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. 


The Blooming Season: a new musical theater production

During the spring of 2014 I was involved in the creation of an original musical theater production at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington called “The Blooming Season.” Directed by faculty members Rose Jang and Zhang Er, the book and lyrics were written by a remarkable graduating senior, Nick McCord. He had been involved with Rose and Er two years earlier, studying Chinese theater and culture, and so offered to write an original book and lyrics as the basis for an Evergreen theater production. I was so impressed with the results that I volunteered to write the music.

The plot centers on “The Woman” an archetypal Chinese female character found in all Chinese operas, novels and short stories, who is young, beautiful, brilliant and deeply longing for the true passionate love she cannot have as a female in traditional Confucian culture. Nick put together a delightfully madcap yet respectful and authentic mash-up of three famous Chinese opera plots: “The Romance of the Western Wing,” “The Peony Pavilion” and “Qiannu’s Soul Leaves Her Body.” The Woman is on trial in the court of (Buddhist/Confucian) Hell for the repeated cardinal sin of love, carried out against the laws of Confucian order and propriety. We visit three of her previous incarnations, drawn from the three opera plots and characters, and finally see the power of love to shake the very foundations of patriarchal cosmology. It is fun, funny, very moving and ultimately profound.

My music culled sections of compositions by students from the cast, as well as snippets of two famous themes from “The Peony Pavilion” and weaves them together with styles drawn from Broadway, doowop and popular song. Our workshop production used several Chinese stringed instruments as well as a lot of Chinese opera percussion in the pit band, along with two guitars, bass, piano, clarinet and cello. We were able to determine what the show is, and to recognize it as a serious musical theater piece worthy of a next, professional production.

The two clips above are MIDI only- no dubbed-over vocals yet. That will happen later this summer. But you can hear in the first example “I Believe” the Chinese style as I compose my tune “upon and around” snippets of a passage from The Peony Pavilion. In the second example, this same tune is turned into a ballad with backup singers, then joined by another tune from the show “Buzz Buzz Busy Busy” and ultimately into a dance number sounding like a flower-power anthem from “Hair.” (which is what the script called for!)

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do. This project was a wonderful return for me to the days when I wrote a LOT of theater music for the University of Washington theater department back in the late ’70’s!

Poetry Above the Roar: Ten New Songs on Poems by William Kupinse

Well, It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I last posted! But I have been busy composing!

I’ll write about a Lutheran Processional with superimposed folk music, and the Prelude to my opera Cai Yan in other posts.

Here I’ll discuss my new cycle of songs on poems by University of Puget Sound poet William Kupinse which occupied me during the late summer and fall, 2013. I heard Bill read some of his poems at a gathering of all of Tacoma’s past and current Poets Laureate last spring. I was struck by the fascinating combination of elegance and humor and asked him if he had ever had any of his poems set to music. (Some poets do not like this process at all, feeling- very understandably- that a poem is already a complete work of art and likely to suffer damage at the hands of a composer who 1) is not  poet and probably doesn’t have the knowledge to understand what he is wrecking and 2) will impose his own powerful medium upon the poem so as to force one particular interpretation upon it that may not be to the poet’s liking.) Fortunately Bill seemed intrigued by the idea and sent me a pdf copy of his 2009 collection “Fallow” published by Exquisite Dissarray with partial funding by the Tacoma Arts Commission during the year that Bill was the Poet Laureate. I was finishing other things like the opera prelude and the Lutheran Processional and so didn’t act upon these immediately.

When I looked at them closely in mid summer, I was struck by how much many of them brought powerfully to mind our own, Puget Sound experience- plants, animals, water, trees, gloomy winters which give way to springs full of promise… I began with a poem that is still one of my favorites: Point Defiance, which meditates in various ways upon the huge, wild park in the city of Tacoma- its hidden pathways through old growth forest, its beaches with giant bleached tree trunks angling down toward the water…

