Thursday, December 01, 2005

Bill Bolcom: at least you have a piece

The cancellation of a performance is a difficult pill for a composer to swallow, especially at a time in his/her life when opportunities may be few. During my student days at the University of Michigan, a singer once cancelled my premiere at the last minute. Disappointed, and feeling powerless and depressed, I showed up at Bill Bolcom's office for a lesson and related how bummed out I was. "Well, at least you have a piece!" he shrugged. "That's the important thing." I walked out of his office feeling miserable. 'He just doesn't understand!" I fumed. But of course he did understand. It has happened to Bill as it happened to me that day as it shall happen to all composers, for all eternity.

It can be seductive, even comforting, to recast the premiere - as opposed to the writing of the piece - as the milestone event. After all, hearing a work one has written for the first time is a significant occasion. And the giving of place and time to a work's utterance, the publicity, and the press attention, can all add gravity and tension to the moment of realization. But -- perhaps especially because I am a chronic reviser -- I consider premieres overrated. The birth of the piece ought to be celebrated most by the composer, with all that follows being secondary -- maybe a close secondary, but still secondary. For it is the act of creation where the transformative magic first happens, and neither glitz nor glamour can usurp its place. And after the premiere, and the post-premiere party, and the various other performances, reviews, and perhaps recordings it might or might not receive, what inevitably remains is - the piece. And noone other than future performers or audiences who decide that a piece is worth their time, can grant that work a 'life' of its own.

Bill, in his infinite (or perhaps finite, but substantial) wisdom, awakened in me a feeling of gratitude for having been the vessel for the creation of a work of art, an act of great spiritual power. Perhaps the possibility to revise is still a greater power. But that's a topic for another day....

Friday, November 11, 2005

Playing John Cage

My first exposure to John Cage's music came in eighth grade at age 14. I had begun work on an orchestral piece, and my parents decided that I should show my music to a composer. They brought me to a professor at the Manhattan School of Music who happened to live around the corner from our house. I took along my magnum-opus-in-progress, ambitiously titled "Nova". Perhaps without realizing that I was intimidated (it was the first time I had showed my work to anyone outside my friends and family), the prof glanced over it and remarked dismissively, "This is too square. You must instead write a piece for clarinet and voice, with no barlines." No barlines! I had thought "Nova" was adventurous; it even had a measure in 7/8 meter. "Do you know the music of John Cage?" the prof queried. "Isn't he the guy who wrote the piece with no notes?" I ventured, revealing my mistrust. "John Cage is a genius, a genius!" he exhorted, and for a good deal longer than 4'33" he pontificated on the many ways in which Cage had changed the course of music, while I cowered in shame and continued skepticism.

It was 7 years before I went near a composition teacher again. But I was intrigued by the memory of those strange and vivid - sometimes rambling and random, often humorous - Cage books and scores shoved under my nose on that frightening afternoon. An inner voice continually mused, "what if there's something profound to all that kooky stuff?" But I was too busy delving into counterpoint, fugue, jazz harmony, or Yemenite women's folk chants to spend time contemplating silence. Of course, Cage's name came up now and then, in composition seminars over the years or as a foil in musical conversations, usually in a joking context or in response to an unsolvable question.

In 1992 Cage walked into a hospital in New York and unceremoniously died. I remember the day vividly; I was listening to 'New Sounds' show on WNYC, and John Schaefer was presenting an all-day broadcast of Cage's works. By this time I had already come to know and appreciate many of Cage's earlier works, like the Studies for Prepared Piano, Aria, Clarinet Sonata, and the Constructions. I had a few extra cassettes (remember those?), so I decided to record the show. This broadcast was my first exposure to many of Cage's songs and to the String Quartet, which I listened to numerous times, mesmerized by the calmly shifting sonorities and the particular quality of timelessness. Yet I still found no way into Cage's later works, which seemed to be in the realm of either the purely comic or philosophical, or both, but hardly within the boundaries of what I considered to be 'music'. And I thought that I had a pretty open mind.

Until one fateful day a percussionist at the University of Michigan asked me to take part in her graduation recital, and I agreed to play. "It's all John Cage," she added gingerly, leaving me an opportunity to back out - which I luckily didn't. One of the pieces we played was "Four", a late composition in which stopwatches are used to determine general time frames of note placement (or non-placement) within the piece. Rehearsing it left me quizzical, but performing it proved to be profoundly moving. Before that concert, Cage's later music had seemed to me to be about the concept rather than the experience. But that evening I learned that playing John Cage was, in fact, only about the experience. These were truly ego-less pieces, at least as far as the composer was concerned. We, the performers, weren't compelled to worry about what he had wanted or intended; instead, playing Cage's music encouraged a heightened awareness by bringing the singularity of each moment into full focus. During the concert I felt what I can only describe as a palpable sense of 'becoming' -- we becoming the music and it becoming us. That transformation, a bona fide alteration of consciousness, rendered spiritual the process of realizing his music. I suspect that for Cage, too, it was listening to - above and beyond the act of writing - music that was the truly spiritual experience.

