This summer has been…

…a little rocky in terms of, well, gainful employment.  As a result, the blog has been a little neglected in favor of days being spent hanging out on Craigslist and, trying to figure out some kind of job situation.  It’s deeply concerning how lazy composing feels when you need to earn some money…well, lazy isn’t the right word.  Long story long, it’s difficult to sit down for hours and compose when you think that you really oughta be out pounding the pavement looking for a job.  I’m pretty sure that last statement is being narrated in my head by my relatives who questioned the idea of me going to school for composition to begin with.  It’s sad when doing what you love is tainted by the need to make money…rather, it’s sad that our society tends to monetize the value of things, and that valuable things that don’t make money are less valuable than, I dunno, hedge fund management (or whatever makes money these days…).

Still, I have had more than my fair share of time to compose, and compose I did.  I am putting the finishing touches on a piece for The Equinox Sextet, called Overbite.  If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I’ve been putting chunks of it on here as they’ve come up.  I’m reticent about putting the finished score up on the internet for people to just take (I really need to learn how to create read-only PDFs…if anybody can tell me, please leave a comment!!!), but I’m happy to share the Finale Garritan playback of the piece (which leaves something to be desired, but it’s better than nothing.  Check it out:

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Overbite has been a long time coming, for me.  Basically, I’ve been waiting for more than five years to write a piece like this.  At the end of my bachelor’s degree, I had written Say Nothing, a piece for fourteen saxophones (who also do a fair amount of speaking).  At the time,  I was obsessed with Berio’s Sinfonia.  For the uninitiated, you can listen to the famous third movement here:

At the core of my obsession was the philosophical question of the nature of quotation and reference in music.  It is a common slogan of the Postmodern Era that no music has ever been created from whole cloth, despite what any composer may have thought.  The idea is that musical ideas are always the love children of the melting pot of experiences known as the life of a composer, blended in the creative process into something “new,” or at least “new-ish.”

For me, the Sinfonia challenged an underlying value statement in the idea above: a musical composition, in its finished form, is homogeneous.  A piece, although it may be different in sections of itself, is still made up of itself throughout.  Acceptance of, and even dependence upon, this idea can be seen in the way that most people learn how to appreciate classical music:  form is taught in a way that emphasizes return to primary materials and ideas, and how those ideas are developed from beginning to end.  Pieces are praised for their motivic unity; there is no higher compliment for a piece than to demonstrate how Idea X, no matter how different it may sound, is really a masked form of Idea A.

A great example of how influences can combine in such a way is in Adams’ music.  In this, the third movement of Harmonielehre, we encounter music that owes a debt to his minimalist colleagues, but also has distinct Mahlerian and Ravellian influences.  All of these are melted down into an alloy; in its finished state, the end product can be separated into its constituent parts:

This is not the way that the third movement of the Sinfonia works.  It’s made up of quotations, entire chunks of, other pieces, patched together.  What’s more is that we don’t encounter them as a whole, but rather as pieces floating around an axle, which is the Scherzo from Mahler’s Second Symphony.  This axle is what provides us with the notion of “glue” for the movement, as well as provides us with a teleological function.  This is the most important component of the movement: it reigns in and contextualizes the disparate pieces.

Ever since I heard the Sinfonia (which explores this idea to greater and lesser degrees throughout the whole piece), I’ve wanted to explore this idea of how to construct a piece.  To me, classical music’s notion of purity doesn’t reflect the world that I occupy (or that any American occupies.  Culturally, Americans take pride in the synthesis of many different ways of life.  Homogeneity isn’t something that can happen in our world [unless you’re from northern Idaho, I guess].  There is no such thing as a distinctly “American” culture, no matter what some Americans may think.).  I wanted to create a music that was clearly made up of other musical ideas; less of a melting pot, more of a salad bowl.

Unfortunately, this idea wasn’t popular with some of my profs.  And to an extent, I see where they were coming from: I can see a need to master basic Western ideas of form.  I was told that the ideas that I wanted to explore wouldn’t get me into a good doctoral program.  So I wrote what I was told would.  And I got into a graduate program: I got into a bunch of ’em!  So I feel that, now that I’m not trying to impress anybody with my chops, it was time to actually use them to write something that I considered worthwhile.

For Overbite, I wanted to explore musical ideas that were more like the ones I had grown up with in drum corps, one of my “folk” musics (I use that term to describe the music that I grew up with.  When you grow up in suburbia, you don’t really have a “folk” culture, at least not one marked by any geographical or ethnographic borders.  You are essentially your own private tribe.  More on that some other time…).  In drum corps, music is taken from many different cultures, and rearranged and manipulated to suit the needs of a “show,” which is like a musical form.  This means that a piece is simultaneously being referenced, deconstructed, and recontextualized when it is played by a group.  Another American music does this even more adeptly: hip-hop.  Which brings me to my first major influence for Overbite, The Beastie Boys:

On top of that, this piece is also made up of its own set of references, the most prominent one being the opening riff from Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly:


Also in the piece are references to Schubert’s Gretchen Am Spinnrade, which is a piece that I have made reference to multiple times.  These pieces of mine then come to become active parts of the piece itself.  This idea of self-reference has its precedents in the Classical repertoire, for certain, but for me it came from a place out of drum corps, where corps continually reference their earlier shows and performances.  Consider this video of the Phantom Regiment in different performances over the years:

You’ll notice that in the finales of their shows, there are similar-yet-different musical and visual ideas that are expressed.  This is a level of communication that is underused in traditional classical music.

While we’re at it, I may as well include this show by The Cavaliers for its major influence on the writing of the piece.  Surprisingly though, although the piece is made up of Daugherty’s Niagara Falls, I don’t consider that piece to be influential.

While discussing this idea with Ken Ueno on twitter some time ago, he had asked me an important question: “Does the audience member have to get the reference in order for them to understand the piece?”  After taking some time to think about it, my answer is, “no.”  Ultimately, the references augment the experience, but the piece can only be expected to be encountered autonomously.  If one encountered an Eiffel Tower in which the girders where bent in such a way as to be made of Mona Lisas, the tower would still need to be able to stand.

Ultimately, I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish in Overbite, which on the surface is a piece about white people dancing, but underneath is a conduit of my own private musical culture.  It is music made of music, unapologetically.