Glenn Gould: Fifty Years of Solitude

April 10th, 2014

Fifty years ago today, April 10, 1964, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould gave his last public performance.

Sometime around twenty years ago, I discovered Glenn Gould, first through Evan Eisenberg’s book The Recording Angel, and later, and more importantly, through Francois Girard’s film Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, which my father and I went to see at the Drexel Theatre in Columbus on its first release, sometime in late 1993 or early 1994.  Coincidentally, I’ve been showing this film to my music appreciation students this week.  I love it for my own reasons, of course, but I love the way it (and Gould’s story) portrays the eternal triangle of composer-performer-audience, and shows that this triangle is perhaps not as eternal as we once thought it.

I also love that it’s a grown-up movie.  It isn’t a romantic comedy, and there are no explosions, which right away make it very different from what my students are accustomed to seeing.  On the other hand, the movie’s structure as a set of short vignettes, no more than about five minutes long each, is perfect for the way that many of them have encountered media–through YouTube clips, Vine videos, and the like.  It deals with genius, with the plans our parents set into motion for us, with what an intelligent person does when he can no longer tolerate the path of his life, it deals with the consequences of personal decisions, and it deals with death.  And it’s funny.  Very funny, on a couple of occasions.

But more importantly, trying to explain Gould to my students every semester makes me rethink why he was so important to me in the first place.  So here’s what I have this time around.

In 1993 and 1994, I was excited about going to college, and I didn’t only consider going as a music major.  I prepared my own audition repertoire, and when I took auditions, I hadn’t had a regular private trombone teacher in two years.  I practiced, and I played, and I began to study music theory.  I had some experience on piano to fall back upon, and I had started to compose a little.  I would eventually complete a trombone concerto as my senior thesis, without much guidance other than my own reading and listening.  It wasn’t particularly good, and I wasn’t a standout candidate for conservatory.  I’m still amazed that Tony Chipurn took me into his studio at CCM because I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of my technique, although I was just fine in theory and history classes.

It has been said that it is a mistake to make a career of music if one has other options, and I certainly did.  If I had really understood the differences in the educational approaches of different schools, I might have made a very different decision.  I also might have made a very different decision if I hadn’t known about Glenn Gould.

I learned about Glenn Gould the man before I ever heard Glenn Gould the pianist.  What struck me was his personality, both as displayed in Girard’s film and in Otto Friederich’s Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations.  A musician, yes, but a true intellectual.  A man of staggering intellect.  And a man whose personality seemed to fit my own–exacting, idealistic, introverted, yet brilliant (I thought quite a bit of myself), uncompromising (at eighteen, I hadn’t had much to compromise over).  Seeing a potential future self in Gould, I could begin to see a future as a musician.  Composer?  Perhaps.  Band director?  If necessary.  I’m not completely sure what I wanted from my years at CCM when I got there, except to immerse myself in this musical world and somehow come out transfigured, shining-faced, prepared to be audacious, brilliant, uncompromising.

Almost the first thing I did on arriving in Cincinnati was find my way to the listening center in the music library, and have the attendant–Ben Rydell–put on Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations.  My first hearing, the first music I heard as a college student.  Even though it is the 1981 recording of that piece that I have played again and again after finally receiving it for Christmas that year, the notes of Gould’s breakthrough record were what bracketed my time in college.  My idea of what Bach could be was transformed, of course, and when I took piano lessons with Dianna Anderson, I drove her nuts trying to play Bach the way Gould did, but it was more than that.  I genuinely attempted to channel Gould, in my young, awkward, deliberately boisterous way, at once musical, literary, philosophical.  Those who were there may remember some of it, the heart-on-the-sleeve, Young Werther-type who walked around Cincinnati that year, reveling in the freedom to simply be a student of music, to keep my own hours, to determine for myself just how much solitude I needed (perhaps it was because my birth cohort is relatively small, but it seemed that there were any number of places for a person to be alone on that campus).

