Monday, September 13, 2010

Route 1, Symphony 8

This September, Mahler's Eighth Symphony—the Symphony of a Thousand, the sprawling work that starts out with an exultant "Veni Creator Spiritus" and ends with Mahler's version of Goethe's Faust—turned 100 years old. I find this notable because in no way does that music feel old to me ... no matter how often I listen to it, I find something new and revelatory.

The Bard Music Festival introduced me to this music, when I sang in the chorus the summer that Mahler was the featured composer. Amid the swelter and confusion, the bugs in the outdoor tent we were singing in, the impossibility of seeing the conductor (Leon Botstein), the profanities coming from the podium during rehearsals, the sweat everywhere, nevertheless I knew this music was something important. It does sprawl. Yes. The structure is not tightly knit, the way it is with some composers (Bach, Schönberg) who tend to foreground their structure, so that you notice it and it comforts you as you listen. You do, in the Mahler, hear the "Veni Creator" theme and others return occasionally as leitmotifs, but you also feel like you have taken a long journey between the clear structural markers. This journey has many colors and many delicious moments, and you can't pin all of them to the structural map the way you could if it were Bach. But that's okay; sometimes one really should take the scenic route. And if the scenic route is also a solid road, it will take you where you need to go in the end.

I would like to be a composer of whom one could say what I have said about Mahler above. In an NPR piece (, Michael Tilson Thomas is quoted, and I think what he says is a fine roadmap to what a good composer should aim for in large-scale pieces:

"In this kind of classical music," Thomas says, "the shape of the music, the structure of the music, the architecture of the music is in a way the most powerful emotional aspect. Because you have the beautiful melodies, you have the moving harmonies, you have the amazing orchestration — all these things — but then you have what happens to these things, how they are transformed, how they are brought back."

May we all find the right transformations to make our music sing: Veni Creator Spiritus, Come, Spirit-Creator!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lyric Verse

The perfect text does not always appear when you need it. So if you are a composer on a deadline, sometimes you just have to write something yourself. Music for voice requires lyric poetry, so you get to invoke either Erato or Euterpe as your muse, or Aoide ... right now I'd like to invoke someone, since I have not really tried to write verse in a couple decades. You are welcome to tell me what you think, particularly if your comments will make these verses better.


O flame, o moment, o grace, o light,
O thread of standing gold, o shiver,
O defiant glare against the dark,
O touch of scalding heat,
O spark, o limit, o prick in the night,
O gem against the pelt of heaven,

Burn the winter’s cold until it shatters
Into the morning we long for:
Come now, o come.

What We Learned

We looked up to drink in the sky—
We learned about blue.
We gathered up our books and papers—
We learned about carrying.
We went to school to read and sing—
We learned about interruption.
We packed ourselves into the big room for comfort—
We learned a nightmare of airplanes instead.
We felt our way through the sunny days—
We learned the comfort of rainstorms.
We sang memorials in the cathedral—
We learned the rhythms of psalms.
We sang “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” —
We learned not to feel our own words.
We saw flakes like ash in December—
And we learned to recognize snow again.

© 2010 by Martha Sullivan

... And that's all I got for you tonight, folks. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Blogging for the MCE: Evidence of Compositional Activity

Before I trot out the evidence that I have, in fact, been writing music for the MCE as well as reading the newspaper and then blogging about it, there's just one more quote I would like to share with you that relates to yesterday's topic (integrity of musical idea versus the practical concerns of performability).

Of course I did and do maintain that it is possible to keep your authentic voice while still writing music that is performable.

Wuorinen's distinction is not quite the same—he writes about the difference between entertainment and art. Here's the quote:

"In any medium, entertainment is that which we can receive and enjoy passively, without effort, without our putting anythin
g into the experience. Art is that which requires some initial effort from the receiver, after which the experience received may indeed be entertaining, but also transcending as well. Art is like nuclear fusion: you have to put something into it to get it started, but you get more out of it in the end than what you put in. Entertainment is its own reward, and generally doesn't last."

Charles Wuorinen, b. 1938

Oh no, I just allowed this blog to mention transcendence, which can be rather a large ideal to live up to. Let's do an about-face and talk about something more mundane, like music engraving. Here's what happens when I import a prelim
inary version of the first two pages of the new MCE piece into this space ... this is page 1:

Yes, it's tiny. I apologize. I did select "large" when asked to choose image size, and I got what you see above. I then tried to drag the edges of the box to make it larger, but then everything got blurry ... so if you want to see what's going on, and you're really, really obsessive compulsive, you may have to print this entry out and blow it up on a photocopier. I'm sorry. Seriously.

