The jury finds the defendant to be a poor composer.

November 8, 2011 Comments Off on The jury finds the defendant to be a poor composer.

Last night at Choral Union we rehearsed again the fourth movement of Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna,” “Veni, Sancte Spiritus.” Now, the rest of the piece isn’t bad; it’s not very original, and if you want to hear this material you may as well listen to his “Ave Maria” (which is the exact same experience except with better text underlay and six minutes instead of twenty-five), but it is pleasant and reasonably enjoyable to sing. But the fourth movement is a shining example of piss-poor writing, and it makes me so upset I want to write and publish an alternative fourth movement.

The trouble is, all Lauridsen (except “Les Chansons des Roses,” which are inexplicably excellent) sounds the same: his music is characterized by something I’d sooner call a chord inversion than a style, and almost all of it is smooth and flowing. But someone obviously said to him, say, Morten, maybe one of your movements should be different. And he thought, by gum, I could write something fast! And in three! And so he did, god help us. Although the texts were assembled by Lauridsen himself, he seems impatient to get this one over with as fast as possible. It is set in 3/4, where a dotted half note is 56. It’s a waltz tempo, quite fast if you’re counting quarter notes. And on every fast quarter note and sometimes on faster eighth notes is a different syllable; the choir has to do so much work to get them all out in time that it sounds more like Latin vomit than music. It takes away any possibility of musicality. And then Lauridsen has thoughtfully inserted breath marks every three or four measures or so, which, at this tempo, would not necessarily be easy to observe even if we weren’t trying to spit out words as fast as possible; essentially he has halved the time in which we have to get a syllable out. So it’s difficult to sing. AND the music is dull. Mediocre to begin with, and then all he does is have us repeat the same verses over and over. I think if you’re setting a text this long, you should be obligated to switch it up a little. What appears to have happened is that Lauridsen was sitting at his piano one day—that’s another thing: everything he writes sounds great on a piano and not so great in voices or instruments. For me, part of the wonder of truly great music is that it simply doesn’t sound as good if it is not played/sung by its intended instrument. Good composers are good at calling their instruments. Lauridsen is obviously very comfortable with a piano, and has no clear vision of what his piano music would sound like not on a piano. Anyway, he was sitting at his piano and was so satisfied by what he was playing that he thought, I’ll just have them do it over and over again! It’s so good they can’t possibly get tired of it!

He writes with such blatant disregard for how the human voice in general and a choir in particular works that I am frequently rendered speechless. He writes like a pianist and only a pianist. He is boring and he is unoriginal and from everything I have heard he is extremely arrogant, so, in short, nothing disposes me to like him and I (clearly) have no compunction about outlining exactly what I dislike about his music. Although it will be more productive to rewrite his stuff instead.

You thought I was kidding.

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Choir 101

June 16, 2011 Comments Off on Choir 101

I have a new obsession! (Cue groans from my audience.) I want to start an introductory choir class. Allow me to explain.

We’re doing a piece in Summer Choir in slow 6/8, which means that sixteenth notes are a simple half of the beat. But I’ve noticed a lot of people singing it as though it was part of a dotted rhythm, and I realized that they had no good understanding of rhythm, and only knew sixteenth notes in the context of a dotted eighth note. Then I realized that no one actually teaches you basic music theory after high school. Once you get to college choirs and older, most directors assume that you can count, that you know note names and why a C-sharp is the same as a D-flat, that you know the difference between major and minor beyond “happy vs. sad,” and so on. People who have always liked to sing and who decide, at 30, that they want to join a choir are at a distinct disadvantage, because there is apparently no substitute for having been in choir since middle school.

So here’s my idea. I want to start a choir that will be largely class-time devoted to music theory from the ground up (with a coursepack you can keep for future reference—because we’re not going to spend a ton of time on FACE and Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge), plus a lot of sight-reading, and for perhaps the latter half of the class we will work on largely common/famous rep that everyone did or at least heard in high school: “Dirait-On, “O Sifuni Mungu,” “Sleep,” “Sicut Cervus,” and so on. I think this is an awesome idea.

The trouble is, I don’t know whether there’s any market at all for this. I think older people who want to start choir just join their church choir, or Choral Union. But then you end up with people like the members of Summer Choir, who think they know music because they’ve been in choirs for decades, but don’t actually know why a sixteenth note is not necessarily a dotted rhythm. To get people to attend my class I’d have to walk around Choral Union during rehearsals and call people out for not knowing jack about music, and require them to come. Obviously not practical. But I can’t leave it alone. I’m writing the coursepack as we speak, and keeping the syllabus open on the side of my screen so I can add things to it as they occur to me. Maybe I’ll just have to start it and see if anyone comes. In the meantime, let me know if anyone has any insights on this.

I know what I know, and French is French.

June 7, 2011 Comments Off on I know what I know, and French is French.