What does Gould mean for my students, then?  I wish I could get them to think more deeply about it–they aren’t always in that habit.  I think that Gould is the precursor of the postmodern performer–after all, he quit performing three years before the Beatles did.  There are any number of popular music stars today, particularly in techno and EDM, who only give lip service to the idea of public performance.  Is playing a set of recorded music a public performance?  Not in any kind of traditional sense, but I think Glenn Gould would have appreciated it.  While “artists” (and my students use this word more frequently than “musician” to describe musical performers) may appear before the public, many do not truly perform their music before the public, preferring to lip synch instead.  YouTube is filled with mashups–the result of the public doing just what Gould imagined–creating performances out of existing material.  In a sense, we have arrived at Gould’s future.

The world of Glenn Gould recedes from us a little more each year–I noticed this particularly on this week’s viewing’s of Thirty Two Short Films, with its typewriters, phone booths, and newspaper stock prices.  In 1993, only ten years on, things were not so different–after all, Gould’s second reading of the Goldberg Variations was recorded digitally and released on CD.  Now I find myself explaining some of the technology to the students, alongside with the idea that a man might then (as now) devote his entire life to performing the music of someone else.  This in particular baffles my students, who think of a “song”  (always a song) as being linked with a specific performer rather than a composer or songwriter.  I try to imagine what Gould and his producers were doing–making the first recordings which have withstood the test of time and changes of medium, and I see that if it hadn’t been Gould to quit the stage, it would have been someone.

And yet, the man fascinates me, and I think will continue to do so until I am older than he was at his death when I was only six years old.

Congratulations on fifty years of solitude, Mr. Gould.

Composing and Conducting

March 30th, 2014

I was very pleased to get an envelope with a completed commissioning agreement in it from Wes Flinn the other day, which means that I’m writing a tuba-euphonium quartet for him.  The whole-consort genres can be intimidating, but I’ve generally had some success with them–my Sevens for four trumpets won an award, and Nod a Don is being played both here in Cleveland and at the National Flute Association conference in Chicago in the next six months.  These kinds of short chamber pieces aren’t necessarily the enormously thrilling kinds of work (like a piano concert0) that I long to do, but it’s a pleasure to write for an old friend, to get a performance relatively quickly, and to not write something that is as consuming as, say, a piano concerto.  In fact, since we have a new baby this year, I’m deliberately giving myself more small projects that will fit better into the time available for composition.  Other projects this year (I think) include a piano cycle based on L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels and a band version of my 2008 piano cycle Starry Wanderers.  

Two weeks ago, I enjoyed a fantastic premiere of Azteca Dances, a woodwind quintet that I composed “for the drawer” back in Oklahoma.  The performers weren’t completely satisfied, but I was, so there’s that.  I’m happy to have found the Cleveland Composers Guild as an outlet for my work, although there will need to be more than that to really sustain things in a performance sense.

Not much to this entry, but nothing in particular to say right now, and I want to get to composing tonight!

 

What Happens When You Don’t Practice

January 28th, 2014

I last picked up my trombone around December 1 or so, sometime before we left for Oklahoma to go get our baby girl Melia, so it had been about sixty days since I even touched the instrument. I took it to school with me during reading week, but for the first three-and-a-half weeks back, it sat forlornly in my office. I really need a reason to play the thing other than “I went to conservatory and feel guilty every day that I don’t practice now.”

But, today, I got in forty minutes on the trombone, and it went something like this.

“I guess I will need the Super-Slick today after all.”

“Is this the right mouthpiece?”

“That note shouldn’t sound like that.”

“Did my lips get skinnier?”

“Hey, that note was in tune!”

“I used to have bigger lungs than this.”

“Ooh… that note was *not* in tune.”

“How does that warm-up routine go?”

“That felt better than I remember it.”

“That didn’t.”

“High notes don’t feel so bad.”

“Yes, they do!”

“That felt like that old guy I used to play with in high school that made me think I’ll never let my tone sound like that.”

“Definitely need to do this more often.”

“Maybe a couple of heads from the Real Book would be a good idea.”

“All the heads in the Real Book are in bad keys and emphasize the tubby range of the instrument, but don’t go low enough for me to take them up an octave. It’s a saxophonist conspiracy.”

“My left arm is tired.”

“My right arm is tired.”

