Telling Jokes and Composing

[First published in Broad Street Review 30 Aug 2015.]

“I think there’s rice in this potato soup.” There were five of us at the table, but I was looking directly at Fred. “Ha!” he laughed. “Yes, yes, rice in the potato soup. We should tell the server. Ha!” It hit Fred again and we all chuckled. It wasn’t much of a joke, but it hit.

Joke-making is very like composition-making, but before I explain why, I must explain that my sortie into the soup was in Germany, from where my wife and I and two of our daughters just returned. Fred, the friend we accompanied, hails from there. He’s been an American for longer than I’ve been alive, but he was born and grew up in a region of the old East Germany we were visiting. At the first place we stopped, driving from the airport, we ordered lunch. It arrived with Knödel, potato dumplings.

Most Americans are not dumpling-savvy, but Fred noticed something different right away; mixed into the dough were bits of something else, similar in color and consistency to potato, but not exactly. Rice was mentioned by someone as a possibility. Fred guffawed: Rice would never be allowed in a potato dumpling, but when the server returned, Fred asked her what it was, and it couldn’t possibly be rice, could it?

Ne, ne, ne, never Reis

Her eyes flashed. “Ne, ne, ne, ne, ne,” it was not Reis, never Reis, you don’t put Reis in dumplings. Fred smiled and reassured her that as to the dumpling platform he could be counted on firmly to support the anti-rice position, but that although these dumplings were delicious, they were unlike any he had come across.

She explained that (from what I could gather) it was just raw potato, grated, mixed into the finished dough before it’s rolled into dumplings and boiled. And, she added, that it was quite normal to make dumplings that way around here. We were all smiling, it was all freundlich, and we talked about it throughout the trip as one of those travel moments that stand out. So I used it as the springboard of my joke at dinner a day or two later.

Now, here’s the thing. If I’d said at dinner that the soup was terrible because there was rice in it, nobody would’ve laughed because it would have been wrong. The dumplings at lunch were good, after all. If I’d said the joke to the server at dinner, she would not have laughed because she had not been at lunch. If I’d ordered, say, Knödel mit Reis she would’ve stared at me, and my dinner companions would’ve squirmed. So the telling of a joke—even a small one—depends on lots of nuances. You have to say exactly the right thing to the right audience.

Humors, not just humor

In comparing the making of music to the making of a joke, I’m not saying that music ought to be funny. The main sense of a sense of humor is funniness, of course, but the best comedians handle all the humors. Described as courage, anger, despondency, calmness, or what have you, these define us. If the humors remain untouched, we won’t get the joke and we won’t get the music.

I just completed an Agnus Dei for the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. The new artistic director Paul Rardin asked for a work to complement Mozart’s Mass in C minor, left unfinished without an Agnus Dei. Mozart’s and my work will be performed on an October 18th concert. Leaving aside—or rather, because of—the unnerving spectacle of any music of mine being mentioned in any way with any music by Mozart, I wrestled solely with the opening for a long time. I came early to a feel of four chords which the choir would sing as “A-gnus De-i.”

An importunate imprecation

But what chords? Strong, yes, but not pompous. Strong could also be inappropriate, as most settings of Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) are sweet. But I heard minor chords, loud and shouting, an imprecation almost, to take away the sin of the world and to grant us peace now. Not so angry, though, that one forgets one’s place.

Strong but appropriate; loud but not angry; minor but sweet: Emotions were running swift and confusing, like a river overflowing its banks. These are the times when a composer has to focus. I had four chords of four notes each (one for each of the choir’s voice parts), 16 notes that would determine the piece.

It took a while. A self-effacing A minor for the first chord, but with the third on the bottom, like it was standing on one foot. In the second chord, sopranos descend one note, the tenors retake the A, but the altos’ D adds the feel and color of slate. Chord three breaks through to A major or C-sharp something, I can’t tell, but just this side (it is fervently to be wished) of syrupy. The last chord lands on a real A major but again on one foot, and with the suspension of D against C-sharp it’s like a cool surf refreshing you on a hot day, with the salt water reminding you of the cut on your ankle.

