Nocturne: a dialog with Kurt Cobain

I was selected as the “Commissioned Composer of the Year” for 2016 by the Washington State Music Teachers Association (WSMTA)- a branch of the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). This meant writing a piece for a premiere at their state conference at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, for which I would provide the performers, and their costs. This meant writing for a small ensemble not a large one! Furthermore the association is largely piano teachers, with many voice teachers as well. When I had done this commission project back in 2001 I chose to write a set of songs- Bringing in the Tides: Seven Songs on Poems by 20th Century American Women Poets.  This time I decided to fulfill two requests with one piece and write something for my colleague at Pacific Lutheran University, piano professor Oksana Ejokina, who had asked for a piece a year earlier. It was a plus that she was a member of WSMTA and would probably be going to the conference anyway.

I asked Oksana what sort of piece she thought I should write. She suggested a piece for advanced but still young players (high school and college) which would introduce them to “extended techniques”- those ways of sound-making that are beyond the usual technique. In the case of piano this often means reaching inside the piano to pluck, strum, tap or otherwise alter the sound of the piano strings vibrating. John Cage first became famous for his “prepared piano” pieces in the 1940’s for which the player must follow a detailed chart of where to place screws, bolts, erasers and other objects amongst the strings, turning the piano into a kind of “gamelan” percussion ensemble. Composers love this of course! Pianists worry about it, and piano owners- individuals, concert halls and colleges, hate it! It can of course damage the strings of your $100,000 Steinway or leave the owner with a paperclip stuck down under the strings that vibrates like a snare drum snare every time you play a G#… I thus decided not to “prepare” the piano in any way, but simply to use the hands and maybe a guitar pick to engage the strings in interesting ways.

Since these extended techniques are unfamiliar (“weird”) to many younger players, as is most 20th century music after all, Oksana suggested I make the piece “programmatic” with a story or descriptive subject that would help players and their audiences understand why these techniques and sounds were useful for the piece.

Armed with these ideas, I then thought about my daughter Clara, a student at a popular music conservatory in Liverpool, England and her aspirations to become a popular music artist. She and I share a love of the history of pop music and its creator-performers, and frequently share books, articles and videos. Together we watched the recent  documentaries on Amy Winehouse and on Kurt Cobain, and talked about “The 27 Club”- that group of pop artists who all died at age 27: Jimi, Jim, Janice, and now Kurt and Amy. She sees these as tragic losses of important artists, as do I, but I also now see them through the eyes of a parent: as grown children still struggling through the difficulties of becoming oneself in a complex, often contradictory world. To do so with the eyes and judgments of the world upon you seems too often to be more than a person can bear.

I decided thus to make a piece called Nocturne, a kind of dark, after-midnight meditation that would honor Kurt Cobain, using fragments of his iconic (and breakout) song Smells Like Teen Spirit. The song is full of very interesting musical ideas and the title seemed perfect for my purposes: an “In Memoriam” for an individual and for too many other young people.

I recommend listening to the official music video of the song, available on Youtube, before listening to my piece: Nocturne. The original song is built largely on a rhythm: short-short-long, and a repeating four chord progression: F-Bb-Ab-Db. The modality (major or minor) is not clear as the power chords are mostly played without third- just the raw root and fifth. But the progression itself suggests fm minor of course. It also features a frequently stated perfect fourth played as harmonics up high- C-F, like little bells. This curiously delicate touch always struck me as special- like a fragile cry for help from the guitar of an otherwise screaming singer. Several fragments of the melody become my primary motivic material, out of which I construct the first slow section of a classic Field or Chopin Nocturne. This is where most of the “extended techniques” are used- plucking strings, patting them, playing them on the keys while damping them inside, etc. This creates a surreal quality that matches both the gloom of the song and my sense of sorrow and fear for the lives of young people in an intense world. The “normal” notes sound even more beautiful, perhaps even nostalgic amidst these more dark and dangerous sounds.

