Trying out a new toy.
Even with all of the drama of this ongoing season (the Polar vortex! Thundersnow! Treated salt shortages! The Vortex again!) there have been some unexpected pleasures. Last week, I had the chance to play a piece that I hadn’t performed since December 1997 – Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, by Robert Ceely. It’s a piece that was composed for me to play on my (then) new bass clarinet with-extension-down-to-low-C in 1989, and one that I played a lot in the late 80s around Boston on various new music concerts. Revisiting it for a concert arranged by Jason Belcher of solo works from the American Composers Alliance catalog, I discovered that a few things were really familiar, but a few phrases seemed quite different. So, I had to go back and rethink the piece some before putting the whole thing together again. It’s my favorite of Ceely’s pieces, and I think it holds up well lo these many years later. Even though you can tell that the score was notated with Professional Composer software.
Visiting the Ceelys in Boston before the New York concert, I brought along my bass and played the piece for Bob, showing off my iPad-footpedal combo for the page turns and all. (off topic – I was able to sort of help another performer with his iPad-ForScore deal in New Jersey earlier this month, when Blair McMillan played some of Davy’s etudes. Really, AirTurn manufacturers, everyone would be happier if they could tell when the footpedal was completed charged…)
When Ceely told me that I should play the piece “like a solo” I had to stop for a minute (I mean, it is a solo, what??) before I realized that he meant like a jazz solo. Which made sense, as a lot of the phrasing is focused on varied repetition, with a lot of syncopation built into the short fragments. In today’s bass clarinet rep, it probably comes across as conservative, since there’s not even one multiphonic or slap tongue to be heard. But it’s still sharp.
Ceely wanted to talk about other concerts around town, and movies that he should see, things that he could get to around town given his doctor’s permission. He still called me “Wieperson,” as he has done since 1984, and talked about eventually writing his autobiography Stairs of Sand. He wasn’t able to travel to NYC, but he did talk a bunch of people into attending in his stead, and many people came up to me afterwards saying how much they enjoyed the piece. And these were people that had to walk through sidewalks of slush and ice just to get to the venue, so that’s saying something.
I should have known that after writing a clarinet duo last month, I would wind up not writing for my own instrument for a while. It was great to compose a piece for the AdZel Duo, and play through all of the music myself (granted, to really hear the piece I had to overdub myself, but still.) Even when I compose for other instruments, I often play through single lines on the clarinet or bass clarinet, because it’s the closest I can really come to singing through the melodies. So, writing the duo felt very efficient in addition to being fun.
After that draft was done, the Vermont Symphony sent word on the exact instrumentation of the piece for the Made in Vermont tour next fall: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings.
Notice: no clarinet.
OK, not the end of the world, but I had already composed a draft of three quarters of the piece with a “provisional orchestration” with single woodwinds. Including clarinet. Which of course had several solos. Probably most of the solos, come to think of it. And now, I was given an early-Haydn-style orchestra, without the instrument that is my home base. So, time to rethink.
Not that I am unbiased, but the clarinet does have some real advantages in an orchestral woodwind choir. It has a range that covers a lot of ground, and the dynamics aren’t so closely aligned with extremes in range. Its timbre doesn’t change as much with register changes – and while that can make it seem bland in comparison to the other winds, it’s very useful when filling out harmonies. Without it, the different voicings in the wind choir are much sharper, and what would normally be the middle register of the choir is now really low for some of the instruments and fairly high for others. Having the horns in there helps, having a round sound in that middle register, but those instruments don’t change registers without drawing attention to themselves – they immediately become soloists when they have large leaps in a line.
Ultimately, I bulked up the horn writing within all of the harmonies, and dovetailed all of the wind parts with overlapping segments. Which means that now, almost none of the original melodies appear in just one instrument; everyone is sharing the tunes all the time, with very few real solos. This has made the wind writing more conversational, and the colors change a lot more from bar to bar, which will make for happier players overall. It’s also arguably more like Haydn, and given that the piece will share a program with a Haydn symphony, “when in Esterházy…” is probably the best plan.
Now, on to making piano reductions for the first three scenes of the opera I’m working on with Jennifer Moxley. So, still no clarinet, and now I have to take what are really woodwind lines and give them to an instrument that can’t swell on single notes.
- Of or relating to autumn.
- Past the middle of life; in the third stage. [quotations ▲]
- 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter:
- “The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful over-much,–that is a truth,” added a third autumnal matron.