Funny enough

I was mindless of music theory while thrashing these notes about, because I was looking for the exact humors that would fit these words, these emotions, this concert, this Mozart, this audience. Could these chords evoke these humors, and when they return in a different key at the end 13 minutes later, would they still reach the audience? Would they get it?

I hope so. I feel good about it, because, after all, I’ve been practicing. When I said “I think there’s rice in this potato soup,” and Fred laughed, I felt like a composer. Good thing, because it wasn’t much of a joke. But it hit.

An Agnus Dei for the Mendelssohn Club

MendelssohnClubLogoJust sent in the Agnus Dei I’ve been composing for the last number of months. It is for Paul Rardin’s first concert as the new artistic director of the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia. Official program notes to follow, but as if writing a piece for this inaugural October 18th concert weren’t daunting enough, this Agnus Dei is to complement the Mozart Great Mass in C minor, left unfinished without an Agnus Dei, which will also be performed.

I’m not completing Mozart’s Mass, but will admit, to my surprise, to how much of Mozart’s Zeitgeist, as dimly realized by me, has made its way into the work.

The Agnus Dei comes in at just under 13 minutes, is for choir and the same size orchestra Mozart wrote for, and highlights the flute/oboe/bassoon trio from Mozart’s “Et incarnatus.”

The Symphonic Randall Thompson

On Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, Saturday, August 1st, 5-6 pm.

Randall Thompson (1899–1984). Symphony No. 1, movements 1, 3 (1930)
Thompson. Symphony No. 2 (1931)

RandallThompson480Alleluia is by far Randall Thompson’s best-known work; he is known overwhelmingly for his choral music, such as Frostiana and The Peaceable Kingdom. But Thompson also composed three symphonies, so we’ll get to know his symphonic writing on Discoveries.

From two works of his that are in the Fleisher Collection, we’ll hear the outer movements of Symphony No. 1 and all of Symphony No. 2. Both were composed early in his career, within a two-year span.

In two ways Randall Thompson exemplified the goal of the best in academia: thorough devotion to students by the passing on of a tradition of excellence, and a personal model of success in his field. The son of an English teacher, Thompson entered Harvard in 1916 after trying his hand at a few compositions.

There is an oft-told story that he auditioned for the choir, directed by the legendary Archibald T. Davison, and didn’t get in. “My life,” he would famously say later, “has been an attempt to strike back.” (There’s a good article on Randall Thompson in Harvard Magazine.)

Graduating from Harvard in 1920, he received his doctorate from the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Thompson went on to teach at Wellesley College, Berkeley, the Curtis Institute of Music—where he was its director from 1941 to ’42—the University of Virginia, and Princeton; in 1948, he returned to Harvard to teach. He chaired its music department from 1952 to 1957. In his career he taught harmony, counterpoint, music history, and choir, and in 1935 he even wrote a book on what should be taught, College Music.

He was, by all accounts, witty and well-loved. Composers who studied under him include those as different as Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Adler, Leo Kraft, Frederic Rzewski, and John Davison (who taught for many years at Haverford College). Thompson’s approach was always classical—to teach the tradition and the principles by which the masters governed their art. This may help to explain the balance and rigor exhibited by all his pieces, including these two symphonies.

Howard Hanson conducted the premiere of Symphony No. 1 with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra at Eastman in 1930, as part of Hanson’s seminal American Composers Concerts series. In 1932, Symphony No. 2 began life under the same auspices. Throughout the works, listen for the craft of the lines and the control of the emotional landscape. Randall Thompson sculpts the orchestra into a choir of voices, into a praise—an alleluia—of balance, reason, and beauty.

A Symphony Bigger Than the World

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk, 27 Jul 2015.]


Gustav Mahler, etching by Emil Orlik, 1902

Mahler once told Sibelius how big a symphony needs to be, but Mahler’s own second symphony, called the “Resurrection,” is even bigger. WRTI’s Kile Smith considers the Mahler 2nd, its themes of life and death… and of life after death.

Mahler once said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” If that is so, then Mahler’s second symphony, the “Resurrection,” is bigger, even, than that.

