Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Waking Sun, 2. Sport, youth

2. Sport, youth
Sport, youth, ring out your songs. —Medea
Along with you a troop of Bacchanals in Edonian dance beat the ground, now on the peak of Mount Pangaeus, now on the top of Thracian Pindus; now from among the women of Cadmus comes a maenad, impious comrade of Bacchus, with sacred fawn-skins wrapped around her loins. Now their hearts are maddened, and now their hair is flowing; and now, after rending Pentheus limb from limb, the Bacchanals, their bodies freed from the frenzy, look on their infamous deed as though they know it not. —Oedipus 

WakingSun2Sportp19I have no idea what an Edonian dance is, nor where Pangaeus or Pindus are located. The Bacchanalian moral of unfettered passion leading to catastrophe, however, is known in many forms, including this one with both sensual and religious subtexts. Seneca repeatedly warns against excess of all kinds, and the ecstatic killing of Pentheus by his mother and her Dionysian followers is among the most perfervid. The dance rhythm I bring in is actually a medieval danse royale.

This movement is in D Dorian, with C major juxtaposed against it: basically, the white keys of the piano centered on D or C. There’s a part where all the women sing in C major, but the instruments are playing D’s underneath them. It sounds somewhat like D Dorian, but off a bit. And there are sections with C’s under D Dorian.

But at “rending” the music goes into straight C major, the only time it happens, bright C major and C major seventh chords. It feels somehow like coming home. I thought that the gravity of the scene would be expressed better if we felt it as the Bacchanals, who are completely satisfied at this point, and not as judges.

18 Jun 2011. The Waking Sun. The Crossing, Tempesta di Mare. Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, 8 pm

Now is the Time May 29

For the Memorial Day Weekend, Sunday May 29th, it’s all solo piano music on Now is the Time. Judith Lang Zaimont’s CD of rags, Prestidigitations, yields two delights, and we dip into Nicola Melville’s recording of some of her favorite contemporary composers for the engaging work by Kevin Beavers. Finally, David Baker’s jazz-inspired first Sonata contains tributes to Paul Lawrence Dunbar and John Coltrane.

Judith Lang Zaimont. Snazzy Sonata

Kevin Beavers. Sourpuss

David N. Baker. Sonata I

Judith Lang Zaimont. Hesitation Rag


National Punctuation Day

I had forgotten about the contest I entered, and guess what?! Wrong. I didn’t win. It was National Punctuation Day, and there were 25 winners of the haiku contest. I just remembered it and looked it up. Three hundred and fifty-six people submitted more than 3,000 haikus describing a punctuation mark, any punctuation mark of their liking. I love the en-dash, correctly used in my biz to crowbar apart the years of dead composers, e.g. J.S. Bach (1685–1750).

That’s not a hyphen, oh, no-no-no, and certainly not—as you might be tempted to use—an em-dash. The en-dash is so named because it is the width of the letter n in some typeface or other, and the em-dash, the m. That is the sum total of my knowledge on the subject, and herewith, my losing entry, of the more than 2,975 other losers:

To separate birth
from death, a life is wished, but
the en-dash will do.

The Waking Sun, 1. The gates have sounded

1. The gates have sounded
The gates have sounded, and he himself, with none to guide and sightless, gropes his way. —Oedipus
In whose kingdom shall you die? —Troades 

WakingSun1Gatesp3This is the text that jumped out at me first; from the moment I saw it I never wavered from having it open The Waking Sun. Over everything else I went back and forth: including, deleting, restoring, worrying the order. Not this one. It not only states our condition elegantly, it sums up the struggle to compose this.

I had a vague idea of city gates closing at the end of the day, and what sound might accompany that—blown ram’s horns, perhaps, the sound of gate machinery, I wasn’t sure. So I cast about for a modern example, and an image and sound came to me. It doesn’t parallel the situation in which Oedipus finds himself, but the combination of emergency and finality got my attention.

It’s a railroad crossing, when the arms come down and the bell clangs. And what a bell. I had a specific one in mind, and found an audio example of the exact one online. I identified the pitch, overtones and subtones (which are quite audible), and revoiced the notes into the opening string chords.

This may be the only time I’ve ever copied something into music like this. When I hear these notes, I understand the alert to hopelessness Oedipus must be experiencing.

It seems to me that the great question Stoicism poses is the Troades quote, “In whose kingdom shall you die?” Up until the last week of composing, I had planned to repeat this at the end of the piece. But by the time I got there, the repetition sounded too pedantic. The childish sing-song may recall Act Two of Bohème, but it comes straight out of my childhood. When we played one kind of ball or another in the street, or maybe Kick the Can, and would have to clear when a car approached, we’d sing “Car, car, candy bar, smoke a big cigar” to this interval. I don’t know the origin of that rhyme, but it made sense at the time.

