A 365-Day Project
"We Are All Mozart"
A project to create
The concert last night was elegant. And it was all premieres -- no longer unusual enough for me to remark until this morning. More about it perhaps tomorrow, after the second performances in a few hours. For now, back to the We Are All Mozart compositions, before I forget completely about how they were written.
Barbara Touburg, a friend from near Utrecht who is in the music-engraving business, was one of the first to commission a WAAM piece, an art song. By the time it came to compose the piece for early June, the song's purpose had been rendered obsolete. Rather that not compose one at all, I created one to reflect how I perceived her mood to be, the mood that caused her to cancel the original composition. She laughed and suggested I include an anvil -- that would reflect her mood most closely. And so I did, in The Anvil of Clytemnestra, which uses the English translation of the final speech by Clytemnestra in "Agamemnon" (I couldn't find a translation in Dutch for her). The anvil is played by the singer, and the piano accompaniment is a combined transformation of three pieces by Hildegard von Bingen, "Item de virginibus," "O virtus sapientiae" and "Ave generosa". The text:
The electronic version of The Anvil of Clytemnestra uses an instrument in place of the vocal line.
* * *
June was a month of expansive compositions. Lydia Busler-Blais is the fine composer and horn player for whom the solo Sweet Ovals was written two years ago, and of course the horn part for Turn Around, Bustle, and Blaze, the WAAM composition that was premiered last night. She wanted a piece for horn and piano harmonics, a technique which I'd heard her perform with her big, round, resonant tone. Lydia is also dramatic to watch, a true presence on stage who stands when she plays solo works, accomplished with techniques of all sorts -- and she is a fine improviser. How could I include all these compelling qualities in one composition? (Why should I? Why not! Resistance is futile!)
The task was difficult. Horn solos can be cliché, and the avant-garde work was already done by the likes of Luciano Berio. Like many composers, I ask myself "what's left to do?" Years ago a failed composer advised me that there was already too much music, and he didn't want to write more mediocre stuff, and retired shortly after he started. I kept going, yet that caution has gently flapped in the winds of my mind throughout this year's project: if you write it, make it good! What to do? I'm no newcomer to performance art and extended technique and the rolling together of apparently dissonant concepts into a single structure; I did performance art before it had a name. But it's also a new time, and that old stuff won't fly anymore.
Seven performance pages were the result in Sequenza Nova (homage to Berio there), pages which could be played in sequence for greatest coherency and arch, in another order, or only partially. So seven small interlocking structures were created. They used piano harmonics, strumming, singing, chimes and ping-pong balls with horn calls and melodies and slides and stops. Take a look at the score and the not-so-bad electronic demo for it. There are several symbols which, looking back after four months, I realize that I never actually defined. The chimes symbol means play the wind chimes. The picture of piano, horn and face show the relationship of the horn bell to piano and audience, in one case blocking the view of the horn from the audience; the horn is either held down (normal) or up (pavillon en l'aire). The U-shaped arrows show the performer changing direction, and the circular arrows indicate that the player should turn in a circle while playing. At one point a chair suggests the performer sit to sing (the diamond-shaped notes), gradually rising while singing and playing to create multiphonics.
And finally there is the mysterious cloud in the center of each page. The glowing orange ball is the entrance to the cloud; the improvisation takes place inside the cloud, and exits at one of the other six points, three of which point to other staves. That offers an improvisation and several exit strategies for each improvisation's re-integration with the composition, resulting in thousands of variants of the full architecture. With pitches, techniques, additional sounds, and the performer's movement, it becomes fifteen minutes of choreography for horn player.
* * *
After Larry Polansky was staggered by the size and length of An Fold-in Round back in May, I decided that maybe he'd like a few very short rounds instead of the 40-minute monster I'd written. So off I went in search of text because, as I've mentioned here before, the increasing protection length of the copyright law (now at ninety years) makes it all but impossible to use a contemporary text without lots of publisher preening and lots of cash. A book dear to my early teen years as a budding mathematician (Didn't know that? Yeah, I entered college as a math major. That didn't work.) was "Flatland" by Edwin Abbott, published in 1884. Subtitled "A Romance of Many Dimensions", it tells the story of three-dimensional geometry from the perspective of two-dimensional creatures.
Yes, "Flatland" is a fine little story, and it couldn't have been a better text for a bunch of little rounds. Don't miss the one big steal and oh, yes, try that last one. Heh.
* * *
Carson Cooman was the first great fan of WAAM, and commissioned several pieces. He asked for one for organ and electronics, which became Six Senses of Twilight. The score calls for live processing of the signal; it's not a fixed playback composition. But since Carson takes his performances on the road with unpredictable organs, and it would certainly have been inconvenient to buy and truck around a load of equipment, Six Senses was composed to use a simple laptop and an extraordinary little program called AudioMulch. Max/MSP fans will recognize the modular connectivity of AudioMulch, but from there on, it's somewhat different -- it uses the body of tools available on any Windows PC and is more attuned to the simplicity of live performance. (And it's cheap, "on sale" being a shopping mantra I learned from David Gunn.)
