Saturday, May 20, 2017

Period composer? Composer, period.

Recently an early-music expert friend wrote a comment that's made me think more than usual.  She described herself as a "period" composer, because her composing is linked to the music she plays and studies, and tends to be in closely related styles.

An argument immediately developed, debating the pros and cons (and validity or lack thereof) of writing in "historical" styles.  Some were quick to point out that music textbooks from earlier time periods still exist, and they provide coherent models for those in the mood to imitate them.  In fact, in so doing, a modern composer would be doing as some students no doubt did, and, in fact, as some music students today still do.

Others were equally quick to say there's simply no way to understand completely the experience of someone at another point in time.  You can certainly pattern your music after those who wrote at earlier times, but you will never be able to be one of those earlier musicians.  You will never completely understand the things that motivated their music, and will, at best, only be able to produce a pale imitation of their work.  Certainly a worthy exercise, but not to be taken seriously as an artistic endeavor.

I'll agree that few of the student attempts to produce, say, two-part inventions in a style similar to that of Bach, that I've heard, would be worth playing more than once; in fact, it's unusual to get through one without having to wince.  But most of those attempts are by people who aren't composition students, and who don't have the luxury of time.  They'll write perhaps one piece of that kind in their lives, heave a sigh of relief, and go on to something else.  The idea of writing fifty or so of them, that is, of taking time to develop some degree of mastery, is not one they'll have considered.  They'll never go back, months or years later, and rewrite, edit, expand, trim, and so on, because there's no external reward for doing so.

I have seen one collection of six (or so) inventions by a composer, whose name I've forgotten, who did apparently publish and release them as a collection.  I wasn't impressed by what I found on leafing through them, but again, I got the impression this was something of a sidelight; a composer who usually deals with other materials, in other styles, picked up this form and took it for a test drive.  It wouldn't be appropriate, then, to draw many conclusions about this artist's work as a whole from that particular sample.

All of this, though, is far wide of the point.  A composer, keyboardist, and scholar I respect, says she writes in historical styles by preference.  What do I make of this?

Any composer, in any time period, is writing mainly for their own time and place, regardless of how they may feel about it.  While time may "catch up" with a composer, and things in their work that seemed radical, unusual, or new when they were written may become accepted, revered, and (alas) even commonplace, when those pieces were written the composer couldn't have known how things would turn out.  That composer was taking a risk.  The only reason we don't realize the size of the risk is we usually don't hear about the ones who fail, the ones whose innovations don't become the common practice of succeeding generations.

There's no payoff, today, in imitating the earlier model; we know how things turned out, or at least, we know how they've turned out so far.

The point of writing music in a historical style is different.  The goal is to learn from a predecessor you respect and whose work you love, and to express yourself in a style that feels natural to you.  What someone else thinks about it is a secondary consideration, at best.

So even if you are writing a two-part invention in 2017, intended to be played on a French double harpsichord, you are writing for a twenty-first-century audience.  Nobody seriously questions this.  A composer who does such a thing is not trying to be an eighteenth-century composer, though they might be using techniques similar to those used by one or more of them.  Composers are entitled to use whatever creative tools please them, within certain obvious limits.  They don't have to ask permission to use this or that form or style.

Want to write a sonata in the style of Mozart or Haydn?  Good luck, but go right ahead.  After all, not being Mozart is no crime, and if writing in a similar style allows you to write music you like, get busy!  Sixteenth-century vocal polyphony your thing?  Go for it!  The least you will get is education, and the more seriously you take your work, the more it will reward you.

And if you prefer more up-to-date styles, techniques, methods, and so on, by all means go for the cutting edge!  The world of music really is big enough for all of us.

Sunday, April 9, 2017


Recently a poet friend was explaining to me some of her experiences in the literary world.  She told me she doesn't enter competitions.  It's too much of a gamble; the committee who will judge the submissions is usually unfamiliar, and there's no way to know what kinds of work they prefer.  If they happen to like styles of work different from hers, it's a waste of time to send her work to them, and their collective opinion won't be important to her artistically.

