Having recently attended several promising but ultimately disappointing concerts of new music, it struck me that many of the compositions I heard, while artful, lacked the key ingredient to good composition. The composers were clearly highly trained – but somehow, in all their studies, seemed to have missed the overarching element of a musical composition that, if there, inspires. Sound as story telling. A solid architectural foundation upon which notes, like bricks, are laid. It little matters if the language of the composition is tonal or atonal, dissonant or consonant, contrapuntal or harmonic – but what must unfailingly be there is an underlying architecture that makes each note meaningful, with every note arising from an inexorable musical logic, with no note missing or out of place. Without that architecture, every musical gesture sounds empty. Many years ago, it was playing Bach that led me to first understand this – not a single note that doesn’t belong precisely where it is, no more, no less. But, like a building without a solid foundation, a musical composition that lacks a structural underpinning will collapse into a pile of notes that leaves you, at best indifferent, at worst, annoyed.
Each to their own, but when I’m yearning to listen to an emotionally satisfying symphony, it has been forty or more years since the thought of turning to any of the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann or Brahms has crossed my mind. My go to symphonists have, instead, been Bruckner, Sibelius and Shostakovich, whose symphonies I can hear again and again without ever tiring of them.
That said, over the past several months, I’ve gradually been working my way through the complete symphonies of various other composers – music that for whatever reason, I’d never gotten around to hearing before. This journey has raised one of those, why oh why, questions, as I’ve listened to music that makes me wonder why I rarely, if ever, find them programmed by any orchestras or played on the radio. Most recent listens have been the complete symphonies of Vaughn Williams, Prokofiev, Nielsen, Harris, Weinberg and Myaskovsky. And while his body of work is somewhat uneven, Hovhaness wrote many symphonies of incredible beauty and power. While perhaps my personal tastes in music reflect a minority of one, I wonder if these works were programmed by today’s symphony orchestras their audiences would not only welcome them, but return again and again for more.
I write this in response to various opinions that I see shared on social media and in the news following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the classical music world, it began with several Russian musicians who are long-time associates of Putin’s being dropped from their scheduled engagements and long-time associations with major musical institutions after their refusal to disavow Putin and his war. That gave rise to their (and others) response that music should be divorced from politics and isolated from world events, free of the dross of politics. That, of course, was not only a self-serving response, but one arising from a fantasy that music is somehow different than any other human activity, existing independently in an isolated universe free of all of the rest of what humans do, for good or bad. Then, various people started dropping all Russian musicians and Russian music from programs, regardless of the connection to Putin, as if just by performing anything connected with Russia was a statement in support of Putin. To my mind, that was even worse, a failure to recognize that the core reason why Putin’s war is such an egregious violation of human rights is that it entirely ignores the common humanity of Russians and Ukrainians. Russia has a great and glorious history that has made a great contribution to the best of what makes us human – a history that must not be ignored because Russia’s present dictator is a monster. We should not negate Russian culture in its entirety, any more than the world should ignore Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or any other German composer because the country they lived in gave rise to Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust (or any other similar examples throughout human history). Humanity is eternally in conflict. Music may not always be one of humanity’s better angels, but it certainly is, far more often than not, a power for good, even in the face of great evil.
To my mind, the only thing that makes writing music worth the effort is it’s power for good. It is inextricably entangled with politics in that sense and has been, throughout history, a frequent vehicle to give voice to the oppressed and power protest movements that have changed the world for the better. Just think of Woody Guthrie, the songs that powered the Civil Rights movement, John Lennon’s Imagination, or, in the classical world, Shostakovich’s incredibly powerful but subversive works, written under the ears, so to speak, of the last criminal regime to rule Russia.
It is this history of music that inspires me to write today. Music that intends to effect change, that is an expression in pure sound of the good that can be found in humanity – and by that very expression an implacable foe of evil. In our own age, that means music that is a warrior against racism, against warmongers, those who refuse to accept humanity’s responsibility to be caretakers rather than destroyers of our beautiful earth and the life all around us with whom we share our planet. And, I fully recognize and appreciate my good fortune in not living under a repressive regime where an artist has to mask their belief in humanity at risk of their own lives, and speak in code as did Shostakovich and many others before him. So, I don’t have to mask my beliefs in my music. I say it directly and out loud. Music for peace, for social justice, for environmental sanity. In song, in resonant sound that spreads into the universe.
Having come of age in the 1960s, with everything that came along with that, I am yet another aging human wondering to myself – what the hell happened? It did seem that the world had the potential to change in those days, that perhaps humanity might just, in the famous words of John & Yoko, give peace a chance. How is it that after the great advances made throughout that decade, we are now seeing such an intense resurgence in white supremacy, a body politic indifferent to impending environmental catastrophe, successful attacks on voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants?
Apparently, I’m not the only person of my age feeling like I will be passing along a world to my granddaughter’s generation that is far worse than what I had hoped for as a young man. As an individual without power, it is intensely frustrating – and I do what I can. I write letters to politicians, I work to get out the liberal vote prior to every election, I donate as I can afford to good causes – and for whatever it is worth, I write music that is an expression of my firm belief that every great advance in our civilization, for centuries, has been the work of great liberal thinkers and activists. My music these days, more than ever before, is a direct response to the major societal ills that I see destroying all the good that was accomplished back when I was young, but whose promise stalled as we young folks grew up, got jobs, raised families, and became otherwise so preoccupied by life that we let the flower wither.
So, I was thrilled when a friend emailed me a link to www.thirdact.org. Their website description is right in line with my desire to do more. “Third Act is people over the age of 60 — experienced Americans — determined to change the world for the better. We muster political and economic power to move Washington and Wall Street in the name of a fairer, more sustainable society and planet. We back up the great work of younger people, and we make good trouble of our own.” A perfect mission statement for someone like me!
Any of my musician friends who happen to read this and want to collaborate – get in touch! My dance card is filling up as I’ve been reaching out to like-minded artists as I find them to work on projects that encourage a more sustainable, peaceful society.
Listening lately to lots of symphonies, mostly ones new to me. First stop for listening is YouTube. But if I find something that rings true and calls for more than one listen, I download it to my phone, go out for a walk with headphones on, and really listen. Hopefully, none of this will end up in my inadvertently getting run over in the street!
Recent good finds include the symphonies of Roy Harris and Alla Pavlova. The former was a great symphonist whose works do not deserve the oblivion into which they have fallen. It is baffling to me as to why that happened to Harris – but not to Copland, as an example. Perhaps, and this is just an unsupported theory, but to my ears his music rings of the plains of middle America – and that is a sound that simply no longer appeals in our currently divided country in which the hopefulness of the plains states has evaporated, having fallen prey to hysterical harpings of the right-wing extremists who have taken over these historically conservative bastions of the American body politic.
Politics aside, the music is simply grand. His way of gradually expanding and transforming his themes to tell a story is masterful and deserves careful listening. His voice is his own, but the unfolding of the music is similar to what I find so involving with another favorite symphonist, Sibelius, particularly in his later works.
The symphonies by Alla Pavlova, of which thus far I’ve only listened to several, demonstrate another great musical story teller at work. What I was especially delighted to hear, something I miss in some of the contemporary music I hear today, is unabashed emotion. It is music that tugs at your heart. It’s infrequent that I hear music that suddenly evokes a tear, but hers has its moments.
But, all that said, having listened to many symphonies which were entirely new to me, I then returned to symphonies which I know well, but hadn’t listened to anytime recently – and listened to several of the later symphonies by Shostakovich. They haven’t lost an iota of their power. Ranging, as he always does, from the sublime to the occasionally ridiculous, they are profound masterpieces to which few can compare. Everything that he does is masterful – the laying out of themes, great melodies, masterful counterpoint, exciting orchestrations.
The fact that I rarely sleep for more than a few hours at a stretch does have an upside. More listening time!
Slowly working my way through Grammy listening lists, the fact, which I already knew, that I am a musical outsider became steadily more apparent. I always enjoy voting during the 1st round, finding so many artists whose works were previously unknown to me creating albums that are unique, interesting and full of passion. Then, I get to the 2nd round, and discover that, with only a few exceptions, none of the albums I voted for in the 1st round made it to the nomination stage. This year, there were a number of categories in which I would normally cast a vote that I skipped entirely because I could not find a single one of the five nominations that struck me as worthy of the recognition of a Grammy award. Obviously, enough others thought they were worthwhile efforts – but there I was, scratching my head while listening, wondering what it could have been that impressed all the other voters. Proof once again, that my musical tastes run far from the mainstream.
When I first started composing, most other composers I met were still writing 12 tone music – something which has as little appeal to me now as it did back then. Then, minimalism became (and is still, to some extent) a rage – music which, if anything, I dislike even more than 12 tone music. Now, if the Grammy nominations are any indication, people have fallen for rhythmically driven music, often with repetitive riffs, that show (at least to my ear) little art.
The art of music is made up of distinct elements – melody, rhythm, counterpoint, harmony, tonality, structure, timbre – and it is the artful combination of all of these that allow music to be such an extraordinarily rich vehicle for expressing emotions and telling a story that makes you want to share its journey. In different ways than serial or minimalist music do, much of the music I heard in this year’s nominations abandon one or another of those basic elements, resulting in a far less rich musical landscape. The music, at least to my ear, avoids rather than prompts expressions of deep emotion, thus falling into the realm of entertainment, rather than art. Whether or not I personally succeed at the art I strive for when writing music, is another matter, but the music I heard, with some exceptions, didn’t appear to me to even try to get there.
Having, over the past few weeks, gradually read my way through an edition of Handel’s keyboard music, music with which I was previously unfamiliar, I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Bach. For one thing, it struck me that Handel was far less skilled a contrapuntalist than Bach, relying more on harmonic progressions than on tightly knit counterpoint than Bach. In these keyboard pieces, he is also far less harmonically adventurous than Bach – he rarely modulates far afield from whence he started and often repeats (sometimes to a fault) the same simple tonal harmonic patterns. In the suites, while he has movements that are similarly titled to those in Bach suites – allemande, courante, gigue – they sound more English – especially in the movements that don’t have a dance title, but rather are simply called allegro or presto. As I played through the pieces, I was often more reminded of works that are in my copies of the Fitzwilliam Virginal books than of Bach or other Baroque composers of keyboard pieces. That is especially true of the several Chaconnes in the volume, two of which are in the same key as the Goldberg Variations and employ similar progressions to the opening 8 bars of Bach’s masterpiece – but then, like many English composers from an earlier generation, he repeats that same 8 bar phrase in a series of simplistic variations, often repeating couplets where one variation with quick notes in the right hand is followed by a similar one with the same pattern switched into the left.
Despite the above, which appears to criticize Handel’s writing, the music is nevertheless delightful to play. While playing I vaguely recalled reading that Beethoven, while having great respect for Bach, preferred Handel. Reading through these keyboard works, I could see why. Beethoven’s strengths (and weaknesses) were, to my mind, exemplified by the differences I found between Handel and Bach. Despite some extraordinary efforts at counterpoint, Beethoven’s strength, similar to this observation about Handel, was in harmonic progression. Somehow, Beethoven’s counterpoint never seems effortless – as does that of Bach. Somehow, I suspect Beethoven may have been envious of Bach’s extraordinary skill and felt more comfortable with Handel’s efforts. The several fugues by Handel in the collection I was reading were not, in my view, entirely successful. He rambles and seems unable to shape his fugal themes into an overall form that works effectively.
I suppose the greatest surprise for me was how I managed to have this volume in my music cabinet, for goodness knows how long, without ever pulling it out and reading it until this week.
At the risk of adding yet more words on a topic that has been endlessly debated for many years, a topic on which millions of words have already been written, after a solid week of listening to Grammy submissions and voting, I decided to jump into that debate. Listening to hundreds of entries, I came away more impressed than ever by the high quality of the many compositions by living composers that I heard. Music in a wide variety of styles. Some more, some less appealing to me personally, but so, so much excellent music.
In the relatively scant time frame that is available to listen your way through the thousands of submissions, I had to make choices. My choice was to give a listen and my careful consideration to artists who were recording new music, and to entirely skip any album that started with Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Schumann, etc. There was simply so much wonderful new music to give my time to, that I couldn’t spend time with a performing artist who somehow believed that the 1,000th or 10,000th recording of some Beethoven piece contributed something of unique worth to the music world. So I kept on scrolling down as they went by on the screen, one after another, wondering all the while what on earth motivated the artists to expend all the time and effort to record and produce that particular album when there’s so much other wonderful new music getting little or scant attention. The only exception to this, was for recordings of unknown or lesser known composers from past centuries, many of whom were as creative and talented as those composers who now dominate the classical mainstream, but for whatever reason, have been forgotten by the world.