“That was a passable attempt at Bitsch etude number 4.”

“Is that my spit valve cork coming loose?”

“No.”

“I still can’t play pedal tones like Chad Arnow.”

“Gotta get more gigs and have a reason to practice.”

“Time to go home.”

Perspective and Perception

January 19th, 2014

It’s been a busy winter so far in the Saunders household.  In December, I wrapped up my piano concerto just in time for us to drive to Oklahoma to pick up our new baby girl, Melia Noelle.  She’s doing wonderfully, and it’s great to have a baby in the house again.  This is my second time becoming a father, of course, and fatherhood has been the second greatest adventure of my life so far (with marriage being the first).  I’ve been learning by watching Noah the last three-and-a-half years, and now I can learn by watching Melia, too.  It’s yet another change in perspective for me, because I’ve never lived with a little girl before–I only have one brother.  The next eighteen years or so should prove very educational.  Six months ago, we thought that Noah was it, and our household would max out at three, but having a sibling is going to bring a balance to Noah’s life that I think is critical–not that single children can’t grow up to be good people, of course, but my life has been profoundly different–and better–because I had to learn to live with my brother (who now lives in Germany, and who I miss horrendously every day!).  As much as Becky’s life and my life changed on December 6, Noah’s life changed even more, because Melia will probably be the one who he knows the longest.

Noah has a change in perception coming up.  At preschool, he failed an eye exam a couple of months back, so we followed up with a pediatric opthamologist.  He seems to have the same astigmatism that both his parents have, but is apparently hyperopic, or far-sighted, where Becky and I are both near-sighted.  We didn’t suspect that he had vision problems, but it explains some things that we chalked up to his personality–namely, that he won’t sit still to learn letters and words (I backed way off of that this summer when it was frustrating us to the point that it seemed to be doing more harm than good).  If he is, in fact, hyperopic (which we will determine at a follow-up appointment), the kid can only see the flashcards with a lot of strain and concentration, which is tiring and taxing to the three-year-old attention span.  It probably means glasses, and many kids have a degree of hyperopia.

What struck me, though, is how his world will change when he got those glasses.  Like the souls in Plato’s cave, Noah has no idea that the world can look any differently than it does–and frankly, those of us with corrected vision have no assurance that we see things as they are, either.  Descartes held that only an evil demon of a God would make reality an illusion, but to an extent it is–we only perceive a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic and sonic spectra, and most of the Universe is beyond our ability to detect because of the finite speed of light.  We are limited to three dimensions and time flows in a single direction from our experience.  Yet, when Noah gets his glasses, everything will change.  Meanwhile, I’m planning to buy one of those sets of letters that you see in classrooms above the blackboard for Noah’s playroom wall.  And I have no idea how you keep glasses on a three-year-old’s face…

Cleveland Orchestra plays Barber, Schumann, Copland

December 1st, 2013

Always a joy to head down to Severance Hall to hear the local band, the Cleveland Orchestra, and that’s where Dan Perttu and I were last night.  Marin Alsop conducted Barber’s Second Essay, Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Copland’s Third Symphony.  A stellar performance in many respects.

Some thoughts.  I want to try out some of Maestra Alsop’s moves–in both of the 20th-century pieces, her baton arm was frequently quite low–almost at waist level–as it went away from her body.  Not so much in the Schumann, which of course has considerably more lightness both in tone and in what is actually required of the orchestra.  The “low beat” is something I associate with choral conducting, but I always liked the way it can encourage a group to give a full-bodied, massive tone–if it can be seen over the podium!

The Barber may be something that is in the realm of possibility for the Lakeland Civic Orchestra, and I need to look into it.  I wasn’t very familiar with it before I decided to attend this concert and did some preparatory listening.  A somewhat hesitant start from the orchestra, but a thrilling conclusion.

The Schumann piano concerto has been one of my favorites for many years, which means that I usually want to hear it just-so.  Pianist David Fray was competent, but not astonishing, at least not from where I sat.  It seemed, particularly in the outer movements, that he had somewhere else that he needed to be just then.  In particular, the first movement cadenza felt rushed–for a part of the piece that certainly invites a pianist to take some time and space, no matter what tempo one chooses for the main body of the movement.

