This was written for the Harvard Book Review, here: http://www.theharvardbookreview.com/2015/05/14/just-the-book/ (May 15, 2015)
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.”
This one was written for the Harvard Book Review blog: http://www.theharvardbookreview.com/2015/01/28/improvising-in-the-dark/
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.
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.”
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.