Thursday, March 12, 2009

gatharuda lapidis in memoriam

SYCHRONICITY is a fine thing; over at The Compass Rose Curtis Faville introduces a striking photograph of his with an equally striking opening paragraph about Gertrude Stein's lecture Composition as Explanation: perhaps he won't mind if I quote it here:
Gertrude Stein famously declared that composition is what every human being is doing all the time, just by being alive, in the present, perceiving, absorbing data, placing our apprehensions and movement (flow) within a context of the world we know and understand. We do not merely reproduce the world, we, all of us, constantly perform creative augmentations and arrangements of objects and feelings and senses, all the time. Composition, in this sense, isn't what only trained and gifted and inspired artists and writers do, but what everyone is capable of, what goes on continuously even on an unconscious level. The human mind is never still; it continuously shapes and orders and prioritizes data.

All this was at the back of my mind, I think, when I worked on my Second Piano Sonata, to give it its grand alternative name.

That's not the name by which I think of it: to me it's sonata ii: compositio ut explicatio, and it is dedicated gatharuda lapidis in memoriam. I began writing the piece in June 1996, in a house we rented for a couple of weeks just outside Dabo, a small town in the French Vosges not too far from Strasbourg. In my usual way in those days I worked at the desk in the morning and left the afternoons and evenings free for sightseeing and socializing.
Dabo: watercolor, from my journal

I was working, I thought, on three compositions at once: the piano sonata, a trio for violin, piano, and percussion, and a musical setting of Carl Rakosi's The Old Poet's Tale. That last project continues to elude me, though I promised Carl many years ago I would complete it; and perhaps one day I will.

The sonata went easily at first, and after leaving Dabo it was far enough along for me to turn full attention to the trio — more pressing because promised for performance the following spring. The sonata, after all, was pure speculation; I had no reason at all to believe it would ever be played. It was conceived, in fact, as might be called piano accompaniment to a recitation of Gertrude Stein's magnificent lecture Composition as Explanation.

(It's only as I type this that I notice two contemporary projects both concerned musical depictions of the spoken word. Carl had requested no music be heard while the text of his poem was to be spoken; he wanted only interludes. Sonata 2, on the other hand, as I conceive it, would resound throughout the recitation of Stein's lecture. There are other items of contrast between Stein and Rakosi, the lecture and the poem, and my approaches to the two assignments, but this isn't the place to go into that.)

The Trio went well enough, too; it was composed, nearly all of it, in a couple of weeks at the other side of France, on the Ile de RĂ©; and one of these days I'll write about it here.

Back to sonata ii: I completed the composition itself in Portland in April 2006, ten years after its beginning, but waited until last year to put in dynamic indications and all that. I've almost always lost interest by the time such details have to be dealt with; there are more interesting things to do. It always seems to me that the notes themselve, as they're notated on the page, should convey to any eventual performer such things as how loud or soft, fast or slow, crisp or blurry a phrase should be. As John Cage said: composition's one thing, performing's another; what do they have to do with one another? (I paraphrase.)

So in January of this year I decided to go ahead, since it cost hardly anything, and publish sonata ii, with all the flaws any piece must retain before the editing that can follow the first public performance, incorporating lessons learned during the often laborious process of getting to that point.

What can I tell you about this piano sonata? It's been described as "a major work whose three movements, running nearly an hour long, gradually reveal an inner logic and a brittle clarity that can only be called phenomenological." I think of the music, I mean the sound of its music, as objective, abstract, prosaic, rhythmic, rather sculptural.

One composer said of the score that it looked startling -- quite unlike any other music. Another, whose judgment I particularly respect, is very fond of it. A pianist who listened to my synthesizer's performance thought of it as jazzy and humorous: neither of those qualities was particularly intended, but I'd be nuts to reject either of them.

You can look at the score by buying a copy; it's published at You can hear the second movement , which is only five minutes long, here.


Curtis Faville said...


Do you know Ran Blake's things?

Why not do a recording of the sonata by yourself?

One very special moment for me: One day we were walking through a side-street in Venice, and we happened upon a quiet little square, and from a third story window, someone was practicing Debussy's L'Isle Joyeuse--the acoustics were indescribable, something about the improbability of hearing it, there, in the quiet of late afternoon...I didn't begin composing until I was spending a year in Japan in the Eighties, suddenly I was filled with a sense of something (nostalgia?) which made me inexplicably capable of making music myself--so I just started doing it. The exile's paradigm?

Have you ever heard anything by Don Worth? I understand, aside from his serious photographic work, he's also a serious post-Modern classical composer a la staccato style (Bartok?). I spoke with him briefly on the phone years ago. He attended Juilliard--he'd be about 85 now if he's still alive.

The excerpt of your sonata suggests Cage to me.

Charles Shere said...

I don't know Ran Blake's music. I met him years ago; he was a very nice guy, serious, sympathetic; and I think I heard some of his music at the time, but not since.

I don't play the piano, so I'm not about to record the sonata myself.

We were in Venice once on a Day of Music, with performances of all kinds of music in the streets, piazzas, on bridges, and so on. It ranged from a scat-singing soprano with a bass to a string quartet to a pianist playing Scriabin in a piazza. There was a huge chorus in the Piazza San Marco. Quite wonderful.

I don't know about Don Worth but will look into him. Thanks.

Curtis Faville said...

That's very strange.

I've never been quite able to imagine what it must be like to "compose" for instruments without being able to hear even a single voicing of any of the notes.

When my Kurtzweil synthesizer was working, I could sample (rude) versions of dozens of different instruments, and that was helpful, though occasionally even obscuring.

I often wonder how composers of whole orchestras can "hear" parts or combinations of sounds before they've been played (or imagined!). Great, ingenious minds like Prokofiev or Ravel or Boulez I assume "hear" everything in their heads first. But often the mix of sound possible--especially with very unlikely combinations--strikes me as a nearly impossible feat. Great orchestrators must be born with this ability--I don't think it can be learned.

Did you ever have the occasion to meet Darius Milhaud when he taught here once upon a time?

I can (barely) play parts of his Saudades do Brasil, which always give me a sweetly nostalgic daydream of living in Rio during the Twenties. My stepfather spent a couple of seasons there at that very time, while between voyages for the merchant marine. Exotic it must have been.

Jim Churchill said...

Charles -

is it possible that the very end got truncated? At least here on the kitchen computer, where Lisa and I listened to it, it cut off more abruptly than seemed consistent with the piece.

Lisa says "I like it, it reminds me of Charles. It's more American than I expected, and bluesier, which I liked very much. Also it has gorgeousness (she's dictating as I type.) I liked it because it's the first piece of music by you I've heard, though it's way out of my range of familiarity. I'd characterize it as spikey, not unlike yourself in some regards.