I used poetry by Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī for my choral work The Necessity of what is Unnecessary. I wrote this blog post for NYU Press' Library of Arabic Literature blog about the work: http://www.libraryofarabicliterature.org/2017/on-finding-music-in-al-ma%CA%BFarris-poetry/
In the various ways that we say there are different nameable types of music, nothing really announces that this is that type more than the venue itself. Less and less does something in the music itself tells us, “This is classical music because it sounds like…” or “This is jazz because it sounds like…”; rather, what seems to approximate our nomenclature best is closer to: “This is classical music because it’s in Jordan Hall” or “This is jazz because it’s at the Regattabar.”
I had lunch last week with Giles, my high school English teacher. We usually catch up when I come home, but it had been a while this time. Since last seeing him, I’ve taken courses with Helen Vendler, Elaine Scarry, Peter Sacks, and Daniel Albright. When I mentioned a moment from a class with Stephen Greenblatt, he asked if I’d taken a Shakespeare course with him. No, I said, but I took one with Marjorie Garber. Giles, a former Ph.D. student under Marjorie Perloff at Stanford, laughed more each time one of these names came up. “Harvard is just ridiculous,” he said. “These are all the household names of any English graduate student.”
On January 3rd, we lost one of those household names, Daniel Albright, 69 years old, to a heart attack. Harvard’s English, literature, and music communities were shocked. Albright was a favorite among graduate and undergraduate students alike, and among the faculty as well. His final book, Panaesthetics: On the Unity and Diversity of the Arts (Yale 2014), is a kind of magnum opus, a culmination of his life’s work, which treats everything in the world as art and art as everything. The book allows us to see through his eyes, which take in the world on aesthetic terms, seeing no boundary between art and non-art. Seemingly so simple a task—“[t]he world becomes friendlier when it is seen as art”—it is in fact a remarkable achievement, riddled with all sorts of knots that Albright spent his life untying: how artworks can and cannot talk to each other across mediums; how language can and cannot describe art; how art is and is not representational; how art is always and always isn’t about art itself; how art itself is itself a language is also a “not-language.”
One thing I’m really curious about is how the JACK Quartet, or any quartet for that matter, develops their interpretation of this unusual open-ended piece over time. The piece is comprised of a bunch of sections that each have musical cues. Any player can play the “invitation” to any section at any time, which the others can reject or accept. The sections can themselves be a precise set of instructions, a guide to perform, or other process.
Being rejected is a part of the process. This year I threw my name in more hats and bigger hats than years past. Naturally, more rejection emails than usual came this spring. Before saying anything further, and while maintaining the anonymity of these various institutions, I will quote from a number of them:
also check out Ege’s reaction to our transcontinental train trip, different in form with a few similar themes
Last January, the first moment it hit me that I was back on campus for another semester was in fact unfortunately that very moment I got back to campus, right when I entered the elevator to my building and saw a poster for a “conversation and clinic” with Branford Marsalis: learning from performers. Immediately, Harvard silliness—absurdity—and with it the resentment that has so often come to characterize my reaction to the vast resources unfairly distributed or nonsensically misused returned. This is no good.
In a post about Schubert’s first draft of piano sonata D 959 in A Major, I mentioned that Tim Page wrote that Schubert “engendered music as easily and naturally as some trees bear fruit.” (The quote is from the liner notes to the Bernstein NY Phil CD of the Unfinished & Great C Major Symphonies.) I like the quote because it is so ridiculous, silly, and more than anything, it’s not true.
There are a few things that every composer my age feels. We all love Ligeti. We also all listen to some kind of indigenous “world” music from somewhere or other and whine about the impossibility of asking classical players to make those sounds, phrases,harmonies, rhythms, ornamentations, etc. And finally, we all don’t like theidea of competitions, but we all, and here is where I really mean we all apply to the ASCAP and BMI Young Composer Awards.
Everyone always says, except the people at ASCAP and BMI, that BMI and ASCAP are exactly the same. And mostly, they are. Come the end of the calendar year, it is time to look back over what you’ve written, pick the best piece, and send it to ASCAP and BMI’s panels of judges for consideration. Each organization has a bucket of cash and a handful of resume gems to doll out. The lineup of judges for both awards shift around each year, each always forming an image of contemporary American composition establishment. It seems that saying that the resemblance ends there would be like saying that the two awards are basically identical—what else is there to it if the judges and prizes are not substantially different from one another?
