Category Archives: String Quartet

I Could See the Sky

I Could See the Sky. For SATB, 2-part Treble Choir, Keyboard, optional String Quartet, 17 minutes (Treble Choir may be boys and/or girls or a few women)

The editing process is usually severe. Many good things—music, text, both—are often left on the cutting room floor, and you grieve for a moment but you move on. In 2011, I left texts behind when I wrote the song cycle Plain Truths for David Yang and the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival. It set the writings of Newburyport authors, professional and amateur, and two years later, when David asked me to expand the cycle, I was able to add more, but still, grudgingly, left some behind. I never really know why something strikes me more or less than something else. Much of it may simply be timing.

If that’s true, then the timing for this new cycle turned out to be crucial. When David called me about writing this new piece, I was driving in my car. I pulled over to talk because I saw his name on the phone and I always enjoy talking to David, who is warm, brilliant, and soulful.

I also was in no hurry. I was driving to my brother’s house, where he had taken his life a few days before. The next day was trash day in his town. The trash cans needed to be taken around to the curb, and that is what I was driving there to do. [I have written more about this here.] So, I was in no hurry to return to the house. I told David where I was driving and he would not talk any more about music or business but only about my brother, and about my family. My older sister Carole had died the year before, after a long battle with cancer. Of the children, Susan, the youngest, and I remained.

Later, when I looked for texts in earnest, the John Lagoulis account of his near-drowning came roaring back to me out of the Newburyport writings I still held onto. I knew I had to set it. Everything else fell immediately into place.

These words, with a poetry that screams from within their commonplace garb, bludgeoned me. There is a little bit of my childhood in each of these, but the Lagoulis pulled them all together. I made that one the final section and dedicated it to my brother and sisters.

For the premier concert David also asked me to arrange something of the Plain Truths cycle for solo organ, so I chose the one most closely aligned in spirit to this new cycle, “Annie Lisle,” and also the rousing “Spirit of Freedom.” I call this new set for organ Ballad and March.


First performance Saturday, 19 August 2017, Central Congregation Church of Newburyport, Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, David Yang, artistic director; George Case, conductor; Newburyport Choral Society, George Case, music director; Greater Newburyport Children’s Chorus, Gina McKeown, music director; the Choir School at St. John’s, Margaret Harper, director; Yonah Zur and Yuri Namkung, violins; David Yang, viola; Claire Bryant, cello; Margaret Harper, organ. Text for Nos. 1-4 from Life in Newburyport, 1950-1985, collected by high school students of Jean Foley Doyle, edited by Jennifer Karin. Text for No. 5 from Newburyport: As I Lived It! by John Lagoulis. Commissioned by and dedicated to the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, David Yang, Artistic Director.


1. The Ide of Jay
Anne Teel

Right near our house, and this does not exist today, there used to be a little boatyard. There was only one boat in that boatyard and that boat was called the Ide of Jay. It was a beautiful sloop sailboat. Every year the Ide of Jay would get launched. It was a very wealthy man that owned it. He would go south with the Ide of Jay and in the fall he brought her back up. They would bring her back up into the shed. And I could remember it was almost a holiday when the Ide of Jay got launched. This huge boat being launched into the water. If they tied her up for a week or two before he left for the south, we would sneak up on her deck and dive off the fantail. I had a wonderful childhood.

2. I had a brother, Harold
Betty Doyle

I had a brother, Harold, they called him “Gramp.” And I had a brother, Norman, they called him “Boogie.” Don’t ask me why. And this was part of the gang. “Goat” Perkins, “Cowie” Little, “Duke” Little, and “Farmer” Hamilton. Years ago everybody had a nickname. There was “Spud” Pollard, “Fishy” Morrill and “Gumdrop” Lawler.

3. We lived everywhere
Bob Fuller

We lived everywhere in Newburyport. Most of my time was spent in the northend. The people are different from the southend; I think this still applies. There’s a difference. I always liked the southend. It was older, warmer.

