string quartet, from 1786.  Both pieces last over an hour in full performance, and I take some inspiration from them, but neither piece is really my model for Seven Last Words.

[2] If you want to know more about modes, here’s a pretty good YouTube video about it.

What I’ve Been Writing, and a World Premiere

November 28th, 2015

I took a moment this morning to put the final touches on one work, and “check in” with two more.

I spent part of October finishing a new piano cycle, The Rainbow’s Daughter.  This is one of those rare pieces that I’ve written without a commission, although the first movement, “Polychrome’s Prism,” was composed as part of the Cleveland Composer’s Guild collaboration with the Music Settlement for Taniya Dsouza, a student of Nella Kammerman here in Cleveland.  I wanted to explore more fully the character of Polychrome, who appears in L. Frank Baum’s The Road to Oz, the fourth of his Oz novels.  I discovered Polychrome as I was reading the Oz books to my son, Noah, and thinking about a set of pieces based on characters from this land across the desert.  I knew that I didn’t want to focus on the obvious foursome–Dorothy, the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion–but on at least a few of the other very interesting characters in Baum’s world.  I considered writing short sketches about several subjects, but in writing “Polychrome’s Prism,” I discovered a tetrachord, [0236], that could be easily modified to any of the four triads.  “Prism” made use of the minor triad, so I developed a plan to base three subsequent movements on the augmented, diminished and major triads.  Thus, “Polychrome’s Passion,” “Polychrome’s Pearl,” and “Polychrome’s Power.”  It has been interesting, and refreshing, to write a piece using such specific harmonic materials.  This is not my typical way of composing, but it felt like a necessary and important exercise.  The four pieces seem to speak a common language, and, as intended, reflect a single character.  I am now, of course, stuck with a piece that has no plan for a performance.  I will send it out to some of my previous collaborators, or perhaps find a performer for an upcoming Cleveland Composers Guild performance.

In October, I also began work on a commission from Renee Goubeaux, a cellist with the Toledo Symphony, for a new work for cello and piano.  It has been nearly a decade since I wrote for a solo stringed instrument, and it has been fun digging into the capabilities and potential of a world I haven’t visited in a while.  I have the piece about half-written–it will be a ten- to twelve-minute piece, and there is currently about six minutes of music, but it is on hold while I’ve given the draft to Renee for comment.  I’m curious to see how this part of the collaboration works.  Renee and I went to high school together, and she is the first composer I ever met–we both started composing in the gifted and talented program.  I don’t think she has kept up with that side of her creative work, but she at least knows about the process of putting notes on paper, and it will be interesting to bring someone with her background in at this phase of the creative process.  The piece is tentatively titled Meditation, since I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius this fall.

Earlier this month, I sat down with Jon Wilterdink, our pastor at Shoregate United Methodist Church, for lunch in the cafeteria at Lakeland.  We discussed worship and the arts, and what the church can be doing to foster the work of artists.  I had reached out to him after reading this article on the subject.  At the end of our conversation, he asked me to contribute musically to our worship for the coming Lenten season.  The idea that immediately came to mind was a cycle of organ pieces based on the Seven Last Words of Christ.  Rob Shuss, our organist, was game, so I have started writing, according to a fairly intricate plan.  I have associated each saying with several Scriptural and musical elements, so each movement will also refer to one of Jesus’ parables and to a Psalm, as well as being focused on a specific diatonic mode (progressing from Lydian to Locrian over the course of the cycle), and emphasize a diatonic interval within that mode.  The pieces will be premiered on the six Sundays in Lent (beginning Febraury 14, 2016) and on Good Friday.  This is my first work for organ, so I’m taking some time to try to understand this instrument, but also trying to work steadily, as Rob will need the pieces as soon as possible.  I have written the first movement, “Father forgive them,” in Lydian mode, emphasizing the interval of the second, and associated with Psalm 3, and the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.

This is my first sacred music written on commission in many years, and the first to be performed in over a decade.  One struggle I have had as a composer is finding outlets and opportunities to write music about my faith.  There is a huge demand for music in the church, of course, but not for work that pushes musical boundaries in search of a spiritual experience.  The difficult thing has been to find a community that meets our spiritual needs but that is also interested in what I can offer.  I’m excited to make this attempt, although 28 minutes of music for an unfamiliar instrument in just a couple of months is a little daunting.  At least Christmas break is in the intervening period, and the later pieces can be polished even as the earlier ones are being premiered.