Note that this is in no way a final version, but I thought you might enjoy seeing what happens when I sit in Starbucks
for a couple hours typing in notes and telling Finale how much I loathe Times New Roman and begging it to put everything in Pristina or Garamond instead ... we now have the template for this piece, and a few measures of what will be a recurring motif, and all sorts of good things. Let me know your thoughts, questions, and other comments of note!

Here's page 2, comprising three measures of cheerful compound melody:

Friday, September 25, 2009

Blogging for the MCE: Integrity vs. Performability

Here’s a quote for your consideration:

“Art can’t just press your pleasure buttons and sell itself to you. It can’t need to care whether you like it—that’s the space where new ideas are born.”

I love those words. I would love to live them, not just in all the art that I make, but in every gesture I make in real life. Worrying about being liked just distracts from things that really matter, such as authenticity in one’s creative voice. And when making art, I would never want to pander, or to condescend to my audience.

But on the other hand, there are practical concerns. A composer is not flying solo. He or she is writing music not only “for” listeners, but also “for” the performers. It’s the musicians who bring the work off the page and into the concert hall (or studio or iPod or wherever the listeners are). And if the work has a lot of integrity but is unperformable, that’s a problem.

So I spend a lot of time writing vocal music that conforms to certain rules. For your benefit and mine, here’s a few things that make music more singable:

Rule 1: Voices like to move (thank you, Dave Bieri). With all due respect to certain Minimalist colleagues, long sustained chords or repeated figures th
at all stay on the same note are very tiring and wear out the voice the same way that pacing on a rug wears out the pile. Check out Steve Reich’s Tehillim for a great example of Minimalist writing that works for singers. Because the voices move.

Rule 2: Voices li
ke to hang out in an easy tessitura. Visit the extreme highs and lows for drama, but don’t make the voices live there.

Rule 3: The higher they go, the harder it is for voices to make recognizable words. Keep rapid text confined to the middle and low register, and in high registers, use melismas to allow voices t
o soar freely. Melismas, by the way, work best on open vowels such as “ah”, “aw”, and “uh” (and the “o” in the word “hot”). You can read all about this in Caccini’s preface to “Le Nuove Musiche” of, oh, some year in the first decade of the 1600s. If you read Italian.

Rule 4: Voices need a little rest now and then. Make sure all voices get multimeasure rests at regular intervals throughout the piece. Bonus: it helps you vary your texture.

Rule 5: When writing fast passages, try to choose notes that fit into a recognizable diatonic scale (thank you, Nathaniel Lew). Of the two measures shown below, the first is sightreadable, because it fits neatly into the key of D major. The second? Well, I can’t read it. Not fast, anyway. You have fun trying.

Basic rules aside, here's the question: can I write music that is performable but still fresh, engaging, and challenging when it needs to be? The more I write, the more the answer seems to be yes. But it is always a precarious balance.

The quote I started with, by the way, comes from Cintra Wilson, the Times’ Critical Shopper, who shops at cool stores and then writes about them in the Thursday Styles section. The quote appeared in the paper on 10 September 2009, in her review of the Comme des Garçons boutique at 520 W. 22nd St. (near 10th Ave.). The full quote is more colloquial, funnier, more of its context, but the ideas, fleshed out, are important:

“America hasn’t quite grocked the idea that civilization is desirable; that culture is the cornerstone of civilization, and that a thriving culture supports unfettered—read: occasionally offensive—art.

“Art can’t just press your pleasure buttons and sell itself to you. It can’t need to care whether you like it—that’s the space where new ideas are born. It can’t just ‘think outside the box.’ For art to do its job, it has to fill the box with yak dung and get as far away from it as humanly possible.”

I’m not writing anything involving yak dung for my current piece with the MCE. It’s for Christmas, so I’m planning to use beauty. But sometimes I feel guilty for going too far in that direction.

I will be writing new music soon, with strange sounds and the occasional moments of ugliness. Stay tuned. And thanks for reading!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Blogging for the MCE: Publication!

Quick update:

I just really want to thank Dale Warland and the good folks at G. Schirmer and Hal Leonard for this:

It's my first publication with one of the major houses. It's a very short choral setting of "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," easy and tuneful, not some magnum opus, but today when I opened the package from Hal Leonard with the first actual copies of the choral octavo and pulled them out and looked at them and saw they were real, I burst into tears.