4. I have lived in this house
Sid Weiner

The square, at that time, was not what you see today. I have lived in this house for eighty-five years.

5. I was looking up
John Lagoulis

I was looking up. I could see the sky and the wharf and my sisters and my brother looking down at me.

When I pulled hard on a rope to bring the dory in, it responded like a spring, the anchor was entrenched. I pulled real hard. A boulder was under the surface. I hit my head. I had a comfortable feeling like sleeping in a bed and had no desire to move. I was lying on my back at the bottom of the Merrimack River.

I was drowning and I didn’t know it.

I saw my brother leap into the water. Jumped right in after me with all his clothes on. He lifted me up with one arm and with his other arm held to the rope and pulled us toward the wharf. My sisters helped. They rolled me back and forth over a barrel. People on the river knew, it was common knowledge among sailors and people.

All my life I have been proud of my brother and sisters.

The Strange Genius of the Adagio for Strings

[First published in WRTI’s Arts Desk 2 Nov 2015]

Barber1

Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings didn’t start out the way we know it now. In this feature for WRTI, I look at the inescapable strangeness of this work that is now one of the most heard and most moving pieces in the repertoire.

When Samuel Barber wrote Adagio for Strings, it was for string quartet, and it was the middle movement of three. That explains a good deal about this piece we always hear with string orchestra.

Barber, all of 26, composed the two outside movements in a string-friendly key of two sharps, but the middle movement is in an awful key for strings—five flats.

The opening single note is joined by a collective sigh of the most pointed sadness, then traces a meandering, slowly ascending chant. The accompanying voices rarely cadence together, but achingly suspend themselves time and again. Barber’s combination of calm pacing and intensifying background mesmerizes in its trajectory to a shattering climax in the upper reaches of the strings eight minutes later.

The altitude, pacing, and tuning make this incredibly difficult to play well, even for four virtuosos in a quartet, let alone an entire string orchestra. It doesn’t even end on the home chord, because the original led directly onto the next movement.

Samuel Barber was never pleased with that last movement, almost as if he intuited that nothing could follow the Adagio. He knew its power and immediately arranged it—by itself—for string orchestra.

It’s a disquieting piece. But in the last hundred years, it is also probably the most-heard orchestral work in the world.

Making a piano reduction for Plain Truths

[Broad Street Review published an edited version of this 9 Sep 2013 as Composer’s challenge: From quartet to piano.]

PianoKeys480The double bar of the song cycle Plain Truths for baritone and string quartet having been slid into head-first, all that remained in the week before the deadline was to dust myself off with piano reductions of the two new songs. I had added them to the five from 2011, and also created a requested choral part. The veil over this new version will be lifted November 16th by baritone Randall Scarlata, the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival String Quartet, and The Candlelight Chorale.

The deadline was September 1st. I forget now if that was my deadline or theirs. I remember the phrase “the choir would like it in September,” but I could be wrong, and rather than looking through all the emails, from the start I treated Sunday, September 1st as my drop-dead.

I sent in the full score and piano reduction August 31st, and the individual string parts on the 1st. Along with the written music was a computer-generated recording. These digital audio approximations welter my ever-lissome vocal lines into one long “Arrr, ar, arrrrr…, ar, ar, ar, arrrr…,” the chorus, seeming to enter a tunnel with “Arrrarr…,” and the strings into metal wheels on rails, but they serve the purpose of a quick introduction. The musicians can also hear, beyond seeing Andantes or Quicklys or metronome markings on the score, what I think the tempos ought to be.

Making the piano reduction, I confess, is a task I have looked upon as drudgery. Too harsh a word, perhaps, but in any case as work that is not composing.

In the post-compositional glow, having beheld the glorious wave of creation washing over the numinous sands of human existence and all that, rendering pristine and pinkish the wide beached expanse of glistening scalloped shells peeking from the… well, from that expanse, there is really nothing more to do, one concludes—or if one feels important, one says that one is driven to conclude—nothing more, I say, than to seek new vistas, conquer new territories, step over the odd husk of a horseshoe crab—didn’t see that there—and after polishing off a Fudgesicle to otherwise get on with it.

