b Riding East: March 2007

Friday, March 30, 2007

Mass #1: Kyrie

Not many posts recently as I focused most of my time preparing for my piano recital. I neglected to record the recital, but hope to go back and record some of the material. I was happy with the recital (on my 40th birthday, 3/11/2007), particularly my performances of Debussy, Ives, and my own works.

I've started a new project: a mass. I'm not catholic. I was raised LDS in Utah, and currently sing with my wife in Greg Wait's Memorial Church Choir at Stanford. The Memorial Church is non-denominational, but more Christian than otherwise. Greg has decided to perform my Chorale #3/Prelude #4 on April 22nd at the Church. I went back and rewrote this piece when I realized that the voice leading was so choppy -- the first time I confronted the fact that I'm a pianist and not a chorist.

Giancarlo sat down with me a couple weeks ago and explained the catholic liturgy, from Christmas through Christmas. I confess the liturgy has little meaning for me. But I respect the tradition, and don't yet feel comfortable with chorale music to push the scope too much.

I've spent a fair amount of time studying a few masses by Palestrina, including a four part Missa Sine Nomine (do - ma re, do re ma fa so le sa...). I'm also looking at Bach's Mass in B minor and Stravinsky's Mass for mixed chorus and double wind quintet. I recently studied Purcell's Dido and Aeneas -- I'm becoming more attached to prolonged suspensions and anticipations. The approaches to chromatic harmony in the early baroque seem compelling. Yes, this is all old school. But there is so much to learn and so why not. On the piano, I'm learning some Mendelssohn (op 30 no 5 & 6), and have moved on to the final movement of the Concord Sonata by Ives, Thoreau. I suppose whatever you are studying sinks in and ultimately influences what you write, not to mention other music you know.

I built the Kyrie largely on Phrygian C#, but freely move around, including C# minor etc. My goal was to use imitation throughout, with a defined but interrupted progression that never completes the phyrigian cadence until the final bar.

On the topic of old vs new, a few weeks ago I attended a lecture by the composer Christian Wolff. I found Mr. Wolff to be both brilliant & kind. I enjoyed the talk very much. I asked him why he, Cowell, & Cage found it so important to turn their back on the past and strive for the new unique sound. He said he wasn't sure, but it seemed important at the time. I believe him. But I wonder whether this compositional ethos ('must create the new sound'), which represents an important period of music and which I refer to as experimentalism, no longer drives the mainstream of new compositional thought.

For me, the challenge with experimentalism isn't so much the art and ethos, but rather our ability to comprehend this music. It has become so utterly detached from the 'human' side of the equation. Ironically, with the desire to not-conform, the experimentalists' collective and uniform extreme reaction to tradition has created the greatest period of conformity in music since Palestrina. So, perhaps a better term than experimentalist would be reactionist: as a group they are one.

I don't insist tonality must return as a musical language. But I accept that tonality worked -- we could comprehend. Give me something new and different, yet let me comprehend it -- allow my brain, with reasonable training, to pattern match. Moreover, let me want to listen again to learn more. I don't buy the arguments that we are so brainwashed by tonality that we can't possibly comprehend the new, the unique. We are products of our history and we simply can't ignore this. Tonality developed and evolved over several centuries. It wasn't an accident. Two of my favorite composers, Debussy and Ives, believed that in future generations children would whistle semi-tones, etc. It has not yet happened -- in fact, children today have less musical training, less 'sophisticated' ears than past generations.

Let me quote from a disciple of the famous musicologist Schenker, Felix Salzer, from his Structural Hearing, Chapter 1, pg 7:

"It is equally imperative that we be at all times receptive and responsive to the new, and I think we are now on the whole more open-minded than other periods have been. However, the tendency which we often observe to discuss modern compositions in vague generalities is not only unjust to contemporary composers, but is very detrimental to our attempts to meet the crisis. In the appraisal of new works, just as in the analysis of older compositions, there is an unfortunate tendency to be satisfied with vague categorizations according to such superficial stylistic criteria as "new-classic,", "neo-romatic," "linear," etc., or to describe their outer, visible appearance, so to speak, in terms of external aesthetic values. These terms, while having a definite place in the field of music criticism, hardly ever touch upon the actual musical utterance. Often terms such as "original," or "bold" or "interesting" are profusely used but do not succeed in covering up what is lacking either in the music itself or in the listener's understanding.

"Furthermore, it seems as though some musicians are so deadly afraid of "missing" a talent that they think it safer to praise most new compositions, thus demonstrating an appalling lack of judgment and discrimination. This curious attitude has indeed become a veritable obsession with all too many musicians, critics and teachers. Whether we are prejudiced and condemn or neglect works simply because they are new and sound unusual or for other narrow-minded reasons, or whether we go to the other extreme and lose our sense of judgment merely because the work is new and we are afraid to be blamed for not having recognized a talent -- both attitudes seem to me equally detrimental to the development of music. Either will delay more than promote the process of finding a definite language of musical expression."

While I deeply respect Schenker & Salzer's work, I don't believe music can so readily be explained with a single model, etc. I do find Salzer's above argument, however, not only to be compelling but also as relevant today as when he wrote it fifty years ago. It isn't to say that the experimental period of music was not necessary and or not important. I can't look at images of 1917 and 1945 without a profound desire to react to whatever culture created these abominations. I recently attended a concert where Anthony de Mare performed John Cage's The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942), Nowth upon Nacht (1984), A Room (1943), Tossed as It Is Untroubled (1943) as well as Henry Cowell's The Banshee (1925) and Advertisement (1914) among other works. "A Room" was neither neo-classical, nor neo-romantic, nor linear. The texture and timbre which this piece creates on the piano are more than unique, in fact they are beautiful.

My four nocturnes were a reaction to the 'new art'; they were an attempt to embrace intrinsic human desires such as singing, dancing, pro-creating. Perhaps I don't grasp the artistic movements of our generation and I don't belong. Our existence seems so transient, hardened by technology, and alienated by the very mobility we seem to cherish so much. The proliferation of connectivity and information has created a wide-scale crisis of identity, and a resultant desire to demonstrate the unique. A humanistic (yes I've abused the definition here a bit) movement in music, by contrast, would represent the very anti-thesis of these trends. A humanistic movement would perhaps be the appropriate response to the post-modern era.

It seems appropriate, therefore, that music be allowed, once again, to look forward and backward, and most of all to be human. My three-year-old daughter loves to sing and dance. She is not the victim of brainwashing. She is human, all too human.

And so, in order to embrace the future I return to my study of the past. I will write a Mass. I don't care whether I create a new sound, defy the past, or embrace the past. I simply want to write a chorale work that includes the organ.

Kyrie Score