Which leads me to the contemporary classical concert scene and those endless debates I started out with. Will new music chase away audiences? Will audiences only attend concerts if music directors slip in new music, almost as if to disguise its presence on the program, in a program filled with the usual limited list of ever repeated standards? I well appreciate that I don’t represent the typical concert goer, but for sure, nothing will keep me away from a concert hall like an orchestra serving up another dish of Beethoven’s 5th or a pianist playing Chopin ballades. I’ve heard them so many times before and nothing those performers can do is likely to bring something new to that experience that would be worth my time or my money to go hear. But, a concert of great new music? Yes, I’m there.
Of course, others have and will argue that audiences HATE new music. Well, perhaps that’s less a commentary on new music than on the the music directors who create the programs, and, because of their own disinterest in contemporary music, don’t know the literature well enough to select wonderful, inspiring pieces to program. There’s certainly so much of that out there it’s hardly the fault of composers that music directors select music their audiences find boring, or worse, ugly. No one wants to go to a concert hall to hear ugly sounds. We can hear that while driving in traffic on the way to the theater. But there is so much gorgeous new music out there, it only takes the interest, desire and knowledge of the music of today to plan programs that audiences will rave about. That should be the standard fare – and if performers want to slip in the occasional warhorse, we can all slip out for an early intermission and return later for the main event, excited about being the first to hear something wonderful and new.
Leading up to my decision to begin writing music for piano and orchestra, I listened, somewhat at random, to many, many concerti, both contemporary and not. I found fewer than expected that caught my interest (close to none, in fact). By and large, for whatever reason, even composers who have composed some of the most beautiful, lyrical music ever penned, seem to have felt obliged when writing for piano and orchestra to write overwrought music, full of pounding chords, pyrotechnical runs up and down the keyboard, and other such devices that are to be found in nearly every concerto composed for the past 200 hundred years or more.
So, listening to one after another, I found myself thinking, oh, boy, that’s not a model to follow. Do something different than that. That, of course, has made my work on this piece rather more difficult. The challenge with every bar has been to write something that will not sound too much like those I’ve just heard, and switched off well before getting to the end, with my reaction being best summarized by words like “meh” or “oy.”
Whether or not I succeed is another question, as yet unanswered. However it winds up, it will not be a pianistic tour de force.
News flash. My latest album, TRANSFIGURATION, will be released on Friday, July 23. A COVID project, the album includes music for 2, 3 and 4 violas, all performed by Brett Deubner, at the height of the shutdown, alone at Kaleidoscope Studios in Union City, NJ, while I watched/listened on-line from home.
SEA AND SKY. For 2 violas. Music composed while watching the waves roll in on the beach at Cape Cod.
SONATINE. For 3 violas. Music composed for a family of string players I had occasion to meet during the time I was living & working in Philadelphia.
TRANSFIGURATION. For 4 violas. Music inspired by the thought that no matter our faults, we are all capable of change and can be better.
To purchase, click the BUY button. BUY
For those recorded musicians in the U.S., sharing a letter to send to your representative in Congress in support of the American Music Fairness Act.
For nearly a century, American radio stations have exploited a loophole in the law that has enabled them to broadcast music without compensating the music makers behind the sound recording. This injustice has allowed major broadcast radio conglomerates to earn billions of dollars annually without a single cent going to the artists, performers, instrumentalists, and producers who make the music. This loophole has left American artists and studio professionals as one of the lone professions in the world where their work can be taken without permission and without compensation.
Fortunately, the bipartisan American Music Fairness Act (AMFA) (H.R. 4130) was recently introduced in the House to right this wrong. AMFA establishes a terrestrial performance right for sound recordings, and ensures that artists and music makers are fairly compensated when their songs are played on AM/FM radio, just like they are on competing digital, online, and streaming platforms. By establishing a performance right, the bill would also unlock foreign royalties earned, but not collected, by American creators whose music is played overseas. And, AMFA supports true local radio stations with important safeguards that protect small, medium, and non-profit community broadcasters.
In the recent past, Congress has proven that it can work together to advance creators’ rights and keep America as a beacon of creativity. Now, I hope, Congress can continue these important reforms and close the antiquated radio loophole.
Please support music makers, and co-sponsor the American Music Fairness Act.
This week was the 50th anniversary of Stravinsky’s death. For a long time now, I have often thought to myself, “why do I so rarely hear Stravinsky’s music on the radio anymore.” Of course, with this anniversary, his music was back on the radio – but for how long? Just for the week? When I was a young music student, Stravinsky as a composer was in the pantheon of the composing gods! What a master! What made his work fall, to a large extent, out of favor?
At least in my own mind, I have always thought of Stravinsky as the musical equivalent of Picasso. Yes, they remain associated with one another because of their work together, but beyond that, Stravinsky, as was Picasso, was an artistic chameleon over the course of his career. Listening to his entire body of work, he transforms himself, much in the way that Picasso did, going through different “periods” – always exploring, always re-inventing himself.
There are many great artists of the same period whose work I love, but whose entire body of work is of a whole. Miro, Dubuffet, Mondrian are examples – they invented their own language and explored every nook and cranny of that world – but still, as delightful as is their art, they were one trick ponies. Not so, Picasso, and certainly not so, Stravinsky. If one did not already know Stravinsky’s body of work, and were listening to his music from different periods, one could hardly conclude you were listening to the same composer.
And such inventiveness! He covers the gamut – minimalist, classicist, modernist, romantic, impressionist, serialist. And when I tune into New Sounds on occasion, it is hard to imagine much of what I hear there being composed without Stravinsky paving the way – whether they know it or not!
During the fall of 2020, while in the midst of listening to hundreds of albums that had been submitted for consideration for a Grammy award, I had the great pleasure of discovering the music of composer Kenneth Fuchs. That led, at some point, to our having a Zoom conversation, and to our staying in touch via social media and an occasional email – and also, to my listening to his other albums. I took an instant liking to his work – passionate, filled with beauty, and laid out with that beautiful logic of ideas that, when I hear it, I love so much about music.
In a reply to a recent Facebook post of mine in which I revealed my distaste for most, if not all, of the music that came out of the “experimental music” scene of the 1960s, Kenneth sent me a link to the liner notes to his most recent album, Point of Tranquility. In it, he described his path to becoming a composer – one very, very different from mine. This was a story of a young man who knew what he wanted from an early age, beginning with his high school music teacher, who laid the groundwork for him as a composer. Step by step, through college and beyond, he seems to have consciously taken steps to learn his craft and to connect with those who could help him achieve his goal.
I, on the other hand, have always acknowledged to myself that I was a “late bloomer.” I never did figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, instead, falling into an entirely accidental career. While always loving music, it wasn’t until my high school years that, under the tutelage of an inspiring piano teacher, I first became obsessed with playing piano and started practicing from four to ten hours a day – and cutting many a high school class in order to do just that in the practice room at my high school. Even my choice of high school indicates my cluelessness at the time. I loved music, but passed on attending Music and Art, and chose the Bronx High School of Science instead, thinking maybe I’d go into the sciences – only to later wind up playing piano all of the time. When it came time to select a college, I only applied to one – the Manhattan School of Music – much to the distress of my mother. I had no aspiration to actually become a professional musician and no clue how to go about doing that even if I wanted to, but just knew that I had no desire to study anything else other than music, and didn’t want to look at other colleges.
Starting at Manhattan in 1970, I really was clueless. I had no idea how limited my knowledge of music was, or what it took to become a musician. I just went to classes, soaked up everything that was being taught – but my piano lessons suffered right from the start as a result of an intense case of tendonitis from bad practicing habits. While I made progress, at some point the light dawned on me that the depth of understanding of music that I witnessed in the MSM faculty was not something I was going to achieve just from practicing the piano – and made the decision to switch from a piano to a music theory major.
That turned out to be a great decision for me. I loved studying theory – and spent the next years at MSM endlessly studying scores, analyzing music, and working my way through all of the albums in MSM’s vast music library. But, the end goal of all of that – I didn’t even give it a thought. I just enjoyed it immensely and worked hard at it, but without ever considering how I might actually earn a living at the end of it all. To earn money, I started giving private piano and theory lessons, worked for a number of years teaching theory at a local music school in the Bronx and also in MSM’s Preparatory Division – but all the while, knowing that I had no desire to continue doing that for the rest of my life. I have one distinct memory from that time, sitting in the cafeteria with other theory teachers at MSM during lunchtime, and thinking to myself, if I have to spend a lifetime doing this, I’ll shoot myself. A life spent discussing music as if it was the only thing in life that mattered, seemed utterly boring to me. I was looking for more.
Yet, after taking a few years break, during which I married and had a child, I went back to MSM for a Masters degree, again in music theory. That period of my life was a fog of craziness, as I juggled teaching, a new family, other part time jobs to make ends meet, and my studies – and somehow squeezing in writing a thesis on the songs of Charles Ives.
And, in and around all of that, I started to write music. Just a few small things here and there to start, but I had ideas in plenty – and my music theory studies provided the grounding knowledge I needed to proceed. I took private composition lessons with two teachers, Joseph Prostakoff and Ursula Mamlok, both of whom couldn’t care less about what music appealed to me, but were focused (fortunately for me) on simply teaching me a set of skills. With Joseph, I started at the beginning, writing simple modal melodies and simple counterpoint, and then gradually working my through music history, writing music in various styles. And despite it having no appeal for me whatsoever, somewhere along the way, I actually wrote 12-tone music, scores long since dispatched to the circular file.
Once my son was old enough to go off to school and during evenings was somewhat independent and could work on his homework and entertain himself, I started to write more. So, the real beginning of me writing regularly didn’t begin until the mid-1980s, by which time I already had a job outside of music that was very demanding of my time. That decision was made shortly after my son was born, recognizing that I couldn’t earn a satisfactory living as a music teacher (nor did I want to do that full-time), and needed to find something else to do with my life. That led to a quite accidental career, twenty-five years of which were spent at the NYC Transit Authority in various management positions, culminating in my becoming their VP for Contracts, a subject about which I had little knowledge prior to my starting in the job (someone thought I’d be good at it). In the years since, I often worked 12 or more hours every day, and then wrote music in whatever spare time was left, managing to write three or four pieces a year, during most years. My love for and interest in early music shaped much of what I was writing, applying compositional techniques that I gleaned from scores of the great composers of late medieval and Renaissance music – and gradually, I found my way to my own musical voice.
All these years of writing, I listened, of course, to new music – but often felt like I’d been born in the wrong time. During the ’80s and ’90s, I would become involved with various groups of composers, most of whom were writing 12-tone compositions, which were still the rage in colleges, and felt like a lost soul in their midst. Then, as new trends began, the most popular of which turned out to be minimalism, once again, I knew my music was an outlier. Minimalism was, plain and simply, deadly dull – a progression of repeating simple ideas waiting for something to happen, with no coherent structure or logic.
The one idea that I hung onto throughout, was that ALL of the elements of music (melody, counterpoint, harmony, rhythm, timbre, tonal relationships, structure) are necessary for music to impart a story – and have lasting emotional impact. My favorite works of music are like good, life-long friends. They are unique, they have their own personality, and they are complex and interesting creatures. Leave out any of the basic elements of music, and something is lost. And the greatest musical sin, in my view, is writing music that is emotionally detached. Interesting rhythms or timbres, perhaps, but if the composer seems to be hiding from their emotions, I lose all interest.
Back to where this started, I find all of these elements in Kenneth’s music – despite the very different way we got here or the different ways in which we approach writing music. Thankfully, there seem to be many more composers nowadays who think similarly, although I still find myself clicking off the music on many contemporary music radio channels, wondering to myself, what the heck, how did that make its way onto the radio?
And, yes, I am a late (very late) bloomer. It is only now, that I have stopped working full-time after a nearly 40 year career outside of music, that I have the luxury of time to write the major works that, over the years, I often dreamed about writing, but lacked the time. I only hope that the late start doesn’t banish my music to some composer purgatory, and that opportunities will arise for it all to be heard.