This conversation has made me think about my own position.  I've entered some competitions, but not a lot, and usually not with good results.  Recently, I tend to avoid them; I'm too old for many, and I don't have repertoire appropriate for the rest.

For instance, say that you belong to a chamber ensemble consisting of left handed sewer flute (tip of the hat to Peter Schickele), tenor crumhorn, and guqin.  You would like to expand the repertoire for your group.  So you announce a composition contest.  No cash prize, but you'll include the winning work(s) in a recording you'll be releasing, and take the appropriate steps to make sure that, if it goes platinum, the composer will be appropriately paid.  You'll be drawing the repertoire for your upcoming concert tour mainly from the contest entries, so even for those who don't "win", there's the chance of some exposure.  For the ensemble, it makes perfect sense.  You get a number of pieces to play; you'll choose the best ones, and fulfill your obligation by recording them.  The composers, at least the ones whose work you choose, get a resume line, a recording, performances, and some publicity.

From a composer's point of view, however, there are some issues.  For one thing, the left handed sewer flute is not a standard orchestral instrument.  You won't find information about it in your orchestration textbook.  Hopefully the player will have foreseen this, and provided some information on the instrument and its capabilities, perhaps even a recording or video demonstrating them, and maybe some hints on the preferred notation for any extended techniques.  If not, you'll just have to guess what might work. 

Let's say you've decided to enter this competition, and you want to create your best possible work.  But a substantial chamber work (ten to fifteen minutes) takes you a year to write.  The announcement for the contest came out six months before the deadline.  You can create in this situation, but you're going to be under some pressure.  You'll carefully follow the submission guidelines, including the unwritten ones (no 8.5" x 11" paper!).  You'll package the score and parts, and send them off with plenty of time to reach the organizers by the deadline.  Then what?

Suppose they don't pick your piece.  You'll receive a notification, or at least find a post on the group's web site/social media page/news feed telling you the names of the winners.  You'll look at the list, not find your name, and conclude, better luck next time.

But will there be a next time?  How many ensembles of left handed sewer flute, tenor crumhorn, and guqin do you know?  You can, of course, rewrite the piece for a more standard instrumentation, but even then, it might be awhile before you happen on a group that would play it.  You can hope the original ensemble will perform the piece at some later time; after all, part of the reason for having the competition in the first place was to encourage the creation of new works.  But the next year, they have another competition, and the year after that, the ensemble disbands.

Congratulations.  You've just wasted six months of composing time.

This is not to discourage either holding competitions, or entering them; the foregoing is just an explanation of the reasons why, for me, the calculations don't work at this point.

To me, better than entering any competition is providing a piece to a friend who has asked for it, and the best prize is when they actually play it.  Whatever the instrument they play, whatever the instruments in the ensemble, the important thing is the joy of writing for someone I know.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Fun with Five Octaves

The question of what music you can play on a 61-key keyboard occasionally comes up, but I haven't yet found an actual repertoire list.  While it's true that most music up through Bach can be played on such a keyboard, there are notable exceptions, enough to make it worthwhile to list the works that will fit.  This list is restricted to pieces that range from two octaves below middle C to three octaves above.  Pieces that require any re-writing (leaving out an octave doubling, for instance) are not included.  Likewise, pieces that require long held notes or harmonics don't appear here; most digital keyboards I've heard/played on don't deal well with them, at least in any "piano" voice.  If the piece will work using an organ-style voice (maybe called "Church Organ", "Chapel" or something like that), held notes won't be as much of a problem.

Tentative list of music that can be played on a 61-key keyboard:
C.P.E. Bach:
Many of the sonatas; the famous "Solfeggietto" won't fit

J.S. Bach:
The vast majority of the WTC Books I and II, the Inventions and Sinfonias, most of the Suites and Partitas, most of the Goldberg Variations (there's one variation that won't fit, and that can't be accommodated by transposing the keyboard down an octave), the Toccatas, any of the organ music that can be played without pedals

Béla Bartók: These pieces from Mikrokosmos, vol. IV:
Notturno, Thumb Under, Crossed Hands, In the Style of a Folk Song, Diminished Fifth, Major and Minor, Through the Keys, Playsong, Children's Song, Clashing Sounds, Intermezzo, Variations on a Folk Tune, Bulgarian Rhythm (1 and 2), Theme and Inversion, Triplets in 9/8 Time, Dance in 3/4 Time, Fifth Chords, Two-Part Study
Rumanian Folk Dances, nos. 2-5

