So…, the assignment is to talk about some pieces that wouldn’t normally come up in the pages of NewMusicBox but, nevertheless, have influenced me. Well, NMB has a pretty big umbrella, but I’ll try. Here are five pieces (a collection, in one case) by composers and performers “outside the circle” that have strongly influenced what I stock in my composer’s toolbox. (It takes a bit of a leap to think of these as “outside the industry” since they’re much more central than we are but you get the idea…)
Leo Kottke: That’s What (Private Music 2060-2-P, 1990)
I love everything on this CD. The odd rhythms, virtuoso guitar playing, out of kilter bass guitar, and in particular “Husbandry,” which has a strange, beguiling text that begins, “She’s sixty-one years old and hiding in a school bus, kind of objectionable, with a heart like a fist.” And it just gets stranger from there. This opened a door for me that led to my suite of pieces, Things She Carried (Bridge Records 9076). The idea of a text, probably original, full of ambiguity and suggestion, and spoken, is certainly not new, but had never struck me in quite this way before (perhaps I’m a slow learner).
Radiohead: “The Tourist” (OK Computer)
The luxurious harmonic sequence in this piece (B major, F-sharp minor, A major, G-sharp major, and in the chorus, B major, F-sharp minor, A minor) fractured my system of belief that held that all tonal music was basically derived from the major scale (as opposed to modal derivations). The harmonic language of this piece doesn’t sit easily with my tonal world-view and has helped me not only to see the syntax of popular music in a new light, and listen differently, but also to think a bit more “out of the box” with respect to the uses of tonality in my own composing. This may seem to be a bit of an odd confession, but we should never underestimate the limitations of a traditional music education.
Bach: Vergnügte Ruhe, beliebte Seelenlust, Cantata 170, opening aria
I had used this wonderful aria in teaching for several years, and listened to it repeatedly before I noticed what a great idea simple repeated notes can be. (The opening motive consists of three repeated notes over a descending bass line.) Looking at my own music through this lens for the first time I noticed that I had a tendency to avoid repeated notes. With a single insight Bach helped me double the possibilities! (Again, an odd confession but I find that being a composer often means being oblivious to the obvious.)
I loved this song from the first moment I heard it many years ago. I especially loved its circular logic, jumping from G major to B-flat major and then moving back to G major through G minor, B-flat’s relative minor. I learned a lot from this about different ways of moving around using various kinds of logic. I was thus especially pleased a few years ago when I saw a Charlie Rose interview with McCartney in which he was asked about his favorite songs, and he named this one first, mentioning exactly this point, the way it circles in on itself.
Rachmaninoff: Second Symphony
I grew up with the usual prejudices about Rachmaninoff current in new music circles: that the music wears its heart on its sleeve and is routine and predictable. But about ten years ago when I was forced (at a university orchestra concert) to sit through the Second Symphony I was knocked off my feet. He is a total master at bringing us along and then suddenly changing the rules. His music is full of surprises and unusual twists and turns. It approaches being ‘over the top’ but pulls up short with amazing cleverness and leaves the listener with a sense of vertigo from peering down off these heights. I found deep kinship with the kind of musical continuity I pursue in my own music, and learned a lot from Rachmaninoff’s willingness to take things to the edge.