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. 

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

17h Century Astonomy in Music? “Harmonices mundi: The Meditations of Johannes Kepler”

Johannes Kepler has long been an interest of mine: a brilliant 17th century astronomer/mathematician credited with determining the eliptical orbits of the planets who earned his living casting horoscopes for pre-modern kings; a modern scientist living in an age of superstition. Nonetheless, Kepler himself was a product of his age, and could not resist the ancient, beautiful, […]