This performance was so remarkable, I had to do something special with it. My heartfelt thanks to Maestro Richard Clary, the Florida State University Wind Orchestra, and all the co-commissioners of the wind transcription of Blow It Up, Start Again.
New Work: Prayers of Steel, for brass quintet, commssioned by Chicago’s hot young Gaudete Brass. Written in honor of John Corigliano’s 75th Birthday, the work premieres next month at Gaudete’s Corigliano Birthday Celebration Concert.
Tomorrow I leave for San Antonio, where Maestro Allen Tinkham will prepare Blow It Up, Start Again with the 2013 All State Philharmonic Orchestra. This will be my fourth time at TMEA: it’s where the Texans are friendly, the ten gallon hats are not ironic, and the student music-making is superb.
Last year my friend Peter Flint, the composer and Director of Avian Orchestra, called to commission These Inflected Tentacles, as part of a program on Botony he was putting together called “Vegetative States.” I was thrilled to do it, as my first piece for them, The Vinyl Six (for a program centering on rock-based chamber music) had turned into one of my more successful chamber pieces, getting performed maybe once or twice a season since Avian had recorded it. For a self-published chamber piece with a sax and an electric guitar in it, this qualifies as an enormous hit. So I set off to write, and came back with a piece for a mixed quartet structured in four short movements, based on some quotes I had culled from Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants: a book I had happily stumbled on when I started looking at stuff about carnivorous plants.
But Peter’s program was packed with new music, and the players (all exceptional, busy NY freelancers) ended up having too much brand new and complicated stuff to learn for the show. So we performed the first two movements only. They could have probably played three, but the issue was actually the last movement, a 2-minute Barn Burner with a hellofalotofnotes.
Ending on the third (slowest, and easily playable) movement would have sounded kind of weird, so we went with the first two. In retrospect I probably should have re-ordered them or something to make three happen, but for some reason that didn’t occur to me at the time.
Last month composer Armando Bayolo‘s hot DC-based new music group, Great Noise Ensemble played the whole thing, essentially “premiering” the full 10-minute piece. Having just moved cross-country I couldn’t swing getting there. But Armando sent me some reviews.
Now, reviews are tricky. I enjoy reading them. I enjoy writing them. And I enjoy receiving them (well, good ones). But music criticism is a skinny balance beam. Composers need reviews: to promote their stuff, to validate their hard work, to be part of a community’s artistic conversation, etc… but arts criticism is, and likely always has been, a mixed bag. There are the exceptional critics who really know how to do exactly that kind of writing and make it a true and necessary part of the artistic life of a city or region (Berlioz, or Thomson, or Alex Ross), but in general, there is the occasional brilliant and/or incisive commentary on one end of the spectrum, and what I would call the “non-review review” on the other. The non-review review goes a little something like this:
A concert happened. [Ensemble] premiered [composer]‘s [adjective] [title]. [Performer] performed it [adverb].
And all the qualities of writing in-between. Which is really most of what happens: a serviceable yet important accounting of The Arts in a particular community.
But then there’s the thorny relationship of the composer to the reviews. Sure, there are composers who narcissistically and slavishly follow every word ever written about them. But then again, when I used to work at a music publisher about 100 years ago, I was instructed to never mention reviews to a particular composer in the catalog, even if they were positive, because as a rule he NEVER read reviews. Which is quite laudable. Of course I never believed it for a second. It’s just too tempting as an obsession. I mean, I studied with a composer who used to take his dog out every day to the same corner, specifically to piss on The New York Times newspaper box that resided there.
I, of course, sit smack dab in the large grey area, as a big honkin’ hypocrite. I’ve counseled friends to not give negative reviews a second thought because it’s all bulltwiddle, and I’ve congratulated them when they’ve received good ones. I’ve greedily grabbed quotes from good notices for myself, and bitched about receiving my own non-review reviews. Honestly, for me, we’re not talking about a huge sample. So in light of what I’ve said above, it’s the proverbial blessing/curse.
But there’s a persistent attribute I’ve noticed in music reviews. One composers tend to ignore. Usually?…usually…the review is kind of right.
Obviously, there is the ocassional axe to grind. Thus, dogs peeing on newspaper boxes on street corners. But whenever I’ve attended the same concert as a (generally respected) working music critic, and that critic has chosen to actually express an opinion about what they saw and heard (as opposed to deciding on turning in a non-review review), I’ve pretty much agreed with what was written. Almost always.
