Harmonium, Text, Chihuahua

from Sunday, July8th of the year2007.

So I am just back from three days at Tanglewood, a.k.a. the best place on earth. I still get chills driving around there. I always forget the totality of that place; it is hard to overstate how important it is in my conception of myself as a musician, and I know that I’m not the only one. Most of my friends have passed through there in a variety of contexts: as teenagers at B.U.T.I., then later at T.M.C., 250px-seiji_ozawa_hall_exterior_tanglewood_lenox_massachusettsjpg.jpgand some have ended up playing with the Boston Symphony. But that isn’t really even the point; what makes Tanglewood so amazing is the giddy feeling you get when you realize that most people there understand exactly what it is that you do, and don’t care, so you can get on with being friends (I turned up on the bus and immediately had lunch with my friend Marcos where we discussed the importance of the recording process to composition. Then, the day before I left, I had a nice, long walk with my dear Nadia where we excitedly talked about what a great place it is and how it relates to our experiences at Juilliard; an altogether refreshing conversation that would be impossible to have in New York). I can go on and on about how great it is, but actually, the thing to do is to just go. I have had equally ecstatic experiences as an audience member and guest, and in fact, I wrote a piece sort of about that which was performed there last year.

On the bus home, I listened to John Adams’s Harmonium, a powerhouse piece from 1980. The first ten minutes of the piece are a single gesture, teasing the word, “never” out of silence and nonsense syllables, and finally exploding into the text: “If any who deciphers best / What we know not, our selves, can know, / Let him teach me that nothing…” Ooh, it is such a great moment. garden13.jpgMy conception of how to set secular texts is heavily, heavily, influenced by this piece, and my harmonic language is basically stolen from it; it is so satisfying to listen to such an influential piece after a few months away from it! I also wistfully thought, as I often do when listening to that piece, about the way in which Adams figured out the way to harness minimalist energy and put it in service of romantic structures. This is still, in a sense, the essential problem with (as well as the way out of) post-minimal music: you’ve got a lot of little beehives of activity, but is the point the activity, or is the point the formal garden in which they are placed?

This is most decidedly not the time or the place for my Discourse on the Nature of Emotional Content As Expres’t Through Minimal Sub-Structures, because God knows I have a lot to say on the matter, mmc205_large.jpgbut I did want to talk about text as the way forward, surprise surprise. As I said before, the first few minutes of Harmonium are an electro-Wagnerian ocean constructed around a single pitch and a single syllable NÉ›. The construction of this ocean is detailed and immense, and uses pulse (as in, repeated single pitches), patterns against the beat (five notes cycling over and over again), and trills between two notes. About three minutes in, the vowel expands to the full word never, over a briefly calm, secret wind-band pulse.

I want to briefly touch on something, though, without going into the whole Discourse. I think that there was a huge cluster of great stuff coming from the minimalists in 1980/1981 ““ that being, Adams’s Harmonium, Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi, and Reich’s Tehillim. These are three incredibly different and, I would argue, incredibly personal pieces of music for these composers. Taken as a mini trilogy, they are all also about teasing meaning out of texts in specifically emotional ways, too. koyaanisqatsi.jpgLet’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that these guys figured out the Way to deal with their own language and make it communicate effortlessly to others. I want to fast-forward a generation and look at Michael Torke, a very problematic composer for me. Torke is one of those composers who has written a lot of music, and I literally can only deal with two pieces: Ecstatic Orange and this thing Four Proverbs.

033.jpgI am reading the most fascinating book right now about Mormon Fundamentalists (I know that’s not the right term; you’re meant to say “polygamist sects”), and the way their prophets speak about moments of shining illumination and then confusing darkness is sort of how I think about Torke: for a second, he got shown the way, and then something happened and he no longer knew where he was going but he had already left his house and packed his bags and grabbed the children and the sister-wives and headed to Chihuahua (where a lot of those guys ended up; there are some extremely moving passages about this journey in the book I referenced, above).

Anyway, listen to the first movement of Four Proverbs, setting the text, “Better a dish of herbs where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it” and tell me that it isn’t incredibly successful and moving! What I like about it, too, is that the pitches themselves are negligible; what makes the piece work is the trick, and the structure and the orchestration and the way the chords are spaced. ayrshireb.jpg(The trick is that each syllable of the text governs a single pitch, and once we know what the tune is, Torke can basically let go of all the traditional songwriting structures and just write music; it makes more sense when you’re listening to it which is why I stuck it up here). I’ve always suspected that Torke’s music would work great if the notes were just different ““ wouldn’t it be amazing if he and Wuorinen collaborated? There is a similar energy in their music! W would handle all the pitches and the distribution of the gestures and T would orchestrate and space the chords and I think T should write the codetta by himself and W the introduction by himself, or they could flip for it. A little opera, perhaps? Pair it with one of those short Poulenc titty-operas and call it a night; see you at Café Luxembourg right afterwards. Anyway, listen to the Proverb and tell me that you love it.

[audio:09 Four Proverbs – Better a Dish.mp3]
Michael Torke Four Proverbs
i. Better a Dish

More soon, more soon. I am going to try to be more diligent about updating this. I would have written from Tang-Я-wood, but I was too busy editing this ballet, practicing Icelandic (að fá governs the accusative just like how Torke’s dish governs la!), sitting in on percussion placement auditions, watching James Levine rehearse Mendelssohn, attending a wedding anniversary, researching the cervix, assembling a grill, getting stuck in the rain, and, most importantly, leaving my laptop at home and bringing only my iPhone.