In other words, one wants to write a new piece.

How dreary it is to rewrite for piano what one has just written for strings. But it must be done. The choir’s pianist jolly well likes to have a piano part, for starters. And if the song cycle is ever to have a chance for more performances, it’s easier to tempt one pianist than four string players.

But after weeks and months spent, off and on, sculpting the two violins, viola, and cello, shaving, nudging, and coaxing the stringed instruments into a blossoming garden of counterpoint, you reach for the hatchet, the eight-pound sledge hammer, the pry bar, and the splitting maul with a sigh and start whacking.

You’ve written, for instance, a high, repeated bit for the first violin, chirping an octave or two above everything else. Below that, the second violin plays a longer, languid phrase overlapping the first’s. On the bottom, the cello hops high, then very low, well under the viola, who has pride of place with a tune ranging up over the second violin at times, at other times meeting with the cello in surreptitious parallel thirds.

Leaving aside the challenge of translating the character of four distinct lines played by four distinct voices onto the keyboard, some of the notes are simply impossible to play simultaneously by two human hands wielded by one person. They are too far apart, the notes are, that is. So what to do?

In this world one does what one must, and chooses, moment by moment, which event is most important. You sacrifice a high or low note, eliminating it if it’s repeated nearby, or moving it an octave if the insertion isn’t jarring. Or you keep it because the effect is too good, and trash something else because that’s now out of reach. Or you delete a filligree in the middle to embolden a harmony or to make a tune sing better on the keys.

You revoice. This is a gentle way of saying you grab a note by the collar and heave it. I mean, a note that is minding its own business leaning against the kitchen doorway chatting with the neighbor who just moved here from upstate, you fling into an armchair in the living room, next to your cousin who’s idly looking at a crossword puzzle on the coffee table you forgot to replace with Victorian Architecture before company arrived.

And after all the inserting and deleting and collaring and flinging, you revoice again because now it’s just herky-jerky. The notes fit under the hands, sort of, but now they’re just that, a spreading agglomeration of stagnant pitches. The line vanished somewhere along the way. Now you have to make it smooth, make it pianistic.

So you rework it again, but now you ignore the original and put your head down, bearing in, redrawing phrasings, picturing a right thumb tolling this note, the left pinky catching that one at the start of an arpeggio that used to be a cello’s double stop but now, for the piano, is…

Music. Look at that. You’re writing music.

So this is what it feels like. Of course, you were doing this just yesterday, weren’t you? I used to look on the piano reduction as… well that was my problem, wasn’t it. I called it “making a piano reduction,” as if I had to go on a diet or crawl into the middle of an old azalea with pruning shears and get scratched because you can never really prune an old azalea properly without getting scratched. But no, it’s not like that.

It’s called composing; look at that, as I said.

Plain Truths on deadline

NewPlainTruthsmehoexThe full score was finished last week. Yesterday, so was the piano reduction, and, today, the parts. September 1st deadline, why hello and let’s do this again sometime.

Everything of the song cycle Plain Truths is now in to the musicians performing this new, expanded version November 16th at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival: baritone Randall Scarlata, the Festival String Quartet, and The Candlelight Chorale, Jay Lane, Music Director. David Yang, the Festival’s Artistic Director, is also the Quartet’s violist.

The songs are for baritone and string quartet, with a chorus on four of the seven for this new unveiling (but optional thereafter). More about the original cycle is here (must update the program notes now), with additional information about the new songs here.

Why hello there, next deadline!

Plain Truths redux

PlainTruthsPostExI’ve hit the double bar on the expansion of Plain Truths, my song cycle for baritone and string quartet originally premiered in 2011. Randall Scarlata sings the new version in Newburyport, Massachusetts November 16th with the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival String Quartet and The Candlelight Chorale, Jay Lane, Music Director. David Yang is the Festival’s Artistic Director and the Quartet’s violist.