The Copland was splendidly done.  Alsop gave a wonderfully cogent explanation of the motivic structure of the piece before playing it that, I think, would help almost any audience hear what Copland does with the “Common Man” material.  The full performance was revelatory–I had only heard the piece on CD before, and to me one the advantages of watching a live performance is the visual reinforcement of a composer’s orchestrational technique.  There are doublings, of course, that only really great players can make work–horn and flute, for example, but of course the Clevelanders play them with ease.  My only quibble was a lack of energy and drive in the second movement, but it is, after all, an enormous piece, and to expend so much in the scherzo would endanger the effectiveness of the finale.

Also picked up trombonist Massimo La Rosa’s new CD in the gift shop, and I’m about halfway through listening to it as I type this entry.  An interesting balance of standard repertoire and new transcriptions, including a daring trombone version of the Bach G-major cello suite.  Love his tone and musicality (the solo in the first movement of the Copland last night was exquisite)!

One of the exciting things about conducting the Lakeland Civic Orchestra is going to a concert like this and seeing four or five of the orchestra members in attendance–what a change from previous groups!

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

October 6th, 2013

It’s been a “moving wood” kind of composition weekend, meaning that I’ve been working, but mostly by Cut and Paste in Sibelius.  In addition to a quick arrangement of a Christmas carol, I now have a “preview” score (about six minutes out of twenty) for my Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.  I’ve posted it on my website, so all you pianist and conductor types should take a look.  Avguste Antonov will be giving the premiere performances during the 2014-2015 season, and there are still slots available for any orchestra who wants to get on board then.  If you’re a pianist, I’d be happy to talk to you about 2015-2016 and beyond!  Here’s the link to my website where you can download the PDF–it’s right on top of the page, so it will be easy to find.

Writing this piece has been a long-term goal and dream of mine.  I think I first thought about writing a piano concerto in about 1994, when I read Atlas Shrugged (I know, I know…), in which a fictitious piano concerto features prominently.  I’m not really writing anything else important or large-scale for the rest of 2013, and I’m hoping for five or more performances in 2014-2015 (at least, that’s how Avguste and I have written the commission).

It has, frankly, taken me years to feel like I am a composer who can pull this off, and even longer to decide that I should.  I’ve written here before about my policy of writing nothing without a commission, and one result of that is that when people aren’t beating down my door for new pieces, I’m forced to decide on my own what project I would like to pursue next, and then make it count.  I played the Beethoven Choral Fantasy for my music appreciation students last week, and remembered how it has been presented as the “warm-up” piece for the Ninth Symphony (I’m not so sure about that).  At any rate, several of my pieces over the last few years have been warm-ups for this concerto.

In 2008 or so, I made a conscious decision to focus on longer works that were also organic, rather than modular, in their construction.  One technique for building a longer piece is to write several shorter sections, and then piece them together, and I felt like my longer pieces up to that time followed that model too frequently.  It is relatively easy to write a 3-5 minute piece, or to write a string of 3-5 minute pieces to create a suite.  The first piece that I really felt break through in this way was my Piano Trio, from the summer of 2009, and I followed it the next year with my most recent band piece, Moriarty’s Necktie, from the Spring of 2011, which I think is wonderfully organic, although nothing like the concerto I’m working on now.

Then there was the problem of the piano.  My piano chops are somewhat limited, and building the confidence to write a concerto meant that I needed the confidence that I was a good composer of piano music.  Again, the Piano Trio contributed to this, but my collaboration with Dianna Anderson, first on the piano cycle Starry Wanderers (composed in 2008) and then on my Piano Sonata (2010, another effort at large-scale organic form), was the turning point in feeling that I could write piano music that a pianist would want to play.  It was Avguste Antonov’s subsequent performances of both of these pieces over the last two years that led me realize that I had found the right pianist for a concerto.

