Left Luggage Pig Scheme, Program Notes (an introduction)

from Saturday, November10th of the year2007.

Every time I travel, I somehow manage to leave one little thing behind. In the case of this trip to Chicago, I totally left a little container of cucumber-scented face-scrub. Too bad. Sometimes, I’ve left whole sweaters and other times it’s nothing more than a tube of lip chap. I’ve been reading a book about apocalyptic christianity (Have a Nice Doomsday, b.jpegby Nicholas Guyatt), which features descriptions of people re-united with their loved ones in an instant during the rapture; I have a similar idea that all of these lotions and unguents are going to come flying at my face during the end times. We’ll see. The book features him traveling around the country interviewing various minor and major celebrities of the Apocalyptic Publishing Sub-Industry, and for a while, it’s a good time, and then his insistence on his distance from his subjects starts to become grating (we have to hear about how difficult it is to be a vegetarian in Texas, and there are numerous cringe-inducing paragraphs where he essentially describes himself as the Hugh Grant character in those 90’s RomComz, awkwardly English in the face of American Excess.)

Speaking of awkwardly English, I am going there this week. England in November, England in November. I’m going to meet with Tom, for whom I am writing a concerto: an electric six-string violin concerto, to be specific. I’m very excited about it. My original intent was to actually write a piece where somehow Tom would be playing this pervy instrument and then also his acoustic violin (which, it must be said, is very fancy indeed; I think it’s one of those instruments that is Literally Priceless); in any event, I have since modified my proposal and am going to writing a piece that’s sort of about early attempts at cosmology, attempts at understanding the constellations, with some brief asides to Arabic grammatical and/or astrological charts. I’m not entirely sure what the outcome is going to be; electric instruments tend to occupy that weird intermediary space between weaponry and sex toys. Go here and see what I’m talking about:

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In any event, I’m excited to get out of New York during the Rockette-Holiday-Shopping-Wormhole. Even though Chinatown tends to not participate in the normal ebb-and-flow of the midtown tourist season, they are still playing Frosty the Snowman in the Duane Reade, which is really not acceptable, seeing as how it’s not even advent. What I want them to do is play Ben Frosty the Snowman and then we’ll talk. I’ll be going directly to Iceland after London, to mix Mothertongue (album II), and with any luck will have the chance to sit in the hot tub and properly write Tom’s piece, having seen what the thing can do. I’m writing it for a new-ish orchestra called Aurora, sausages.jpgin London, who seem to be totally great; look how organized they are here. There is something so wonderful about these organized-out English websites; I think that there was a lot of shame about how benighted things had been, from a design point of view, particularly in supermarkets, that now all the big supermarket chains have these totally art-directed sites. Check out this one, from Waitrose’s. Did you notice this sentence: “All our pork is reared under the Assured British Pig Scheme.” Then you google their ass and you find a slightly less organized website, but a fascinating and endearing government program nonetheless. (PS, If you, like me, can’t leave well enough alone, you may find yourself signing a series of petitions such as “Pigs are worth it” (dot Koh dot you-kay).

In celebration of the travel and its attendant losses, here is the first track from the David Lang / Michael Gordon / Julia Wolfe oratorio Lost Objects which is so beautiful I could die. It used to be a game around my house to sing that little motive about really any random thing we had lost. Then we rediscovered Eddie Murphy’s Boogie in Your Butt and the game changed slightly, do you all remember that song?

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Lang/Wolfe/Gordon I Lost a Sock from Lost Objects

PS, you’re not meant to be able to tell which Bang-On-A-Can wrote which Bang-On-A-Movement but you can usually tell. This one is Str8 Up David Lang, in my opinion.

Chicago! It was so much fun, I was really taken aback by how seriously Cliff Colnot (the conductor) took the piece, as well as the degree of intensity that the musicians brought to it. It was a strange program: first, a viola concertino by Mark-Anthony Turnage, who is a really genius composer whose opera Greek was one of my favorite things when I was first starting to compose, a piece by 19-year old Mark Simpson, a piece by American composer Derek Johnson (whom I had never heard of but who was very nice indeed), and then my piece being the last and the première. All of this was somehow overseen by Osvaldo Golijov, who shares the duty of picture-2.pngChicago Symphony Composer-In-Residence with Mark-Anthony. Part of the deal was that Osvaldo was going to interview us from the stage, asking us about the pieces. He had taken his Wacky Uncle pill right before he interviewed me; it was fantastic, because I was completely unsure as to what he was going to say. He, interestingly and touchingly, asked about Picasso, whose Guernica was one of the inspirational images/processes behind Golijov’s own La Pasión según San Marcos, which was my first exposure to his music. Here it wacky is:

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And then here is Derek, and Mark-Anthony, and Mark, and me, looking crazed. Due to a complicated mishap I had left my belt back at the hotel, which Anjuli and Will managed to find for me, but then I didn’t get to see them before I was documented Beltless, which is a little crazy-making.

