22 June 2017

From 2014 to 2017

2014 was the summer of “rescuing” the numbers already composed for my ballet-in-progress (with the frank acknowledgment, Gentle Reader, that when the pace is that slow, there is bounteous generosity in the word progress) from the enchanted cavern of Finale files which I could no longer manage. Three years ago today, I was finishing the then-new Sibelius edition of the Overture to White Nights. The summer solstice is, in fact, the time of year most apt to the task.

At times a mostly-idle thought crosses my mind: what if the Overture to the ballet ought, in fact, to be a shorter piece?  The complete ballet sans Overture will run a bit more than two hours.  My first thought, back in 2003 (!) when I first schemed the project, was that, if the audience are ready for an evening at the ballet, an 11-minute Overture is not madness.  But what if that is just wrong?

The Overture, as it is, will not stand abridgement;  should I compose a new one?  But, as it is, I like the Overture, I'm proud to own it.  I shan’t discard the piece, nor pretend that I wrote it for any occasion except to inaugurate the ballet.

Perhaps I should “go Lenore,” and write an alternative Overture, and leave the choice of which to use, to the conductor (or to those to whom the conductor answers, or whom the conductor advises)?

Well, the questions circle, slowly.  It is not any matter I need to settle, this side of actually finishing the ballet.

Which will be finished.  This year, if I can manage it.

20 June 2017

The stock-taking

Preamble:  As I may have noted erewhile in this blog, Gentle Reader, although the broad desire “to write a symphony” had slept in my back room for quite some time (perhaps for nearly as long as I have pursued composition seriously), and periodically arose from its slumber in apparent readiness to demand its breakfast, only to collapse back on its cot in a by-no-means-uneasy rest ... it was only in October of last year that I felt thoroughly motivated to embrace the task. It was not, let us charitably suppose, laziness which ‘prevented’ realization of the endeavor; but that the composer waited upon the right time. In support of that flattering interpretation, we point to the reasonable despatch wherewith the score reached completion.

Now:  White Nights has arguably been stalled at the scene in the theatre. Nastenka relates her story to the Dreamer (we may say he’s a Dreamer, but he’s not the only one), and a central event in her narrative is the evening when she and her Granny are taken to see Il barbiere di Seviglia. It is an obvious bit of business to make use of Rossini for this scene, to be sure;  and from the outset, in the first sketches for the piece, I intended an extended splice of the overtures to Il barbiere di Seviglia and La gazza ladra. Here is where my preamble appears relevant.

Because the idea is obvious enough, it needs to be done well, done right.  And, well, I do feel ready.  I’ve found all my materials, and my composition desk is cleared.

So, let’s see ....

{ Later in the day }

While in my present, ‘reimmersion’ stage, I feel right away (or, nearly right away) that I want to discard the first draught outline for the scene, and craft a fresh outline. I believe this may be a sign that I am genuinely ready for the task, that I want a better outline/plan, and that I feel no lazy obligation to take the preexisting outline as at all ... “canonic.”  The composer’s feeling is, a refreshed engagement with the source material.

The signs are good.

18 June 2017

From the vault: The Seven-Year Crocodile Itch


Enormously pleased with yesterday’s rehearsal of the cl/vn/pf trios. Eric Mazonson is, quite simply, the best pianist with whom it has yet been given to me to play; and he makes all of Night of the Weeping Crocodiles sound both musical and . . . almost easy. There is rapid arpeggiation in a 9/8 section (and apart from its rapidity, the arpeggiation is out of phase with the beat — the figure rises and falls, but the bass note only occasionally coincides with the metrical pulse). It’s not really an enormous deal, musically — but it is one of numerous “gee, this isn’t plain easy” elements to my work, which (so far as I can tell) are a factor in so few pianists getting back to me enthusiastically about scores I send them.