A friend in Germany, a viola d’amore player, asked me to compose something for a program she is planning based on Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, whose narrator is a viola d’amore player. Hunting around the house, I found an old, worn copy of the novel, probably Renee’s, as I don’t remember reading it before. Starting into its early pages, I am already hooked, after finding that, in addition to its many-layered themes, it is practically a music theory treatise.
In a chapter describing the music lessons given to the protagonist in his youth, Mann writes that half of each lesson was given over to discussions of philosophy and poetry. It was the teacher’s belief that “music itself, the goal of his teaching, if it were pursued one-sidedly and without connection with other fields of form, thought, and culture, seemed to him a stunting specialization, humanly speaking.”
Sharing that thought, as it is a good one. I remember thinking, when a conservatory student, the same thing – although not nearly as clearly. All everyone thought about or spoke about was music, music, music – but where was the rest of life? Both Renee and I, at the time, went outside the school to study at nearby universities and transfer the credits, so we could broaden our education. How could the music be any good if it was not informed by the rest of life – and knowledge and experience of other things. And, as focused as I am today on music, I’m so glad I did that back then. My music world is as much informed by ideas, by stories, by literature, by the swirl of world events, by history, by myth, as it is by anything purely musical. It is all of that together that breathes life into the music, which then music can breathe back into life.
Recently, listening to some music by a beginning composer, got me thinking about all of the elements of music – and the importance for any aspiring composer to gain mastery of all of those elements and incorporate them into their work. The basic building blocks, so to speak, of music include pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, tonality, texture, dynamics, timbre and form. Ignoring for the moment that different people may have slightly different lists, my purpose here is simply to convey the idea that music is a language made up of different elements – and the employment of those in combination is the art of composition.
Although it is no doubt a matter of taste, music compositions that are missing any of these basic building blocks leave me cold. As examples, while I intellectually understand what led to the attempt by so many to write music that avoids tonality, the push and pull of notes around tonal centers, whether long term or fleeting, for me is one of the critical elements that allows music to effect listeners emotionally. It is certainly not the only element that does so, but it is of such great importance, that it is not surprising to me that so called “atonal” music never captured a wider audience. Similarly, music that consists primarily of shifting harmonies but without melody, feel to me like empty music – and when I hear it, in my own imagination, I always find myself filling in the missing elements. That is the case for me with the majority of so called “minimalist” music. I can’t listen for more than a minute before I find myself desperately waiting for a melody to give it shape and direction. While it is apparent that music intended for quiet meditation has greatly influenced many composers over the past several decades, and listening to such compositions serves that purpose well, I rarely have the least desire to listen to it as music for music’s sake. The greatest pleasure for me, when listening to a new composition, is intently following the trail of the composer’s musical thought, mentally walking down a road with twists and turns, seeing interesting sights along the way as the music reveals its story and ultimate destination.
That sense of “going somewhere” in music is the essence of form – and by form, I do not mean to infer the use of the word as a description of classical forms – but any form that the composer creates to allow the music to tell its story. The greatest challenge, at least for me when composing, is making decisions about when to state something, when to counter that statement, whether to transition to something else – or to do so abruptly, when to repeat, when to contrast, and when to end. And, to do any of those things requires the manipulation of everything else – melody, counterpoint, textures, timbres, harmony, rhythm, and so on. Without the interplay of all of that, to create a musical “being” that seems to have its own personality and life, filled with thoughts, may have on the surface the apparent nature of music – but lacks the essence of what it is in music that makes it so effectively speak to our hearts.
For musicians, the phrase “fiddling while Rome burns” must come frequently to mind during dark times. But is making music really trivial or irresponsible, as the phrase indicates, in the midst of suffering? It is perhaps self-centered of me to think not, but to the contrary, I believe the arts – and especially music – takes on an even greater importance when the world seems like it is crashing around us. During 2020, so many things are so dreadfully wrong: the coronavirus pandemic, the dangerous sickness that has soaked into the bones of half of the American electorate, the replacement of certainty in knowledge and facts with fantasy and conspiracy theories, the relentless poison of racism in American society, humanity’s steady march towards environmental catastrophe. And yes, when I write that list, the image of Nero and his fiddle do come to mind. Am I irresponsible for spending so much time composing new music in the midst of all this?
Then, I remind myself of the delight and surprise I felt upon first discovering that an exquisite musical gem by Poulanc, his Trois Mouvements Perpetuel, was composed in 1918, while he was in military service and the flu epidemic was raging. There is nothing in the music to suggest the trauma of the world events swirling around him as he wrote it. It is entirely free of grief or anxiety. As terrible as those events were at the time, I realized he understood something profound. The music would last. The terrors of the time would not. Rather than be swayed by events, he kept the longer game in mind, and remained true to his purpose, creating beauty that would be appreciated by so many people, down through the ages, for whom the “news” of his day would be at best, a distant memory, if remembered at all. While there are many actions I can and do take in response to today’s world, I keep Poulanc’s musical reminder in the forefront of my thoughts and keep to my purpose, writing music that is as beautiful as I have the power in me to create.
Despite coronavirus, I’m very thankful that my musical life, inner and outer, is moving along unimpeded. Since March, I have composed many new (and in some instances, impractically ambitious) works, signed with PARMA to produce a new album in collaboration with the great violist Brett Deubner and pianist Thomas Steigerwald, am in the midst of recording various other pieces for multiple violas with Brett playing all parts (a particularly coronavirus type of activity), had a wonderful collaboration with Suzanne Gilchrest writing a brief flute solo for her which she recorded at home. Several of my new works which are the result of my reflections about the pandemic have either been performed or programmed – my new work “1918” will premiere in May 2022 with Sinfonia Toronto, and my songs for voice and cello “An Incalculable Loss” will be video recorded by Camerata Philadelphia (the first song, “Missing Voices,” to a poem by Richard Leach, was already given a virtual performance back in June). Next week, the Umbria Ensemble will premiere my setting of Guillaume de Machaut’s “le lay de plour” and a new album of string quartets will be released in October.
As I said, very thankful for all of this. Now, to come up with what I’ll be writing next!
Thrilled to learn that the Umbria Ensemble, led by cellist Maria Cecelia Berioli, will be premiering my settings of Guillaume de Machaut’s “Le Lay de Plour” at a concert in Switzerland this coming Saturday, September 12th.
Stunned by the recent NY Times front page acknowledging, as of the date of the issue, the nearly 100,000 Americans killed by the coronavirus, I wanted to do something. Reaching out to the poet Richard Leach, with whom I had collaborated previously, he promptly sent me Missing Voices, which I set to music the following day. Somehow, a duet between voice and cello seemed right for his moving words. These are not statistics but individual humans with all of their connected friends and family – and this must be acknowledged, even as we struggle to fathom the depth of such loss.
Then another poet I had reached out to put me in touch with Norman Fischer, who had posted a series of coronavirus poems on his website. Reaching out to him, I was thrilled when he gave permission for me to use his poems for this cycle of songs.
As I write this, the world in slow steps is attempting to return to normal – but nothing has really changed. The virus remains as transmissible and deadly as before governments attempted to halt its spread by implementing social distancing measures. For those at risk, me included, the time to safely venture out and resume a normal life remains out of reach.
This morning, just as I finished the song cycle, now entitled “An Incalculable Loss” from the NY Times headline, I received a video recording of a performance of the first poem, Missing Voices, by Kyle Engler and Stephen Framil, recorded yesterday in the empty Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. Their performance was so beautiful and heartfelt, I wanted to cry while watching it. It will be released as part of Camerata Philadelphia’s upcoming Port City Music Festival, now to be a virtual concert.
Since seeing that devastating NY Times front page a week ago, the world has turned uglier still. Coming of age in the 1960s, I naively imagined that the battles for racial equality which marked the decade would have been largely won by the time I was a senior citizen. It is so terribly depressing to see that so little has changed. Reading the pleas by numerous white governmental officials for calm as protests against the murder of yet another black man by those who are sworn to protect us turn violent, I can only think, where were they for the past several decades? They had the authority and power to do something about it, but did nothing but sustain the status quo. Now, they want everyone to just calm down, so they can wait for this latest incident to age in the news cycle, and then go back to the way things were before. It is exactly the same card politicians play after every mass shooting. Perhaps this time will be different, but given past history, that is depressingly hard to imagine.
Some poignant, pointed lines from Langston Hughes, pertinent as when they were written:
American am I, none can deny:
He who oppresses me, him I defy!
I am Dark Youth
Seeking the truth
Of a free life beneath our great sky.
For two months, while writing my symphonic impressions of Hart Crane’s epic poem of America, The Bridge, I was reading his biography and various critiques of his poem. By and large, it seems to me that he was badly misunderstood, even by the most generous of his critics. The consensus seemed to be that The Bridge failed to achieve the poet’s far-reaching ambitions. Many of the critics compared one poem to another and felt that he was mistaken to include poems which they considered to be weak.
The more I read the poem, the more convinced I became that he was right – and they wrong. The poem seemed to me to be like a great symphony, in which not every moment could be equally ecstatic in its language. For the great moments in a musical work to shine, there also have to be quieter, less profound moments, by comparison with which the stunning moments shine all the brighter. The music must ebb and flow – as does Crane’s poem as it moves from poem to poem.
His critics also seemed to struggle with the surface level incomprehensibility of his language. Certainly, Crane employs language in a way that most intentionally reaches beyond any usual logical framework, but seems more interested in the sound and rhythms of the words. He also is a time traveler. In the middle of a sentence, he can shift his view to incorporate events that in the real world may have taken place hundreds of years apart, but in his mental landscape are brought together by some internal thread of connection. As I read his words, rather than focus on trying to understand them in a normal way, I simply let the words flow past me, like music does, following their own logic, and then they seem to open, like mysterious flowers, evoking innumerable other associations.
Crane evidently was intensely responsive to music and the poem contains numerous musical references. Reading through the poems, they begin to sing. When writing the symphony, it was fascinating to research the various musical references, find the tunes on-line, and incorporate them, mostly but not always disguised, into the score. His survey of the American geographic, historical and cultural landscape is full of sound – folk songs, hymns, Broadway tunes, jazz. In the poems, there are hurdy-gurdies, nickelodeons, grind organs and burlesque theater bands. At least to my understanding, he was carefully writing words that rhythmically arose from these remembered musical references, as they evoke the sounds of America, in its many guises. The voice of America that he captured was multi-faceted, like ancient gods, ranging from the most mundane and crass to the visionary and creative.
February 11, 2020 – a delightful morning at Kaleidoscope Studio, with violinists Mariella Haubs and Jocelyn Zhu – recording BORDER CROSSINGS. Filmed and recorded by Randy Crafton. There’s a story behind the making of BORDER CROSSINGS. While driving somewhere or other, I caught an interview with Mariella and Jocelyn on the radio, describing their experiences traveling to refugee camps in Europe and the Americas playing music for refugees from countries around the world. Given the intensity of the current debate about immigration in the United States – and my own beliefs about the issue – immediately upon arriving home I found them on the internet and reached out to offer music in support of their great cause.
We arranged to chat over coffee in a small cafe at Lincoln Center shortly afterwards – which led to my composing Border Crossings for them. The music was written while holding an image in my mind of the two of them walking into some refugee camp somewhere, opening up their violin cases, and starting to play. Music intended to provide solace, as only music can do, to people from all walks of life facing some of the most traumatic experiences that people can face. Music that creates a conversation between the two instruments that crosses the borders that are imaginary and artificial, let lead to so much grief in the world.
I have been a CMA member for a very long time, but never an active one. This past week I attended my first CMA conference. Let’s face it. I’m most happy when all by myself writing music – and it’s flowing. Networking is not my comfort zone – although years in business, including attending many industry conferences, has made me somewhat inured to it. Nevertheless, I had to drag myself off to this one – but once there, was happily surrounded by presenters, performers, artist representatives and composers – in every direction. We’ll see if some of the folks I momentarily connected with turn out to be lasting relationships. That would be nice. In any case, I heard three days of great chamber music, new, old, classic, jazz.
But, very happy to be home, back in my attic, solitary, writing music again.
A good musical start to 2020. Upcoming release of my new album “and I paint stars with wings” with performances of several works for string orchestra plus soloists with Camerata Philadelphia, Brett Deubner and Peggy Yu; followed by release of another album of string quartets, performed by Camerata Philadelphia string players.