18 Jun 2011. The Waking Sun. The Crossing, Tempesta di Mare. Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, 8 pm

The Waking Sun, overview

The Waking Sun is my attempt to understand Stoicism. When Donald Nally first asked me to participate in The Crossing’s Seneca project, my first thought was No. I have always puzzled over why a non-Christian, say, would bother composing a piece with Christian themes, so as a Christian I thought it presumptuous to take on this patron of Stoicism, Seneca the Younger.

The more I read his work, however, the more attracted I became. He preaches—and a lot of times, it is preaching—a nobility beneficial to anyone. There are parallels to some aspects of Christianity, as others have noted, in the writings of this man living (c.3 B.C.–65 A.D.) at the time of Christ. But I have little interest in setting something just because it’s similar to something else. I wanted to find the thing itself.

Donald himself gave me the key when he told me what he found compelling in Seneca. It was wrapped up, he said, in a recurring dream of being lost in a blinding snowstorm, trying to reach home, with the image of boots crunching ever onward, sinking in, trudging on and on, blind but moving forward. His dream became mine, and Seneca started opening up to me. I remembered the snow and those boots often during the year I’ve been writing this.

I kept to his many plays, away from the essays and letters, and zeroed in on the choruses. Here I found Seneca speaking to me, through their reflection on the action and the state of the characters. A long winnowing process was aided by patient correspondence from the classics scholar Shadi Bartsch, whose many areas of expertise include the writings of Seneca. Her questions helped focus my search for the right texts and my thinking about them. I ended up with six sections that eloquently depict our condition and Stoicism, as I understand them.

The final two sections hint at what I consider to be Seneca’s “answer” to our condition (although he’d shrink from such a word, I’m sure): Take full responsibility without fear, be motivated by love. This is how I read it.

Music, however, teaches nothing, answers nothing. If there is any value in The Waking Sun, it will come from the window opened into that otherness waiting patiently for each of us while we bother with our daily existence. Seneca is this particular window. I’ve tried to peek through and sing what I saw.

I composed this for SATB choir, positiv organ, theorbo, and a Baroque string quintet. It was commissioned by The Crossing with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and additional support from the American Composers Forum, Philadelphia Chapter. It will premiere 18 June 2011 at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, with The Crossing and Tempesta di Mare, conducted by Donald Nally.

The text is the 1917 English translation of the plays by Frank Justus Miller. I adapted some of the language, usually just snipping here and there for rhythmic purposes. I did, however, perpetrate a wholesale translation of the last section, “While on such beauty the lover gazes,” using the quite unscholarly technique of translating individual words from Latin and then trying to assemble the results into an artful English. With Latin, I am innocent of the tools a real translator would possess, so I hope the result is not too far from what Seneca meant. Below is the complete text; I’ll write about the individual sections in subsequent posts.

1. The gates have sounded
The gates have sounded, and he himself, with none to guide and sightless, gropes his way. Oedipus
In whose kingdom shall you die? Troades 

2. Sport, youth
Sport, youth, ring out your songs. Medea
Along with you a troop of Bacchanals in Edonian dance beat the ground, now on the peak of Mount Pangaeus, now on the top of Thracian Pindus; now from among the women of Cadmus comes a maenad, impious comrade of Bacchus, with sacred fawn-skins wrapped around her loins. Now their hearts are maddened, and now their hair is flowing; and now, after rending Pentheus limb from limb, the Bacchanals, their bodies freed from the frenzy, look on their infamous deed as though they know it not. Oedipus 

3. That wanton, smiling boy
That wanton, smiling boy, how true he aims his shafts! The wound he deals has no broad front, but eats its way deep into the bone. His madness glides into the marrow; with creeping fire he ravages the veins. His arrows strike the lowest depths and pierce the ocean throng of Nereids; they cannot ease their heat with all the water in the sea. He kindles the fierce flames of youth and wakes again, in worn-out age, extinguished fires; he smites maids’ breasts with unknown heat, and bids the very gods leave heaven in borrowed forms on earth to dwell. He claims as his own all nature; nothing is exempt.Phaedra 

4. Weary, with empty throat, stands Tantalus
Weary, with empty throat, stands Tantalus; above his guilty head hangs plenteous food; on either side, with laden boughs, a tree leans over him and, bending and trembling beneath its weight of fruit, makes sport with his wide-straining jaws. He tries no more to touch, he turns away his eyes, he tightly shuts his lips; behind clenched teeth he bars his hunger. Then the whole grove lets down its wealth, and the ripe fruits beckon from above. As his hands stretch toward the mocking gift, the whole harvest of the bending wood leaps up high, out of reach. Then comes a raging thirst, harder to bear than hunger. The poor wretch hurls himself at waves that motion to his lips, but they elude his grasp. Deep from the whirling stream he drinks but dust. Thyestes  

5. A king is he
A king is he who has no fear; a king is he who naught desires. Such kingdom on himself each man bestows.Thyestes 

6. While on such beauty the lover gazes
While on such beauty the lover gazes, her cheeks suddenly glow with rosy blush. Snowy wool turns crimson thus when bathed in purple flood; so gleams the waking sun when the shepherd, wet with the dew of the dawn of the day, considers it. Medea

How I got Milton Babbitt

First published in the Broad Street Review, 8 Feb 2011. Slightly edited since. All my BSR articles are here.