I love the process of setting someone else’s poetry to music. words have their own music- vowels and consonants, word and phrase rhythms, alliteration, internal rhymes, puns, allusions, associations… Free verse in particular has very unpredictable rhythms to it which lead me in directions I would not have thought to go on my own- unusual phrase lengths, text painting with melody or harmony or orchestration. A full poem of any length, long or short, has its own “journey” it begins with an idea and develops it to some sort of conclusion, along the way suggesting various segments distinguished by changes of mood, metaphor or character. These I try to identify in ways that will be useful to me in creating an engaging musical experience for the audience. As I thus break the poem up into what will be discerned as musical sections, I confront the challenge of transforming the poetic structure and experience into a musical one. Very often a piece of pure music finds its conclusion in somehow re-visiting opening ideas, thus showing us how the same material has found new meaning during the journey. But a poem often (usually?) does not do this; instead it begins at point A and ends at point B. The poetic logic is thus often linear, rather than circular as in music. Thus the composer may find new ways to produce a sense of closure that does not involve opening ideas at all; or may find ways of involving opening ideas in substantially new garb at the end to represent the difference between the opening and closing, or may in fact find that using the opening music with the closing words of the poem provides a very interesting and enlightening experience that neither the poem or the music alone would have produced. Certainly the poetic logic of the words often unfolds in ways very differently from the logic of pure music, and thus however the piece ends up, the journey of an art song is often quite different from that a composer might come up with were s/he not responding to someone else’s words. I just love this game!

Point Defiance is a longer poem, and revealed what seemed to be many subsections in its journey. From intimate descriptions of pathways and snow cradled in tree stumps to Greek mythological references leading to allusions to ASARCO’s arsenic poisoning of the Tacoma area, the poem moved rapidly from the intimate image to the esoteric reference, from the poignant to the political, from the close-up to the broad landscape. Whales and octopi, the Narrows Bridges and Vashon Island, the poem ranged incredibly, and yet kept its logic and its artistic journey clear and compelling throughout. I chose it to begin. Nothing like starting out with a challenge!

The other challenge I set myself was to see if I could use the sounds modern computer programs are now capable of to make a final product. Usually, for me, Finale and Sibelius software programs are for my own composing process, not for final listening by my audience. But the sounds have gotten so good that I thought it would be fun to see if they could produce such a final listening experience. Thus, besides the mezzo soprano voice that sings the poems, the sounds are all computer generated, using Finale and Garritan Personal Orchestra. The final product was conceived of as mostly a CD or downloadable songs, though we also decided to perform it in concert on Tuesday, February 11, 2014 at PLU.

The musical style of the pieces comes from two places. The first is my career-long fascination with exploring the space between popular and classical music. I have many pieces which play in this sandbox- from The Godmaking of the Skies and the Earth, a gospel-doowop-rock a cappella choral setting of the creating story in Genesis, to a jazzy bassoon sonata. The second place was Bill Kupinse’s poems in the collection- they have that sly humor I first heard at the reading last spring which seemed to demand a musical analog. Though Point Defiance did not require this, some of the others made me laugh out loud as I studied them, including “Ferment” with its topic of rotting fruit and image of teetotalling raccoons… Others cast curses at men who love leafblowers or described the end of human experience on earth as though it were not an entirely bad thing for the planet overall. The set of ten songs thus presents a wide variety of musical styles, from art song to torchy blues, from folk song to rock-inspired cacaphony. What unifies them is the overall palette of colors in the orchestration, the mezzo soprano voice, and of course the voice of the poet, which is always clear.

I began each song by analyzing the poem for its overall character, made a decision about style, and then began to invent an ensemble using the huge number of choices available to me on my computer software. This was like having a vast orchestra at my immediate and constant disposal- from orchestral violins to jazz basses, from steel drums to sound effects to sitars. In fact, one of the difficulties was to discipline myself, as all good composers must do, to stay within some sort of logical, unifying set of sounds so that the overall song cycle sounded like it belonged to one concept. I would guesstimate a set of potentially useful instrumental sounds, add them to the “score” in the Finale program, and then begin exploring their combinations with musical ideas suggested by the poems. I would subtract, add, and combine instrumental sounds until some sort of motivic idea suddenly snapped into focus. It was was fast and immediate, rather like a painter who can see immediately the effect of adding red to the right hand corner of the canvas. I could push “play” and immediately hear the final product! It was like candy to a baby and I fully understand now the seduction of electronic music to a number of composers of my generation! (This is in fact the way almost all contemporary popular music is made- in a studio, adding and subtracting ideas in real sound.)