Hearing or performing a work that lasts for zero minutes and zero seconds - or one which lasts for 639 years - is bound to alter one's sense of perception. Engendering such a fundemental transformation in the listener would seem to be one of the primary goals for which most creative artists strive. Does that mean that 0'00" or ASLAP are 'great' works? Maybe it doesn't matter. Cage's music encourages us to consider whether we, as audience members, should even bother seeking greatness in a work. If a piece of art transforms our way of thinking and feeling about the world, it has already accomplished a pretty hefty task.

I find it difficult to reach clear and definite conclusions about Cage's music. I acknowledge feeling uncomfortable referring to him a 'genius' as the now-retired prof did; but then again, I don't relish conferring 'genius' status on anyone, because it distances me from, rather than drawing me towards, their work. I expect that my thoughts about John Cage will continue to morph and evolve, a state of constant flux and spontenaeity which he likely would have endorsed and appreciated.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Andriessen family values

10 years ago I was studying in Amsterdam with Louis Andriessen. I remember showing up one afternoon at his house on the Keizersgracht for a lesson. After the usual chit-chat he asked what I was writing, and I began to reply, "well, I have these two ideas..." "Too many!" he interrupted. Louis was joking, but he also wasn't. He has always been adept at encouraging students to reduce their ideas to the most basic elements. A decade later, I struggle with the same questions, both as a composer and an educator. Though I don't teach privately, I often tackle this issue with students in the New York Youth Symphony's Making Score program.

Young composers usually move too quickly between ideas; by this I don't mean that they use too much material, but rather that they use too many organizing principles. In my case, Louis was concerned that I recognize the musical building blocks already inherent in the musical material. So he kept encouraging me to reduce, reduce, reduce, until I was face to face with the most rudimentary gestures. He would ask, "ok, but what comes before that? and before that?" One might speculate that his "minimalist" aesthetic had something to do with this reductionist philosophy of teaching, but I think he was trying to promote a more general awareness; he was shining a light into the murkier levels of creative thinking, awakening my mind to formal structures and functionality on heretofore unexplored micro- and macro-levels.

Living in the so-called real world, we are often working on the most superficial layers of consciousness. Just addressing daily tasks and keeping the wheels of life turning uses up a great deal of energy. But as composers our calling is to access worlds hidden underneath the surface, worlds of philosophy, of theatre, of mathematics, of human instinct. Getting to the essence of a musical idea requires concentration, contemplation, and patience. Yet in the age of computers, giving full attention to musical detail can feel like dredging up a rusty relic from the past. It's so easy now to extend or shorten larges sections by cutting and pasting, to transpose with a click, to instantly move material from here to there, to add phat fonts and impressive graphics. Ironically, with the world at our fingertips, attention to the most crucial problems of form can be overlooked. In these moments of short shrift, it can be useful - even critical - to remember that technology is as dependent as anything else on the coherence of formal structures. Computers communicate through various layers of protocol; you may be working on the application/software level, the network level, or the transport level, but ultimately these layers work in tandem and are therefore dependent on each other. For a system to work as a whole, all layers must be built on consistent organizing principles; if the root level is strong, the top level will be correspondingly strong. The same applies for art.

Louis wanted me to be aware of what was happening in my music, even at levels where I was unaccustomed to poke around, and I feel grateful that he hammered these concepts home. I believe he was less interested that I reveal those levels to the listeners than he was determined that I should be able to recognize them myself. So along with the freedom to make our own aesthetic choices, we should shoulder the responsibility to analyze our own work - reducing it to the simplest elements and building it back up again. It is a powerful and empowering process, one which can help lend a work greater economy and coherence, while guiding us to become deeper and more resourceful artists.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Article in NewMusicBox

Here's my article posted this week, called "Making the I-Hop". I hope it's helpful!

Sunday, June 12, 2005

William Albright: a lesson in disobedience

Here is a letter that I wrote upon hearing of William Albright's tragic and premature death at age 53. It was published in the SCI Newsletter by David Gompper as a tribute. Bill was a complex person who battled for 30 years with alcoholism, a disease which ultimately took his life. I encourage more people to get to know Albright's music, which is available through C.F. Peters. There's a fine tribute to him, written by Evan Chambers, which you can read here.