More about the MCE Xmas piece soon; it's coming along well, but to share what I've done since my last entry, I'll need to engrave examples. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Blogging for the MCE: Nuts and Bolts (and Strings and Pedals)

Here is a blog entry for the people who don’t want to know where the composer’s inspiration comes from. It’s for those who want to know what the process of writing is like. I can only answer for myself, of course. I remember reading Ned Rorem’s diaries and snickering at the bit where he gets in trouble in a hotel in Utah because a guest in another room complains about his sitting in his room, with the window open, orchestrating in the nude.

That’s not a part of my process. But I respect it anyway.

So, not long ago I am sitting on the train and looking at the text “What Cheer?” as a good place to start writing this carol cycle. I know I want the music in general to sound icy, silvery, exalted. I also know that William Walton set this text, and that I find the chorus in his setting vaguely irritating. In his version, everyone sings the words “What Cheer?” homophonically, starting with a pickup from which the high voices leap up a third, followed by a half-step descent. The music is in 6/8 time throughout. I decide to change things. I will start on the downbeat, do a big leap up followed by no descent at all, and, rather than have everyone sing the rhythm the same way, I will stagger the entries. Also, why not make the music in 7/8 time, which basically creates three pulses per measure instead of two? I end up with this:

So far so good, at least as far as the women go, and at least for two measures. Questions remain: do the men do exactly the same thing an octave lower? Do they do something else in the same rhythm? Do they enter after the women and echo them? I haven’t answered those questions yet. Stay tuned.

We are assuming for now that the accompanying instrument is a harp. The first thing I do is imagine the general sound and feel of the instrument. This gives me a sense of what the rhythm might be like, and I come up with this gesture:

I’m still on the train and need to figure out exactly what pitches I want to have happen on those rhythms, but I can’t quite get the music going in my head, so I write a couple notes to myself, including: “careful not to do unworkable repeated notes” (because you can’t really pluck a string well if it is still vibrating) and “check Mark Adamo’s blog about writing for harp” (which is fascinating, because Adamo is very wise and expresses himself well). This is the link, btw:

And then I was at my stop.

Later, I played around on the piano and came up with the following harmonies to enjoy underneath the “What Cheer?” vocal bit:

They sound pretty cool, especially the unexpected shift to A-flat major underneath the chorus’ sustained Dmin7 chord (it makes an A-flat 13 chord, for those of you into extended tertian harmony and jazz chords). Unfortunately, there is a problem. When a harpist has to change the accidental on a note, she (or he, but much more often she) has to use a pedal. And in the measures I wrote, she’d have to change both the E and the A in a 16th note’s time. This would be bad enough if the two pedals were on opposite sides of the harp, but no, they’re both on the right, as we know from the mnemonic, “Did Columbus Bring | Enough Food Going (to) America?” (the pedals on the left are DCB, those on the right are EFGA) … there’s no way in heaven or elsewhere that any harpist could make the change fast enough.

So, that sketch presents music that won’t work. So I’ll write something else, or tinker with what I’ve got …

Many, many constraints shape what you do when writing music;
composing requires a little bit of inspiration and a whole lot of negotiation.

More later. Please tell me what you like about this blog, what you don’t, and which of the carol texts you’ve seen so far interest you the most! Remember, I will buy beer for MCE members who express opinions … and I know you actually have opinions. I’ve heard them …

Monday, August 31, 2009

Wanna know what you want (to read)

A question for readers ...

What would you like to read in this blog?

Two kinds of writing come to mind:

1) sentimental writing about art and inspiration and so forth;

2) writing about the nuts-and-bolts process of how I am composing what I am composing at the moment.

At one time I would have looked down my nose at option (1) because it wasn't intellectual enough. As I get older, though, I get more mellow on that point. So here's a bit of sentimental writing about art; you can tell me whether or not you like it.

One of my favorite summer jobs ever was teaching for the high school program at Tanglewood (BUTI, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute). I did that for three summers in the early 90s. In 1991, Phyllis Curtin (great American soprano and advocate of new music) gave a lecture to the students. They listened attentively while she pointed out that the inspiration for art doesn't come from practicing 6 hours a day in a soundproof practice cubicle, or from imitating great musicians' performances. Inspiration comes from the world around you, she said, from beauty you can see all over the place if you just bother to look. She finished by giving everyone an assignment: the Perseid meteor shower was due to happen that night and the next, and everyone in the room was to go look at it.