- 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter:
Been traveling over the past month, going way up to The County in Maine and way down to the Georgia/North Carolina border. So, I had lots of leaf-peeping opportunities, finding seasonal variations in foliage and weather all along the way. Being an autumnal woman, according to the definition above, I felt right at home, even while being on the road.
The driving I did was almost all within view of mountains; I saw both Mt. Katahdin up north and a bunch of the Smokey Mountains within the same few weeks. In Houlton, ME, where Route 95 ends and the Trans-Canada highway starts, the local music teachers hosted me for a day of software workshops. The travel to and from town was memorable, in part because of maintenance closures on 95 – these meant that I got onto back roads with signs like “Warning – beware of buggies” (turns out, Houlton has a growing Amish population..).
On Columbus Day weekend, the colors were getting towards peak in Aroostook County. People were out and about while the temperature was still cooperating – which turned out to be a good thing, as the town had 4 inches of snow and black ice on the roads just two weeks later. Which means that the northern Maine tourist season (think snowmobiles) is just getting under way.
The drive to Georgia, where I had a residency at the Hambidge Center, took a day and a half, and got more scenic by the hour. I thought Roanoke was beautiful, but had to recalibrate that thought once I went through Ashville. Finally, I arrived in Rabun Gap, had my very entertaining how-to-be-a-Hambidge-fellow session with Debbie Sanders, and started to explore the 600 acre retreat.
The temperature fluctuated pretty widely, but the leaves fell like rain (sometimes accompanied by the sound of waterfalls). There were mushrooms I hadn’t seen before, (like the black trumpet, which looked more like organ pipes to me), odd evidence of creatures unseen (bear scat found in the middle of Betty’s Creek Road), and, by the end of my time there, some morning frosts.
I got going on a piece for the Vermont Symphony for next year, and the falling leaves set the tone for that music. Not really surprising, since the music I’ve liked best is often called “autumnal” (my Mom didn’t like it when I played my favorite Brahms on the stereo during the summer, as it wasn’t the “right season” for that kind of thing), though I don’t know if the music will sound like “Fall” to anyone but me. But the other artists at the Center were taking in the season as well, with at least some effect on their work. You could see that previous artists had done so as well:
So, after 5 weeks in Ireland, during which time I was assured that the weather was well-above-average, I can vouch for the famous grey skies and the bright greens of the countryside, as well as the pelting rain and personal cheeriness of Dublin. I spent most of my time at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, meeting a few foreign-types like myself (from USA, Canada, Spain and Andorra) along with many Irish artists, from both Northern Ireland and “the Republic.” Happily, I got a bunch of music written, including a full scene of the opera, which Jennifer and I are now calling Until the War is Over. More on that later.
Being on an old estate (Annaghmakerrig) in one of the border counties of the Republic, there’s a lot of recent complicated history surrounding the Centre. Some of its funding in the recent past has come directly from reconciliation projects, and its one of the few things supported by both Irish Arts Councils. My sense was that the artists from various parts of Ireland 1) always knew many of the same people, given that the Irish arts scene is that of a smallish country, and 2) were circumspect about discussing anything political until the social lay of the land was clear. Since many of the artists stayed about a week, and the social scene therefore changed every week, the level of talk about the old “Troubles” or anything like that was completely different from week to week, depending on the people around. One week, there’d be a bunch of artists from Belfast, another, a few from Galway. There were also some that, while Irish natives, were working in London, Edinburgh or Cardiff, especially given the still-bad economic scene throughout Ireland.
So, I got various perspectives on the whole scene, some optimistic and some not. Many books and films were recommended, which I’ve started to go through, bit by bit. One book was handed to me in a second-hand store by one of the artists – it was only 2 euros, so I went ahead and got it. Turned out it had been a bestseller back in the day, Are You Somebody by Nuala O’Faolain. Every one of the female artists at the Centre had read it years ago, and I have to say it’s a pretty good read, though a bit depressing as well – a combination of autobiography (starting from the 1950’s) with reporting from the 70’s-80’s. I think the Irish artists also got a kick out of my attempts to say the author’s name, which I still have not quite mastered.