So I saw two reviews for my piece in DC last month. And they were what one calls, “mixed”. Both said some some nice things about my music, and both pointed out a problem with the piece. And they both pointed out the same problem. And they are both totally right.
An appealing new quartet by Jonathan Newman kicked off the concert. It’s titled, unforgettably, “These Inflected Tentacles.” It’s a dicey-sounding title, but the work is actually built on Charles Darwin’s 19th-century accounts of dropping glass, hair and other bits of stuff into Venus’ flytraps (back when science was fun!) to see how they would react.
Newman’s piece turned out to be very engaging, if more gentle and dance-like than carnivorous. It was hard to escape the “under-rehearsed” feeling, though: The players were shunted to auditory Siberia on the distant left edge of the stage, the title of the wrong piece was projected over them in big letters and the music’s rhythmic difficulties — the meter seemed to shift every bar or so — required a conductor just to hold the four musicians together. The performance never really felt sure of itself, and the electricity never quite flowed.
The program began with These Inflected Tentacles, a quartet by Jonathan Newman (b. 1972) for marimba, piano, violin, and cello, in its first complete performance. Each of the piece’s four movements was titled with a decontextualized quotation from Charles Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants, in which the scientist luridly recounted his experiments on meat-eating flora. The music seemed too breezy and lighthearted for having supposedly been inspired by descriptions of “experimentation ranging from the curious to the cruel,” as described in Newman’s program note. Since there was really no apparent connection between music and quotes, that was easy to ignore while taking in the piece’s soaring lines and elfishly shifting rhythms. The Great Noise musicians negotiated these adeptly, though at times the performance felt like an effortful mad dash rather than a carefree romp.
Zeroing in on only the criticism of the music itself, my take-home is a general sense that the music does not match the Darwin quotes. And the thing is, it kind of doesn’t. At least, not obviously. This realization was, in fact, my sole torture as I was writing the thing. I knew that the sound world that was snowballing successively in the movements as I wrote them, was way more pleasant, way more lyrical, than my original intentions when I pulled out those quotes.
But I learned long ago that you really should just let the music do what it wants to do. Sure, you can fight it. You can try to reel it back in and force it into your original plan. But don’t. Just let the thing go the way it wants to go. It might not be the same as you had originally intended—maybe it will be even be better! But probably not. It doesn’t matter, because it will be more truthful. I say this every once in a while to students, or in presentations and such: the composer should listen to the piece as it’s being written. It often tells you how to proceed.
This kind of froofy touchy-feely-granola stuff doesn’t come out of me very often. I mean, you’re currently reading a guy who rolls his eyes at any utterance of the word, “Inspiration”. But I believe this wholeheartedly. In this case, though, the result seems to be a disconnect. At least on first impression. And it’s a disconnect I was aware of while writing, which makes me particularly uncomfortable. But I “went with it”, as they say, and whether I was deluding myself or not, I ultimately decided that there were less “obvious” ways of thinking about carnivorous plants and scientific dickering with them, and this piece leaned more in those directions.
And so, the critics called it out. Which is heartening. It means my ears work fine, as I heard the problem, too. But I stand by my letting the piece organically “take over”, and not forcing it back to a more instantly-realized-expression of the quotes. If I had fought it, I’m fairly certain the thing wouldn’t have been described as “an appealling new quartet”.
Which is totally what I will snip out for my ‘press quotes’ page.
Great Noise Ensemble performs These Inflected Tentacles again tomorrow night at 7:30 pm, The Catholic University of America, Ward Hall, 3976 Harewood Rd NE, Washington, DC.
When I started working on Blow It Up, Start Again last year I swore I wouldn’t transcribe it for winds. I had just come off a string of large-ish band pieces, and had convinced myself I needed a break from thinking about saxophones. In fact, I went out of my way to make the thing as orchestra-centric as possible. That direction is actually one of the core tenets of my artistic life: Make work for a medium, that only that medium does well. It’s why the movie is usually not as good as the book. Unless the filmmakers are smart enough to revise the thing so that it now does things a book could never do.
And so, there are sul ponticello string glissandos. There are cavernous multi-octave leaps. Rapid repeated staccati. Lengthy sustained chords. Huge section divisis with tremolos. Stuff you just cannot translate.