Extremely irritating choir rehearsal today. We’re doing a Québecquois folk song in French, and today we started on the words. One of the tenors got up and explained that he had a degree in French, had taught French at UW, and had lived in France and in Quebec, and proceeded to regale us with the differences between Québecquois French and European French. He’s one of those older guys so tickled to be in charge of a group that he can’t help expanding like a sponge, ending up too swollen to move. After maybe fifteen minutes of this, he actually got around to tackling the words, which he did very slowly, conscientiously explaining the principle behind every sound to us as he went along.

Now, a key feature of French poetry and singing is liaison, which is where the consonant at the end of a word, usually silent, is pronounced in front of a word that starts with a vowel. For example (case in point), the title of the song is “Un canadien errant” (A Wandering Canadian). Usually the n at the end of canadien is not pronounced, but because the word that follows begins with a vowel, it is included for the sake of fluidity. We tried it that way but then our learned professor decided “it didn’t sound right” and told us to stop.

WRONG. I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert on Québecquois French, but that cannot be right. French speakers always make liaisons in singing, no matter how unrefined their speech is, no matter how provincial their accent. It’s an inherent feature of the language. When in doubt, do the liaison is the rule of thumb every chorister knows. But hey. Maybe Quebeckers are weird. I mean, they are. But maybe their liaisons are weird, too.

But there is no way “en expirant” (“while dying”) has no n in it. It was an unambiguously bad call, and I was furious. By that time we’d been working on this stupid song for an hour, just trying to learn the words. My only comfort was that every other French speaker in the room was also beside themselves. You know it’s bad when speakers of French as a second language have intuitions that conflict with the guy at the front of the room. (It’s not supposed to work that way!) But I’ve had French in my mouth for enough years that I can tell when something isn’t right, at least on that level. Some of his other calls—like no liaison between dis and à in “dis à mes amis”—I wasn’t entirely sure about, but they didn’t feel wrong. They didn’t offend my Frenchness the way “en expirant” did. And you really need to watch yourself when you start offending your American colleagues’ Frenchness.

There are two good things about this experience. One is that at least we’ll all be saying everything the same way. (No one wanted to argue with Bill; it would be like trying to coax a bulldozer out of its treads.) The other is that Ben, the director, probably won’t make the mistake of asking Bill for help again. In fact, it might be a good idea—that I will file away for future reference—to never call on a choir member during rehearsal. If you need their help, get it privately, beforehand, and then present it to the choir yourself. The number of times I’ve had a Hebrew speaker lecture us at length about the difference between h-with-a-dot and ch, trying to get us first to hear it and then to produce it… *shudder*

The moral of the story is, if you want something done right, do it yourself. If you want a pompous, ponderous, time-wasting, inaccurate lecture instead… get Bill.

La ballade des pendus

March 6, 2011 Comments Off on La ballade des pendus

A few months ago I finished setting François Villon’s poem “La ballade des pendus,” or “The Ballad of the Hanged,” for four-part choir. The poem is dark and sad; I first came across it in FR 322: Medieval/Renaissance/Early Modern Literature with the awesome horn-blowing professor. Villon lived in the 15th century, and my professor called him “le premier bad-boy,” which sounds hysterical in French. At the time he wrote this, he was on death row for killing a priest, I believe. The words are stark and unapologetic, yet very moving. In fact, it’s a very modern poem, I think, aside from the archaic words and spellings (which might make it quite difficult for a choir to sing). Here’s my rough translation:

Brother humans, who live after us,
Do not let your hearts be hardened against us,
For, if you take pity on us poor ones,
God will sooner have mercy on you.
You see us hanging here, five, six:
As for our fattened flesh,
It was long ago devoured and rotted,
And we, the bones, are becoming ash and dust.
Let no one make light of our woe,
But pray God that He will absolve us all!

If we call you brothers, you must not
Be disdainful of it, although we were killed
By justice. But you know
That not all men have reasonable minds;
Forgive us, for we have trespassed
Against the son of the Virgin Mary—
May His grace not be dried up for us,
but preserve us from the thunder of Hell.
We are dead, let no soul harass us,
But pray God that He will absolve us all!

The rain has bathed and washed us,
The sun dried and blackened us:
Magpies, crows have gouged our eyeballs
And plucked our beards and eyebrows.
We never rest;
Now here, now there, as the wind changes,
Shuffles us about as it pleases,
More bird-pecked than thimbles.
Do not then become one of us,
But pray God that He will absolve us all!

Prince Jesus, Master of all,
Do not let Hell be our overlord:
We have no business there.
Mankind, make no mockery here;
But pray God that He will absolve us all!