After my month in Monaghan Co, I went to Dublin and met Davy to be a tourist for a few days. The Irish do not fool around with their historical memorials – note the huge notice of the hundred-year anniversary of the 1913 Lockout seen next to the Customs House:
We also saw a full plate of Georgian architecture (which made the point about how bad the 1800’s must have been in Dublin, since there are really no significant buildings from that era at all – the town goes from early 1700’s straight to modern architecture). The number of places devoted to the many famous Irish writers was impressive, though not surprising – I’d arrived on the weekend when Seamus Heaney died, and noted that the Irish Times had this on the front page of the paper for 5 days in a row (my friend Pat noticed proudly that it even made the front page of the NYTimes). Many of the artists at the Centre had known Heaney personally, and several went to one of the big memorial services in Belfast. There was even some consternation that Heaney did not receive a state funeral, but it certainly seemed like a national event from my perspective, official or not.
Now, I have some work to do around home, both in Maine and in Maynard, before heading out to another residency later this month. Looking forward to hearing some of the UMaine students perform bits of the opera next month – they’re working on a few numbers from Scene 1, in which H.D. and D.H. Lawrence talk about poetry. Jennifer will be talking with them about the people they are playing, and I know that both of us will appreciate hearing the numbers done live. Back to work on the whole opera soon.
Davy started teaching already this week, and has made (probably) one of the last brie-and tomato sandwiches of the year – although he did restock the tomato section of the fridge today at the Farmer’s market.
He was suckered into buying a tomato-specific kitchen aid earlier this week at Stop-and-Shop, a storage unit which I had deemed cute but-not-for-purchase. He overruled this decision, and has been able to use the device with our regular tomatoes until today.
Farmer’s market tomatoes are indeed larger than the supermarket ideal.
A while back, one of my colleagues was getting ready to direct Into the Woods, and was telling me how excited he was about the project. “I mean,” he said, “this show has real depth – it’s not like The Pajama Game.” Which I let go at the time, since I like the Sondheim work a lot myself. But I also like Pajama Game, and especially like its no-pretensions-here attitude. I think some of the “deep” Sondheim stuff gets credit for using what is really cartoonish neurotic behavior as sophistication, at the expense of more realistic-but-still-funny recognizable stuff, like “friendship,” say. In Into the Woods the cartoon behavior works, since the characters are archetypes anyway, and they are allowed to be funny, not just sarcastic/wounded. It doesn’t have the standard late-20th-century this-is-important undercurrent to the humor.
The Pajama Game, while not as minute-to-minute effective as a bunch of other classic musicals (including one that shares a bunch of DNA with it, The Music Man), uses some comedy tropes really well. I think the female lead’s first number is well paced and silly in a good way, in line with a lot of Hammerstein numbers. I appreciate the chorus’s “obviously, naturally, definitely” responses – pretty much the same thing as you’d find in lots of buddy-comedy songs. Who doesn’t like musical banter?
It’s true that the whole show bogs down a bit, and the movie version in particular doesn’t show the later numbers to their best advantage, but still, the thing holds up way better than lots of message musicals or the more recent jukebox shows. I know that part of my affection for it is based on growing up with the cast recording, which was on a regular rotation in our house with other classic 50’s shows, for which I thank my mom. And it is funny for long stretches, featuring mainly gentle ribbing. It is not trying to address the ills of all the world – so, I guess it’s not deep, but that’s OK.
You don’t see the classic musical comedy banter too much in art song venues, which probably comes from a combination of historical tendencies and solo singer recital preferences. Sometimes when one of my own humorous songs is programmed on a formal recital, the performers can be uncomfortable with it, not wanting to seem silly. Plus, the audience members are not sure whether or not they can laugh. (This usually takes of itself if the audience has the texts to the songs in front of them – then they can see for themselves if they really heard a joke.) Just last week some other colleagues performed a song cycle of mine on texts by Sarah Manguso. Parts of it are really comic, no kidding (so to speak). They’ve sung this a few times now, and so are completely OK with selling the jokes that are woven into some serious texts:
So, I’m hoping that the upcoming movie of Into the Woods is very funny in addition to having depth, as my director friend would say. I’m cautiously optimistic, given the basic gentle humor between the characters I’ve seen in stage productions. But then, there was that awful movie of A Little Night Music which had no comedy whatsoever.
On a short trip up Route 100 today, we passed a sign that said “Art of Humor Gallery – next right.” It seems like it’s a real thing.
This seems very promising – a whole gallery for the Art of Humor! ..and the Vermont artist that shows there seems very much into the gentle-comedy idea…