The Deubner-Steigerwald Duo will be performing my music for viola and piano at the Aaron Copland School of Music, evening of March 2nd; and Camerata Philadelphia, along with Mozart and Beethoven, will perform my recently composed “The Aim was Song” for soprano and cello, “Two Ballads” for soprano, clarinet, cello and piano, and “Aphorisms IV” for cello and piano. Performances are March 14th at the Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Sq, Philadelphia and March 15th at the Treddyfrin Public Library, both at 3 pm. Mark your calendars!
Then recordings! Border Crossings for 2 violins will be recorded by Concerts for Compassion, my solo viola and viola/piano pieces by the Deubner-Steigerwald Duo, and an album of my music for voice and early instruments by the Pandolfis Consort in Vienna late in the spring.
As 2019 draws to a close and I reflect on the past year, I realize that so many good things, both musical and otherwise, have come about. While I am grateful for that, I find that my music has become more and more informed by the times we find ourselves in, where the world seems on the edge of threats that are as great, if not more so, than anything experienced since the great wars of the last century.
Perhaps there is little that musicians can do to alter what is to come – after all, we are not leaders of powerful nations or corporations with vast resources – but, then, perhaps there is, within our own framework, a lot we can offer. It is music, after all, that is the most potent of artistic vehicles for effecting the emotions and altering the way people think and feel. And we musicians, through our art, can express something direct about such critical issues as global warming, human dignity and human rights, war and peace.
My own recent work has certainly been effected by a strong desire to create music that does more than entertain, but moves people to think about the urgent problems all of us face today. I was very grateful that over the course of this year I was able to work with wonderful musicians towards fulfilling this ambitious goal, recording several orchestral works – Pavanne to a World Without War, In Praise of Reason, The Four Elements (a song to the earth for viola and orchestra) – and an album of string quartets including Afterwards, there were no more wars and Dreaming of a Better World.
My recent orchestral works are also reflective of this intention – a violin concerto, Gaia’s Lament, composed following Greta Thunberg’s recent visit to the United Nations; Declaration of Peace, for chamber orchestra (which was premiered this year in my home state of New Jersey and received a second performance in Philadelphia); my song cycles for soprano and orchestra Everything Passes, setting several Zen poems and Against War, setting seven powerful anti-war poems gathered from an anthology called Poets Against the War; and two ‘nature’ symphonies, Summer and Season of Rain.
On a smaller scale, Border Crossings, for 2 violins was composed to support Concerts for Compassion as they bring music to refugees around the world; The Children are Crying and The Children are Still Crying, both for saxophone quartet, were composed in protest against the current administration’s crimes against humanity along our southern border; and chamber setting of poems by Rose Auslander and Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger were composed as a reminder that the Holocaust is not forgotten – and its repetition possible given the rise in populism across the globe.
Although a steady diet of world news can lead to a sense of despair about our fate, music is a saving grace – and through my music, I strive to be optimistic that our better nature will prevail.
For whatever reason, mostly while out walking lately, I’ve been thinking about the composers that have most influenced me – and whose music I never tire of hearing – and creating mental lists.
Symphonists: Bruckner, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Mahler, Hovhaness
Symphonists who I don’t particular go out of my way to hear anymore, but who had the greatest influence: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Debussy
Opera composers: Monteverdi, Purcell, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Britten, Janacek
Keyboard: Bach, Scarlatti, Couperin, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin
Vocal: Machaut, Dufay, Lassus, Palestrina, Monteverdi, Schutz, Bach
For now, “and I paint stars with wings…” is the tentative title of my upcoming album, a line from one of the Fernando Rielo poems in Mystical Songs. The editing and mixing of the recording is all done, with kudos to Ralph Farris and Randy Crafton for their help in producing/engineering the recording. The new album presents my concerto for viola and string orchestra, The Four Elements; Pavanne to a World Without War; In Praise of Reason, for solo cello, horns and string orchestra; and Mystical Songs, for soprano, viola solo and string orchestra. It was thrilling to work with great artists to get this recording in the can – Camerata Philadelphia led by Stephen Framil, viola soloist Brett Deubner and soprano Peggy Yu.
Immersed in setting several brief poems about impermanence for soprano and chamber orchestra, coupled with my having read this morning a passage by the Dalai Lama, thoughtfully posted on Facebook by Peter Levitt, while on a long morning walk, I got to reflecting on how even the smallest of actions, over time, can unexpectedly snowball, causing, with all of those infinite billiard balls out there colliding with one another and spinning off in different directions, endless unanticipated results – in other words, the butterfly effect.
Given my own interests, I thought about what the world might have been like had Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or other inspiring composers, died in infancy, or chosen to spend their time differently than working diligently in solitude, often in cramped, uncomfortable quarters, scribbling down notes on paper. Could they have imagined the power those black dots would have far into their futures? Countless numbers of musicians practicing to interpret the notes, people deciding to leave their homes to hear that music in concert halls with all of the collisions of life along the way, and hundreds of years later, people moving their thumbs to download the sound of those notes onto little handheld machines, with headphones on, listening as they walk about. Continual impacts on the thoughts and emotions that fill humanity and translate into how people act.
Then I thought about the powerful men, who in their own time, crashed into the world with tremendous impact, stirring up wars, fiercely wielding the levers of power, and more often than not, leaving terror and despair in their wake. Yet, however big the splash they made while alive, over time, the ripples fade and disappear, until, like Ozymandias, they are entirely still, swallowed up by the lone and level sands, their influence null, while the works of the world’s great artists and thinkers carries on, palaces of the mind built to last.
And all the while, music reflecting impermanence was floating around, the sounds of brass, strings and woodwinds, swelling into a roar, then disappearing into silence. Too bad, that with my memory, most of these sounds are as ephemeral as dreams, never lasting long enough to get down on paper.
Several years ago, I got a Facebook friend request from Charl Cilliers, through the common connection of pianist Beth Levin. At the time, I thought nothing of it, but as time went by, I started noticing the poetry Charl posted – and grew to love his writing. Finding one of his posted poems particularly touching and beautiful, I set it to music and sent it to Charl – and that started what turned out to be long distance, virtual perhaps, but nevertheless important friendship for me. He emailed me volumes of his poems, and I kept writing. Wanting to do more than that, I eventually decided to produce an album of art songs, starting with the poems from Charl that I had worked on.
That album came out in 2018, with beautiful performances of the Cilliers songs by soprano Nancy Allen Lundy with pianist Stephen Gosling. After the release of the album, I tried contacting Charl, but never heard back, and guessed that he had become ill and unable to respond. He had already stopped posting new poems or, as he did prolifically, posting beautiful photos of nature on his Facebook page. Searching on-line for his next of kin, I did continue to have occasional contact with his children, and it was through his daughter that I learned that he passed away in his sleep yesterday.
I mourn his passing. There was, I hoped, more poems to come from him.
I didn’t start out writing music that was influenced at all by world affairs. My music was more internalized, just writing down the sounds I was hearing, and trying to write as beautiful music as I am capable of writing. However, over the past decade, more and more of my music has been composed in direct response to current events – in protest of the direction in which our world seems headed, particularly the rise of political populism, both here in the U.S. and abroad. The world, since the end of WW II, seemed, despite ups and downs, generally headed in a good direction – but no longer. How people, and by extension, nations, should behave, always seemed simple to me. But, apparently not to others, who increasingly are filled with fear and anxiety – and are acting out the worst tribalistic instincts that have plagued humanity throughout history. A violent, sordid history whose lessons we never seem to learn. It seems easy to do better than this, but somehow, humankind, in the whole, never fails to disappoint. The weak of mind are led by the worst.
Music written either in protest of the worst or in hope for the best —
The Violin Sings in a Common Language (soprano, violin)
Blossoms (soprano, viola d’amore, cello)
Dreaming of a Better World (string quartet)
Lonely Voices (string quartet)
Border Crossings (2 violins)
The Children are Crying (saxophone quartet)
The Children are Still Crying (saxophone quartet)
Middle Ground (string quartet)
Afterwards, there were no more wars (string quartet)
An Ode to the Possibility of Peace (clarinet, violin, cello)
In Praise of Reason (cello, 2 horns, string orchestra)
Against War (orchestra)
Declaration of Peace (chamber orchestra)
Pavanne to a World Without War (string orchestra)
I am still on a high after completing two days of recording with Camerata Philadelphia, getting beautiful takes for my next album of Pavanne for a World Without War, Mystical Songs, The Four Elements and In Praise of Reason. It was a great pleasure to work with such fine musicians — Stephen Framil (music director and cello soloist); Peggy Yu (soprano); Brett Deubner (viola soloist) and the string players of Camerata. The music was recorded at Morningstar Studios in Norristown, PA, which turned out to be an ideal choice for this music. Produced by Ralph Farris and engineered by Randall Crafton.
Thanks to all for playing (and producing and engineering) with such heart —
Music Director, Conductor & Cello Soloist
Luigi Mazzocchi, Concertmaster
Gared Crawford, Principal
Petula Perdikis, Principal
Branson Yeast, Principal
Miles Davis, Principal
While most of my songs set to music words by poets writing in English, so far I have also set poems in German, French, Spanish, Polish and Afrikaans. Some of the poems I’ve set in other languages, I’ve found set to music by others using English translations. Most recently, I chanced across a recording of music by George Crumb, setting the first of the poems from Lorca’s suite “la selva de los relojes.” Forest of Clocks.
While I am dependent upon translations and lots of page turning through dictionaries to delve into the words of a foreign language poem – and lots of listening, if I can find them, to recordings of the poems being read aloud – to capture the phrasing and rising and falling intonations of the words – I always decided against using an English translation. Somehow, the translations never quite capture the original intent and flow of the poems, so I struggle along to get the sound of the original language into my head. Many composers do not. The Crumb version of the Lorca poem, while great music, somehow, to my mind, failed to capture the sound world of Lorca’s Spanish text.
It is also fascinating to me how the shape of the musical lines and the rhythms that spring to mind when writing in another language change dependent upon the language. The melodies in my Spanish songs would never have come out the way they did if I had been setting an English translation. The accents and rhythms of Spanish are just too different from English and open the door to a different set of sounds.
And while I love the translations I have of Rilke’s poetry, I somehow couldn’t imagine setting his words in anything other than his original German (or French as the case may be).
Writing music is (mostly) a beautiful experience. Sometimes frustrating when stuck, but mostly exhilarating when musical ideas come floating to mind, one after another. It does feel like one is absolutely dependent upon the whim of hidden muses. But – when that work is done, comes tweaking and editing – and even more tedious – generating and editing the parts for publication. Not so bad for smaller works, but for music for large ensembles, it is a task that I have to force myself to do, but dread doing. Deadly dull. And, then there’s taping the parts for performance. Still worse. Mind numbingly dull – and I’m always afraid of making mistakes due to inattention and accidentally taping the wrong pages together. Doing that now for an upcoming recording session. Parts for 4 works for string orchestra, with 17 players. I’m getting into a rhythm – about 25 minutes per part. Very tempted to drink heavily while doing this task – but somehow, that wouldn’t make it better.
Sitting on my piano at the moment, waiting for the arbitrary moments I sit down, open up a score and play pages at random, are the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, and my frequent go-to music, the complete Schubert piano sonatas. Recently, for the first time, I’ve been spending time with the D major sonata. As happens with Schubert, as much as I generally love his work, he occasionally deeply disappoints, marring an otherwise wonderful work with singularly uninspired music. At the encouragement of my friend Karen, when running across such music, I’ve taken to writing letters to the dead – and who knows, maybe there will be an answer!
First and foremost, I want to express my deep gratitude to you for all of the wonderful music that you left behind. It is my pleasure to report that the world has made amends, by giving your great music the attention it deserved, but failed to receive in your lifetime. Your glorious melodies and harmonic adventurousness have been recognized by the world and your music is performed everywhere in concert halls and on an invention you may or may not appreciate – the radio.
Over the years, playing through your collected piano sonatas has been a great source of pleasure and solace for me. Of late, I’ve been reading through your D major sonata, which for inexplicable reasons, I hadn’t previously read. The second and third movements are, so far, my favorites and are fine examples of your great talent. However, I am stumped at the last movement rondo, and despite repeated tries, can’t get through it without closing the book with a deep sigh, wondering, what you might have been thinking. Without overly criticizing, it simply isn’t a match for the preceding movements. It has scattered moments of beauty, but these don’t overcome the overall lack of any meritorious ideas. I wonder what might have been going on in your life at the time you were working on it. When abandoned by the muses, why not wait for their return before committing pen to paper?