  • Variations on "Nel cor piu non mi sento"
  • Three Easy Sonatinas (C Major, G Major, and F Major)
  • 6 Ländlerische Tänze
  • 7 Ländlerische Tänze
  • Rondo in A Major
  • Numbers 1, 3, and 4 from 6 Menuette (not the famous one in G Major)
  • Menuett in E-flat Major
  • Rondo in C Major, Op. 51, No. 1
  • Two Preludes through all the major keys, Op. 39
  • Allegretto quasi andante, from Seven Bagatelles Op. 33, No. 2
  • Tempo di Menuetto from Sonata in G Major, Op. 49, No. 2
Buxtehude: All of the keyboard suites

Cecile Chaminade: These pieces from Children's Album, First Series, Op. 123:
Prélude, Intermezzo, Canzonetta, Rondeau, Gavotte, Gigue, Romance, Barcarolle, Air de Ballet, March Russe

Chopin: the following Mazurkas:
  • Op. 6, no. 2
  • Op. 7, nos. 1, 4, and 5
  • Op. 17, nos. 3 and 4
  • Op. 24 no. 3 contains a long note but is otherwise playable
  • Op. 33 no. 3
  • Op. 50 no. 2
  • Op. 67 no. 3
  • Op. 68 nos. 3 and 4
  • Op. posth. B-flat major, D Major (two of them), and C Major
      Waltz Op. 69/1 "L'adieu"

The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book

François Couperin:
from Ordre II
  • Menuet
  • La Charoloise
  • La Diane
  • Fanfare pour la Suitte de la Diane
  • La Florentine
  • La Babet
  • Les Papillons
from Ordre III
  • Gavotte
  • L'Espagnolette
  • Les Matelotes Provencales
from Ordre VI
  • Les Moissonneurs
  • Les Langueurs-Tendres
  • Le Gazoüillement
  • La Bersan
  • Les Bergeries
  • La Commére
  • La Moucheron
Louis Couperin:
  • Chaconne, C Major
  • Passacaille, C Major
  • Sarabande, C Major
  • Menuet, C Major
  • Chaconne, C Minor
  • Chaconne, G Major
  • Branle de Basque, F Major
  • many others
Louis-Claude Daquin: Le Coucou

Antonín Dvořák: Humoresque

Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre:

Girolamo Frescobaldi:
  • Gagliarda, G Minor
  • Passacaglia, B-flat Major
All of the organ music (occasional chords have to be re-written because they require the pedal)

Alberto Ginastera:
“In the First Pentatonic Minor Mode”, No. 5 from Doce Preludios Americanos

Grieg: These pieces from Lyric Pieces:
  • "Arietta", Op. 12, No. 1
  • "Watchman's song", Op. 12, No. 3
  • "Elfin Dance", Op. 12, No. 4
  • "Album-Leaf", Op. 12, No. 7
These pieces from Op. 38:
  • "Skipping Dance", Op. 38, No. 5
  • "Elegy", Op. 38, No. 6
  • "Waltz", Op. 38, No. 7
Franz Joseph Haydn:
Sonata in D Major (1767)

Fanny Hensel
Mélodie (Op. 4, No. 2)