And Alexey is a marvelous violinist. Although the timetable suggests that I expected matters to fall out so, it is wonderful to experience how easy the piece has been to put together with these two. And they both like the music. Eric is not rehearsing this in the spirit of “This is for the 21st, and then we can put it to bed” — we will keep this piece in our repertory, and we will play as a trio again.

There was some unfounded optimism:  We never did play again as a trio.

17 June 2017

A lesser to-do list done

Gentle Reader, I can make the following provisional Report:
  • Wednesday evening, I finished the piano-&-string-quartet-accompanied adaptation of the Op.50 O Gracious Light.
  • Thursday evening, we had the first “full rehearsal” (i.e., with piano accompaniment) of the new arrangement of I Want Jesus to Walk With Me, Op.142 № 9
  • Last night, I marked the handbell parts for Pavane (Memories of Packanack Lake), Op.142 № 10
  • This morning I adapted the 3rd & 4th movements of the Clarinet Sonata for flute and piano, for the use/consideration of my colleague Peter H. Bloom;  the resulting diptych (Op.136a) I have dubbed Denial of Symmetry.
And I have found my notes &c. for White Nights.

16 June 2017

Going on a bit

Gentle Reader, I’ve not yet done with talking about the Clarinet Sonata. And this is a natural part of the process ... this stage in the cycle.  I’d been at work upon, or musically considering, a large-scale chamber work for a year and a half:  it would be strange if, so soon after I reached the final double-bar, I felt I had said it all.  A composer focuses upon, lives with the task for an extended period. Given the nature of the medium, most (all, perhaps, even) of the work is nonverbal. At the end (which is, or ought to be, only the beginning) there is elation at the accomplishment, and Quality Control review, and the desire to get the work out into the world.

Into the ears of an audience.

And before there can be a performance realizing the piece, in most cases there must be talk about the piece. As the most interested (and, hopefully, best-informed) party, the composer perforce does much of the talking. And, in a curious way, since my work on the piece heretofore has been mostly nonverbal, this is a time of discovery, of considering which may be the most apt words. Why, any thing, but to the purpose.

Here’s some words.

i. Another Think Coming.  As with the earlier Viola Sonata, the piece begins according to advice recorded as marginalia by Edgar Allan Poe.  What exactly he wrote, I dare not this morning pretend to recall accurately. But it is to this effect: Begin in such a way, that there is no doubt in the reader’s mind that something is up.  With this composition, I thee shake;  I mean business, and if you think you already know everything that this Henning has to say in music, you’ve another think coming.  The movement ends in strength, and (befitting the title) whether the listener knows it or not, he’s not heard the last of it.

ii. « Boulez est mort » (Wounding Silence).  As I consider how rightly to express the relation of the two instruments in this movement, I waver between talking past one another and mutual obliviousness.  The piano is wilfully clangorous. The clarinet pursues a series of melodic objets trouvĂ©s (I promised myself that I wouldnt catalogue them, and I have pretty much kept faith). They end together. Or do they?

iii. Unanticipated Serenity.  In the original plan, this was to be clarinet unaccompanied, but the piano refused to be left out entirely. After the energetic insistence of the first movement, and the shattered disorientation of the second, here is an oasis.  Is it “the true slow movement”? Or a dance? It is not a worrisome question.

iv. Ambiguity & Overlap (Something or other, if not something else entirely). This is the scherzo. Or, the third & fourth movements together (played attacca) are conjointly the scherzo. It begins as a kind of jazzy dance, which yields (reluctantly at first) to a relaxed march & trio, although unlike most marches, there is a return after the trio.  The idea of a march came from a music forum member, at a time when I was yet at work on the second movement; so that I tentatively accepted the invitation to write a march, and had time to fold the notion into the framework of the Sonata.