I realize that you are still busy writing glorious music, so don’t feel obliged to write back – but if you should find a moment, it be delightful to hear from you.
There are always wars, declared or undeclared. If I had my way, I’d just make a declaration of peace, and stop right there. Continuing with my usual obsession, just got to the last bars of my own “Declaration of Peace” for chamber orchestra. Now it needs to rest, tweaking to follow. A single movement, 12 minutes, scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings.
Finishing touches done, and scores/parts now posted, of Les Roses, setting four poems from Rilke’s French set Les Roses. Composed in response to not being able to get the sound of Hana Blazikova’s soprano accompanied by Bruce Dickey’s cornetto out of my mind. The songs are set in two versions, one with accompaniment by chamber organ, and a second with a treble viol.
I’m not sure for what reason, perhaps the turmoil of our age that preoccupies me, but of late, I’ve been drawn more than usual to the idea of the invisible world around us. Never of a religious bent, yet, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to thinking about the unseen world that is all about us. It was Blake who said it most simply – to see a world in a grain of sand – and Rilke, who to my mind, comes always the closest to evoking a sense of the swirl of life all around us that we don’t see. Such thoughts have also drawn me to reading (without much understanding) so many books about particle physics, as it pleases me to imagine the countless particles streaming invisibly through the universe – through me – and passing through all matter without obstacle. And, music, it goes without saying, is the medium that I believe best communicates these feelings. Overtones, for example, with their simple physical explanation, will yet always seem magical, the invisible world at work in the visible (or audible) world. Although never evident to our senses, it is all that is real, and the everyday nonsense that so arouses everyone’s passions that is illusion. It is this hidden world that I seek to convey, to the extent of my ability, with my music.
It must be going on 50 years ago when I first read anything by Rilke, sometime in my late teens or early twenties. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and selected poems. I didn’t understand him at the time and it made no great impression. It was only many years later that I rediscovered his works – and then, having arrived at a different understanding of my own life – and life in general – it left me thunderstruck. And still does. His poetry – and I can think of no other voice than his that does so in such a convincing way – manages to depict the reality of an inner, ephemeral world that is a true reality. He doesn’t look at things and describe them. He shows us the meaning behind the appearances. Lacking his gift, my attempt to describe what I see in his words falters, but it has something to do with the realization that nothing we perceive reflects reality. That is an evident fact, although one that is all too easily forgotten. Nothing we perceive through our senses is the real thing, because it all comes to us as a translation. We only see what our brain interprets from the signals that arrive from the outside. Other than indirectly, we cannot perceive the swirls of energy and particles that surround us, fill the world with energy, and are the foundation of our being. Other than Rilke, there is, perhaps, William Blake, who wrote “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” but, somehow, Blake’s strange imagery never spoke to me, nor does he, to my mind, hit that invisible mark so consistently as to reveal its secrets.
Rilke’s poems sing to me and I’ve set many of them to music. My favorite of many volumes is “The Poetry of Rilke” as translated and edited by Edward Snow. It was working from that volume that I composed my cycles of Rilke Songs, Songs of Loss and Remembering and selections from the Sonnets of Orpheus, not daring to attempt the Duino Elegies (maybe one day).
But the Snow edition only includes his poetry in German and it was only recently that I’ve begun devouring his French poems, having not previously realized that, after descending from the mountain of the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus, he wrote over four hundred poems in French. I am now threading my way through the labyrinth of “The Complete French Poems” as translated by A. Poulin. The volume begins with “Les Roses” in which, over the course of 27 poems, he explodes the image of the rose into a metaphor for, well, everything. Worlds lie within the folds of this many-petaled flower. Yesterday, I set the 2nd poem to music –
Je te vois, rose, livre entrebaîllé,
qui contient tant de pages
de bonheur détaillé
qu’on ne lira jamais. Livre-mage,
qui s’ouvre au vent et qui peut être lu
les yeux fermés…,
dont les papillons sortent confus
d’avoir eu les mêmes idées.
Such images, of petals like pages in a book of wisdom, opened by the wind, out of which emerge stunned butterflies…
More songs to come, but I haven’t yet decided on the instrumentation. Any of you out there who sing – and want to sing these songs to come – write back.
Then, after roses, come windows!
Last night, I attended a concert by Sonnambula, an early music consort, at the Cloisters. Their program was built around works by Leonora Duarte, one of the few women composers from the period whose music has survived. The music aside, the focus on Duarte added layers of thought about her life, the Jewish diaspora, the nexus of cultures that flourished in Antwerp during the 17th century. And then, of course, one wonders, with her talent, what her life might have been like were it not for the limitations imposed on her because of her sex. Instead of the world visiting her in her father’s household, she would have been out and about, visiting the world.
First, I want to say I am an avid fan of your music, finding your voice one that most uniquely captures the broadest range of human emotion, from the depths of despair, to adoration, to unembarrassed silliness. However, on a walk today, I was listening once again to your 15th symphony, and felt obliged to write, hopefully not bothering you too much during your long sleep, to ask about that first movement. I know that you purportedly told someone that you didn’t know yourself why you included all of the musical quotations in this work, but felt nonetheless obliged to include them – but perhaps since then, with so much time available for introspection, you may have discovered your internal motivation.
The 1st movement simply seems so out of place with the rest of the symphony. At the start, as always, I enjoyed following your train of musical thought, beginning with the long flute solo, a melody so characteristically yours. But, then upon the first appearance of the frantically paced repetitions of the theme from William Tell Overture, I could only wonder, what on earth were you thinking? Why this? As the movement concludes and the 2nd movement begins, with its haunting cello solo, you returned to what you, and only you, manage to express in music, the sounds heard by someone whose eyes have seen terrors. The ultimate grief. Yet, throughout, my thoughts kept returning to the 1st movement, wondering what the connection is, as it seems not to remotely belong to the same world as the music that follows it. In your other works, despite the extreme contrasts, the whole somehow always seems connected, to all come together as a unified statement – but with this 15th symphony, that 1st movement stands apart from the rest, as if to say, I don’t know them, and I have nothing to do with the rest of that humanity who is crying out. Your later quotations from Wagner, while attention grabbing, didn’t seem quite so out of place, as the quotation brought to mind the entire mythos that he created and absorbed that into your own world.
Anyway, I’ll await your reply. Perhaps it will come to me in a dream one of these nights, as the sounds and sentiments expressed by your music visit me in my sleep.
With best regards,
Most Saturday afternoons, I read through music for piano four hands with my good friend Karen Littlefield. As time goes by, I search further and further afield, always on a search for new music. My go to source, as always, is the International Music Library (IMSLP). Yesterday, I downloaded a sonata for four hands by the French composer George Onslow. I’ve heard several of his pieces previously, so seeing he had a four hands piece, it was worth a try. While I wouldn’t call the music profound, it was nevertheless a pleasure to play – and certainly worthy of being heard. I did find one video on YouTube of a performance. As Karen likes to tell me, after we play these, I should write a blog entitled “letters to dead composers” and share with them our thoughts. I can say that even with major known composers, somewhere in the piece, we will find an occasional section that causes us to pause and say “huh, whatever was he thinking when he wrote these bars?” Happy to say, such a letter to George Onslow, would not include any similar comment. All around, good job, George!
Onslow (1784-1853) did not break any new ground, at least so far as I can tell from the several pieces I’ve heard, which was likely the reason for the decline in his reputation over time. However, he certainly was a composer who knew what he was about, and so having played through this one work, I look forward to acquainting myself with more of his work. From this piece, he has a sure sense of form and counterpoint, and writes some striking melodies and harmonic shifts, although all within a classical/romantic framework.
Whenever I read criticism of Bruckner’s symphonies, usually something about their length and lack of structure, I am always surprised. To the contrary, from the very first time I heard these works, I was right there, going along for the ride, following his every turn of musical thought. I am far from being a scholar of Bruckner, but have tried without success to discover if he was familiar with Schubert’s last piano sonatas or inspired by them. When listening to any of his symphonies, the final Schubert sonatas always come to mind, as I hear the Bruckner works as taking the next step in a progression that Schubert first contemplated in these final works. Unlike Beethoven, who in his later works experimented with formal structures in a variety of ways, Schubert did not. Instead, he consistently followed classical structures (sonata form, scherzo/trio, rondo) but stretched them out to greater lengths. His pattern of a first movement in sonata form, a second extended song form in slow tempo, a scherzo/trio and a final rondo, can be heard emulated in the Bruckner symphonies. To my mind, they closely follow the model of the Schubert late sonatas, only Bruckner goes well beyond Schubert, taking the concept to new extraordinary lengths.
In doing so, Bruckner achieves, at least to my ears, a music that is “oceanic” in feeling. As his music moves from theme to theme, shifting dramatically from tidal waves of sound to gentle landler, slowly pacing itself, letting the music gradually unfold over long periods of time, for me, more so than any other music I can think of, it opens the door to an unlimited interior expanse. Bruckner was a religious man, but when I hear his music, if he was praying to a God with it, that God was Poseidon. The music speaks of the ocean in all of its moods and in all of its vast expanse.
Yesterday, I completed the score to “Le Lay de Plour,” setting the poem by that name by Guillaume Machaut for contralto, flute, violin, cello and piano. There is a modern day story behind this piece, starting with a chance hearing on YouTube of contralto Laure SLABIAK singing a Bach aria, reaching out to her via Facebook, and then via a string of emails, deciding on the scoring and the texts. I wanted to write something for her in French, and my initial thought was to set poems by Verlaine, adding to the single poem of his, Chanson d’automne, that I had previously set for soprano and violin, included on my latest CD.
But then, after having ordered several volumes of Verlaine’s poetry, I couldn’t find any poems of his that I liked as much or better than Chanson d’automne. The body of his work, to my mind, reflected the outpourings of an anguished, angry and unsettled man. Nothing I wanted to set to music. After searching through numerous poems by French poets over the last century and coming up flat, I turned to the past, and started, for the first time, to examine the poems of Guillaume Machaut. Always a favorite composer, I had never hitherto, thought about his work as a poet or paid the least attention to his words in the music I listened to. Having found the text and his own melodies for “Le Lay de Plour” on-line, I at last found poems that sang to me. Reading on-line, I learned that the lay is a highly complicated poetic form, composed of twelve stanzas of varying length and meter, with no pattern of rhyme repeated from one stanza to the next. That complexity made it all the more interesting as the basis for a musical work, as the variation in lines and rhyme schemes opened up all kinds of possibilities for musical expression, meters, tempos and combinations of instruments.
The score and parts went out yesterday, crossing the ocean in an instant. Now, to hear it…
Americans grow up having it drummed into our minds that our system of government is the best in the world. That belief is shared by Americans across the political spectrum and is a matter of great national pride. However, yesterday, as I absorbed the results of Tuesday’s election, as I have in the past, I wondered whether that is just our own brand of self-brainwashing. Perhaps it is the best, when compared with other systems, and perhaps it isn’t.
Forms of government are the invention of people and people are imperfect, so there is likely no ideal form of government, and ours, however imperfect it may be, may be the best – but perhaps it is not. As I tally up vote counts, I had to wonder, is an ideal government one that persistently thwarts the will of a clear majority of its citizens? Is our government the “best of all possible worlds” when the majority of the nation’s inhabitants are made to feel like an ignored minority and “the enemy of the people?” As the majority, WE ARE the people. Am I my own enemy? I think not.
I leave it to better political minds to think about what the solution might be, but to those who stand by the Constitution as if it had come down from the mountain, I remind them that it was written by men – very good men – but men nonetheless, and written for a particular time. If there is better to had, that would be a better instrument of expression for the majority of this nation’s citizens, it should be considered.
With that thought, I then turned to my music, that perpetual source of beauty and solace, and composed another song, setting the fourth poem in Guillaume Machaut’s “Le Lay de Plour” for Laure Slapiak’s rich, beautiful contralto voice. Just a coincidence, but the words of that poem begin with “Raisons et Droiture…” – Reason and Justice. We could use more of that!
