Thank Heaven for Masochists
Earlier this week, I completed a new piece, Extraordinary Rendition, for the amazing singing violist, Wendy Richman. I sent her a pdf of the score and I also sent samples to a couple of other interested parties before heading off to sleep. I awoke to multiple messages with two recurring themes: 1) cool piece and 2) freaking difficult.
While I was composing the piece, I focused on simplifying my vision. To me, this piece was a study in trusting myself and in refusing to hide behind intellectual complications. In that regard, I refrained from employing several of my typical compositional tricks, most notably I kept the materials homorhythmic for entire sections. Of course, I was writing for a player to sing and play simultaneously, which creates certain challenges. I wanted to create a voice part without text and utilizing extended techniques, notated simply in International Phonetic Alphabet. Although the vocalizations are not inherently complicated, the player is forced to learn new methods of vocal production and to apply them in odd combinations. I wanted the piece to have a simple yet unusual harmonic language, and so I created a microtonal scale (which modulates several times) utilizing quarter-, sixth- and eighth-tones. Unlike most microtonal music, this piece is fairly fast—at times even hinting at a heavy metal sound. And, finally, to make the fingering more gracious, I ask the player to retune the bottom two strings down one half step.
In short, my attempt at creating a simple piece resulted in a fast microtonal composition for singing violist playing scordatura while using extended vocalizations.
I’m struck by two aspects of this:
First, I feel that in many senses we are in a golden era of musical performance. There are dozens upon dozens of musicians who relish challenges and who soar to incredible heights when presented with interesting complexity. At Peabody, I have heard first-year percussionists give a commanding performance of Xenakis, and players who are raised on this type of musical diet show no fear when presented with difficult music, and indeed often seek ever-greater challenges. I know that Wendy will present my new piece with the same beautiful intelligence and musicality that in previous generations would have been reserved for performances of the standard warhorses.
Second, I will continue to trust my internal vision and simplify as much as possible. I am reminded of the apocryphal story where an artist—in various versions reputed to be Giotto, Leonardo or Raphael—proves his mastery by drawing a perfect circle freehand. The more I attempt to simplify my musical arguments, the more I’m astonished at the difficulty I find in so doing.
And in a tribute to this being my thirteenth column, one final note on heavy metal aesthetics.