For the software setup, the most available freeware modules were used along with native Mulch gadgets. Microphones pick up the organ's performance and that information is fed into the laptop. The signal is processed and fed out to speakers facing the audience. The layout of software plugins and gadgets is shown in this AudioMulch screenshot. The actions the performer needs to take in terms of raising and lowering the software controls is found in the score to Six Senses and shown for reference in this sequencer screenshot. One possible performance outcome is heard in this demo version. Each performance will be different as performances normally are, but also the processing will change because of the sound of the organ and the positions of the input microphones.
The full result should be a moving, disorienting soundscape that will turn a church into the haunts of El Ángel exterminador.
* * *
Perhaps the most difficult score to create -- from a software viewpoint, not a compositional one necessarily -- was the June chapter of Lunar Cascade in Serial Time. The action of winter and spring were making the transition to summer, and with it a kind of daily hum of growth, no better expressed than with a rose blooming in the great patch that was once a single pitiful plant from the distinctly unclassy Michigan Bulb Company. This photograph was taken in the morning when the evening's rain was still on the budding flower.
The score asks a great deal of Seth Gordon, who commissioned the work. It is at its simplest a mere translation of the size of the droplets into dynamics, and shows the relationship of droplets as possible pitches on circular staves. Many of my compositions are drawn from natural shapes, whether through direct translation to events (such as Tirkíinistrá: 25 Landscape Preludes for Piano) or through their architecture as guide (such as Quince & Fog Falls). With June's Lunar Cascade, I search for a meditation on the inherent shimmer of the flower, as if a concentration on its minute details could reveal the heart of its flower-ness in acoustic terms. It is a more literal picture-painting than Starry Night from earlier this year, which listeners hear as raindrops coming and going, rather than stars appearing and blinking away. There are people gifted (or cursed) with hearing colors or smelling shapes, that synaesthesia found in Scriabin. I don't have that, and am required to search into the non-literal meaning of images to discover their cross-sensory possibilities.
Oh, yes, I can hear the derision. June's Lunar Cascade is not a solution, but just a question. Is anything of the rose left after a performance? Without the rose behind the score, would it have any sense? To the latter, I can only ask, without the theme (pace Elgar), would the variations have any sense?
The score, by the way, was done by hand in layers in a graphics program, using vectors to place the noteheads along the circular staves, themselves made from vector shapes. This is one score Finale couldn't touch.
* * *
There's one more piece in June, but I'll leave it until next time.
* * *
I promised the journal from our residency in Nodar. Here is the ninth installment. Please write to me if you want a copy of the full journal in PDF format with photos.
Sunday Night, April 22
Air Berlin wanted two hundred euros to make the change. For now, the deal is off. We went to Castro Daire late this morning to pick up supplies: lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, flour, yeast, bread, olives, batteries, and a tank of gas--at "1.29", which doesn't read like much on this sign, except that it's per liter, and in euros. That's about $7.02 per gallon. Lunch followed at a small café, and then we returned to Nodar in time for the trip across the mountain to hear and talk with Isabel Syvestre in Manhouce. Cristina and Aaron were late and a concert was scheduled for four o'clock at an hour's distance, so we waited to the last minute but had to leave without them. Luis drove as fast as one can imagine on these tight curves--no, he drove faster. Whatever is said about Portuguese driving can be multiplied by some irrational factor and divided by zero. My vestigial carsickness was almost scratched out of its slumber.'r
The trip took us through Sequeiros (waving to some of those at last night's song gathering, enjoying the bright Sunday afternoon sun outside the town's café), and through several villages on tightly twisting roads until we reached Manhouce ... just about ten kilometers across the mountain by crow, but perhaps 60 km by road. We were late arriving, but it being Portugal time, the concert had not yet begun. They were still rehearsing. We set up equipment in time for a bus of soccer fans to arrive; this was a concert of traditional vocal music, yes, for soccer fans. Some slept or fell sideways drunk in their seats, most were quiet (except, naturally, for the one person and child nearest my microphones), and the concert, narrated by Isabel, was another surprising turn in our project.
These voices were more practiced that the Sequeiros group, but still had that forward sound and clarity. The parallel harmonies appeared once more, but contaminated by a Casio keyboard (playing piano, organ and harpsichord stops), which also affected the a cappella piece they sang for us later, privately. Following the concert pieces (including two lullabies added for us) and all but one (Miraculoso--yes, a soccer tune) in those sliding parallel triads, we interviewed Isabel ... or rather Luis did, as we couldn't speak or understand her Portuguese well enough. She guided the three of us through the interview as a consummate professional, choosing the proper photo-taking backdrop and assuring the sounds of birds and the rehearsing choir were also audible. The audience having left to return to their bus and drinking, the choir then sang a single Christmas lullaby unaccompanied; it was beautiful and mysterious, and set the tone for our ride back to Nodar, which encompassed a brief café stop and a long, leisurely (and no longer madly driven) detour over São Macário, the fourth highest peak in Portugal--littered with broadcast and cell phone towers. Nodar was two ridges away, deep in the valley. São Macário also had one of the least congruous visual moments: an old church, probably eighteenth century, was entirely surrounded by the ruined wall of a thousand-yearold church, and the backdrop of both was a great broadcast tower which fitted the scene like a spire. One of Luis's relatives worked on the mountain, and most of the sites had stories of his family or his godparents or other relatives in this small rural region. We passed just one level above the shortest village name in Portugal, Sá. (We've taken to calling these 'levels' because each terrace has its own ingress and egress. On foot, they split like a multi-stranded necklace of thin pastures, gardens, and pathways; the roads form a pattern of nerve-like fibers, fairly well indicated from the main roads--paved since the 1990--but quite intuitive in the deep country. On this trek back we came to at least a dozen unmarked forks of apparently equal directional virtue where Luis, despite not having traveled the route for a decade, simply kept to the same level.)