The middle “faster” section of the nocturne form utilizes the deepest range of the piano, to create a carefully composed “muddy” texture. This is “grunge” we’re talking about here after all! The motivic material is extended now with an idea from the “bridge” or “break” of the song in which Cobain uses another progression: F-F#-B/Bb-Ab, and a vocal “hey!” There is a lot of pitch-bending in the guitar which is why I decided to mix B and Bb chords for some serious dissonance. And that F# chord is cool! You have to admire a self-taught rock writer who invented for himself what could be described as a “Neapolitan chord” or a “Implied Phrygian mode!”  Throughout this middle section, the “rock ‘n roll” quality comes out much more clearly. Gone is the surreal gloom and nostalgia and foregrounded is the rage and the rhythmic power of the song. (I hope younger players enjoy the opportunity to rock out at contest or during their recital! Older players too!) It builds in successive waves to a big climax like a screech. The low extended techniques return with a vengeance to call the darkness back in, and the piece collapses back to its opening gestures, but this time like the voice of doom. The closing recapitulates the opening, ending with a low patted boom that rings to silence.

In the end, my colleague Oksana could not play the premiere as her duties as Music Director of the Icicle Creek Music Festival in Leavenworth, Washington conflicted with the conference dates. But my heroic and talented colleague- fellow composer Clement Reid, graciously stepped in and learned the piece and played it beautifully on June 23. Many thanks to him for his performance and his many suggestions on fingering, etc.

Here is the recording of the premiere at Whitman College.



December: a Meditation on Advent

For the 2015 installment of the annual Christmas concerts produced by Pacific Lutheran University I was asked to write a short piece for orchestra that would fit in with the premiere of a choral-orchestral work by JAC Redford about Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” along with the usual mix of seasonal pieces both choral and audience participation.

When I looked at the existing mix of repertoire, I decided that what was missing was an homage to the really early traditional Advent- Christmas songs of the Lutheran church, and thus decided to create a piece that arranged a number of those 16th-17th century chorales and hymns into a narrative, moving us from Advent into Christmas. Since it was to be positioned as the opening of the second half of the concert right after intermission, this seemed also like a good way to review the ritual progress of the evening before continuing on to the end.

Fortunately the Lutheran Book of Worship very clearly organizes music according to season and so I was able to go through and pick those early pieces that I thought were best suited to my purpose and sequence them into a dramatic narrative moving from darkness and waiting into brilliance and light.

This kind of “gebrauchsmusik” (music for use) has always pleased me, as a way for a composer to provide really useful music for important ritual or community events. I tend to use these opportunities to indulge in pure craft- the craft of designing a musical/theatrical experience, of soaking myself in tradition, and indulging in the pure joy of old-fashioned counterpoint. So many composers have enjoyed constructing clever games for themselves and their performers and listeners, and I am no exception. Thus this piece contains not just traditional tunes but also age-old composer games such as counterpoint and quodlibet. More on that in a moment.

The piece opens with fragments of O Come O Come Emmanuel in my signature key of e minor. Why e minor? I don’t know except that maybe because I discovered the dark open ringing sound of the guitar’s e minor chord when I was young and impressionable, I’ve always thought of it as primal. (I’ve used it in numerous pieces including the opening of my meditation on Kepler’s solar system in the orchestra piece Harmonices Mundi as the sound of the background microwave radiation…) The fragments of Emmanuel coalesce and we hear the whole tune before it gives way to another minor tune greatly loved by Bach: Savior of the Nations Come, introduced by the organ and answered by the brass section- another call for divine intervention in a period of dark waiting.

Like a hopeful sign, Comfort Comfort Now My People enters in the woodwinds and harp, with its dance-like rhythms alternating 6/8 and 3/4 time influenced by the 16th century French tradition of musique mesuree a l’antique (measured music in ancient style). But Advent is not yet over and a brass fanfare returns us to darkness and a final statement of O Come Emmanuel.

Then- like a miracle, the harp plays a surprising upward C Major arpeggio and we are into the Christmas season with a quiet, intimate rendition of Lo How a Rose is Growing performed by a solo string quartet under the haze of a high harmonic. Another miracle chord on the harp and the tune is joined by the full string section, but with another chorale tune, heard as though from another dimension on the solo trumpet: the first statement of THE Lutheran Christmas chorale From Heaven Above to Earth I Come. (Which I used as the basis for my entire cantata for these Christmas Concerts 30 years ago: Officium Pastorum: The Office of the Shepherds.(1985)

Another miracle chord from the harp brings a full statement of From Heaven Above, now triumphantly in the full brass, with the upper woodwinds and strings counterpointing it in good “quodlibet” style (several well-known tunes performed simultaneously as counterpoint) with Rejoice Rejoice Believers. Finally the low brass and organ add a third simultaneous tune with the augmented (and now E major!) version of O Come Emmanuel. The meditation ends in a blaze of glory with bells ringing.