Marianne Martinez:
Sonate No. 3

W. A. Mozart:
complete sonatas
  • Sonata in E-Flat Major, K. 282
  • Sonata in C Major, K. 545
individual movements
  • Sonata in F Major, K. 280, II. Adagio
  • Sonata in B-Flat Major, K. 281, III. Rondo. Allegro
  • Sonata in G Major, K. 283, II. Andante
  • Sonata in D Major, K. 284, II. Andante [Polonaise en Rondeau]
  • Sonata in D Major, K. 311, II. Andante con espressione
  • Sonata in C Major, K. 330, I. Allegro moderato
  • Sonata in C Major, K. 330, III. Allegretto
  • Sonata in A Minor, K. 331, III. Alla Turca. Allegretto
  • Sonata in F Major, K. 332, II. Adagio
  • Sonata in F Major, K. 332, III. Allegro assai
  • Sonata in B-Flat Major, K. 333, II. Andante cantabile
  • Sonata in F Major, K. 533, I. Allegro
Johann Pachelbel:
At least the following chorale preludes:
  • “Ach, Gott vom Himmel sieh darein” (the shorter setting)
  • “Ach, Herr, mich armen Sünder” (the shorter setting)
  • Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt” (at least two of the settings)
  • Es spricht der unweisen Mund wohl” (both settings)
  • Es woll' uns Gott genädig sein”(both settings)
Bernardo Pasquini: Partite sopra l'aria della Folia d'Espagna

Franz Schubert:
  • Moments Musicaux Op. 94/3, Op. 94/2
  • Variation on a Waltz by Diabelli
  • Andante (C Major)
  • Alegretto (C Major)

Robert Schumann: These pieces from Kinderszenen, Op. 68:
Von Fremden Länden und Menschen, Kuriose Geschichte, Hasche-Mann, Bittendes Kind

Florent Schmitt: Prelude in G Minor

Happy New Year!

It's been a long time since I've posted, which has been the product of two things.  One, I prefer doing things to writing about them.  Two, it's hard for me to come up with things to write that would actually justify the time I'd spend writing them.

2016 has been a year of a lot of changes.  Most of them aren't really on-topic for this blog; I'll leave writing about politics to others, and while it's attractive to write about the environmental, financial and humanitarian disasters both looming and in progress, it's not my purpose here.  My own life has had a major upset or two, and as a result I've had to re-think a lot of plans.

So, what has 2016 contained?

Not as many new compositions as I'd like, but that's par for the course:
Forebodings, Too Easily Dispelled for saxophone choir
     A companion piece, Ignore the Clouds, the Droplets are not Rain, is in the works

The beginnings of a set of pieces for hatun kena and piano; two pieces basically done, unsure how many will follow.

"The Gardener's Song," a short song in Esperanto about a groundskeeper who painstakingly sorts the autumn leaves into piles by color, and has to re-think when the wind comes along and mixes them up again.

A number of performances, of which the most interesting are probably the ones at the Spanish Benevolent Society with a group of Spanish-language writers, artists, poets and musicians.  It's an honor to share the stage with them, and I'm looking forward to more wonderful programs in 2017.  Here's where to find their upcoming events.

I also played some Azerbaijani music up at Lake George for the Autumn Esperanto Convention
in October; it was my first time attending that gathering, and already I can't wait for next year.

In performing terms, 2016 has been the year of the 61-key keyboard; mine has a very different sound and feel from the pianos and 88-key digital keyboards I've played, and I've enjoyed getting to know its more intimate feel.  I'm working on a list of music that can be played on such a keyboard; I was surprised to find pieces by Bartók, Chaminade, and Florent Schmitt that will fit.  It's not a surprise that most of the important works of the piano repertoire need a bigger keyboard, of course.

My wish list for 2017 is still in progress; the above-mentioned piece for saxophone choir heads the list, followed closely by some keyboard pieces.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Cultura SIN Límites, May 3, 2016 - POSTPONED

The event that had been scheduled for May 3, 2016, Culture with NO Limits, has been postponed.  It will take place on June 7 at 7:00 PM at the same location (The Spanish Benevolent Society, La Nacional, 239 West 14th St., Manhattan, New York City).  My apologies to everyone for the inconvenience.

I didn't know, two years ago, when I posted about the 300th anniversary of the birth of C.P.E. Bach, what kind of adventure would follow.  I've discovered a rich collection of beautiful music, in which every page begs not only to be read, but repeated, savored, treasured.  This coming Tuesday evening, March 3, 2016, I'll be continuing that exploration, by playing C.P.E. Bach's Sonata in D Minor, W. 6/15.  Not all of his music works on a five-octave keyboard, but this piece certainly does.

For those unfamiliar, Culture with NO Limits has been a place to cross boundaries.  Previous events have included readings in Spanish, French, Portugese, English, and Esperanto, and songs in Spanish, Basque, Esperanto, Azerbaijani and Bengali.  This event will extend the tradition.