Speaking of premieres, Antoine Clark and the McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra gave a splendid first performance of my work …into the suggestive waters… in Worthington, Ohio on November 1.  Becky was unable to attend because of back troubles, but my father and brother came along, and my mother came to the dress rehearsal so that she could watch the kids during the concert.  Having a professional orchestra commission and play my music was a fantastic feeling.  I now need to work on getting a second performance of the piece somewhere, and that means leaning on conductors and sending them the excellent recording of the premiere.  I made some great contacts at the post-concert reception, and I would love to increase the presence of my music in my hometown.

Program Notes

October 26th, 2015

I don’t know if anyone ever reads the program notes I write for the Lakeland Civic Orchestra or for my own music.  I assume that audience members get bored and eventually turn to them, but I think I am the rare person who eagerly jumps to the notes before the concert or during intermission.  However, I’ve come to a couple of ideas to make them better and more interesting.

I love the big-time orchestra practice of listing the instrumentation for large pieces in a conspicuous place–the Cleveland Orchestra puts it in a sidebar with the other vital statistics for the piece, including the Orchestra’s own history with it, which I find fascinating.  How long did it take a world-class orchestra to get around to programming pieces that would become standard repertoire?  At any rate, my practice for the Lakeland Civic Orchestra has been to put this information in a short, introductory paragraph, which I then follow by a less-formal, more explanatory paragraph or two, depending on the complexity and history of the piece.  I have come to consider writing the program notes a crucial part of my own preparation, as I summarize my conception and understanding of the piece.

What to explain, though, and how to say it?

I’m always amazed at concerts of new music to read notes that are blow-by-blow musical descriptions of a piece.  “The first theme, a haunting sea chanty for nose flute, lasts seven bars and is in alternating duple and triple meter.”  I can’t abide this, and I cringe when I see it.  How could one possibly sit in a concert with the express intent of counting measures?  In this age, if one is truly interested in such things, it is usually quite easy to inquire about the score.  Tell something about the piece–how it came to be, what it’s about, what it’s not about, how it makes someone feel, why it exists.  If the foremost achievement of your work is how it is put together, it isn’t much of a piece (unless you are Bach, in which case, your mastery is likely self-evident, and there is no need to write about your pieces form in the program note).  One of the rare big-time orchestra program notes I read in this fashion, a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra note on Ravel’s Bolero from the mid-1990s, did, in fact, include a section-by-section accounting of which instruments played the melody.  Useful as a reference, perhaps, but are we then expected to sit, pencils in hand, and check off the solos as they appear?  It’s not as though there are likely to be surprise substitutions.  While I admit to a certain satisfaction of filling in the scorecard at a baseball game, where following the details minutely can focus one’s attention on the event at hand in a situation in which there are many distractions (most of them edible or potable), attending a concert isn’t the same thing.  Or, perhaps there are audience members who would like a scorecard of sorts.  Witness the Baltimore Symphony’s experimentation with live-tweeting of concerts, although I think this more a testament to our addiction to our mobile communications technology than an indication of some latent demand for on-the-fly musical analysis.

My other beef is bad writing in program notes, particularly passive voice.  Authors of the type of note described above are particularly vulnerable to passive voice, creating zombie sentence after zombie sentence (if you can put the words by zombies after the verb, a sentence is in passive voice), but they are not unique in their infection with this plague.  Again, when composers are permitted to write their own notes, quality often goes down, a thing which I find inexplicable, as I can’t imagine a composer who is not also a voracious reader and thus, hopefully, a passable writer.  At the very least, we should have the capacity to self-edit and revise until something is good.

I see no reason why a program note ought not to begin with the title of the composition as the subject of the first sentence (not as a title with a colon following it, mind you, but as an integral part of the paragraph).  It should be in boldface and, if not a generic title, in italics.  In 2015, these are not optional.  Give us something to make us want to hear the music–a good story, the inspiration for the title, the importance of this piece to your oeuvre, or how much you enjoyed collaborating with the person you wrote it for.  Give the reader a sense of what it was like to compose the piece, or what it will be like to hear it.  The most common question I get from audience members is “how did you think of it?”  This is a hard question to answer, but they want to know.  Even if it is complete fabrication, because your piece is perfectly absolute with no clear inspiration, you must listen to it afresh, with the ears of an audience member, and attempt to come up with something that will help explain why you did what you did.

Remember, too, that a good note isn’t simply spewed onto the page–do not wait until you are working on conference or festival submissions to write the note.  I don’t consider a piece finished until I’ve completed my short, written justification of it, so make note-writing a part of the compositional process.  I am focusing on being more reflective about my life lately, and it occurs to me that writing the program note is a fantastic post-compositional way to reflect on the act of composing, and on the project just completed.

My thoughts.