Of course, what is missing here, is live performers working on my music, adding their interpretive ideas, and finally playing it live in front of an audience. But I was able to bounce my musical ideas off of the poet, Bill Kupinse, as I worked and, thank goodness he approved!- and I also had the fun of working with my very talented mezzo soprano singer, Erin Calata who provided her own interpretive ideas to the performance of them. In the end, it is this habitual desire for a live performance that caused me to want a “recital” performance of them as well as the recorded versions. Thus our decision to perform them live at PLU in February, 2014.

Up at the top are mp3s of the two songs I discussed: Point Defiance and Ferment.  Hope you enjoy them!

Big Dancer at the Fire’s Mouth: Another “Remodeled” Piece

I’ve been taking some time this last 6 months to catch up with some compositional “chores”- remodeling some past pieces that I never quite felt had found their final form but that had serious value and promise. My Horn Sonata became a Horn Concerto in December, as I reported in my last blog entry. Now I have taken a piece written 17 years ago for the multi-media performance group Wild Cheetahs in Portland, Oregon and turned it into an ecstatic vocalise for cello and three percussionists. “Big Dancer” for soprano voice and two log drum players has become “Big Dancer at the Fire’s Mouth” for cello, 2 marimbists and 1 pecussionist.

The original piece was a dance-theater piece for soprano singer/actor and two percussionists playing seven gorgeous wooden log drums created by Nova Diversified- a Portland, Oregon art/craft company. They were playable art objects made for coffee tables and display that also sounded wonderfully funky. Like any good non-western instrument, each had a unique sound, timbre and tuning that was not quite standard or consistent, lending each instrument a quiet wildness that I really liked. My percussion friends in Wild Cheetahs offered to help publicize these wonderful instruments in return for a free set that they could use in concert. I was commissioned to write a piece for them to perform in concerts. I was able to keep a set for about 10 weeks while I experimented with them, fell in love with them, and came up with an invented scale and harmonic system based on their pitches and timbres. Then of course I had to turn them back over to the players which I hated to do!

In keeping with the log drum sounds and their “wildness” I chose a text from a Kung (Bushman) tribal shaman in Namibia that had been notated and included in a doctoral dissertation from Harvard in the 1970’s. “Just yesterday, friend, the giraffe came and took me again. God came and took me and said: Why is it that people are singing yet you’re not dancing? When he spoke, he took me with him and we left this place. We traveled until we came to a wide body of water. It was a river. He took me to the river. When people sing, I go into a trance. I trance and put N/um into people. For I am a big dancer…”

The text went on at considerable length with wonderfully intriguing details about lying at the fire’s mouth, then entering the fire and climbing “the threads of the wells…”

The log drums combined to create a sound a bit like surreal mbiras (thumb pianos) and in concert the singer sang as she moved and danced in costume like a entranced shaman.

By the time we had rehearsed, performed and toured the piece in a Wild Cheetah’s show for about 2 months, the strain of playing complex, busy, loud music on these delicate wooden instruments began to show. The pitches got “wilder”, the timbres “fuzzier” and finally the instruments just lost the ability to play the piece at all. We had found the outer musical limits of these beautiful art objects, and played them into destruction. There seemed to be a sort of poetic quality to this- like the shaman, they had exhausted themselves in their quest to create beauty, and now they needed to return to the fire themselves…

During performances I felt that the piece worked very well as multi-media theater. But when abstracted into pure aural listening on recording, I always felt that it lost something. It needed the visuals- the costume, dance, lighting, the live audience… I put it on the shelf and thought about it occasionally for 17 years.

When I returned to it a few weeks ago, I began by feeding it into the Finale software program and listening to the piece using marimba and vocal sounds. I tried other instruments- bassoon, baritone sax, even electric guitar, to replace the voice. Finally I tried cello and something clicked, as though the piece had found the sound it had been looking for all these years.

I quickly began editing by eraser- chopping out measures- even whole phrases- that didn’t need to be there in the absence of theatrical movement or even words. A few places received some repeated gestures or measures, but by and large it was a matter of pruning a slightly overly indulged bush until it began to show a new kind of compositional shape and flow. Even without the funky timbres of the original log drum instruments, the harmonic system still worked well and retained some of the wildness of the original. And I am toying with the idea of asking the marimba players to help me experiment with “prepared marimba”- placing dobs of putty or beanbags on various bars to change the timbre of them from pure to impure… western to non-western…

The cellist gets to play 10 minutes of ecstatic, upwardly climbing lines- Scriabin for cello perhaps- accompanied by these marimbas, a rough rattle and a vibraslap…

Listen to the sound clip here as performed by my trusty HP laptop.