Friday, October 30, 2015

In Memoriam Gerald Ranck (1941-2015)

Gerald Ranck was the Music Director of the New York Society for Ethical Culture for almost 30 years.  He passed away in April, and was a kind mentor and dear friend.

This post celebrates a few of the many wonderful things about his life.

Foremost, of course, he was a harpsichordist and pianist.  He studied piano with Joseph Echaniz at the Eastman School of Music, and harpsichord with Sylvia Marlowe at the Mannes College of Music.

Gerry was a Scarlatti expert, and performed many concerts of his music.  He was also well-known for his Bach; here's the New York Times announcement of his performance of the Goldberg Variations at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Here are some YouTube videos of his playing:
Henry Purcell: Four Harpsichord Pieces: Z 655, ZT 682, Z 656, ZT 688

Farewell performance at the Society for Ethical Culture

J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord (with Laurel Zucker, flute, and Samuel Magill, cello)
Sonata in B Minor, BWV 1030

Sonata in E-Flat Major BWV 1031,
Sonata in C Major BWV 1033
Sonata in E Minor BWV 1034

J.S. Bach: Sonata in B Minor for Flute and Harpsichord, BWV 1030 (with Daniel Waitzman, flute)

G. F. Handel: Adagio, Op. 2, No. 3 in F (with Evan Johnson, violin, and Steven Machamer, vibraphone)

Georg Philipp Telemann: Die Kleine Kammermusik, Partita No. 2 in G Major (with Humbert Lucarelli, oboe, and Alan Brown, bassoon)

Daniel Waitzman: Sonata for Viola and Pianoforte or Harpsichord from 2008 (with Louise Schulman, viola)

At the Society for Ethical Culture, Gerry was known as much for his talks as for his playing; here are three examples:
"Tribute to our Progressive Conservationist President"
(about Theodore Roosevelt)
"Gun Violence in the Wake of Newtown"
"Clarence Darrow: Ethics, the Law, and Monkeys"

Farewell, dear friend. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Looking back, looking ahead

Happy New Year!

2014 was a busy year.  A set of short pieces for euphonium and piano, a piece for five saxophones ("Que un inmortal amor todo lo puede"), and some short pieces for high school string and wind ensembles constituted the main fruits of the compositional activity; a piece for saxophone quartet and saxophone choir is still in progress.

2014 was the year I met Juan Navidad.  We've already collaborated on two events; another is planned for January 21, 2015 at Centro Español.  For these events, I've written four piano pieces, re-purposed two of them for violin and recording, and written a third for violin and recording.  El Reloj de la Impaciencia ("The Clock of Impatience") is one of the pieces that exists both for piano and violin; here is a recording of the keyboard version.

2014 was the year of the 300th anniversary of CPE Bach's birth.  I provided links to online resources about him, in the hopes of stimulating interest.  I learned and performed a number of his works this year.  Here's a recording of one of them on SoundCloud.

2014 was the year of Alones Together, a concert devoted entirely to solo works for saxophone, cello, and piano.  Here's a YouTube link to Javier Oviedo's performance of a sonata for unaccompanied tenor saxophone.

2014 was a year of a considerable amount of home recording.  Here's where you can hear some of it.

2014 was the year of WikiConference USA.  I'm still digesting things I learned there.  One question I'm currently struggling with is how the various wiki-projects can benefit music education.  There is a lot of potential, but right now only a small fraction is being utilized.  Another struggle is the exponential distribution of languages along the content curve.  A few languages have lots of content, but many more have relatively little.  There's not much hope of evening things out, though there is work being done on the problem.

So what's ahead for 2015?

I already mentioned the event on January 21, which will include readings, music, and artwork.  There should be at least one new piece for that; stay tuned.  I'm enthusiastic about the combination of music and poetry, and looking forward to many more events that combine the two.

A concert is planned for Goshen, Indiana, probably sometime in June.  This will take place at Evergreen Place, on the Greencroft campus, and will include chamber music as well as some of the new piano pieces.

Again, Happy New Year to all!