And of course, the concerto itself.  The first piece for more than two instruments that I ever wrote was a concerto for trombone and string orchestra that was my high school Senior Thesis, and which, thankfully, hasn’t seen the light of day since 1994.  Since then, I’ve written three more concerti (although none called such) for solo instrument with band–trombone, guitar and clarinet.  The premiere of Daytime Drama with Magie Smith and Kenneth Kohlenberg last year is only the most recent of these, and I will give a “second premiere” of Homo sapiens trombonensis in Granville, Ohio next month.

Last, I needed to think of myself as an orchestral composer again.  In the summer of 2012, I composed my Suite for String Orchestra (also a landmark in finding a project I wanted to do and making it happen) while I was still living in Oklahoma.  My string writing was somewhat tentative–it had been five years since an orchestra had played my music, and I had focused on band and piano.  Then, after arriving here in Ohio for my new job, I also found myself the conductor of the Lakeland Civic Orchestra, leading the group in music that I had taught to my students in the abstract–as studies in orchestration–but now dealing with the music from the standpoint of making it all work.  Two more orchestra pieces followed–an arrangement of a short choral piece, and the score for the silent film Le Voyage Dans La Lune.  Neither is an example of my “pure” compositional style, but both gave me invaluable experience with the orchestra and allowed me to apply what I was learning from my work as a conductor.

And so, the gestation has been long, but the piano concerto is coming.  I think it has been worth the wait.

Well-Tempered Summer

August 31st, 2013

With only teaching one class during the Summer term, it made sense to find a project, so I brought home two scores–Beethoven’s string quartets, and book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.  I barely cracked the Beethoven–that may be next summer’s project–but playing through Bach has been good for my limited piano chops and, as always, a glimpse at the mind of one of the greatest composers who has ever lived.

I bought my first copy of the Well-Tempered Clavier as an undergraduate, after discovering the recordings of Glenn Gould and the c-minor Prelude and Fugue in our music history anthology.  I played from it now and again, but couldn’t really make my fingers work from it; in orchestration class, I scored the D-major fugue as my final project.  Then, after graduation, my copy disappeared, probably mistakenly picked up by a young piano student (taking lessons from my roommate) on her way out the door.  May she get as much from it as I have.

I purchased another copy around 2000, but never did much with it until I took advanced 18th-century counterpoint from Jan Radzynski as a doctoral student.  The subject of the course was fugue, so we duly studied many of the expositions.  At my first college position, in Oklahoma, I taught Form and Analysis, so I conducted in-depth analyses of the pieces found in that course’s anthology, and worked up the F-major fugue to an acceptable level.  I’ve also done an analysis of the e-minor fugue for this blog.

This summer, though, I’ve kept my score for WTC I on the piano rack continuously, picking through the pieces as they caught my fancy and generally enjoying Bach’s mastery of the form.  Some notable observations:

The c-minor fugue was really the one that started my interest in this collection back in about 1995, and I don’t know if it’s anthologized so often because it’s near the front of the volume, or because it’s just about perfect.

The c#-major prelude caught my fingers this summer–I wish I had the skills to play it well or the time to learn it passably.

The two five-voice fugues–c# minor and bb minor–are sprawling examples of the ricercar, and stunning in their effectiveness.  The c#-minor double fugue is particularly amazing.

I hated the D-major fugue when it was assigned to me in orchestration class and I really listened to it for the first time, but I came to love it, and for all its strangeness, I still do.  A fugue as the first part of a French overture…

The d-minor prelude is the kind of moto perpetuo that attracts so many of us to Bach in the first place–wondrous arpeggios against a simple bass.

The d-minor fugue is everything the one in c minor is, but features the subject in inversion and a real answer.  Genius!

The irony of the E-flat major set is that the prelude takes much longer than the fugue to play…

The e-flat-minor fugue has it all–inversion, stretto, augmentation–in the ricercar manner.

The E-major prelude has a wonderful lyricism mixed with surprising chromatic movements as punctuation, and ends without a perfect authentic cadence.

The F-major set is bright and sparkling, with a stretto-obsessed canzona-type fugue.

My copious notes on the F#-major fugue date from from graduate school, and Dr. Radzynski chose wisely.

For such a key as G major, Bach chooses a fugue subject that allows a pianist to be brilliant in that comfortable key.

