I've been convinced that I should start a blog, so here we all are looking at a bunch of text on my website.
I think it will be nice to use this space as a way of sharing the ideas I'm working on at present - whether they're about a piece I'm working on, a premiere I recently had, a book I'm reading, research I've been thinking about, the video recording company I've recently begun, or simply observations about everyday life. In addition to sharing ideas and stories with my fellow musicians, I'd like to offer this as a place for my family to keep up with what I'm doing in this faraway land, so I hope the musicians will please excuse my explanations of terms every musician is familiar with and I hope my family will let me know if I've used some horrible esoteric term that doesn't make any sense to normal people.
I'll start this first entry with a story about a piece I'm working on that made an interesting turn this week.
This piece is for an ensemble called Ugly Pug, to be premiered at the Tampering Festival in Finland this coming August. I had recently written a piece for the ensemble's blockflute (a.k.a. recorder) player, Juho, and he asked if I would write another piece for his ensemble of blockflutes, viola da gamba, and harpsichord. I had made the move to Amsterdam a few months earlier in hopes of finding opportunities to write for historical instruments so naturally I was thrilled at the opportunity.
For the non-musicians in the room (this website is not a room but just go with it), let me begin with a description of the instruments in this ensemble. A harpsichord is similar to a piano except the strings are plucked instead of hammered. A viola da gamba is similar to a cello except there are six strings instead of four, it has frets (like a guitar), and the performer holds her/his bow the other was around. And a blockflute (a.k.a. recorder) is, yes, that awful plastic thing that everyone played in 4th grade - except that it's actually an extraordinarily beautiful instrument when it's made out of wood and played by someone who isn't in 4th grade.
And because this is my first blog post, perhaps I should generally introduce my interest in historical instruments and music.
These instruments are different from those you'll find in an orchestra. They're what are sometimes referred to as 'period' instruments because they come from attempts by musicologists to re-create the instruments of a bygone era in the most precise of possible detail in order to enable music from the 18th century and earlier to sound more like it did when it was written. The musicians in the room will know that there are many theoretical problems with this concept (in relation to the word 'authenticity') but let's just go with it for now.
My insterest in these instruments began during my sophomore year of undergrad when I first heard recordings of Beethoven sonatas performed on historical pianos in my music theory class. For me, the draw of these instruments has never been the way they are purported to bring listeners closer the actuality of a bygone era but simply how they tend to have richer, deeper quality to their sound because they're made almost exclusively with pre-industrial materials like wood, gut, hair, and beeswax (as opposed to steel, plastic, and lots of lacquer).
As a composer, my first instinct was to use these new instruments to broaden the spectrum of color in my own music, which at the time was very abstract and modernist - focused on the quality of sound alone rather than making any reference to recognizable genres or styles. Many of you are well aware that much of what I wrote over the past few years was pretty devoid of melody. After becoming more familiar with these instruments, however, I came to understand that they're not simply colors that can be abstracted and employed to create modernistic (abstract, formal, and sensual) music. These instruments come from a discipline involved in the resurrection of forgotten forms of expression. Even more so than orchestral instruments, period instruments are married to a particular range of styles. To use them without acknowledging their historical context came to feel dishonest and uncompelling. I was beginning to consider whether I should bring concrete references to historical music into work I do with historical instruments.
This consideration was further guided by my parallel realization that it's not actually possible to 'create' music from nothing. Over the past few years I've come to understand that intuitive composition (just writing down what comes into your mind) is capable of creating nothing more than a unique amalgam of everything a composer has ever heard in her/his life. If a composer listens to a lot of Stravinsky, for example, their music will inevitably sound a little bit like Stravinsky (though in reality it's not so black and white because most composers listen to 20,000 differnt kinds of music in the space of a week, each one influencing their music in a slightly different way and to a slightly different degree). This realization led me to the decision that I should limit my use of intuition in my compositional work to the bare minimum and refocus my attention on taking command of my influences by making explicit references to specific styles of music and even to specific works. So instead of beginning with blank page, inventing something, adding something else, and adding something else, I decided to try beginning with with a full page of music, removinge something, remove something else, re-arrange the remains, add something from a different piece, and so on. It's collage instead of invention. Though it's not collage in the postmodern sense of a bunch of samples from different pieces placed next to and on top of each other but not distorted in any way - I'm much more interested in dissecting the materials I quote and trying to pinpoint certain features of them that I like or that I can relate to other kinds of music that I quote.