So, who out there wants to premiere this new incarnation of a mystical shaman’s dance?

A Sonata becomes a Concerto

My latest project has been turning an overly difficult sonata for horn and piano (from 17 years ago!) into a concerto for horn and chamber orchestra. This has been a fun project both in collaborating with myself from 1995 (!) and in solving the actually quite complicated problems encountered in orchestrating piano music.

Writing the Sonata (1995)

The Sonata was commissioned by hornist Kathleen Vaught Farner and her husband pianist Richard Farner, both colleagues of mine at the time at Pacific Lutheran University. They premiered it at the first Northwest Horn Workshop held at PLU in 1995.

Kathy had asked for a “romantic” piece, and perhaps even based somehow on Norwegian music or ideas. She herself has Norwegian roots and had spent several very happy sojourns with her friend and colleague, Norwegian hornist Frøydis Ree Wekre. Richard had asked for something not too hard and definitely “not like Hindemith” (whose piano parts in his many sonatas are approximately 6 times harder than the other instrumental part- his assumption apparently being that the other instrumentalist would be a student and the pianist would be a professional.) Kathy got more or less what she wanted and Richard, alas, did not.

For Kathy I did research on Norwegian folk music and immediately noticed several things. A great deal of this folk music, from folk songs to Hardangar Fiddle tunes uses the “Lydian” mode with its distinctively raised fourth scale degree (C D E  F# G A B C). This is also true, and for good reasons, of the music of the Lur, a birchbark trumpet used by herders for calling cows and each other. Like the classical “French” horn, the Lur is played mostly in the upper partials of its overtone series where the notes are closer together-more scalar- and can thus produce melodies. But this “scale” has that raised fourth in it- making the Lydian scale a natural event!

Also I noticed that the mechanics of the Hardanger Fiddle (Harding Fele) produced another interesting musical characteristic. As in the Irish or Appalachian fiddle traditions, Hardangar fiddlers rarely go up into “positions,” as do their classical violinist colleagues. They tend to emphasize fast figuration in “first position” and produce variety and melodic movement by repeating these figures on adjacent strings, thus “sequencing” the ideas up and down by a fifth- from the G string to the D string, etc. They also tend to play in surprisingly fresh, unpredictable rhythms based on asymmetrical dance meters.

Thus armed, with Lydian scales, sequences by a fifth, mixed meters, Fiddles and Lurs, I set out to conceive “Norwegian” inspired music. Somewhere in my mind was also an image of a dark fjord in winter I had seen on a poster in a travel office, and paintings by Edvard Munch, which have always strangely captivated me with their hallucinogenic quality.

I also got Kathy to demonstrate for me some “horn tricks” which players would be familiar with and comfortable performing. I always like to think about instruments the way the players do when beginning to conceive ideas for them. I don’t restrict myself to this knowledge, as frequently composers teach players some new “tricks” by thinking outside the players’ box. But beginning with their profound knowledge and experience is always both enlightening and a good grounding from which to begin dreaming. We spent some time exploring the famous “stopped” technique hornists use to tune, color and shape notes. One interesting technique involves holding a note and sliding the hand deep into the bell thus “stopping” it, which not only produces that nasal “stopped” timbre but also raises the pitch a half step in a strange sort of glissando. I decided that the first movement would use this technique prominently- asking the hornist to “glissando” from an open sound on one pitch up a half step to a pitch with a stopped tone. The effect is eerie- as though something has stifled the pitch as it changed to its upper neighbor. It reminded me both of the catch of breath one might experience in the cold dark night air of a Norwegian fjord in winter, and also the dark mysteriousness of some of Munch’s paintings where images slide off into mysterious darkness near the edge of the canvas…

I decided that this first movement would thus be dark, beginning with mysterious cold grumblings from the piano followed by the horn’s entrance with this stopped glissando effect. It would also be “romantic” with surging phrases in which the horn and piano echoed each other in imitative counterpoint. Horn Sonata 1 excrpt