Searching for French poetry to set to music, I started with Verlaine – but after reading the body of his work, came away uninspired. He had a talent for beautiful, sonorous language – but unfortunately, his failures as a human being permeate his poetry. Despite writing one work called Sagesse, wisdom was something that seemed to eternally evade him. After reading lots of poems by various French poets over the past hundred years or so, I finally took a trip further back in time, and turned to the romance poetry of Guillaume Machaut. Always one of my favorite composers, I had never previously explored him as a poet. Why not write new musical settings of his words, without reference to the melodies he himself composed for those words? Started yesterday, and so far, two poems of twelve from his “Le Lay de Plour” are done. On a roll…
Attending the 2018 Congress of the International Viola D’amore Society was a pleasure – and I made some good friends while there. Since then, Gheorghe and Simona Balan have performed my Nocturnes for violin and viola, Marianne Ronez has asked me to set some haiku for soprano and viola d’amore, and Rachel Stott will perform Der Februar in London. Little by little….
On the return trip from Breckenridge yesterday, we stopped for a visit to Denver’s newest museum – the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art. Thanks to Paul Hughes, a museum guide (and former New Yorker and art gallery owner) who gave Renee and I a personal tour of the museum. I had never heard of Vance Kirkland before, but loved his art work. Over the years, he moved through many different styles, creating distinctive and moving work in all of them. Most interesting to me was that he experienced synesthesia and listening to music at night (Mahler, Shostakovich, Bartok) filled his mind with colors which he employed in his painting the next day.
His larger works needed to be painted with the canvas flat on a table – and to reach the center, he floated above the table on a system of straps. In his “dot” paintings of the exploding stars and nebulae in the vast expanse of space, he floated like an astronaut, with no up or down to his paintings. We learned that periodically the museum displays those paintings in different positions, as the artist wanted them to convey the non-directionality of space.
As I stood in front of one of his “dot” paintings, Paul Hughes told me that it was estimated to contain about 75,000 dots. While he told me that to convey the immensity of the painter’s effort, it struck me that, as a composer, that wasn’t a huge number. I lay down thousands of dots all the time.
During these hot summer days, I’ve been hearing music while out walking. Making progress on a new “summer” symphony, having finished a second movement today. The sound of cicadas is in the air.
In response to the Trump administration’s decision to deter migrants from entering the U.S. by separating children from their parents, besides writing a long chain of letters to members of Congress and attending numerous rallies, I felt a need to write this music. At a time when a tape of crying children was hot in the news, with the sound of those terrified children in my ears, saxophones seemed like the right instruments to express that pathos.
I was pleased to hear that saxophonist Paul Cohen has arranged for a quartet of his students to premiere the work this coming Friday, at NYU’s Provincetown Playhouse, 133 McDougal Street, 8pm.
It has been several decades, at least, since I really listened to Shostakovich’s symphonies. However, having been writing for orchestra lately, I had a desire to go back and work my way through them again – and found myself surprised that I found them as intense and profound as I did way back when, even though my musical tastes have changed a bit over the years. I simply loved carefully following the flow of his musical thought – how he moves from moment to moment, when he decides to dive headlong into a contrasting idea, how he develops and morphs a musical thought, or shifts orchestration to paint a theme in an entirely different light. Of course, there are his radical shifts in mood, ranging from the most profound depths of sorrow and despair, to moments that make your spirit soar, to uncontrolled bouts of absurd silliness.
While I can’t say I have a particular favorite, as I listened to them all, I was wondering why it was just the 5th that was taught when I was in the conservatory and it is the 5th that I occasionally hear on the radio – and none of the others. There are several others which I prefer by far. A matter of taste of course, but the ones I’ve now listened to multiple times, without tiring of them, are 7, 8, 10, 11, 12 and 14. I admit I’m still scratching my head over the first movement of #15 – why the theme of the William Tell overture over and over again? There may be an answer to that question that a little research will reveal…
For any readers of this blog who are feeling a bit obsessive, all 15 in a row are on YouTube, conducted by Kirill Kondrashin. 10:39:53. A day well spent.
While visiting London, we spent several hours in Westminster Abbey. While I am generally quite conscious of how much of my interior life is indebted to great men and women of the past who have contributed to the arts and sciences over the centuries, that feeling was particularly acute while roaming through the Abbey. In the first few minutes of our visit, I found myself walking across the spot where John Blow was buried – and said thanks, John, for all of the great keyboard music that I enjoy playing centuries later. We missed it by a day or so, but Stephen Hawkings ashes were laid to rest there this week.
A partial list of what I remember seeing, individuals either buried in the Abbey or for which there were memorial statues (besides English royalty, which like today’s politicians, contribute very little if anything to my inner life, except perhaps to its detriment).
Muzio Clementi, George Handel, Henry Purcell, Charles Stanford, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaugh Williams, Benjamin Britten, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, Isaac Newton, James Maxwell, Paul Dirac, Lord Kelvin, Charles Darwin, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, Ben Jonson, William Blake, Auden, Dylan Thomas, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Chaucer, Byron, Thomas Hardy, Robert Browning, William Turner.
Now and then, I attend a concert that, among the many hundreds I’ve attended, stands out unforgettably. Last night, at London’s Wigmore Hall, the performance of selected late madrigals by Orlando Lassus by the Collegium Vocale Gent was such a concert. From the opening first few seconds of music, I was no longer on this planet (which was a relief). Still not quite back to earth.
My list of such concerts is few – the complete Bach solo violin sonatas and partitas performed in Sainte Chappelle; Mitsuko Uchida performing the last three Beethoven piano sonatas at Carnegie Hall.
Lassus has long been a favorite composer for me. These madrigals represent the height of Renaissance polyphonic vocal writing. Heaven.
Last week I spent several days at the 2018 International Viola D’amore Society Congress. Long story short, Gertrud Schmidt found some of my songs with viola d’amore accompaniment on my website and contacted me to ask to perform them and for me to write a new piece for her, with soprano Berenike Langmaack. They both performed my Rilke Songs along with the new piece, a setting of Erich Kaestner’s “Der Februar” at the Congress this past Friday.
I am thankful that I have the wherewithal to be able to make trips like this one. It was a delightful few days – and much thanks for Gertrud and Berenike for their hospitality. It is wonderful to make new friends! Also, I am guessing that my visit there will inspire more music for the instrument, having heard, over the several days of my visit, viola d’amore music from across centuries.
Last night, I attend a fascinating concert presented by the Hispanic Society of America, entitled “I am Carreno.” Preceded by a short lecture on the life of Teresa Carreno, the program was performed by 4 musicians dressed in mid-19th c. attire, reciting from contemporaneous accounts of Carreno’s performances and performing not only her own music, but music by her many teachers, mentors and students. I did not know about her before this, but from what I learned (and have since read on-line), she was a prodigious talent. Already touring at age 12, she was not only an extraordinarily talented pianist, but could do it all. When meeting Bellini, he recognized her talent, and started her on the road to operatic performance as well, at which she also excelled – and had a career spanning decades as both a pianist, composer, operatic soprano, conductor and impresario.
The program included music by Bellini, Gounod, Liszt, McDowell and others who Carreno either studied with, taught, married or simply met along the path of her extraordinary career. While the performances of these varied works was well done, I have to say that, except for the one Mozart aria, I found all of the music entirely trite. The composers on the program, were, by and large, musical giants who were born with nearly limitless natural skill. But, it reminded me that talent isn’t all. Liszt is, to my mind, the pre-eminent example of this. Another Mozart, except with Mozart’s profundity missing. An incredible talent who wrote an amazing quantity of music that I never want to hear (some exceptions to this, here and there). The compositions on the program, to my mind, mostly belonged in the composer’s trash can rather than in the repertoire. Watching some of them performed, given their level of difficulty, can be impressive – but the musical result just doesn’t merit all of the technical fireworks. The music by Carreno herself that was on the program, fell into that same category. I am curious to listen to more, to see if that is the case, but at least from what I heard last night, as a composer, her musical talent, however amazing, wasn’t enough to join the ranks of the great composers.
While it is an important question, I don’t believe I can define what it is that separates the music that makes my spirit soar from the music which merely entertains (at best) or is annoyingly trivial (at worst).
Dating back to when I stood, as a ten year old, on the Gettysburg battlefield site, at the spot where Pickett began his ill-fated charge, the ease with which men choose to go to war has always entirely baffled me. Always possessed of a vivid imagination, standing there with the sounds and terrors of battle raging in my mind, I had an intense realization that grown-ups who could bring this upon themselves, for any reason, were insane. I knew the world could and should be different, and grown-ups who chose otherwise were not to be trusted.
While I can intellectually explain to myself the many reasons that men are led into war, emotionally I never can quite get it. The logic of peace seems so profound, why invent reasons to go to war – but men do – for all the wrong reasons, whether money, power, boredom, rage or whatever.
A deep underlying belief that peace is possible, despite all evidence to the contrary, has motivated my inner life ever since that sunny afternoon walking across that field of knee high grass. It has certainly motivated my musical life, as I continue to write music intended to inspire thoughts about the possibility of peace. My most recent work in that vein sets, for mezzo soprano and orchestra, seven poems from a powerful anthology edited by the American poet Sam Hamill, in which he collected the best from submissions by over 11,000 poets who responded to his call, in the year following 9/11, for poems to protest the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A side benefit of my working on this music was connecting, via LI and FB, with the poets, sharing the common desire that reasonableness would prevail over war. There is always another way, if people only search for it.
Yesterday afternoon, I attended a remarkable concert by the Nikolai Kachanov Singers, that had a title that captured my attention when I first learned of it – Senseless War. That thought alone got me to attend. The program consisted of two major works by composers who were previously unknown to me: they performed selections from the Patarag (Armenian Divine Liturgy) by Komitas and Amao Omi (Senseless War) by the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli for chorus and saxophone quartet.
Although Komitas studied music in the west, the sounds of Komitas’ Partarag seems grounded in a music that pre-dates Christianity. It feels ancient and mythical. The composer’s story is equally compelling. From the bit I’ve read about him today, he seems to have been the father of ethnomusicology, collecting and preserving Armenian folks songs in an ancient notation that has not survived. In yet another of innumerable examples of “senseless war” Komitas was arrested by the Turks at the beginning of the Armenian genocide. He was rescued, by among others, the American ambassador Henry Morgenthau, but lapsed into insanity from the experience, and never recovered. Much of his collection of Armenian folk music was lost.
Although obviously a composer well-known to others, hearing the music of Giya Kancheli at the concert was a happy discovery for me. The pairing of this work with the Komitas was brilliant – as despite their very different musical language, they seemed to both rise out of the same emotional impetus. Often, the voices blended so with the saxophones that you could hardly tell which you were hearing. Amao Omi is made all the more powerful by the composer’s frequent use of silence – which often spoke as loudly as did the climactic moments in the score.
There is a Music Theory group on Facebook that I enjoy following. The members are a mix of folks who know something about the subject and others who have no idea at all and are trying to find out. Someone asked how knowledge of theory will enable someone to, for instance, perform a Beethoven Sonata better. My answer –
Way back when, what made me switch majors from piano to music theory, was seeing my great piano teacher mark up my scores with pencil, so much so that you could barely see the underlying score. The score meant something to him that I couldn’t see on my own, and as I didn’t want to need someone to interpret the score for me, but wanted to get it myself, I switched to theory – and never looked back. You simply cannot understand the composer’s intentions without knowing what he or she knew about musical structure, harmony, counterpoint, etc. Your ear will only take you so far. It has to be supported by knowledge.
I thought to share some of the music theory books on my shelf that, of the many I’ve read, I found most influential in shaping my thoughts about how music works. In no particular order:
Johann Joseph Fux – The Study of Counterpoint (from Gradus ad Parnassum)
Robert Cogan/Pozzi Escot – Sonic Design: The Nature of Sound and Music
Maury Yeston – The Stratification of Musical Rhythm
Felix Salzer – Structural Hearing: Tonal Coherence in Music
Heinrich Schenker – Five Graphic Music Analyses
The YouTube algorithm does have my musical taste figured out. It suggested a video of a track from a new album, Breathtaking, with soprano Hana Blazikova and cornetist Bruce Dickey. Their playing on this album is superb – and the blending of sound between the human voice and cornetto, for which that historic instrument is renowned, is beautifully demonstrated. That got me listening to more music for cornetto, which in turn, led me to videos of Renaissance “loud” bands, playing music written for instruments intended for outdoor performances. No mics!
With these sounds reverberating in my head, I spent this morning writing a short piece scored for 2 cornettos and 2 sackbuts. For lack of a better name, for now, that is posted on the “chamber music” page with the unoriginal title of Music for Loud Band. There is more music bouncing around in my mind, so no doubt, there will, in time, be additional movements added.
