Wednesday, November 02, 2011

more composing

As some of you readers probably know (but that others may not) I compose and arrange music while I look for a normal day job.  Last year I got a paid commission to arrange an hour's worth of Christmas music for oboe, cello, and guitar for a chamber ensemble in Italy.  That was a huge amount of fun.  I spent a week (58 hours of work at that) mapping out 23 songs for the three instruments and had a ball.  It was also nice that it helped me keep a roof over my head for a couple of months!

I have been writing quite a bit over the last few years about composing preludes and fugues for solo guitar but, you may surmise I have been composing other things as well.  It has come time to return to composing some of those other things.  Chief among them is a sonata for violin and guitar in A minor.  I have finished movements 2 and 4 but movements 1 and 3 remain to be finished. 

The third movement and first movement present the "usual" challenges that come from attempting to compose a sonata form and a fugue.  But they present some unusual challenges because by committing so firmly to a compositional and conceptual approach indebted not only to Charles Ives but also Benjamin Britten I have presented some wildly difficult challenges in how I approach these unfinished movements.  To explain how and why these problems have shown up would be to give the game away and I refuse to do that on a blog.  Particularly shrewd readers who know how Ives worked and know how Britten worked, particularly on a piece that a guitarist would be likely to know about, can probably guess a few things without my having to explain anything.  Those guesses would probably even be mostly correct.  But the secrets are in details. 

Still, I feel comfortable saying that I have spent a decade refining a kind of matrix derived approach to tonal composition that is informed by set theory and dodecaphonic techniques.  I have rarely employed true atonality but have liberally drawn from atonal and paratonal idioms.  Years ago I composed a Kyrie setting that was performed at Mars Hill in 2004 by the choir I helped put together.  I'm not sure anyone cared that I did something musically very nerdy--I made sure that the christe eleison section was based on the relative major harmonization of the retrograde of the cantus firmus that the kyrie eleison section is built on.  Besides the simple fact that this sounded fun it had a musical symbolism to it; I wanted to illustrate that whether from within the Mosaic covenant looking forward or in the new covenant in Christ looking backward appeals to the mercy of God are equally meaningful for those of us who live after Christ as for those who were looking forward to Christ.  At the risk of seeming piously mushy I wanted to compose a Kyrie setting that musically (even at a visual level in the score) demonstrated how the grace of God toward us in Christ looks the same whether we are looking backward or forward in time as we go. 

All that is to say that I like to play around with themes in esoteric ways that only musicologists and sight-reading musicians would pick up on.  But ten years ago when I was trying to write sacred choral music is a whole different stage of life than what I've been experimenting with over the last few years.  I've been exploring ways in which a kind of monothematicism can be used as the basis for obliterating stylistic and formal distinctions in Western music. 

If in Christ there is no slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female; if Christ is reconciling all things to Himself then the way a Christian composer can explore this is by playing in a wide variety of styles but also in exploring ways in which apparently contrasting styles can be shown to have an otherwise ignored underlying unity.  There is no final conflict between Fernando Sor and Johnny Cash, for instance.  These distinctions do not lose their importance and these musical styles do not cease to be what they are but there is no irreconciable difference between them to a Christian unless someone decides to be a twerp and imagine that these distinctions "must" exist for retroactive theological rationales that have very little to do with truly Christian teaching and more to do with Christian teaching appropriated for the sake of an ethnic agenda that the kingdom of Christ does not necessarily justify. If that were ever ultimately true then no Gentiles would ever have received the Gospel.

This is why, in an admittedly broad and too-abstract way, I have found composers such as Messiaen, Penderecki, Stravinsky, and Charles Ives appealing, because in their disparate ways they provide an example of how a contemporary composer can approach eclecticism and fusion from a perspective not of assumed fragmentation but of assumed unity, however wildly personalized, esoteric, and even inscrutable that perceived unity may often seem to be.  As Bono put it with outsized sentiment in that anthem on the Joshua Tree, "that all the colors will bleed into one."  People obsessed with racial purity will never dig this and I don't expect them to.  Being the son of an American Indian and a white I don't particularly care about racial or ethnic purity.  So for me it's not surprising that attempting to break down different boundaries between jazz and classical or "serious" and "light" music is a fun thing to explore.  It is for me, a practical and blatantly theological enterprise. 