The music is pretty far out there, for me—parts of it are extremely dissonant. It’s sort of in D minor, but I go back and forth between harmonic and natural, and every once in a while I pull off some pretty cool modal stuff, notably on the “thunder of Hell.” “You see us hanging here, five, six” is in a time-signature-less measure that sort of swings back and forth like a hanged body. Then “flesh” in the next line is a sort of unreasonable wail—unreasonable to the living, that is, but to the shriveled, rotted dead, the idea of flesh must be heartrendingly painful. The end of that first stanza sets up the repeating line “But pray God that He will absolve us all!”

The next stanza begins with a simple melody sung in canon by altos and basses, then bursts into a painfully fervent prayer with “Forgive us, for we have trespassed…” The fastest notes in the piece come next, on “the thunder of Hell.” The last line comes back, identical to the first repetition.

Then everything changes. The tenors and then the basses keep up an almost instrumental accompaniment, while the sopranos and altos take turns singing about the physical realities of death. The part about the wind consists of gusts of notes running up and down, with cross-relations galore, changing as the wind does. (Cross-relations are where one part has, say, a B, and a beat later another part sings Bb. It sounds strange and various.) “More bird-pecked than thimbles” picks up a slower version of the melody from “the thunder of Hell”—Hell is frightening, but their state on Earth is also terrible, and, what’s more, is immediate and present, not a distant threat. This time the “pray God” line is similar but much slower and with more wistful harmonies.

The final stanza, which is half the length of the other stanzas, struck me as separate. I was inspired by the chorales Bach sprinkled through the St. John Passion—in all the other movements, the choir is playing a part in the story, but in the chorales, it takes on the pious reactions of ordinary Christians. This has that same sense of detachment, because here the narrators are addressing Jesus more than the reader. They are in a strange situation: dead, yet still occupying their bodies. The shortness of this stanza, along with its direct appeal to Jesus, makes me think that at this point the hanged sense that they are about to finally leave their physical bodies and be judged. I take the tune from the “forgive us, for we have trespassed” section, but quieter and more earnest; “do not let Hell be our overlord” is characterized by slow triplets that emphasize this most important line of their prayer. And then, beginning with the next line, the melody from the very beginning comes back (because it’s the same sentiment), and merges via a last, plaintive cry to the audience into a final, even slower rendition of the “pray God” line. All in all the piece takes about seven minutes.

To through-compose or not to through-compose…

March 4, 2011 Comments Off on To through-compose or not to through-compose…

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work on When Silence Sings, the song cycle for Wendy. When I took in my rough drafts and fragments to show her, one of her main comments was that I should look into repeating words and phrases.

Now. I’m very much in favor/in the habit of through-composing. For those of you not familiar with vocal music terminology, through-composing means setting the text under the music exactly as it is, with little or no repetition. Music that is not through-composed makes repetition where the original text had none; for example, my current favorite piece of all time is Purcell’s “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation,” where part of the text reads, “Me Judah’s daughters once caressed, called me of mothers the most blessed. Now, fatal change, of mothers most distressed.” And so on. But when you actually sing the song, the words go like this: “Me Judah’s daughters once caressed, Me Judah’s daughters once caressed, called me of mothers the most, the most, the most blessed, called me of mothers the most, the most, the most blessed. Now, fatal change, now, fatal change, of mothers, of mothers most, most distressed, of mothers most, most distressed.” Purcell is the king of this. And I am not. Just about everything I write is through-composed, which is why I’ve been struggling a little with Wendy’s comment.

1. It seems that, to be moved to repeat words, the words in question should be grave and/or meaningful enough to bear repeating, and when the words are “Hold me in your arms while Saturn and Mercury make love to Venus and the sea pines for the moon,” I’m a little reluctant to give them undue emphasis. SOLUTION: I need to see beyond the poem to the ideas and images. The sea pining for the moon, for example, is a good image—a really good image, in fact, but it just happens to be in the middle of some rather vapid lines. I can do something with that.

2. At the same time, when words are repeated à la Purcell, the audience sort of stops listening to them, because “of mothers the most, the most, the most” doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Wendy suggested that sometimes you register the words and realize after the fact what the sentence was, which may indeed be the case. So here I have two conflicting thoughts: on the one hand, repeating words gives them weight and makes them seem important; on the other hand, repeating words makes the audience stop listening to them.

3. On the third hand, repeating words also makes me think that the words have nothing to do with it. I can see Purcell thinking, okay, these words will go like this…hm, that gives me an idea for a melody, it should go here and then here…yes, and then it can do this and end up way over here… and then before he knows it he’s written a page of music on what was supposed to be five words, and he looks back over what he’s done and thinks, oh crap, now I need to put some words in here, oh well, I’ll just repeat this one word over and over. Maybe above all, repeating the words seems to happen out of the necessity created by writing a long, strong melody, which is a particular weakness of mine. I don’t have a great melodic imagination, and I usually end up taking all my cues from the words, at least to begin with. The choir piece I’m working on, “Epistle,” is actually an exception, and I was really excited for a while because it felt like to a certain extent it was driving itself and I just had to do enough work to keep up with it…but then I got bogged down. Anyway, melodic imagination is something I’d like to work on, so maybe this is good practice. Also, yesterday I decided to junk almost everything I’d already been working on…but that also is good practice.