The legend Christian Wolff came to the Harvard Composers Colloquium a couple weeks ago. I’m just getting to typing up some notes. He was very kind, and very insightful… A couple of points:
Improvisation & Indeterminacy
Wolff had many fascinating comments about indeterminacy and improvisation. He said that early on, he felt that indeterminacy should be put in performance, not composition—that’s where it belonged and already always is anyway. Some of the language he used to describe how his music worked was decidedly “uncomposerly,” I might say. For example, he said you “work it out in course of performance” and “realizing you’re in the wrong place in the score is part of the piece.” For his piece Burdocks, he described the score as a “map, [which] each player moves through in a different way.”
For Some Germans, Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter Opens a New Chapter of ReckoningA Silent Chatter
Vergangenheitsbewältigung is the German word for, roughly, “struggling to come to terms with the past.” It is not simply yet another compound word, generated by the German language, just because it has such powers. The word is used by Germans to describe the complicated process, which can include feelings of guilt, anger, frustration, and sorrow, accusations and blaming, as well as silence and repression. Silence has always been part of the picture, for it is easier to turn away than to confront. But its role has changed in the seven decades since WWII
Melisma is when one syllable of text is stretched over multiple notes. Conversely, a syllabic setting takes one note for one syllable of text. Melisma (and melody) comes ultimately from the Greek melos, or “song.” Accordingly, it should be unsurprising that it is in a Classical-period opera’s aria where we will find any melismatic moments of text setting. The setting for the recitative, meanwhile, is almost always completely syllabic, since of course, a recitative has the “intent of mimicking dramatic speech” (Monson). In short, we could say that the more melisma present in the vocal line, the more sung and less spoken a passage is. Melisma draws attention to the opera-ness of a passage, to the quality of it being sung and dramatized, as opposed to the words recited. And the more a passage is sung, in some imagined spectrum with spoken as the other extreme, then the more it is something that bends whatever it contains to the musical demands of the moment, not the demands of the words. Traditionally, the more melismatic, the more musical expression is prioritized—such as in an aria. Likewise, the more syllabic, the more spoken, the more linguistic expression is prioritized—such as in a recitative.
There is only one event in the whole opera. Yet the absence of plot is not replaced by any exploration into the characters’ interiority. The entire text is a montage of short conversations, mostly in pairs of characters. Yet nothing is ever really cumulatively said. And it seems much, if not most, is hardly even heard, let alone understood. In Opera as Drama, Joseph Kerman posits that Debussy’s music, though brilliantly executed, does nothing more than set mood. Maeterlinck’s play, full of its “[d]ark forests and vanishing ships,” were “exactly [the] effects that Debussy knew how to manage so wonderfully” (146). Put in a single sentence, “What Debussy does with external objects or scenes is capture the moods that they convey” (146). And this aspect of Debussy’s general strength or tendency as a composer—or, in the context of opera, his “dramatic method,” as Kerman extrapolates—“matches Maeterlinck’s; impressionism is primary” (146).
Final paper for “Music Since 1945” with Professor Anne Shreffler:
For the American composer, writing a piece that deals with 9/11 presents a considerable challenge. Three composers, Steve Reich, Michael Gordon, and John (Coolidge) Adams take this challenge on by setting texts in some way related to the minimalist tradition (and thus repetition). The composers look for a way to express the horror and terror of the event as well as the grief and sadness that follows. Their pieces attempt to retell the events of the horrible day but not too directly. The challenge is in making the piece of art express something distinct enough from reality so that the viewer may walk away with something new to think about, instead of (re)experiencing trauma. They take a specific point of view or angle to allow the viewer to more deeply see a smaller glimpse of the full scope of 9/11 as an event, or object, and walk away with something. Their method in attempting to provide such a viewpoint is to set and/or manipulate texts that do deal directly with 9/11, since obscuring an event so prevalent and traumatic is impossible. These three composers all use “found” texts; there is no author or librettist. Because of this, the pieces have the potential to make the event’s horror and tragedy feel very immediate: to be the extraordinarily affective works of art the three composers intend to create. But in the specific choices Reich, Gordon and Adams make in picking texts and even more importantly, in how these texts are set, we can see three very different philosophies concerning the role and power of art in relation to a very real tragic (and recent) event.
I forgot my music a few weeks ago so I had to go get my A Major sonata D959 out of the library. To my luck, there was a beautiful Bareneiter edition in the stacks. And to my surprise, this edition contained a extra book with the surviving drafts Schubert made of the piece before the final version.
Schubert has a reputation, along with Mozart, as that type of classical music genius who could write piles and piles of music of the highest quality with no effort between his afternoon snack and his afternoon tea. Tim Page, for example, wrote that “Schubert engendered music as easily and naturally as some trees bear fruit.” But strangely, quite a bit of this earliest surviving draft to D959 is rather clunky, noticeably bare sometimes, missing effective transitions between material other times. One such case really caught my eye, because it offered a rare window into Schubert’s thought process.