The g-minor pieces are wondrous, and a joy to play, as are those in A-flat major.

The g#-minor fugue is in a daunting key, but well worth the effort, as Bach makes very interesting use of countersubject technique.

The subject of the A-major fugue is daring–only the best pianist can make it work when it’s surrounded by other voices.

I discovered the a-minor prelude last winter, and wish I would have known it sooner.  A little masterpiece, and the same is true of the fugue.

The Bb-major prelude is the perfect antidote to the long the fugue which precedes it, with its stile brise approach.  The repetition in the subject of its own fugue is infectious!

The b-minor prelude was clearly meant to be a trio sonata movement.  I may have to set it for brass trio…

The book ends with a fugue in b-minor that is almost a summation of all that has come before.

I don’t need to recommend this work, of course, but I do so anyway.  It is critical for a composer to have analysis projects of this sort–they are composition lessons with our greatest predecessors, and none of those more deserves our attention than J.S. Bach.

Being a “Real Composer”

August 31st, 2013

2012-2013 was a surprisingly good season for my music–about 20 performances, all told, in a variety of places and venues, with a nice balance between premieres (Lady Glides on the Moon, Nod a Don, Le Voyage Dans La Lune and my Suite for String Orchestra) and second, third and later performances.  Some were simple–me playing Twenty Views of the Trombone at a John Cage Musicircus event at MOCA Cleveland, while others were more elaborate.  Some involved my making them happen (performances of my Piano Sonata and Moriarty’s Necktie at the SCI Region VI conference at West Texas A&M, a conference I cohosted), and others happened all by themselves (Selena Adams’ performance of South Africa on her DMA recital at the University of Colorado, right before winning a gig with the US Army Field Band.  In all, a very good year for my music, and 2013-2014 is shaping up as well, although not quite as spectacularly, but with an early start, a repeat performance of Lady Glides at the Parma Music Festival/SCI Region I conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which, with a little luck, might lead to more, as always.

It makes me feel like a “real composer,” I’ve felt, along with acceptance into the Cleveland Composers Guild, for which one is elected, not simply enrolled.  March and April, in particular, felt very busy, and this fall, there will be a day (September 29) where my music is played at the same time in two cities (Dallas and Cleveland).  Another milestone is that many of these performances are happening without my being present, or even involved other than selling a copy of the sheet music through my website.  This is a big deal.  South Africa continues to be my “greatest hit,” which surprises me at times, but I’m also gratified by that fact.  I’ll be looking for a couple more sales of that piece as horn students begin to program their recitals for this year.

Going forward, the big challenge, I think, is to continue to get my music out there and build my reputation as a composer.  I have a sense that I need to become a “Cleveland composer,” which is a tougher nut, in some ways, than composing was in the Oklahoma Panhandle.   There are areas in which I’d like to see growth in myself as a composer over the next few years–handling larger forms, dealing with complexity, exploring percussion, working toward a greater depth of emotional expression in my work.  Over the summer, I had lunch with Donald Harris, my graduate advisor, and he stated that I was growing in interesting directions.  Another of my teachers, Tom Wells, heard my piece in New Hampshire and stated that he was proud of me as a student.  To have my teachers–themselves distinguished and experienced composers–feel that I have done good things years after my time with them is a good thing.

Being at Lakeland, where my tenure is not bound up in producing new compositions or having as many performances as possible, gives me the freedom to pursue projects at my own pace, and not to feel like I need to take pieces on, write another book, or submit to every conference of SCI or CMS.  Composition can be more artful now and not a part of my family’s livelihood.  My one composition student, young Cooper Wood, has been quite an inspiration this year as well, and as he enters high school, I’m hopeful that our work together will benefit both of us.

It is impossible to be without disappointments as well.  I still feel that Moriarty’s Necktie is a very good piece, possibly my best, but it has now been through the cycle of awards for band composition (Revelli, Beeler, Ostwold, etc.) without being recognized.  There will be more band music from my pen, of course.  One also does not apply to conferences and festivals without rejections; more rejections than acceptances, naturally.  While each of these hurts, my faith in my work is undiminished, and I will continue to write and submit.  I’ve been diligently informing ASCAP of all my performances, and applied for the Plus Award for the first time this year–between ASCAP and the website, it would be nice to see some monetary return, if only to cover costs, but I feel that that is probably still at least a couple of years off.

