Thursday, August 1, 2019


Today I did something I never expected to do. I pulled out all of my old notebooks, including compositions from my very first scribbles (I was five) all the way through my first two years of college. I went through each of them, carefully tore out most of the pages, and tore them in half. Then I delivered them to the recycle bins downstairs.

Every composer in the Western tradition, loosely speaking, writes every note with at least one eye on posterity. Even if no one other than us values our work, we have to assume that, at some point, they might. We imagine our leavings treated the way we treat those of the composers who've gone before us: diligently preserving them, eagerly searching them for clues to the development of talent and mastery, including them in beautifully printed and bound editions of the complete works.

Most of us realize, on some level, that's a fantasy. It would be, if not impossible, at least not easy, for every composer's complete output to be saved, let alone treated with any special reverence. Libraries and archives have limited capacity, and “the cloud” (i.e. other people's computers) may have other ideas about what it wants to store. In any case, it makes no promises unless it's paid to, and sometimes not even then.

Going through those notebooks has been a complex process. A small part of it has been, “Wow … I don't remember writing that; it's not bad!” A lot of it has been, “Wow … that belongs in the recycle bin!” And a lot of it has involved saying goodbye, not just to a big pile of paper with musical notation scribbled on it, but to the childhood and young adulthood during which that musical notation was put onto that paper.

A few of the pieces are tied to events, like the one I wrote when my grandfather died. A very few of the pieces were performed; a song or two, and an Easter Cantata some of my cousins kindly sang through for me one afternoon. A collection of short pieces was published; they were written with Leonard Kilmer, my piano teacher at the time, and performed at the summer music camp at the local college. I was younger than most of the kids at that camp. I also gave a talk about aleatory music there that year.

Leonard introduced me to modern techniques by way of Vincent Persichetti's harmony book. I was in junior high school, and the modal melody and quartal-secundal harmony I learned from him have been important ever since. This was the time the school orchestra performed a piece of mine, for violin and strings. Playing the solo was a thrill, a happy time in a tough stretch, and I'm grateful to the kind friends who made it happen. During that period, I wrote my first music worth keeping. A Lament for voice and piano survives in an arrangement for soprano saxophone and piano.

But a lot of the music just shows me trying, and failing, to reproduce the grand pieces I admired. It's too bad, in a way, that I didn't look at other models; today I'd suggest, for instance, that someone wanting to write a cantata take a look at one by Buxtehude (“Alles, was Ihr tut”, perhaps); someone wanting to write a piano concerto could check out the pasticcio concertos of Mozart … and begin by writing a sonata in the style of the ones he used. But in those days, I wasn't big on taking advice from anyone. To be fair, a lot of the young musicians whose work I find online fall into the same trap, trying to run before they can walk properly.

But the biggest realization during the whole process of creative destruction has been that the future I'd been imagining, the one in which my works could be gathered, treasured, and preserved, is most likely not the future to which we are headed. There are too many problems facing the human race right now, and the genesis of my musical language isn't a priority.

A few pages have been saved, for now, but the reprieve is likely temporary. After watching (and being part of) the process of cleaning up after the deaths of a number of friends, and after a number of house moves, mine and others', it's clear the choice is only whether I want to put these things into the recycle bin now, when I can do so with my own two hands, or whether I want them put there (or into the trash), by someone else. Today I'm choosing to take action on my own behalf.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

End of one year, beginning of another

Recently I've been thinking a lot about this blog, and what I'm hoping to accomplish.  Ultimately it's about you: if what you find here doesn't make your life better in some way, what's the point?  How can I make it easier for you to find what you are looking for, and make use of what you find?  I'm posting about my experiences, but hoping you'll find some value, even if only to shake your head at my pratfalls.

So, what has this year been for me, musically speaking?

This has been a year to reconsider and re-evaluate.  What am I doing?  Why?

I didn't play in public often in 2018.  The vast majority of my music-making has been at home, or in small gatherings.  Right now, that's for the best.

This year I've been working on chorale preludes by Telemann, various organ pieces by Pachelbel, a sonatina by Clementi (Op. 36, No. 3 in C Major), a suite by Buxtehude (F Major), and so on.  This was also a year full of The Well-Tempered Clavier, book I; I've been working on memorizing the first several preludes and fugues (numbers 1-3 basically done, 4-6 in progress).  Underlying all of this has been a re-examination of technique.  It's been about thinking, and listening, as much as playing.

I've been going, slowly, through Clara Bell's translation of Philipp Spitta's biography of Bach, and matching his descriptions, where possible, with the pieces they're about.  While Spitta's opinions can't always be accepted without question, this three-volume set (formerly bound as two) does cover a large number of composers and pieces, and, in the age of the internet, you can hear most of them pretty easily, on YouTube, SoundCloud, or elsewhere.  This makes a great introduction (or re-introduction, if you already knew some music history) to some fine music, the people who made it, and the times and places they lived.  It's also a way to approach questions of what makes good music, and what makes music good.  Spitta doesn't hide his opinions, and even disagreeing with him is a learning experience.  He's dated, of course; comparing his work with more recent writing is part of the experience.

Composing?  2018 was a pretty dry year.  A goal for 2019 is to write more.

But the biggest goal for 2019?  Finding my way again, figuratively speaking.  Right now I feel lost.

Wishing you and those you care about health, happiness, and success for the coming year.