A Lesson in Disobedience
(Derek Bermel remembers Albright)

I've just heard the news about Bill Albright, and needless to say I am shocked and devastated. I have always held him in the highest esteem as an insightful and caring teacher, as well as a brilliant composer, performer, and scholar. But he was also a person with an enormously big heart, and that is what I will miss the most. During my last two years in New York, we would often talk at great length about life, philosophy, food, love, the arts, politics, or any number of other subjects which fired his wild imagination.

He was utterly devoted to the University of Michigan, and rightly considered himself in the teaching legacy of his mentor Ross Lee Finney. Bill leaves behind an awesome teaching legacy of more than twenty-five years, and hundreds of students all over the world. I know that I speak for many of them when I acknowledge that the world has lost some of its vivid color with his passing. As a teacher, he was masterful and penetrating, and always, always sincere. His questions reached to the very essence of the issue at hand - "But is it radical?" "So, what will you do now that you're a great composer?" - yet the ambiguous nature of his comments demanded that we solve the riddles of creation ourselves - "What a gorgeous mess!" He knew when to say "I don't know," and he said it often. But sometimes I could detect, in his enigmatic smirk, a hint that he did indeed know, but wouldn't tell. I can still hear him telling me, quite earnestly, "Derek, disobey your teachers. Disobey us!"

For me, his most inspiring lesson was his total and uncompromising musicianship. "We teach composition by example," he would often say, and he meant it. When Bill Albright was at his best, he was as powerful and ingenious composer as any; I dare say that his clarinet quintet is one of the most perfect pieces of music I have ever played - or heard, for that matter. He was a deftly skilled contrapuntist and an elegantly funky rhythmitician. But I have always felt that the stunning beauty of his writing was wrapped in the details - a quirky "off" note in the harpsichord melody, just in the most annoying spot; a dazzling and grotesque flourish in the tuba; a haunting chord in the vibraphone lingering a bit too long - for me, these subtleties give Albright's music its distinct and pungent flavor. His expressive markings are a testament both to his humor and to how passionately he felt the music in his soul: "Strident, shrill, shrieking", "spit it!": Abiding Passions (1988) "Suddenly ecstatic": Quintet for Clarinet and Strings (1987) "Apoplectically, ": Seven Deadly Sins (1974) "Maestoso Grunge": Pit Band (1993) "Half-lit, smoky ostinato": Rustles of Spring (1994)

How much poorer our world is without his many Flights of Fancy. I will miss him immensely. My heart goes out to his family and friends.

DB, Aberdeen, Scotland, Oct. 1998

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Henri Dutilleux: «On ne peut pas tout aimer...»

This is mantra which Dutilleux has reiterated in writings and interviews. I suppose it’s his way of saying “trust yourself,” a statement of pride in asserting one’s individuality in the world. It reminds me that what makes us uniquely human is our ability to absorb and synthesize material, to reason, to develop tastes, to fall in love with people, places, smells, sounds, memories. I have often mused on this phrase, especially when I have felt forces – be they artistic, economic, or socio-political – conspiring to push me strongly against my nature. Because of their grammatical construction in the negative, because of their insistence nuanced with gentleness, his words urge a generous defiance. For D'lux, music must be grounded in a context, be it a sense of place, a philosophical idea, a point of view, or a cultural milieu. In many conversations throughout the ten years I've known him, he has always insisted that composers should not shy away from what they love, that they should resist shutting out influences simply because they do not fit the “style du jour”. His own music was certainly neglected by those in his own country who advocated a "pureté de style".

It’s not an assertion that we as composers ought to make pastiche or collage of that which we admire or strive to emulate, but rather that we should invite what deeply moves us into the music we create. And that we should not feel embarrassed about rejecting that which we don’t love, since we can’t love everything. Only Jesus could do that, and he was half-divine, or so the Christians say…. As artists, we should treasure and embrace our likes and dislikes; they are character traits which cannot be obliterated by force nor by fashion, though they do (hopefully) evolve and change.

I suppose another interpretation of D’lux’s mantra might be “to thine own self be true”, or, more accurately, the contrapositive: “feel not the pressure to be true to that which is not thine own.” I have seen an almost childlike reverence in D'lux when he describes a piece of music that he loves, be it Ravel or Sarah Vaughan. And I find myself reminded how precious our tastes are; they define our musical core; they are what – originally – drew us inexorably to music one the most elemental level, and they guide us towards uncharted territories that we can explore with confidence and passion.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

maazel tov?