Gustav Mahler had already tackled big questions in an orchestral work called Funeral Rites. He played it on the piano for Hans van Bülow, and the conductor said that it made Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde sound like Haydn. Mahler turned Funeral Rites into the first movement of his Resurrection symphony.

“Rise again, yes, rise again, / Will you My dust, / After a brief rest” are words from a poem that struck Mahler like a bolt of lightning. Questioning life after death, the symphony remembers happy times but also yearns for release from meaninglessness. It ends with a transcendent hope, in poetry Mahler wrote himself, “Rise again, yes, rise again, / Will you, my heart, in an instant!”

Mahler knew that his second symphony paralleled Beethoven’s ninth. But he also knew that symphonies go well beyond words, because he also once said, “If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music.”

Three Things I Learned from Yes

YesFragile[First published in Broad Street Review, 21 July 2015.]

Saw my buddy Andrew, a gifted keyboardist, vocalist, and composer, shook his hand, and then held it. I said three words.

“Chris Squire, man.”

“Oh, man, Chris Squire.” He looked at me and nodded his head slowly. “Ohh, man.”

That was all we needed to say. The bass guitarist for, the founder of, and the one constant in the English rock group Yes, Chris Squire, had died the day before.

Andrew and I are of that half-generation that came of musical age after the spring rains of pop, in that early summer overtumbling with what was planted and what was not, yet all a brilliant green. We came of age just after the Beatles and the Petula Clarks and the Beach Boys—we knew and loved them of course, but as we hovered in the years between accountability and majority, they were not ours, not really. They and Motown and the early Temptations and Woodstock were, as it were, the pastures of our older brothers and sisters, through which we were allowed to run. We sang along with “American Pie,” but it was the Iliad of our elders.

We searched for a music that would be ours alone; we listened intently for whatever it might be. Saddled with inchoate aspirations we were, in a word, adolescent: a state that is an Atlantis now, in these arch times, when everyone wants to be an adult but no one reads Siddhartha in eighth grade, when everyone wants to be childlike but no one reads Mark Twain, when everyone barks opinions but no one remembers that the signal aspect, the great goodness of the adolescent, is silence.

We wanted the unfathomable in harmony. We craved rhythms that would pound in a chest where we hoped was a heart, and, oh, we wished for melodies that would soar above the cracking ruins of an imagined world.

We wanted Yes, and then Yes came, and Yes was ours.

1. Line

The first of three things I learned from Yes was that music has a line. Chris Squire, they say, was a lead bass, which means, I suppose, that he played the bass guitar not as a bass, but as a guitar. We didn’t know the term “lead bass,” but we knew he used a pick, and no bass player used a pick because it was uncool. The secret, though, of those who are cool is that they don’t care about cool. The uncool care about cool. Squire used the pick, used the bass, as a weapon, ripping tracers of fiery lead into the sky. We looked on in wonder.

The group in its early-’70s configuration—The Yes AlbumFragile (both 1971), Close to the Edge (1972), Tales From Topographic Oceans (1973)—included Steve Howe, Zen master of a guitarist who played koans, not solos. Drummer Bill Bruford combined a jazz spontaneous combustion with a feel for the long line. Rick Wakeman’s layers of keyboards were much more than the show that they appeared, sparkling and overwhelming like a giant wave, rising and crashing. The ethereal voice of Jon Anderson was the cantus firmus, high yet strangely stony, part choirboy and part gargoyle.

With filigrees, trills, mordents, and arpeggios, this was like no rock music we’d ever heard. It growled as if it were worshipping in the nave of a cathedral. Lines leaped high, spinning into the darkness of ribbed vaults, and it wasn’t until much later that we found a word to describe it, a word far removed from rock. This was positively Baroque.

2. Sound

Many composers today love to work with the textures of sound. I am not one of those. I don’t say that defiantly; it’s the nature, I suppose, of what I’ve come to believe is the kind of music I write, which is, more and more, driven by counterpoint. There’s a sense that you could transcribe the music of the supreme contrapuntists—Bach, Josquin—over to kazoos and the music would still sing. But only a sense. They knew what they were doing with sound as much as anyone, only they balanced sound with every other feature.