Completing my violin and guitar sonata in A minor is an important step forward in a massive series of chamber sonatas I have been working on since 2000.  I've been eager to finish this series because I've been wanting to create a duo sonata pairing the guitar up with every instrument I can think of.  I'm not just eager to finish 24 preludes and fugues, though I am eager to finish that.  I've also been eager to complete a cycle of chamber sonatas pairing the guitar up with woodwinds, strings, and brass as part of my larger, potentially lifelong project.  There's no reason I can't equally love J. S. Bach, Bartok, Beethoven, Bob Dylan, Blind Willie Johnson, and Dave Brubeck.  There's no reason I can't draw equal inspiration from Thelonious Monk as I do from Haydn.  I can dig John Lee Hooker like I dig Paul Hindemith.

Now I absolutely love writing about cartoons and about Batman cartoons and I am committed to doing yet more writing on the DCAU. But I must also admit that I need to have a social life and I am also a composer and arranger in addition to a sometime writer.  I'm also slated to get eye surgery this month so in a way I feel like I want to cram in some more composing as well as writing in this month before I get one and possibly both eyes worked on. It's nice that the Lions Club Foundation is around to help people who are more than just strapped for cash and have been told they need cataract removal surgery! 

And of course, the quest for work will continue.


Chris Krycho said...

I nerded out a little at your discussion of your treatment of the christie and kyrie sections. I haven't had a chance to do much composition since I graduated college (working full time as an engineer tends to leave little extra time, and other commitments have filled the rest), but I had two opportunities to begin exploring that sort of systematic embrace of meaning with structure, and I loved them (though neither is a piece I'd care to publish).

I build the first (and thus far only) serial piece I wrote around the structural concept of standard serial techniques: the first half is entirely composed of progressions and transpositions of the tone matrix; the second half is entirely composed of regressions and inversions with transposition; and the instrumentation likewise comes in and leaves in an inverted regressive order from its entrance. Ironically, I titled the piece I Hate Serialism as something of a commentary on a formalized approach that I detested, but the result was something that has grown on me in the intervening four or five years.

The other was a bit of wedding music I wrote (overly complex for the setting, which was general seating music), in which I took the groom and bride's favorite hymns and set them in contrapuntal motion, with the intent to demonstrate how marriage happens – his humble leading and her following, each taking up each other's themes, until they mingle inseparably, dancing between the instruments. It wasn't, on the final outcome, nearly as effective as I had hoped, but it certainly was one of the projects I enjoyed most, and it's the sort of thing I'd like to do again if I ever get the chance to do some serious composition work at length.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Is there anywhere I can hear your music? It sounds fascinating.

Chris Krycho said...

I'm posting another comment because I forgot to check the box to get email comments the first go around, and to qualify that both pieces were written during college. :)

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I'll be posting a link to a video of one of my pieces being performed, or at least the first movement. I'll also post a link to ablog that has some audio files for my sonata for flute and guitar.

I haven't worked out how to include audio files on this blog just yet and may not pull that off. I've also posted a few things at the delcamp CG forum. Meanwhile I keep writing and contact ensembles that might be interested in playing my work.

The Kyrie was performed by the Mars Hill choral ensemble in 2005 and they also performed my little motet Verbum Caro Factum Est.

Chris Krycho said...

I chatted with a friend of mine who's been engaged with the indie music scene for about 8 years now, and he immediately pointed to, which I thought of as well but lacked familiarity with. He says it's free, allows unlimited streaming, and lets you allow others to pay or not to listen to your music. Hope that's helpful. I saw your post with the link, and I look forward to listening to the sonata when I get a chance this evening. Regards!