The Broken Heart Project

November 17, 2010 Comments Off on The Broken Heart Project

My voice teacher, Wendy, has a student who has written scads of poetry, and last spring she approached me to set some of them to music. On Monday we settled on the selection and order, and on Tuesday the poet approved most of our choices, so now it’s on me to start writing. Eep! I believe there are eleven poems involved. I’m calling it The Broken Heart Project, because that’s kind of the theme and it doesn’t currently have a title, but the poet (who I have not met) reputedly does not want the title to allude to heartbreak, although the pivotal poem is “Oh my broken heart.”

It’s weird to be commissioned. It’s weird to look at some of these poems and think to myself, I have no choice but to set this. Ordinarily I see a poem I like, I dick around at the piano for half an hour, and then maybe I decide to keep working on it. It’s even weirder to have someone in charge of me. Not only do I have to set these poems, but she can tell me to redo them if she doesn’t like them. It’s not that I don’t want to set the poems, although they’re definitely not something I would have picked for myself, it’s just that it’s confining to feel supervised. Welcome to the real world, I guess. Here’s the outline (first lines only):

I. I think of you without words
II. Hold me in your arms
III. If only the moon did not rise
IV. From you I have learned
V. Loneliness
VI. There is a hole inside of me now
VII. As my fingers linger on my breasts
VIII. Oh my broken heart
IX. I am afraid to forget your eyes
X. One dark frightening glance
XI. I have forgotten your voice

This cycle is going to be a big deal, and a lot of work. I must not be intimidated by the scale. The worst part is, I don’t think I write very good piano parts, and I really really really want this to have beautiful accompaniments. On the other hand, if I dig in and make these great pieces, then I can really be proud of them and have something to show for the work. It may be especially nice to have this in January, when I don’t have a job and I’m at loose ends: if I work on this for several hours a day, it might help give my daily life some structure, which will be a good thing. I’m excited to start!

UPDATE: The cycle has a name! It’s called “When Silence Sings.”

Extra-large grade-A free-range organic composer.

October 18, 2010 Comments Off on Extra-large grade-A free-range organic composer.

Last night my composing dry spell finally broke, and I wrote maybe ten measures of “Le ballade des pendus,” which is pretty good. Simon arrived towards the end of my composing spree, and, flushed with my success, I overflowed with thoughts about what I had written and my composing style in general. It was great to talk to him about it. I’d hesitated because he is very critical of music, and his style is very different from mine. But last night I was breaking away from my normal style, so I got brave. I don’t have many people I can talk to my music about, so it was really great to be able to chatter like that. Here are some of my thoughts.

It is frustrating that I don’t pay attention to chords. I don’t understand chord structure and sometimes I can hear a great chord in my head but can’t find it on the keys. I tend to ground myself on IV-V-I progressions (I do love me a good IV chord), and I think eventually everything I write will sound the same unless I turn this around.

I avoid sharp dissonances that don’t resolve. This is annoying because many of my very very favorite composers (Barber, Copland) DO use harsh dissonances; the key is knowing how to flesh them out with more notes and how to incorporate them well into the driving movement of the melody. But with Barber, in particular, I don’t like his stuff right away, not until I’ve played through the piano part several times and gotten the melody in my head. If I don’t like awesome music immediately, how will I ever be able to write it?

The final problem is that I don’t even try stuff I don’t think I’ll like. “Le ballade des pendus” began with an ascending line of sixths between soprano and tenor, and it sounded simplistic but I needed the scale to establish the mode. Simon suggested I try the line in sevenths instead, and I tried it, blustering scornfully, only to find that actually it made it quite amazing. I guess I just need to expand my repertoire of things to try before I settle on a progression. Simon suggested that I set a poem to chords without worrying about the melody or how many parts I had. It’s an interesting exercise, and I think I’ll do it. Now to pick a poem…

I guess learning to be an extra-large grade-A free-range organic composer means some pick-and-shovel work, some trial and error, but I always end up miffed by these kinds of things. Isn’t being a creative genius supposed to mean that you sit down at the piano before you can walk and write a symphony by the time you’re four? No one is supposed to tell you how to get to where you need to be, and you’re not supposed to need help getting there. But I guess there’s no shame in it. After all, I was enrolled in Composition for a few weeks. (Bleurgh.) And I quit because I wasn’t learning what I wanted to learn. I guess I know I need to actually learn stuff, I just have to man up when it really comes down to it. I keep telling people that, as far as I’m concerned, I’ve already begun on my career. Probably a little work is a fair trade-off.

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