So I’ve aspired to balance, but I have to pay attention to raw sound, as it isn’t instinctual with me. Then I hear Squire’s Rickenbacker bass, with round-wound strings, driving (often, from on high) the electric force-field of Yes. This isn’t a thuddy wall of sound, either; each element is lively. With seemingly little post-production, it is crisp and real.

3. Rock

Yes would come to be called prog-rock—progressive rock—but we didn’t call it that then. The trick of Yes is that for all their innovations they never forgot that they were a rock band. For all its album art, for all its high concept lyrics, it just didn’t take itself all that seriously.

We composers love to take ourselves and our theories seriously. Theory is fine, but we forget that theory never describes what is there. Theory describes us. Music industry theory—the suits—turned Earth, Wind & Fire into a disco band, after all. Theory gave us Schoenberg (read that how you may) and theory also gave us the Monkees. Yes, then, when we needed Yes in that early summer of pop before the drying winds came, resisted theory, and played over a crack in the earth.

I took up the bass guitar. I took to composing, too, and in early adulthood put the bass down, easily finding my limits and fearfully discovering my hopes. Silence, and the time it needs, will do that.

Chris Squire is gone, but remains the herald of my and Andrew’s adolescence, and the shibboleth of our middle age. We speak his name to each other, and nod, and know. Yes was unlike anything else in pop—before or after—in that parenthesis of adolescence, an unfathomable, pounding, filigreed, soaring rock band. And Yes was ours.

Capriccio on Now Is the Time

TrombaMundiA caprice may be deeper than we think on Now Is the Time, Saturday, July 18th at 9 pm. Jeremy Gill’s just-released Capriccio with the Parker String Quartet is, at first glance, a series of technical exercises. But the pizzicatos, slides, duets, trios, and sound-painting are only the vehicles for deep music-making. We have time on the show for most, but not all of, Capriccio, and it’s an exhilarating ride.

Karim Al-Zand begins the program with a tasty Fanfare, in itself a trio of duos, for the six trumpets of Tromba Mundi. The percussion quartet calling itself ensemble, et al. performs Clock-watching Isn’t Waiting, one of a handful of attractive pieces the group composed together for its recent CD present point passed.

from ensemble, et al.: Clock-watching Isn’t Waiting 

Karim Al-Zand: Fanfare
ensemble, et al.: Clock-watching Isn’t Waiting
Jeremy Gill: Capriccio, excerpts

Every Saturday night at 9 Eastern, Kile Smith hosts Now Is the Time, all styles of contemporary concert music by living American composers on WRTI’s all-classical stream. At click on the Listen: Classical button at the top of any page. Thanks for supporting American contemporary music on WRTI! 

The Rite of Spring

[First published in WRTI Arts Desk, June 8, 2015.]

In June of 1912, Igor Stravinsky premiered the piano version of his daring new work The Rite of Spring, a year before its orchestral unveiling. His piano-playing partner was none other than Claude Debussy. Classical music has never been the same since the public first heard it.



Debussy, Stravinsky, 1910. Photo by Erik Satie

The reaction to the ballet was furious. It was so immediate, in fact, that the audience started to riot during the performance. Their response may have been caused by the purposely inelegant dancing or by arguing factions of music-lovers, but whatever the reason, shouting started during The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky at its 1913 premiere, and it turned the music world upside-down.

Its impact is even more remarkable when we consider that Stravinsky had already made a provocative name for himself with two previous ballets, Firebird and Petrushka. The opulent scoring of the first shows Stravinsky’s indebtedness to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, and the second reveals the savagery (open or barely-contained) that would be a hallmark of the Stravinsky style no matter what kind of music he wrote.

But even by his standards, the rambunctiousness and abandon of The Rite of Spring is over the top in the world of classical music. With dancing or without, the music leaves us breathless.

Puccini, an expert at expressing emotion himself, saw the second performance and said that Stravinsky’s music was “the work of a madman. The public hissed and laughed,” he said, but then he added, “and applauded.”