Monthly Archives: May 2012

Of Composers and Bridges

[First published 22 May 2012 in the Broad Street Review and used here by permission.]

WashingtonCrossingBridgeThe bank of the river is dark—darker than it seems from a distance. I pick my way down to it, and it looks like sand, chocolate sand. Under my feet it slides softly down toward the water, arrested only by stubborn bushes and a type of ground-cover succulent I’ve never seen before.

The leaves look like smooth chard, but longer, like corn husks. No, thicker, darker, softer. I don’t recognize this at all.

Perhaps…yes, of course, it’s usually underwater. The bank, this far down, is actually riverbed, waiting for the next high-water. This sand is what silt is.

Did silt greet the sturdy longboats, scrunching ashore on a cold Christmas, carrying the 2,400 men who followed George Washington into Trenton? I wonder.

I drove across the just-wide-enough Washington’s Crossing Bridge, worrying about how far my side mirrors stuck out, then sniffed and supposed what the 2,400 might have worried about, faced with extreme cold, floating sheets of ice, and Hessians with guns.

There were no bridges across the Delaware then. The first one, now called the “Trenton Makes The World Takes” bridge, went up in 1806, 30 years too late for Washington. Still, if it had existed then, it would’ve been guarded. I wonder if the colonies were saved because there was no bridge.

Just missing New Jersey

There are 120 bridges over the Delaware now, both branches. One connects New Jersey and Delaware. The rest are spread among New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, with one, larkingly, almost touching all three. Interstate 84 pushed west in 1971 from New York toward the top corner of New Jersey. At the last moment it veered ever so slightly west-northwest and entered Pennsylvania on a bridge that just misses the Garden State by the length of a Pontiac LeMans.

I wonder about bridges and history because I’m often asked to compose music for early instruments. My choral work Vespers uses Renaissance instruments; The Waking Sun and The Nobility of Women use Baroque. Some people have asked how do I do it, and why.

We composers rarely ask ourselves “why” questions, but fair enough. Most of us write for what comes along, and once Vespers launched without injuring anyone, other opportunities presented themselves to me.

Instruments we can’t play

That’s part of the why. As to the how, many composers play an instrument with some degree of proficiency, but no one plays everything. So most of the time we’re working hard to unwrap the technique of an instrument we don’t play.

If I have a proficiency, it’s in choral music—not because I have a trained voice (I don’t) but because I’ve sung in choirs all my life. I’ve learned what fits singers well and, well, what gives them fits. So whether I write for alto shawm, viola da gamba, or piano, it’s all the same to me.

We lock those sounds into our ears, and that’s more of the why part. Tom Purdom rightly enthused in BSR over the playing of Tempesta di Mare violinists Emlyn Ngai and Karina Fox. (Click here.) I composed for Tempesta in The Waking Sun, my setting of texts of Seneca. In fact, as soon as I knew I’d be writing for Tempesta in this collaboration with The Crossing, my first thought was that I had to have, somewhere, a violin duet. I put that into “Weary, with empty throat, stands Tantalus.”

Violins: old vs. new

Is there nothing more special than a violin duet? Violins are ubiquitous; aren’t Baroque violins essentially, well, violins? Well, yes and no.

The violin has many parts, all of which are changeable: angles and shapes and heights of fingerboard, tailpiece, bridge; the neck connection; the posts; the materials for these and other items—not the least of which, the strings themselves.

A Baroque “set-up” will completely alter the sound of a violin to a softer, yielding, more intimate voice. The Baroque bow—very unlike the modern bow, even to an untrained eye—demands a different playing technique, further sculpting attacks and phrasing.

Violin makers knew what they were doing back then, just as now. Modern instruments, generally, are not “better.” The modern violin is a clarion, built to project into a bigger hall, over more instruments. The earlier violin, built for different music, plays that music more efficiently.

Vivaldi up close

A modern violin playing Baroque music sounds fine, but it must rein itself in, sometimes playing on the edges of notes, to coax the voicing, to approximate the conversation. The Baroque violin, however, can cut loose. And two of them playing counterpoint—oh my, the music naturally explodes into a succulence you’ve never tasted before.

That’s the sound I wanted.

It can be exciting to hear Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in a large hall, and it’s good to have large halls so that more people can hear Vivaldi. That’s just fine. But it’s just fine. You don’t see the riverbed for the bank, as it were. You never feel, under your feet, the difference between sand and silt.

Next time you’re in the northern Catskills, swing into Stamford, N.Y., and drive up River Street past the school until you see the creek on the right. Pull over, walk through the milkweed and place a foot on one side of the creek and one on the other. You’re now standing on both sides of the Delaware River’s west branch, about as far south as it’s possible to do that, at two miles below the source. The name of River Street, you see, is no poetic license.

But unless you’re there, or unless you want to swim or take a boat, look for a bridge to cross the Delaware. Composers build them all the time. Sometimes we’ll take you from New York to Pennsylvania and bring you within a car’s length of New Jersey. Or we’ll show you where the longboats landed. Then you may wonder at chocolate sand and plants you’ve never seen.

Now is the Time. Mad Men

Sunday, May 20, 10–11 pm.

Now is the Time, American contemporary music, Sundays at 10 pm. On WRTI-HD2 and on the classical stream at wrti.org. This week, Mad Men:

David Carbonara. Mad Men Suite.
Interview with David Carbonara.
David Carbonara. Lipstick.
John Zorn. Train to Thiensan.
John Zorn. Snake Catcher.
Lois V Vierk. Go Guitars.
Larry Kucharz. Pastel 9909.