It is now seven songs, from five, and includes optional chorus on the two new songs and on two of the older ones. It clocks in at about 28 minutes. I originally set texts from authors who lived in Newburyport in past centuries.

The two new texts are more contemporary. Tom Coleman, who died only six years ago, wrote “Remember Meho?” for a book of town reminiscences. The piece I just finished, “Homing In,” is from a poem by longtime local newspaperman Bill Plante, whom I hope to meet at the concert.

I’m particularly happy with how these came out. Plante’s is a heartfelt longing for a time and for friends that are past. I was struck by its poignancy, but surprised by the same emotion coming to me from Coleman’s, after it first eluded me. Here’s his entire text:

“Remember Meho? He met every train and was at every parade with his camera. He snapped pictures everywhere, but never had any film in the camera.”

Can’t wait to hear the new cycle! But first to extract the new parts, and finish the piano reduction.

The Peace Creeps, Cold

My colleague AJay McLaughlin is the co-songwriter, along with Richard Bush, for most of the tunes of the Philadelphia rock band The Peace Creeps. On their new album Time Machine is the song “Cold,” for which they wanted to have a string quartet accompaniment, à la “Eleanor Rigby” (Peace Creeps founder Richard, who also led The A’s way back when, makes no bones about his love for The Beatles).

AJay knows I write “classical music” and so wondered if I might like to take a crack at string arranging for them. He sent me a demo of the song, I was immediately hooked, and I wrote it up for quartet, doubling and quadrupling them at the high point. I sent them the score and mp3, and they hired the players and recorded them. Now the CD’s out.

Let me tell you, I’m thrilled. My name’s on a rock ‘n’ roll CD, and the song sounds great. The whole CD sounds great. Listen to samples and buy it at CDBaby or iTunes.

Here’s part of a review:

The most surprising song on the album is “Cold”–just one minute and a mere ten lines long, with only a string quartet for accompaniment (arranged by Philadelphia composer Kile Smith)–perhaps a nod to Beatles producer George Martin, who pushed for the use of orchestral instruments in “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby.” None of these are even close to being “copies” of Beatles songs, but their tone and attitude nevertheless pervade.

More reviews here and here.

Looking for the ‘Harp’ Quartet

I didn’t see it, and only read about it later from pundits, but I empathized with Sarah Palin when she apparently booted a question from Katie Couric a couple of years ago. She was asked to name a book she was reading, I believe, and hemmed and hawed in place of an answer. Well, that would happen most days if someone were to ask me. I’m always reading a book, and usually more than one at a time. I read on the train to and from work when I’m not in the last stages of a piece, editing last night’s printouts. So it’s usual for me to stop and start one book, get going on another, and be partially through two at a time; consequently, answering any question like the above will probably start with, “Um…”.

Plus, I’m awful at remembering titles.

But yesterday’s New York Times reminded me of a book I’m reading now. Pam Belluck’s article, “To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons” is an attempt scientifically to explain expressivity in music. By measuring speed and loudness and other factors, scientists hope to find out why we think some performances are more beautiful than others. Fascinating stuff.

But while the Times article is a lovely gloss on the subject, if it interests you, I can’t recommend highly enough Markand Thakar’s book Looking for the ‘Harp’ Quartet: An Investigation into Musical Beauty.

I am overwhelmed by the breadth and geniality of his knowledge. It is painstaking and delightful at the same time. Daedalus (a gruff music professor) leads occasional-know-it-all Icarus on a journey to discover where beauty lives in music, using Beethoven’s string quartet. It’s one of the books I’ve wanted to write. If I was smart, that is.

While reading it, I keep saying things to myself, and then Icarus says exactly the same thing. Daedalus then demolishes it, and points in another direction. But every once in a while Daedalus agrees with what I just said to myself, and… O frabjous day! What a jaunt this is. It is rare for schooling to be this blissful.

So, that’s what I’m reading now. Well, was. I’ll get back to it soon, but right now I’m fussing over the ending of The Waking Sun.