The second movement is a tone poem based on a field recording I found on an old ethnomusicology record in which a cowherd plays the Lur and is rewarded by the sound of the herd passing in front of the microphone with their cowbells ringing in a gentle, accidental cacophony that would have pleased John Cage. In this movement, the horn plays improvisational Lur melodies with their Lydian scales as though the cowherd were exploring possibilities, while the piano provides atmospheric chords like crisp quiet mountain air. The piano also imitates the cowbells in a chromatic sequence that tinkles anarchically but pleasingly just like the recording. Horn Sonata 2 excrpt

In the third movement I decided to emulate those sequenced phrases of the Hardangar Fiddle, as well as the surprisingly complex rhythms, and bring the piece to an energetic and bouncy close. I chose to divide 8/8 time into asymmetrical patterns, most commonly 2+3+3 but also variations on that. This was surprisingly generative, and made my piece sound not only “fresh” but also rather “fiddlish!” Horn Sonata 3 excrpt

SO- Kathy got pretty much what she ordered- romantic, Norwegian-inspired music for horn. Alas, Richard did not fare so well with his piano part. I had been re-inspired by a recent performance of Franck’s A Major Sonata for violin and piano which had also impressed me in college, and I unwisely decided to emulate its thick, imitative textures in my piece. But Franck was a pianist/organist and I am not. His piano part is complex and playable; mine is just complex. It also bore more resemblance to Hindemith’s piano parts than I had intended (not actually being much of a Hindemith fan!) Richard valiantly played it and played it beautifully at the premiere, and after it was over, confessed that it was just too hard to make it inviting for a pianist to play, and that it might have trouble making its way in the performance world. Another pianist performed it the following year and had the same response. Alas. I don’t “miss” very often in fulfilling a commission, but I had to confess I had missed in this piece… I had some very good music trapped in a piece, lying in a drawer and not being heard. I thought about it for years.

Orchestrating the Concerto (2012)

This fall I decided to take time off from composing the next new piece and consider the music of this sonata to see if it could be re-conceived for horn and orchestra as a Concerto. I often assign my composition students the challenge of orchestrating a piano piece to explore the ways instruments work, how they combine, and the idiosyncratic characteristics of each. It is particularly fun to take a piano piece which has already been orchestrated several times (Mussorgski’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Satie’s Gymnopedie, Debussy’s Engulphed Cathedral, Bach’s Little Fugue in G Minor, etc.) so that students can compare their orchestrational choices with those of previous composers and be able to compare and think about the differences.

But of course, some piano pieces lend themselves to this rescoring very well and others do not. There are piano pieces by Beethoven and Brahms that almost seem more “orchestral” than “pianistic” in nature, and lend themselves easily to this process of transformation. But there are very pianistic pieces by Chopin and Ravel that pretty well defy this sort of re-thinking. It depends on the nature of the musical gestures. If a piece was conceived in very “pianistic” terms- with graceful left-hand arpeggios underlying a lyrical right hand tune for example- it can be difficult to play on another, orchestral instrument which does not naturally do this kind of rolling arpeggio figuration. One can contemplate using a harp which can do these pianistic gestures very well, but a harp has its own difficulties, the most challenging of which is the pedaling which limits the amount of chromaticism possible in a short span of time. A harp is also rather easily overwhelmed in an orchestral texture.

Conversely, one can completely re-think musical material, changing those rolling arpeggios into block chords or some other rhythmically activated figure more idiomatic to the chosen orchestral instruments. Sometimes this is fine, and even results in a fresh new musical interpretation of the basic material. This is rather similar to the process of turning a novel into a film; one can simply follow the plot and film each event as the book narrates it, or one can transform the book more substantially, as the language and technique of film may suggest. (See the recent film of Anna Karenina with screenplay by Tom Stoppard for an example of the latter!)

I began with the assumption of a full orchestra, but found myself editing by eraser- cutting one instrument after another as I searched for the “soul” of the new piece, until I found myself left with a chamber orchestra. After much experimentation, I finally decided to keep a piano in the orchestration as I really like the original “pianistic” gestures and decided they were important to that essential soul. I settled on one each of the winds, flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, the piano, a small ensemble of strings (2-4 players on each part), and a xylophone. This last was a fun decision as it allowed me to make the piano part a bit different from the original piano part. I use the xylophone and piano in combination often so that they blend and merge in our ears and sometimes we’re not sure which is which. I am still contemplating adding 2-3 cowbells to the second movement so that the piano evocation of cowbells becomes strangely real for a few seconds…

I am pleased with the result. The figures which were too dense and complex for ten fingers are now fully realized with a lot of color and character by 15-20 people, and the musical ideas that had been orphaned for 17 years are out of the drawer and ready for prime time. It does still have a certain unexpected Hindemithian quality, but I like it anyway. One of my colleagues call this train of musical thought my “mid-century modernist” style. I’m OK with that. I have about 4-5 such trains of thought I’ve kept going for 40 years and just keep finding new games to play with each of them.