Last week I kept noticing articles about Lorin Maazel's opera '1984'. They bring up a number of interesting questions regarding the role of the artist in so-called "vanity" productions. I can't help but feel confused about the whole notion of vanity performances and recordings these days. As a composer from a family of modest means, I suppose I should be in the 'camp' opposed to such projects. It seems to me, though, that almost any event in the world of concert music - not to mention popular music - can be viewed as a vanity if one traces its financial roots back far enough. In the U.S., donations from private patrons account for a large percentage of the money which funds commissions, performances, and recordings. What is the difference if the composer 'raises' thousands of tax-deductible dollars (or pays for it out of his/her own pocket) or the performing organization does it? Since long before the days of Madame von Meck and Prince Lichnowsky, composers have been relying on wealthy individuals to subsidize their latest experiments. Gesualdo was rich and funded all his own performances; Monteverdi was indebted to the Gonzagas for years, and later became 'Maestro di capella' at St. Mark's in Venice. In the larger scope of history, does it matter?

Part of the problem seems to be that Covent Garden is government subsidized (something we luckily don't have to worry about here in the good ol' U.S. of A.), and therefore some folks understandably feel that Maazel's largely self-funded work compromises the usual process of commissioning, which is designed - one hopes - to ensure artistic quality/integrity. But if we subscribe to that philosophy, then we have to tackle the prickly question: what do those words - quality and integrity - really mean, and what do they mean specifically in the U.K.? In recent seasons, the London Sinfonietta has commissioned Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead and Moby curated the 'Meltdown' at the South Bank Centre. Is it a sellout or a branching out? Who's to know? What does Ollie think? What does the audience think? What does the London Times think? And, more importantly, what does the Queen think?

Yesterday I read another article in the New York Times, entitled 'A City Opera Conductor with Connections', about Atsushi Yamada, the conductor whose close connections with Sony helped fuel a City Opera tour to Japan. Hell, We're living in a town where the mayor bought himself into office, in a country where the president bought himself into office. Why can't a conductor? At least he hasn't started any wars (except in the press).

The question is often posed: has Maazel 'paid his dues' as a composer? I am not sure this is a particularly relevant issue vis a vis the quality of the work. Who, for example, can say that Maazel's expertise as a conductor does not adequately prepare him for composing an opera? I'm not sure that writing artsongs would have necessarily prepared him any better. Ives wrote lots of those; would he have written a good opera?

Another question, potentially more troublesome, at least for appearances' sake, is: how much additional money did Covent Garden (and City Opera, etc etc) put into this production? And, by extension, were other composers (or conductors or performers, depending on the situation) denied opportunities as a result of this project? Herein lie, perhaps, the roots of most objections to 'vanity' projects. Because, as anyone in this non-for-profit 'business' knows, an arts organization's financial commitment doesn't end with the commission, nor with the rehearsals, nor the performance. A large amount of money goes into operating expenses, salaries, and P.R. One might legitimately ask: are the resources of this organization being squandered on a project which has being presented only because money was thrown at the company? And does the organization reap any particular benefits from this production, or will it merely spend time deflecting criticism? And where is the responsibility to serving the public good in all this?

Quality control is a tricky issue. Standards are tricky too, as anyone who has attempted to pore over the minutae of 'No Child Left Behind' can confirm. It'll be interesting to observe whether such 'vanity' events become more common as our we scrap the estate tax and our government cedes more and more responsibility for arts initiatives, preservation, and funding to the private sector.

Friday, May 13, 2005

first neuron fired

This is the official start of my blog! eighth blackbird was in town this weekend to play at the People's Symphony series downtown. They sounded first rate. I have been officially put on notice to make all final corrections, as they are going to start memorizing "Tied Shifts" imminently.

At some point, you have to send a piece - like a child - out into the world, whether because it's being published, recorded, or memorized. At this point, you have to "let go", and that can be hard. The French poet Paul Valéry wrote "A poem is never finished, only abandoned," and I suppose this holds true for music (and art as well, since Leonardo da Vinci apparently uttered an almost an identical phrase several centuries earlier). One almost always finds at least one small detail, in print, on recording, or in performance that one wishes could be altered retroactively. Alas, it is permanent for eternity, or at least until the next edition (thus: errata lists, which destroy the neatness of publication, but preserve the mystery of unfinished-ness...). To extend the metaphor, children certainly depart from their parents as unfinished works. One could well argue that our entire lives are unfinished works. So putting the "finishing touches" on a piece of music, though often a relief, often feels like a futile ritual for me.

Nonetheless, here I go.