It’s all styles of concert music by living American composers. Here are the recording details and complete schedule, and because you  really wanted to know, here’s the theme music and how it was written. Tell me what you think (if I can’t take it, I promise to write back), and ask me where you can send CDs for broadcast consideration.

David Carbonara interview

I interviewed Mad Men composer David Carbonara in May of 2012 for WRTI and Now is the Time. With the season premiere of the show this Sunday, WRTI is re-posting the interview.

He’s a great guest. It’s all about TV composing, last-minute surprises, what producers talk about on the other side of the studio glass, hurrying, and last-minute surprises. Something for all composers!

The interview was included in the Now is the Time broadcast of 20 May 2012, but you can hear the interview anytime here. I may get around to re-broadcasting the show, as sometimes we run encores, but in the meantime, check this out:

Mad Men CD, David Carbonara

My latest CD mini-review for WRTI, including podcast with musical excerpts. You can read all my CD reviews here

Matthew Weiner, the creator of the hugely popular TV series Mad Men—now in its fifth season—works very hard at going beneath the surface to capture the look of the 1960s, from company logo typefaces to office equipment tints to the shine in a pair of trousers. Mad Men composer David Carbonara labors just as much on the show’s music to express that era; he’s a composer of acutely original pieces.

Mad Men, Original Soundtrack from the TV Series, Vol. 1 is filled mostly with standards from artists such as Gordon Jenkins (“Caravan”), Vic Damone (“On the Street Where You Live”), and Ella Fitzgerald, who makes an appearance with “Manhattan.” “Fly Me to the Moon” is Julie London’s luscious pizzicato-tinged string version, not Frank Sinatra’s better-known big-band hit.

But for lovers of music in the cracks—not pop, not concert, but what, exactly—the reason to look for this CD may be David Carbonara himself.

Weiner chooses most of the period songs, but “Lipstick” by Carbonara is a distillation (if you will, given all the imbibing in the series) of music in the twilight: slightly lounge, slightly jazz, and as rebellious as one may appear while keeping one’s hair in place.

 It’s the sound of muted trumpets, punchy trombones, low flutes, snapping fingers, walking bass lines, one-handed laconic piano playing (necessary while stubbing out a cigarette), and that child of the time, the Hammond organ. His “Mad Men Suite” is likewise all delicately drawn atmosphere.

A big surprise is the inclusion of the traditional round “Babylon,” known by many (anachronistically for the show) from Don McLean’s 1971 album American Pie. In one episode it was worked into a Village mandolin-strummed folk happening (with Carbonara briefly on camera, playing autoharp!). Its text comes right out of Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon, we laid down and wept, when we remembered Zion.”

What that has to do with the advertising world, legions of die-hard Mad Men fans will know. There’s a lot going on here beneath the surface.

Now is the Time. Subito

Sunday, May 13, 10–11 pm.
John Harbison. North and South: Six Poems of Elizabeth Bishop.
Sally Lamb. Subito.
John Harbison. Cello Concerto.
Now is the Time, American contemporary music, Sundays at 10 pm. On WRTI-HD2 and on the classical stream at wrti.org, it’s all styles of concert music by living American composers. Here are the recording details and complete schedule, and because you  really wanted to know, here’s the theme music and how it was written. Tell me what you think (if I can’t take it, I promise to write back), and ask me where to send CDs for broadcast consideration.

Alumnus of the Year

“He says he’s got reserved parking… Alumnus of the Year.”

Silence. “Sorry, didn’t get that. Try again?”

The parking lot attendant for this crowded commencement day spoke into his walkie-talkie again. “A guy here says he has reservedparking. Alumni… For the Day.”

“Alumni for the Day?… don’t know anything about that. Wait, hold on.” People walking by the car look at me. Then, “Hey OK, send him through, we’ll figure it out.”

He moves a traffic cone and I shunt out of the lane. They figured it out indeed, and a hundred yards on, there was a space, just for me, another attendant waving me in, moving another cone to one side. Having cones moved for you is very nice, I discover. I would’ve parked where I’ve been parking all semester and walked the five minutes, but when the office told me I had reserved parking, I thought, I’m going for the reserved parking.

Philadelphia Biblical University honored me at Saturday’s commencement as its 2012 Alumnus of the Year, and at a luncheon afterward presented me with a beautiful crystal award. I am humbled and surprised by it. Chancellor W. Sherrill Babb said some awfully nice things at the commencement ceremony, and President of the University Todd Williams introduced me with extremely kind words at the luncheon.

Thirty-two years ago I was graduated from Philadelphia College of Bible (as it was then called), its first year at its present, Langhorne campus, with a Bachelor of Science in Bible and a Bachelor of Music in Composition. Many things here have changed, many things have stayed the same. I would like Sam Hsu to have seen this, but he’s in a better place.

Jackie and I filled in for him, if it can be expressed that way, by teaching Music History 2 (Baroque, Classical) and Music History 4 (1900–present), respectively, until a more permanent fix for his position is found. I’ve enjoyed it immensely and learned so much from teaching there this semester.

I also taught Music Notation at Temple University this semester, and it comes rushing back that Temple’s School of Music presented me with their Alumni award two years ago, similarly surprising and humbling me.

I don’t know what I’ve learned in these years, or what I’ve done to merit these profound notices by these good people, but I do know that I’m in company that I like to keep. These are fine, fine people, and it’s good to be around them.

They sent me through.

On BBC 3

“Veni Sancte Spiritus,” the first section from my Vespers, showed up on The Early Music Show April 21st on BBC Radio 3. Lucie Skeaping profiled Piffaro, The Renaissance Band, and among Weelkes, Finck, and Susato, there I am, with Joan, Bob, and The Crossing. Thanks, BBC, thanks, Piffaro!