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I think it was a really well-programmed evening of music, at least stylistically speaking. Mark-Anthony’s music is usually sort of aggro (in the best way), but this piece was very sensual, elegiac, and delicately handled. Derek’s piece was fascinating to me; during all the rehearsals and little sectional things I was really into it, especially when I had a score handy. The score was gorgeous just in terms of layout and typesetting, and all the little details he uses to anchor the piece were very clearly notated (for instance there was this little finger indicating you had to damp the piano in a certain way; I usually just use a “+” symbol, but now that I’ve seen his little finger I must have it!). The piece was organized around these weird plucked low piano notes which were also sometimes muted with an eraser; it made a quasi-gamelan effect and you could really hear the distances between them expanding and contracting; it sort of reminded me of John Adams’s China Gates, actually, but the style is so different that I wasn’t about to say so. The problem with his piece was that it suffered from a serious case of out-of-control program note syndrome. Check this out ““ and this is a fractional excerpt of the total:

An elaboration of this rhythmic device is employed across the structure of the entire piece to govern the changing speeds of the rhythmic and harmonic forces. There is a constant recycling of evolving rhythmic figures and harmonic progressions, but the perspective between these musical objects is always shifting. The conceit of carefully controlled nonalignment against a backdrop of larger symmetrical spaces could be likened to the ever-changing proportions of our lives against the cyclical passing of days, months, and years, or, in a more poetic sense, to Heraclitus’s notion that you “can’t step into the same river twice.”

Hera, as they say, Clitus. I think I will go on and on in a later post about “Program Note Syndrome” but what I will say is this: I think a bunch of people came to that concert and were put off by the length and heraclitus_johannes_moreelse.jpgdensity of the notes (which was Bad length and Bad density) and applied their thoughts thereupon to the piece, which is also long and dense, but not necessarily in the bad way. There is a way to poison yourself with program notes which, you know, is always actually tragic because we as composers are not meant to be writers and have a messed-up command of the language. By the time I’ve written a piece, the last thing I want to do is to consolidate all the 45,000 ideas I had into a paragraph. My trick to writing them is actually to read them aloud to the cats, and if anything strikes me as awkward or too texty, I start again. People have to read this shit in passing in the half-dark right before your piece (or, in some cases, during your piece) and I think that the last person they need to hear from at that time is Heraclitus. If somebody had asked me to write a note for Derek’s piece, it would have read like this, “This twenty minute work, Frozen Light, employs large, dense blocks of sound moving at different speeds, like (insert pithy simile here). As the piece progresses, our sense of scale, foreground, and background slowly shifts, creating (insert emotion here)” or something like that; the piece did, in fact, speak for itself. But that’s enough about that. I am going to talk about program notes in a later post soon, and I will say that in my many years, I have read some really outrageous notes, and Derek’s really were not that out of control; I think that I’ve written some pretty wild ones in my own time, too.

Mark Simpson, who is young and Liverpudlian, wrote a piece in two movements that was just the kind of quasi-tonal music I like the best, where you get the sense that there is an organizing principle to it but that your structural experience is limited to being on the fast roller-coaster that runs through the space. It’s a brave kind of piece to write, too, because this is the sort of music that, on the score, looks amazing and when you listen to it following along, you see all the little pitch enjambments and loops, but when you lift your head and just listen, you need to be able to hinge onto something. It also featured a nice steady hi-hat in the second movement, which was satisfying. Here is another piece with satisfying hi-hat, from the dreamy third act of John Adams’s Nixon in China. Those of you who know his orchestra piece “The Chairman Dances” will recognize this as the place from which most of the material from that piece flows. I think that there is nothing more beautiful than “Oh, California / Hold me close!” about 2:45 in. Is it perverted that everything I hear, I’m like, ooh, there’s a John Adams piece that has Hi-Hat, too? I think what happened was that Osvaldo was happily talking about Peter Sellars alltaf alltaf and so I had Nixon in the mind.

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John Adams Some men you cannot satisfy from Nixon in China

2 Comments

  • The Bang-on-a-can excerpt reminded me of the great Henry Kissinger aria in Nixon, you know, “Man upon Hen! Man upon Hen!”

    Then again, I think Nixon is the best opera of the post-Strauss 20th C with a libretto that is better than just about anything involving music and words.

  • I am dying about that Oak flannel.