But I feel like I'm digressing a bit into very large topics that will take many more posts to explore. Let's return to the piece for Ugly Pug.
This piece will be my second for a period instrument ensemble that begins at an existing 18th-century composition. My broadly-defined goal for this piece is to refine my use of pre-existing historical materials by looking to how they're used in another art form - architecture.
Since coming to the Netherlands, I've become interested in restorations of and additions to very old buildings (of which there are many on this continent) that do not simply attempt to re-create a building as it was when it was first built but that make additions in a hyper-contemporary style so as to highlight the bi-temporality of their situation. So instead of re-creating a damaged doorway in an old house exactly as it was when the house was built, they will put in a broad, single sheet of glass with a transparent doorknob so that the remnants of the building can speak for themselves. Or if someone wants to expand a 19th-century office building, they will keep the old structure completely in tact but put a big, shiny, futuristic, glass orb on top of the existing building and make it look like it's floating. The idea behind this is that if you try to re-create a building as it looked two hundred years ago, it will inevitably look a little bit like Disneyland (enchanting, but kinda plastic-y and a little bit too shiny), so instead one should add something in a style native to their own time because it will simply be more genuine. The idea is also that when you make an expansion of an old building, it's not being done in a vaccuum but often within a cityscape, so renovating an old building in a new style is no different than making a new building right next to an old one. The renovation mimics the multi-temporal aesthetic that every cityscape already posseses, so the newness of the rennovation is not actually jarring at all.
These are the architectural ideas I'd be drawing from for the Ugly Pug piece. To apply them to music, I would need a very specific kind of source material. Happily, the source found me before I even began to look. A professor here in Amsterdam showed a manuscript (hand-written music) from Italy dated at around 1700 in a class I'm taking, the significant characteristic of which, he explained, was that it's very badly damaged by its own ink. On almost every page, there are a few lines in the middle where the ink from the other side of the page obscures much of the music. My professor, who is a musicologist involved in the editing of old manuscripts for performance by modern musicians, expressed his disappointment that much of this music would never be able to be performed because too much is damaged. For me, however, this was an opportunity. Here I was presented with an old, dilapidated building. Half of a wall was missing, the windows were all shattered, and the roof was leaky. It was the perfect opportunity for to try my musical metaphor for a contemporary architectural restoration.
So I contacted the library where the manuscript was housed, which happened to be at UC, Berkeley, and asked if they would send me a scan and allow me to write this piece with it. Much to my amazement (because my professor always talks about how difficult libraries can be and how they often ask for inordinately large sums of money to make scans) they said yes! So I filled in a permission form and a few days later I received the scans.
It turns out the manuscript isn't damaged at all... What had looked like ink bleeding in my professor's scan was actually just a faint shadow of the other side of the page that had been poorly scanned. The scan I have is beautiful. It's full-color so you can see the yellowness of the paper, the brownish ink and the slightly ligther brownish ink from the other side of the page. This could represent a significant breakthrough in efforts to edit this music for modern performance but it repersents a strange kind of set-back for my composition. It's as if someone asked an architect to restore their ruined old building, the architect made the plan, and then went for a site visit only to find out that the building was in perfect condition but the owner still wanted a restoration. The thought actually crossed my mind that I could just not tell anyone that the manuscript wasn't actually damaged, write my piece, and show them the bad scans. But that would be dishonest and actually just a bit stupid. This made me think.
A few days before I received the scans from Berkeley I borrowed several books about historical restoration from the library of the Architecture Academy here in Amsterdam. Particularly interesting was a book about spolia, which is a term that originally referred to ornamental features that were removed from buildings in lands invaded by the Ancient Romans, shipped back to Rome, and installed on buildings there as a display of the power of the Roman Empire. Now, the term refers to imitations of historical architectural styles within contemporary buildings. What the concept of spolia implies in relation to my composition is that it's possible to re-use discrete fragments of an old building while discarding its form instead of adding discrete fragments in a new style to the pre-existing form of an old building. So instead of beginning with an old form and adding new things, you begin with old things and insert them into a new form. This may be my road out.
This feels like a good place to stop. It feels like a strange task to write a first blog post - blogs seem to be most effective when they can lean on the content of previous posts as context rather than needing to make every context explicit - but maybe I've created something worth reading. If you think I have created something worth reading, please thank Alex Albanese for continually poking me.