Many years ago, I don’t remember where, I purchased an anthology of poems called Poets Against the War. Published in 2003, edited by poet Sam Hamill, the anthology was culled from some 11,000 or so poems, submitted in response to a poetry symposium planned at the White House by Laura Bush. Upon her realization of what the event could become, she cancelled the symposium. Instead, on the day it was to take place, poetry readings were conducted in over 200 locations around the country.
Ever since reading the book, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to set some of the poems to music. A number of pages had the corners turned down for that purpose, and I had some sketches, but never quite got around to finishing the work. However, in light of current events around the world – not just here in the U.S. with a lunatic raving in the White House – the need to get back to this became more urgent for me.
Finally sitting down and getting to it, the songs poured out quickly, and I finished setting seven poems over the course of a few weeks. Maybe, some day, I will find someone to perform it – but in the meantime, I don’t quite care. I needed to write this.
Happy to get an email last night from the fabulous cellist, Matt Goeke, letting me know that he, along with violist Ina Litera, will be performing my viola/cello duo, Passion, at the Summerkeys faculty concert in Lubec, Maine this coming June.
Then in the fall, their group Eight Strings & a Whistle, with flutist Suzanne Gilchrest, will perform my new trio, Melville’s Dream, written for them.
In the midst of a severe winter storm, with windy gusts and snow pelting the windows, I finished setting Erich Kastner’s poem, Der Februar, for soprano and viola d’amore. The weather was fitting, as I set music to “Und es schneit, und taut, und schneit.”
The connectivity of the internet never ceases to amaze me, as the request to write this music came from a viola d’amore player in Germany, Gertrud Schmidt. I haven’t found her on Facebook or LinkedIn, so I’m not sure how she found out about my music – but however, all good. She, along with soprano Berenike Langmaack, will be performing my 5 Rilke Songs along with this new work.
Reading about the poet, Erich Kastner, who I hadn’t heard of previously, was fascinating. He was drafted into the German army during WW I, and his experiences there made him a life-long pacifist – a point of view that was, to say the least, little appreciated after the Nazis came into power. Despite being interrogated on several occasions by the Gestapo, he survived their regime, all the while writing poems and stories for children. Der Februar is part of a series, so maybe this first song will lead to more…
The performance by Voice of Ascension of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 was, simply, glorious. I felt so grateful at having the opportunity to hear it performed live, at last. Yes, the music is exquisite, from start to finish. But Monteverdi’s masterpiece is more than that. Listening to it, I kept thinking of how certain rare artists step so easily outside the boundaries of the practice of their times and create something entirely new. More contemporary examples that spring to mind (although there are many others) include Picasso shaking the world of art, or in music, perhaps Stravinsky. In literature, Dante comes to mind as an artist who very consciously set about to begin a ‘dolce stil nove’ that shaped everything that came after.
As I listened, the sounds of other music from around 1610 was also in my mind, and as great as that music is, the fantastic variety and freshness of every movement from the Vespers stands out. The way he knits a whole out of greatly contrasting parts, balancing masses of sound against the most intimate of settings, was groundbreaking. That I still feel the newness in his music, sitting in a church pew in New York City in 2018, was also a testament to a great performance by Dennis Keene and the wonderful singers and instrumentalists assembled for this extraordinary concert.
It has been many, many years since I last heard Parsifal. The music is as glorious as I remembered. However, as much as I reveled in the performance I attended at the Met last night, I am struggling to understand whether the faults I saw in it were the result of a weak production, or inherent in the work itself. The orchestra and singers were better than I’ve seen at the Met in years – so it wasn’t that. The staging, however, struck me as bizarre, and the way it shoved the Christian symbolism in your face, distracted rather than supported the message evident in the music by itself. The music is ecstatic, opening up a door to human redemption from our inherent failures and frailties. The staging was, to my mind, a rather confused mess.
The scenery and staging in this production constantly distracted from the glory of the music. That was particularly evident in the 2nd act, when the entire cast was wading through a pool of blood that filled the entire stage. All one could focus on, instead of the music, was how uncomfortable that must for the cast and chorus, as they became drenched in red. The 3rd act wasn’t much better. As the libretto spoke of spring and redemption, the cast looked like they were trapped on a lunar landscape or a lifeless destroyed landscape after the destruction of war. The culminating moment of the four hours of glorious music turned out to be Parsifal sticking the tip of his spear into an open cup. Oh, well. That made it all rather laughable, rather than profound.
That said, I don’t believe all of the blame belonged to a misguided production. To my mind, Wagner’s jumbled confusion of magic, Arthurian legend and Christian symbolism was an inherent weakness that was only exacerbated by the silliness of the production. The libretto is a philosophical mish-mash. The message of the music is clear, but his libretto is anything but. Ultimately, for future listening, I think it would be better to ignore the story and just listen to it as pure music. With the contrasts between the feeling conveyed by the music in the three acts, the music is all that is needed to tell the story of how we yearn for the innocence and glory that all humans lose from the moment we are born and hope, ever after, to regain.
For many years, I wrote music regularly, but without having time to listen as much as I might have liked to the music of others. As I’m at the stage in life now where I’m close to retirement and only working part-time, I’ve been enjoying the luxury of listening a lot more to many different composers. As I do so, the experience has confirmed an old impression I have that music (at least contemporary classical music) falls roughly into two schools: one relies on pitch relationships as a primary organizing element and the other seeks to create coloristic effects and the interplay of different timbres. I realize what I’ve just written is a vast generalization and over-simplification, but in the interest of brevity, that about sums up a lot of what I’ve listened to recently. My own music is solidly in the former camp, but as a listener, both certainly have their appeal! As electronics has become an ever growing part of the composer’s toolkit, the latter seems to predominant, as it seems (at least to me) that what electronics brings is limitless possibilities of sound effects. In that sense, I’m definitely old school, writing notes for musicians playing orchestral instruments to play.
Camerata Philadelphia celebrated Mozart’s birthday with exquisite performances of one of his Haydn quartets (G major) and his first piano quartet. I was fortunate to be included in that good company – with a performance of my quartet “Afterwards, there were no more wars” in between the two Mozart works. As a composer of string quartets, it feels rather daunting to have one of mine presented immediately following a Mozart masterpiece – but was thrilled to see the reception it got.
“Afterwards” is one of my many works intended to encourage in the minds and hearts of the audience the idea that peace is possible. The title came first, driving the composition of the music, offering the hope, however unlikely given human history, that someday in our future, someone will be able to pick up a history book and read this sentence – and, afterwards, there were no more wars.
It was not lost on me that, coincidentally, this work was programmed on a day that, in addition to celebrating the birthday of one of history’s greatest musicians, was a day of remembrance of one of history’s most horrifying events – the holocaust. In our present time, when neo-Nazism in various guises seems to be again on the rise, I hope the intent of this music, at least for those who heard it, will be fulfilled.
Thanks to Luigi Mazzocchi, Blake Espy, Jonathan Kim and Stephen Framil for their beautiful and expressive performance.
The opening paragraph to the preface of the Collected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca succinctly summarizes his extraordinary versatility – and his depth.
“Federico Garcia Lorca was a charismatic and complicated figure: preeminent poet of absence; renewer, with Miguel de Unamuno and Ramon del Valle-Inclan, of the modern Spanish stage: stern, inspired mediator – perhaps the most successful in modern Europe – of poetry and theatre. And he was much else besides: pianist, actor, director, lecturer, conversationalist, and make of unforgettable drawings. Some of his friends thought of him as a creative force of almost “cosmic” dimensions. There is something elemental about Lorca. He seems to lead us urgently and directly to the central mysteries of human existence. In the thirteen plays and nine books of verse he was able to complete between 1917 and 1936 – an amazingly short career – he spoke unforgettably of all that most interests us: the otherness of nature, the demons of personal identify and artistic creation, sex, childhood, and death.”
As a great example of a multi-faceted artist, Lorca has long appealed to me. His death, however, serves as a lasting reminder (as if any should be needed) of why Fascism must be stamped out, without mercy, whenever and wherever it attempts to revive itself. These days, unfortunately, that reminder is needed again. One reason, among many, for me to set his words to music.
Jumping from one thing to the next, I think I’m finished, for now, with choral settings of villanelles – and onto a project I’ve had in the back of my mind since finding a volume of Garcia Lorca’s collected poems while vacationing on Cape Cod some months back. Setting his “La selva de los relojes” for mezzo, cello and piano. First poem down as of this morning. On a roll…
Copying from Wikipedia, a villanelle is a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. There are two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines. The villanelle is an example of a fixed verse form. The word derives from Latin, then Italian, and is related to the initial subject of the form being the pastoral.
The form started as a simple ballad-like song with no fixed form; this fixed quality would only come much later, from the poem “Villanelle (J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle)” (1606) by Jean Passerat. From this point, its evolution into the “fixed form” used in the present day is debated. Despite its French origins, the majority of villanelles have been written in English, a trend which began in the late nineteenth century. The villanelle has been noted as a form that frequently treats the subject of obsessions, and one which appeals to outsiders; its defining feature of repetition prevents it from having a conventional tone.
So much for the history and origins of the villanelle. Having learned all this after researching the background of Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” I went on to discover numerous poems, by poets both well known and little known, in this form – one so apt for music given its repeated refrains. In addition to “The Waking,” as of this writing, I’ve set “Roses?” by Harvey Stanbrough, “Mad Girl’s Love Song” by Sylvia Plath, and “The House on the Hill” by Edward Arlington Robinson. The Plath poem is set for women’s voice only, and the others for SATB.
Given what is going on in the world these days, writing these has been a happy reprieve from all that.
I am so pleased to have been invited to compose a trio for ESW. The trio popped out quickly! Entitled Melville’s Dream, it is inspired by Hart Crane’s remarkable poem, “At Melville’s Tomb.” The first movement is, with lots of revisions, a resetting of my song for voice and piano. The following movements are all intended to similarly evoke images of the sea, and drowning sailors, and tides and stars…
The recording of my next CD is making good progress. As of this writing, all of the songs for voice & piano are a wrap! My great appreciation to pianist Stephen Gosling for his wonderful musicianship! It was such a great pleasure to work on this project with him. All that remains is for Nancy Allen Lundy and Ralph Farris to record my cycle of songs for soprano & violin. Hopefully, warmer weather by the time we get back into the studio!
The CD will include a cycle of seven songs setting poems by the South African poet Charl Cilliers – someone whose wonderful work I discovered on FB and who is now a FB pen pal (the up side of this sometimes intrusive technology). We also recorded my “4 Songs to Poems by Hart Crane” and “6 Songs” setting various poems by W.B. Yeats. The latter is the one very early work on the CD, composed while I was in between my undergraduate and graduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music. While my style has changed over the years, I was happy while recording these that I still like them!
Among some of my new FB friends, one (Anna Gann) performs with the Gernsheim Duo. Curious as to the name, I started looking on-line, and (one of my favorite things) discovered yet another wonderful composer entirely new to me. It always makes me wonder how someone who was widely performed and whose great musicianship was highly admired in their own time, disappears. In this case, it seems one reason for that (at least according to one writer) was that Friedrich Gernsheim was Jewish and his music was prohibited from performance in Nazi Germany. That’s a wrong that will hopefully, in time, be corrected. I have found a performance on YouTube of his four symphonies, and as is my habit when up in the middle of the night, I listened to several last night. To my mind, as a symphonist, he can hold his ground with any of the great Romantic symphonists. Now listening to one of his string quartets (link below) – also first rate. I have to find time to follow down this path, as he wrote many piano quartets and quintets, a large body of art songs, and other works. It remains a mystery, at least to me, how a composer of his skill and depth, can wind up side-lined by history, while on radio and in the concert hall, we listen to the same small, albeit great, list of composers over and over and over again.
Early one morning, I woke to read a poem called “The Waking” posted by my on-line friend, the poet Charl Cilliers. The poem, by Theodore Roethke, was not only an inspirational way to start my day, but set me off on a course of exploration. Up to this point, I was unfamiliar with Roethke’s poems, so a great discovery for me to discover a major poet who, somehow or other, I had missed along the way. This particular poem is one of his most renowned, and seemed so apt for music, given its repeating refrains. That led me to a search for more poems in this form – the villanelle.
A quick hunt on-line led to discovering that many poets, famous and otherwise, have written villanelles. Struggling with what music to write next, I picked out a bunch of candidates to use to write a series of villanelle settings for small chorus, including: Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Julie Sheehan’s “Cracked Ice,” Dylan Thomas’ famous “Do not go gentle into that good night,” Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” Edward Arlington Robinson’s “The Home on the Hill,” and Harvey Stanbrough’s “Roses?”