It isn’t about the money, though.  On the other hand, in our culture, money means that someone, somehow, values my music in important ways.  Money is the reason I haven’t pursued my dream project–a symphony for orchestra.  Not that I require an enormous payment, but at this point in my career, I can’t write a piece that won’t have a prospect of a performance, and so my Great American Symphony waits for a commitment.

Onward, then, into another year of being a Real Composer.

Active Art

July 30th, 2013

NPR had a piece on playwright and actor Wallace Shawn yesterday (you know him… he played Fezzini in The Princess Bride).  He made a comment about “active art” and “passive art.”  Passive art is art that tells us how to think, and is everywhere.  Active art, on the other hand, is a wake-up call, a glimpse into a greater reality.  I immediately tried to think of pieces of music that might fit into these categories.  As obvious as it might be this year, I have no doubt that Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps is active art–after 100 years, it still feels fresh, it still challenges us; it makes us question just what a piece of music is, and just what it means to be modern.  Perhaps Mahler falls into the category of “active art” as well.  I’ve been at work on my piano concerto this summer, and I think this term “active art” is what I’m trying to accomplish with it (I’ve tried to be deliberate in my work rather than the kind of “white heat” composing that I’ve been prone to over the last couple of years… I just want to give the piece time to be what it will be).    Have I written music that is “active” in this way?  One or two of my recent works may approach this:  Moriarty’s Necktie and my Piano Sonata.

Otherwise, it’s been a busy-but-not-busy summer.  Getting used to the new house (oh yeah, we bought a house), spending time with Becky and Noah, teaching.  I’ve been teaching counterpoint to a private composition student, which has got me going back through the species and thinking about contrapuntal approaches in my music; also, I brought home my well-worn Well-Tempered Clavier and have spent some time with that, although the Beethoven quartets are still mostly unopened on the piano.  And letting the concerto gestate. And in that last couple of weeks, score study for the upcoming season with the Lakeland Civic Orchestra–Verdi, Mendelssohn, Milhaud, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Last week, I had lunch with my graduate adviser Donald Harris and his wife Marilyn.  After a lovely lunch at his home in Columbus, we went to his study and played CDs of our recent work for each other.  I had the privilege to hear his Symphony No. 2, which received a strong performance by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in April 2012.  It was interesting to see the similarities in our work, although when I was his student, he never had me study his scores intensively, and rarely gave comments that led me in his own stylistic direction.  Don seemed pleased with my recent work as well, which makes me realize that the recently-ended “Oklahoma Period” was not in vain.

That said–more blogging in the future, hopefully.  I’ve missed several months, but hopefully I can put that to rest.

Mahler 7, Cleveland, Alan Gilbert

March 24th, 2013

Some thoughts about the music I heard at Severance tonight with Dan and Melinda Perttu. At the pre-concert talk Roger Klein quoted critics who found Mahler’s music, particularly the Seventh Symphony, banal. As I listened this evening, I realized that really isn’t other music like Mahler’s by composers of his own time. It is banal, and that is what makes it significant.  Mahler may have been writing the world within his symphonies, but his basic musical language is exactly that of the commonplace, the street, the Gypsy camp, the shtetl, the nursery, the cathedral, the bedroom, the privy. His point is that the meaning of life is in the living, in the filthy, disgusting, degrading living, and that by living for our best even among the worst, we achieve the transcendence that Mahler saw in the human condition.  Mahler acknowledges that we live in a world where children die young and are warped by abuse (or even well-meaning parenting), wives cheat on their husbands (and vice versa), governments persecute minorities, musicians care for their beer more than the music they are rehearsing, and wars, famine, pestilence and the rest are all realities.  By taking the songs of childhood, worship, the poor, the illiterate into his music, he points out that the solution is to live life all the same, that transcendence can come from the common, the ordinary, the plain, and, yes, from the banal.