FlockOfStarlingsI had no idea what was happening. The saxophone caterwauled ridiculously, and the piano seemed to chatter away at some other piece. I could discern no melody or beat; there was no harmony or repeating gesture to hold onto. It was chaos, and I was this close to giving up on the music. It was by Milton Babbitt.

Babbitt, who just passed away at age 94, was the hero of certain composers and the bête noire of audiences—the few that ever heard his music, that is. He pushed full-tilt intellectualism in American classical music at a time when it was clearing its throat to be taken seriously as an academic subject. For Babbitt, though, “academic” wasn’t enough. He wanted music to be a quantifiable scientific discipline, and he filled rooms with these new machines called computers to make his point. Audiences didn’t understand his music, but as he would say, who understands particle physics?

Milton Babbitt went further than Schoenberg or any of the twelve-toners. All they controlled was the order of notes. Babbitt regulated everything: pitch, dynamic, rhythm, range, you name it. Total serialism it was called, Babbitt invented it, and the academy loved it.

I kept my love of Brahms and The Delfonics to myself when working on my master’s in composition, although I needn’t have been so circumspect, as teachers understand a lot more than students realize. It’s the kids who are the most hide-bound. I still remember the look on the face of one doctoral candidate when I unguardedly confessed to him, in my 22-year-old confidence, that all one really needed to know to write choral music was the English folk songs of Vaughan Williams, and maybe Gene Puerling‘s arrangements for The Hi-Lo’s. The doctoral student didn’t betray anger, laughter, or incredulity, but I’ll never forget the look on his face. It was pity.

Well, I haven’t really changed my mind and besides, I like schemes as much as anyone. I even caught the Sudoku craze for a while until I got bored counting numbers. I wasn’t a whiz at it, mind you, I just didn’t care anymore. I actually enjoy toying with musical systems, but I never bought into the demolition of tonality that lay underneath serialism. So, I didn’t take to it, and that was that. But then a couple things happened.

I read Ulysses. James Joyce exploded the English language and I picked my way through the blast zone carefully at first, looking closely at smoking shards of phrases that resisted meaning. Some yielded only sounds and some, echoes of sounds. Some let off delayed puns and I’d think, Really? He made a joke? And I got it? That gave me courage, and I read faster, no longer worrying about the meaning. Pretty soon I had finished it, and looking back across the landscape, I felt… renewed.

Then, the Art Ensemble of Chicago came to town, and I went to see them, my first time at a live performance of avant-garde jazz. Trumpeter Lester Bowie led in his white lab coat, and Roscoe Mitchell played saxes all the way down to the contrabass, the size of a filing cabinet. Guys in face-paint and feathers and African hats played dozens of instruments.

In the middle of a 20-minute free-jazz squealing cacophony, audience members were leaving, but I noticed that I had become transfixed. My eyes darted from one player to the other as they moved. I couldn’t tell much, but I could tell that they were listening to each other, and I wanted to know what would happen next. Afterward, I had to catch my breath.

So here I was, now, with this piece by Milton Babbitt. The saxophonist and pianist caterwauled and chattered, there was nothing to hold onto, and just as I was about to give up, a literally funny thing happened. The jokes of Ulysses occurred to me. Free jazz occurred to me, and feathers and hats occurred to me, and I noticed that I had stopped trying to hold on. At that precise moment I also noticed something else.

The musicians were listening to each other. They were moving. They moved the way a flock of starlings moves over a field of cut corn: one feather on one bird moves and they all move; one causes the other, but there is no cause; they follow and are simultaneous, which is impossible, or at least too fast to tell.

Like particle physics, I guess.

And as quick as that, I got Milton Babbitt. He called the piece Whirled Series (that’s right, say it out loud—Joyce would). The theory behind it, I didn’t care about. Still don’t. I don’t care about physics, either, or Sudoku, or face-paint. All I know is, I had no idea what was happening. And I wanted to know what would happen next.

The Waking Sun is finished

Finished a couple of weeks ago, actually. The performance, with The Crossing and Tempesta di Mare, is June 18th, and although I’ve been working on it for over a year, it’s been off and on, with other, smaller works getting attention in between. But once I bore down on it, before Christmas, I had set a deadline for myself to finish in April. Saturday night, 11:45 pm, April 30th, I made the last change, and only then remembered my deadline. Fifteen minutes to spare.

The groups have the music, and while there may be some bowing changes to be made, that’s it for now. A piano/vocal score will come along, but after the performance.

I’ve started to write program notes. This is all I have so far:

The Waking Sun is my attempt to understand Stoicism. When Donald Nally first asked me to participate in The Crossing’s Seneca project, I thought that I would not be able to. I am a Christian, and not a Stoic.

More later.