As of this writing, “The Waking” and “Roses?” are done. Plenty more to go, depending on how far I carry this latest obsession.
From Wikipedia —
A villanelle (also known as villanesque) is a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. There are two refrains and two repeating rhymes, with the first and third line of the first tercet repeated alternately until the last stanza, which includes both repeated lines. The villanelle is an example of a fixed verse form. The word derives from Latin, then Italian, and is related to the initial subject of the form being the pastoral.
The form started as a simple ballad-like song with no fixed form; this fixed quality would only come much later, from the poem “Villanelle (J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle)” (1606) by Jean Passerat. From this point, its evolution into the “fixed form” used in the present day is debated. Despite its French origins, the majority of villanelles have been written in English, a trend which began in the late nineteenth century. The villanelle has been noted as a form that frequently treats the subject of obsessions, and one which appeals to outsiders; its defining feature of repetition prevents it from having a conventional tone.
Innova Recordings just made my day, letting me know that my new CD, At the Center of All Things, landed on Ted Gioia’s 100 Best Albums of the Year list! Keeping good company!
An altogether lovely day that started out touring the Michelangelo exhibit at the Met, then went on to the Rudin Museum and soaked in its meditative atmosphere (and heard a wonderful sound exhibit that reverberated throughout the building), and concluded at the Alchemical Studios, where cellist Matt Goeke performed his first (and hopefully not last) solo recital.
Matt started with one of the Bach solo suites – and that is hard to top. However, as the program went on, it kept getting better. The second piece on the program was a two movement work by a South American composer using only natural harmonics. It would have worked brilliantly in the Rudin Museum, as the harmonics do lead the listener into a meditative state, similar to Tibetan chanting.
One of Max Reger’s suites ended the program, gorgeously played by Matt. An emotionally intense ending to a perfect day.
On yet another day when senseless violence (the murder of Sufis at a mosque in Egypt) calls into question the meaningfulness of bringing music into the world, I chanced across Margaret Atwood’s devastating poem “Orpheus (2)”. I suppose that, rational or not, one can only go on hoping that some day, some Orpheus will succeed where Atwood’s Orpheus failed and “sing love into existence again.” Absent such a possibility, writing beautiful music seems like a senseless activity.
Whether he will go on singing
or not, knowing what he knows
of the horror of this world:
He was not wandering among meadows
all this time. He was down there
among the mouthless ones, among
those with no fingers, those
whose names are forbidden,
those washed up eaten into
among the gray stones
of the shore where nobody goes
through fear. Those with silence.
He has been trying to sing
love into existence again
and he has failed.
Yet he will continue
to sing, in the stadium
crowded with the already dead
who raise their eyeless faces
to listen to him; while the red flowers
grow up and splatter open
against the walls.
They have cut off both his hands
and soon they will tear
his head from his body in one burst
of furious refusal.
He foresees this. Yet he will go on
singing, and in praise.
To sing is either praise
or defiance. Praise is defiance.
Very pleased to learn that WRUV, out of Burlington, VT aired my new CD of string quartets.
These days, when I (figuratively) put pen to music paper, I have to remind myself why I do this. Suffering from a steady drumbeat of depressing news (which I should make more of an effort to avoid), I can’t help but feel as the notes spin out that I am perhaps fiddling while Rome burns. Music is one of the most extraordinary expressions of human spirit, yet when our country has been (astonishingly) placed voluntarily by the electorate into the hands of barbarians, I wonder how writing more notes, no matter how beautiful, will ever cure that ailment.
As a youngster, I grew up in a household with a rather small collection of classical music. I spent many hours, late at night, lying in the dark staring at the living room ceiling, being carried to another world by a recording of Bach’s b minor mass that my mother, for whatever reason, had in her record collection. The urge to create something so achingly beautiful that survives the passing events of the world, no matter how devastating they might be for those who have to live (or die) through them, was born there, in the Bronx, during such nights.
My music writing is my way of paying back Bach (and many others) for that gift. I can only hope that the music, for whatever it is worth, in its own small way, will help keep the barbarians at bay, serving as a reminder of a delicate, interior world that is real, valuable and needs to be cherished and nurtured, perhaps most of all during bad times.
I’m thrilled that, at long last, after many years of wanting to do this but never quite getting ‘round to it, my first CD is now available on Innova Records. Performed by the Diderot Quartet, the CD includes three of my string quartets – American Landscapes, Lonely Voices and At the Center of all Things. With great thanks to all who made it happen – especially Ralph Farris, who masterfully made it all come together. Of course, thanks to Renee, who on a daily basis has to live with my obsessions, this CD being one of many.
A visit to the Museum of Modern Art with Renee and Noah got me wondering about why some works, at least for me, had strong emotional content – and others fell flat. On the day we were there, the majority of works on the 3rd floor simply said nothing to me, while an escalator ride up to the 4th floor was like entering a different world, one where the paintings spoke volumes. It occurred to me that some contemporary artists, as they struggle to find a language that is uniquely their own and different from what came before, experiment with the basic elements that make up a painting, and not always with equal success. The difference in my reaction to the paintings had nothing to do with their surface content – abstract versus representational. Rather, it seemed to me that some based their art on an intellectual concept that was untied to emotion, and the result felt that way. The basic tools of the trade – color, line, shape, texture, tone, design – were all in evident, masterful use in the paintings that, for me at least, had something to say, but in many cases for the other works, some one of those important elements was missing, and as a result, the entire work wound up feeling like mere decoration on the wall.
As I thought about this, it occurred to me that there is a strong analogy with musical composition. Those great works of music, the ones that live with you as if dear friends, use all of the tools at a composers command – pitch, timbre, rhythm, volume, harmony, and, perhaps most importantly, structure – to create a soundscape that can transmit emotional content as if straight from the heart. The day following our visit to MOMA, I was listening to new music on the radio, and what I heard fell as flat on my ears as those artworks on MOMA’s 3rd floor. The pieces I heard that afternoon all used varying pitches, in various rhythms, played on various instruments, so, yup, it was music – but, decoration on a sonic wall. Most of what I heard lacked any kind of perceptible structure. They were just spinning notes until they stopped, without apparent direction or purpose. Many kept at a sustained level of volume, without any variance that can create a sense of motion, as if traveling from one place to another. They simply started and eventually stopped (thankfully, in many cases). For me at least, music like that isn’t worth the labor of writing down the notes. Yes, music is artifice, but the goal should be to use all of the elements of musical composition combined in such a manner as to create the greatest of illusions – one that can send shivers down your spine, whether of joy or grief. Succeeding at that is another matter entirely, but the attempt should be made.
Yesterday evening, I attended a Manhattan School of Music alumni gathering at the home of its current President, Jim Gandre. In the thirty six years since I was a graduate student there, I’ve been in the building only once before – for a memorial service for one of my most influential teachers. MSM is a place which for me holds the fondest of memories. Music has always been the foundation of my sanity – and I owe to MSM that entire aspect of my internal life. The training I had there is what allowed me to become a composer. The brilliant teachers I studied with enabled me to decipher the mysterious and wonderful code that gives great music its power and meaning.
Last evening, at the Pandolfis Consort’s concert, the outstanding music of the evening for me was the violin sonata by Georg Muffat – a masterpiece. Exquisitely played by violinist Ingrid Rohrmoser.
Scheduled for release on the Innova label in the summer of 2017, Stanley Grill’s new CD will present three string quartets – American Landscapes, Lonely Voices and the title track, At the Center of All Things – all performed by the Diderot Quartet.
This afternoon, I read through Poulenc’s delightful Sonata for Piano Four Hands with my friend Karen. It was composed in 1919, in the midst of a world war, but the music is simply charming and light from start to finish. It reminded me that the world events that invade our lives, and seem so overwhelming at the time, pass away – but great art lives on and survives when the painful events of the day have long faded from memory. Poulenc was wise to not let the war influence his writing, but to let in the muses of delight as if nothing else existed.
I like to dream, but without belief, that writing beautiful music is one action I can take in opposition to war, to create sounds that will influence people’s psyche and encourage thoughts of peace. Of course, if music had any possibility of achieving such a goal, war would have ceased to exist after Bach created the B minor mass! So, for the rest of today, instead of veterans, I’m going to think about Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, and the Dalai Lama, and hear in my mind glorious music that celebrates peace.
This year, on September 11th, I was in Philadelphia, under a beautiful clear blue sky – painfully reminiscent of the sky over New York in 2001 that shone in such stark contrast to the horrible events unfolding beneath it. The earth is usually such an exquisite miracle, but the acts of men – they are another story. While history proves that human nature is capable of every sort of horror, I nevertheless find it incomprehensible that any person could become so twisted inside as to even think of committing such atrocities for any reason, let alone over what, at bottom, are simply differences of political opinion.
I seek refuge and solace in the logic and beauty of music – a creation of man that says “NO” to all of that.
Music more than any other art form, to my mind, models the physical nature of the world. Like nature, the surface complexity of music is a creation of the infinite variety that results from combinations of simpler elements.
Despite the fact that the history of mankind is steeped in war, I feel obliged to dream that we can find a way, somehow, to abandon war as a means to deal with conflict and exist together in peace. I know this is a nothing but a dream – there is too much history behind us and too many people who profit by and are excited by war to give it up – but it is a dream from which I cannot shake myself awake. There was a time, in the midst of huge crowds protesting the war in Vietnam, that I imagined there was enough people who were passionate about achieving peace that it could actually happen – that a generation of young people existed who wanted to be different from all previous generations and create a new world in which war did not exist, who dreamed that we could be different. Although that dream turned out to be just a temporary flower of our youthful unrealistic idealism – it is still too important to abandon. I look on the present young generation in despair – they seem to want to be just like their parents and are too easily satisfied with toys and games to be serious about such fantastic ideas like working to put an end to war. I feel a still greater despair when I see the end of my own life approaching in the not so distant future and see the world perched upon the precipice of violence not seen since my parent’s unfortunate generation. I desperately desire to see mankin do better than this – to see again enormous crowds gathered together, in this country and in every country, to protest against those who preach violence as a means to whatever end they are after. Enough with that kind of man – they are a minority and the rest of us must stop empowering them.
It is my hope that each and every one of us who shares this dream will contribute, in their own way, one thought and one action at a time, towards changing the way people think about this – if the goal of peace seems possible, then it will be possible. In my own way, I offer up the spirit of beautiful, glorious music to create an opening in the hearts of those who listen to the possibility of peace. I have begun to write music that is intended to conjure up images of peace in the minds of those who hear it, with the hope that with each hearing, some new sand grains of feeling will be added, which little by little will become mountains which stand, forever, for peace for everyone.
Reason #1. A vivid memory, as a small child, lying on the living room floor staring up at the dark ceiling, alone in the night, with the sound of Bach’s b minor mass pouring out of the speakers and over me, lifting me. Writing music today, is a way of saying, thank you, returning the favor, passing this wonderful invention on to others.
Half asleep and half dreaming, I was considering the compositional problem of starting and ending music. The problem is better explained, perhaps, by an analogy with painting. While I love paintings, I’ve always had trouble with the way they seem to sit so incongruously in their frames on walls, as if the image one saw in the painting was like one out of a window, entirely unrelated to the setting in which it rests. Rather than merging into its surroundings, with walls gradually transforming themselves into painted image which gradually turns back into wall, the painting is a hole punched into the continuity of the room. A music composition is similar, except in that it takes place in time rather than within a space. The music starts out of whatever precedes it – silence, the sounds of people sitting together, noises from outside – and ends with what follows – again, silence, or applause, or whatever. Somehow I dream of writing music that effortlessly merges out from and back into the rest of the sounds of the universe…
That strain of American poetry which sought to bring poetry down to the level of street language (or to bring street language up to the level of poetry) never was my cup of tea. No sublimation there – which, after all, is the heart of classic art. Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, et. al. may have spoken on and on at great length, but never to me.
The art of poetry, to me, is the masterful use of language such that a very great deal is expressed in a minimum of words. Hence my preference for Yeats, the short poems in Blake’s notebooks. Street language is simply inadequate for this purpose. This is not to say that poetic language has to be esoteric. William Carlos Williams, for instance, uses ordinary language, describing ordinary things, with an extraordinary mastery of implication and compression of meaning that is the equal of the best of haiku.