Turns out, though…you kind of can.
CYSO previewed the piece at the Midwest Clinic…where I hear some band directors occasionally show up. And there was a quiet clamor for a transcription. I couldn’t really argue. The sucker did have a certain, er, bombastic quality to it–where more brass, percussion, and general volume seemed not out of place. And I figured that despite the walls I purposefully put up, I could probably come up with something.
When I started working on the transcription, the voice in my head repeated, “This is going to sound awful.” But as I got into it, I thought, actually, in some ways this is kind of better. I mean, the string balance issues are solved. BOOM. Because once you put something in the saxophones, man, you can definitely hear it. And the syncopated lines will sound fantastic and funky in the winds, no doubt.
And that’s the takeaway, I think. Some of the transcription will always rub me the wrong way and make me cringe. And some of it will sound way better. Life lesson, right there.
So here’s how it went down:
I raised the thing by a half-step. While E-blues/G major are fantastic key areas for orchestra (worth it for the available double and triple stops alone), they are TERRIBLE for wind players. But there was a knotty problem I couldn’t work out. The trumpets were already crazy high (and those are for C instruments). But the trombones have a very specific gliss that starts on what is essentially their lowest note. So taking it down to E-flat seemed out, unless I wanted to re-write the trombones. Which I tried. And failed at spectacularly. The whole idea of dubstep (flavors of which are sprinkled all over the piece) is that it’s WUB WUB WUB down low. Can’t raise it too much. And I couldn’t get lower than E2 on the bones. So up to F we go. The trombone glisses still worked, and the wind parts didn’t look nearly as scary.
Otherwise the trombones were barely touched. I added just a handful of extra chord tones occassionally, to fatten things up, because I made a fourth trombone part. I did not need a fourth trombone part. But it’s a band. Might as well have the minimum be a lot, and make this thing loud, if nothing else. The tuba part also did not move a single inch. Except up a half step, like everything else.
But because of the key change, the trumpet parts were re-jiggered significantly. There was a lot of sweat making sure that the re-voicings had the same amount of oomph. Again, even though they’re generally lower in this version, some of the shape of the new trumpet section line is actually kind of better. Most importantly, though, Maynard Ferguson is no longer required.
With all due respect to the clarinets, and contrary to standard practice, much of the string writing went in the saxophones. Who I learned long ago are actually the solution to most windestration problems, not the impediment. The results are I believe some of the most intricate saxophone parts I’ve yet made.
Interesting sidenote: an E-flat Clarinet serves as a quite nifty fifth (sopranino) saxophone.
In the end, I struggled to contain all the extra percussion to 5 players. Here’s one attempt to sort out the battery into separate players. On a page by page basis.
You can see where I gave up this process after only getting as far as page 13. Twice.
The original’s clustered string glisses (most of which cover several octaves) sound like a million bucks. But they are literally impossible in this medium. So a lot of re-writing happened. Here’s me working out adding to the new written-out wind runs with a system of lipping up and down in tiny increments with saxophones and trumpets. Before I had any actual notes.
I also made the harp optional. Bands rarely have them, and if you make it an official part, they often have to hire out ringers. In this kind of a piece, though it’s not exactly a color necessity. But, man, even for an optional part, when you’ve worked out the pedalings in one key, and then you need to re-pedal for a transposition?…that alone was an entire day’s work.
The timpani, too, needed TLC. The original is worked out carefully for four drums. I wanted the same here. But the thing is up a half-step now, and whoops!…pitches that worked on one drum suddenly aren’t there anymore. Here’s me working out a new drum map.
Sexy, right? Like it’s in code. Or maybe it’s more like a Miró sketch. The arrows actually translate to “I don’t really know what I’m doing … surely they can pedal to this?”
Finally, where I avoided a drumset in the original piece, here, I embraced it. In an orchestra, a trap in the back reads “Pops Concert”. In a wind symphony, it reads “Oh! That’s kind of cool.” It also freed up a percussionist for half the piece to play more mallet instruments. Which helps smooth out much of the transcribed string music.
The uncorrected score now looks like I meant this whole thing to happen. Never let them think otherwise.
The superb ensembles who commissioned this transcription are going to blast this thing to the heavens, blow the roofs off their halls, and make the audience beg for more. I cannot wait to witness this. BOOM!