v. After a reading of “The Mysterious Stranger.”  I recall, when I first read this novella as a teenager, I found it unsettling.  I knew Twain as a folksy humorist and raconteur;  I intuitively read him as at times bitterly sarcastic here.  This, and the challenging cosmology, made me uncomfortable, or perhaps it only stretched my mind a bit at the time.  A needful stretch sometimes registers as discomfort.  The movement begins with a sort of homey Americana, though the chorale (for instance) is more modern than Twain. The center of the movement reflects the magisterial ungovernability of the title character, the innocent excitement and joy which the young boys found in their powerful and at times alarming friend, and the drama of the trial episode.  The recapitulation of the opening struck me as the most suitable reflection upon Theodore’s absorption of the last remarks of the Stranger, on a final visit after his most extended absence from Eseldorf.

“He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.”

15 June 2017

What It Has All Meant: Balance

On Facebook the other day (12 June) I wrote – and if you wish to skip the end, you have leave:

This is an “old” blog post (5 June 2017). I'm posting it here, this morning, as an expression of pleasant surprise.
As I revisit this instalment on my blog, I “discover” that, apart from the melody in mm.24-33 (which I scrawled sometime in May), I composed the fifth movement of the Clarinet Sonata in a week.
Yes, I imported/modified nine measures of piano accompaniment from the second movement, and a couple of brief passages from the first movement.  But for the most part, the 201-measure, 8-minute conclusion of the Sonata was the work of seven days.  (And I did not do much work on Friday, as I was playing in the percussion section in an Arlington Philharmonic concert that night.)
In fact, I hope my friends will forgive me if I indulge in something of a victory lap for three accomplishments over the past year:
30 June 2016:  With the completion of the Gloria, I finished the Mass Op.106 for mixed choir SATB unaccompanied.  I composed a Kyrie in 2012;  I accepted as a good-natured challenge a friend’s suggestion that it might be the first number of a complete Mass, although I was determined to take my time, and only compose each further movement when the Muse bade me.
21 January 2017:  Completion of the Symphony № 1, Op.143 (three movements, 25').  Composition of the Symphony began 8 October 2016.
11 June 2017:  Completion of the Sonata for Clarinet & Piano, Op.136 (five movements, 35').
Thus:  three substantial works, one each of sacred choral, orchestral, & chamber music, completed in the past year.  Some of my friends know exactly where this is going:  No later than Independence Day, I shall resume work on the ballet White Nights, nor will I let it go, except its completion bless me.
Anyway, I made a promise that I would not start a Symphony № 2, until I put this ballet to bed.

Something I am celebrating even above the accomplishment of the three major pieces (is a clarinet sonata a “major piece”? You go ask Mr. Brahms) is:

Like many of the composers I know, composing music is not gainful employment. Therefore, like many of the composers I know, composing music is not the only thing I do. I have full-time (non-musical) work – and thank goodness for that – and I am also the choir director at Holy Trinity United Methodist Church in Danvers, Mass. Obviously, for that choir director position to coexist with my full-time job, it is but a part-time engagement. In a sense, though, I am sometimes “on the clock” beyond the usual Thursday evening choir rehearsal and Sunday morning service commitments. It is my pleasure to report that part of what is expected of the music director at the church is, occasional fresh, pertinent compositions for use in the worship service; thus, for instance, on Tuesday evening I composed a brief piece for the church’s handbell choir to ring as part of the service on 25 June.

The triumph, then, which I celebrate is that it has been possible to find a balance of the Day Job, the Church Music Directorship, and my own (selfish) creative work so that I could get these three major pieces completed, and to my entire musical satisfaction.

(Of course, my working life is a little more complicated still, as I am a founding member of Triad: Boston’s Choral Collective, and I do try to play my clarinet now and again.)

So, if you skipped to the end (which in neighborly goodwill, I made you free to do), go on back, and read what you missed.

You know you want to.

14 June 2017

henningmusick: Sound & Sight in the works

henningmusick: Sound & Sight in the works

This time last year, we were hot on the trail of the Op.140.  What a tolerably productive little composer I do seem to be.