The following clickable audio links will give you a taste of each movement as played by my infallable computer. You can compare them to the sonata’s versions of the same excerpts above.  When the Concerto is premiered by real people, in the indefinite future, I will post a recording.  Horn Conc 1 MIDI excrpt  Horn Conc 2 MIDI excrpt  Horn Conc 3 MIDI excrpt

Fiery Jade Cai Yan Scene Finished!

Between a gamelan workshop in Bali and leading 2 tours to China, I finished the scene from “Fiery Jade- Cai Yan” I have been working on since spring. It is about 22 minutes in length now; about right as I envision the overall opera; and working on it has allowed me to invent many of the important musical ideas that would be needed to complete the entire three-act opera.

At my last post, I had completed the first half of the scene, in which our (Late Han Dynasty Chinese ) heroine, 18 year-old Cai Yan, is trying to mourn her deceased husband but is abused beyond endurance by her mother-in-law (also a grieving widow). At the end she leaves her mother-in-law’s house to return to her own mother’s house, to join her mother in grieving for her murdered father. (Lots of lost men…The ends of dynasties are really bad times to try to stay alive…)

As she enters her mother’s house, her mind is angry with her experience with her mother-in-law but she is trying to focus on her deceased father and his Confucian self-improvement practice involving the scholarly and ritual instrument called “Guqin”  a 7 stringed zither. The music is thus a jangle of dissonant plucked string sounds- performed in my score by harp and pizzicato cello. Gradually there emerges the five note scale of classical China and the seven open strings of the Guqin: C-D-F-G-A-C-D. Other dissonant pitches keep encroaching, as though her mind is still too jangled to play properly and she despairs of this as she addresses her deceased father through his spirit tablet on the family alter. She sits down to contemplate the instrument, and hears in her mind the sound of the Guqin and the “Xiao”- a bamboo flute frequently played with the Guqin. Finally she carefully begins to play, trying several times a piece that she had learned from her father called “Plums Drop.” Each time dissonant wrong notes encroach, causing her once again to despair.

Her mother then approaches, playing the “wooden fish” (Muyu or temple block) of the Buddhists who have recently entered China and who’s message of the illusion of worldly suffering has appealed to many in pain. She sings to her daughter recommending the abandonment of the world in favor of meditation, using the Muyu as a meditation tool. Her music uses a modified North Indian raga, an homage to Buddhism’s origins. This contrasts well with the Chinese pentatonic scale of the Guqin’s melodies and Cai Yan’s previous aria.

These then alternate with each other as the two women dialog about how to deal with their sorrows. As their dialog reaches a climax, the “Three Stars” enter (previously they sang the role of the mother-in-law) and now represent the household servants announcing the violent entry into the city of northern nomadic armies and we hear distant drums. Cai Yan and her mother now repeat their dialogue (or singing past each other!) about how to deal with suffering, but now with the extreme urgency of the situation. As the drums reach their maximum volume, an oboe enters sounding a wild military call, representing, for the first time in the opera, the northern nomadic culture, whose music will be the dominant sound of the next act, and the stage goes to black…

Again, even though the text is not present, I wonder if you can follow the story line just listening to the MIDI playback version. Click the link below for the 12 minute scene.

Drum Taps: Full recording posted on

I have posted the complete recording of the May 15, 2012 premiere of Drum Taps: Nine Poems on Themes of War at the website “Soundcloud.” Please share this post with anyone who is interested- conductors, audience members, anyone interested in contemporary classical music, anyone who agrees that classical music can actually make a difference in the world by stirring emotions, thoughts and discussions about serious topics, like our species’ addiction to war…

Here is the link to the audio files (mp3) of the nine movements (in 10 files- one movement has two halves.)

Here are the full texts.

Drum Taps full texts

Here is a link to a short video interview with myself and the conductor about the piece.

Here is a press release with some description of the piece and its premiere.

Drum Taps -press release