So that night I grabbed four or five of my favorite BUTI students and jammed them into the VW Rabbit I was driving at the time. We drove down to the Tanglewood grounds because there was no concert that night, so the parking lots would be empty and dark. We parked all alone in the middle of the biggest lot and spread blankets on the car and the ground and lay there and watched. The sky was completely clear, and meteors tore across it once every second or two, burning trails across the darkness. We were used to seeing shooting stars that looked like straight white lines, quick and demure, but many of these seemed larger and irregular and jagged. We could have sworn we saw flames. And the sky looked closer than I can remember seeing it before or since; we could imagine being able to touch it if we jumped high enough. The shower went on and on and on, and we would have been happy to stay there all night ...

That was the first time I saw the Perseids, and I have been trying to see a comparably brilliant shower ever since. Unfortunately, you can never recreate something like that. This year I was singing opera upstate at Bard College on the 12th and 13th of August; the first night was partly cloudy, so I saw Jupiter (and its moons, thanks to a friend's binoculars), a bat or two, many mosquitoes, and one lone meteor; the next night brought nothing but rain. On the plus side, I did get to blow fire at one afterparty (using corn starch and a lot of matches), and several times I got to see a woodchuck/groundhog that liked to hang out near the dining hall. There was also the skunk we dubbed Whitey for its incredibly broad white stripe; it walked right past the dining hall window one day, so close that I could have touched it if the glass had not been there. Whitey had charisma, the sort that made me smile every time I saw him (or perhaps her).

You're probably curious what that has to do with composing. It's not the 19th century any more, so I am unlikely to write program music, i.e., something that's supposed to represent a story about skunks and woodchucks (or planets or fire breathing). Berlioz and Liszt and Strauss (Richard) did enough with the Symphonie Fantastique and tone poems (I admit I did once write a chamber music piece called Charmonium, about subatomic particles, with movement names such as "Baryons" and "Xi Cascade", but I never claimed the music could be representational). I think what's important is the memory of the images and the satisfying sensations that I got from watching Whitey snuffle along, foraging, or even the frustration of only seeing one meteor this year. It's good to remind oneself that music should make people feel something, whether it's warmth, grief, frustration, or joy. Personally, I can get a little too wrapped up in intellectual constructs (such as writing the perfect 12-tone row and then creating music based on it); that can be satisfying, just as working out a Sudoku puzzle can be, but ultimately, what does it do for its listeners?

We'll see if I can get the awe of Jupiter and the buzz of the cicadas and the coolness of the summer thunderstorms to resonate in this winter set of carols for the MCE.

More on option (2), the nuts and bolts, in my next entry. Meanwhile, a couple more texts for you to enjoy (don't worry, I won't be setting them all):

What cheer? Good cheer! Good cheer! Good Cheer!

Be merry and glad this good New Year.

1. Lift up your heartës and be glad!

In Christës birth the angel bade;

Say each to other, if any be sad:

What cheer? Good cheer! Good cheer! Good Cheer!

Be merry and glad this good New Year.

2. Now the King of heaven His birth hath take,

Joy and mirth we ought to make.

Say each to other, for his sake:

What cheer? Good cheer! Good cheer! Good Cheer!

Be merry and glad this good New Year.

3. I tell you all with heart so free,

Right welcome ye be (all) to me.

Be glad and merry for charity!

What cheer? Good cheer! Good cheer! Good Cheer!

Be merry and glad this good New Year.

4. The goodman of this place in fere

You to be merry he prayeth you here;

And with good heart he doth to you say:

What cheer? Good cheer! Good cheer! Good Cheer!

Be merry and glad this good New Year.

Make We Merry, Both More And Less
For Now Is The Time Of Christmas

1. Let no man come into this hall,

Groom, page nor yet marshall
But that some sport he bring withall,

For now is the time of Christëmas.

2. If that he say he cannot sing,

Some other sport then let him bring,

That it may please at this feasting,

For now is the time of Christëmas.

3. If he say he can naught do,

Then for my love ask him no mo,

But to the stocks then let him go,

For now is the time of Christëmas.

Blessed Be That Maid Mary

Eia Jesus Hodie

Natus est de virgine!

1. Blessed be that maid Mary,

Born He was of her body,

Godës Son that sitteth on high,

Non ex virili semine.

2. In a manger of an ass,

Jesu lay and lullëd was,

Hardë painës for to pass,

Pro peccante homine.

3. Kingës came fro divers land,

With great giftës in their hand,

In Bethlehem the Child they found,1

Stelle ducti lumine.

4. Man and child, both old and ying,

Now in His blissful coming,2

To that Child may we sing,

Gloria Tibi, Domine!

5. Nowell, nowell, in this hall,

Make merry, I pray you all

Unto the Child may we call,

Ullo sine crimine.