On pulling back onto Rua da Fonte, we saw that someone had hit our rental car, a six-hundred-euro deductible vehicle. Apparently a motorcycle race had come through the streets, and this deep bumper dent bore the evidence of a crash. Tia had heard it, in fact, but no one was there when she arrived up the street. Luis believes the local garage can knock out the dent invisibly--we hope.
Dinner was rigatoni and cheese, ham, farmer's cheese slices and pepper, salad, bread and wine, followed by conversations with Luis (who will transcribe the songs and has asked us to stay on the extra day despite the expense). After Stevie went to bed, I checked the email, and David had written to say there was a blue tarp over the roof and the car was missing. He sent photos; things looked safe but odd. What will tomorrow bring?
Monday Morning, April 23
The answer to yesterday's question: Pain. Perhaps it was the wild ride yesterday, but I had a restless night, and this morning while starting work at the computer, I sneezed. The entire left side of my back went into intense spasms that actually made me pour sweat. Two minutes' worth, enough that I thought I was channeling contractions for Manuela. With ibuprofen, acetaminophen and tiger balm, it's now relented somewhat. Phew.
Stevie made an "American breakfast"--scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, peanut butter and jam, and two pots of coffee. This is a hungry crowd, and it was all gone in a half hour. The peanut butter was actually for Aaron, and finding it in Portugal, where it is not popular, was difficult. A few jars--labeled in Afrikaans-- sat on the bottom shelf in the Intermarché, so we scooped one up. Aaron was ecstatic and loaded his toast with it, and then headed for the jam. In a moment reminiscent of Hyacinth and her neighbor in "Keeping Up Appearances," Stevie and Manuela together said in stern, loud voices, "don't put the peanut butter knife in the jam!" and Aaron jumped back like he'd been bitten by a snake.
The plan today is to work on our respective outlines for the presentation on Saturday, in the hopes that the Berlin Air flight can be postponed.
Tuesday Morning, April 24
The flight has been moved, Wammes knows about the travails ("As to the Canon, it's obsolete by now. Find one on eBay.") and will hunt down some methocarbamol in Amsterdam. He generously offered "pampering."
Yesterday was relatively quiet. Stevie spent most of the day organizing the images for the presentation, and I was editing the songs. Luis was out videotaping with Cristina, and Aaron was engaged in his 24-hour recording and later with mixing other recordings.
Lunch was another Spanish omelet made by Cristina, with sliced potatoes, butter and peppers; it's very dense, and holds up well after waiting a half hour for everyone to settle. Manuela made roasted red peppers, and there was salad, toasted bread and red wine. We'd hoped to reach Lila or Shane, but without success, and finally got in touch with the doc Craig Sullivan in Vermont, who can't prescribe internationally. But he thought methocarbamol might be over-the-counter here, and as I write Stevie is hiking up to the pharmacy in Parada de Ester.
Aaron made dinner last night--a spicy garbanzo and onion stir-fry, rice and peas, salad, bread and the white wine (Dona Deolinda) Stevie had bought in Castro Daire when the Intermarché was closed. There were also some chicken wings that Stevie cooked up for the non-vegetarians. Once again everything was gone by dinner's end (Cristina is very tall and slender, but can pack in as much as anyone else).
Early this morning I got up to record the birds--this time, unlike a few days ago when I was too sleepy to press the record button, the results were very nice. Later this morning we sat and stood on the porch drinking coffee, and Luis observed that children play, but when they grow up, they call play art. It's cloudy today, and the bullfrogs are calling, Antonio is in the garden hoeing, and the goats went out early. Aaron photographed a moth the color of the granite. Today we should be making some bread the shape of the peninsula (it's called alto da voulta). Yes, the rhythm has changed.
Stevie writes, "We are indeed living in a world spanning time--we probably have the highest per capita concentration of laptops almost anywhere (eight laptops to total population of 34!). Yet, we wash our clothes in a cold water cistern and hang them to dry in the sun (25 degrees Celsius = 75+ Fahrenheit). The goat bells play for us while we wash, and a local pony comes to watch. The villagers work the terraced fields by hand, so we hear the hoes and the plunk as potato seeds drop into the furrows. There are two new lambs, both doing well, but calling pitifully for their mammas as they are kept separate at first for safety from dogs and even wolves which still roam here on occasion."
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