Thursday, November 13, 2014


If I had to do it again and it was the best thing about it is not the same thing to say

The fact I can get it right away with the best of the year
and the other hand is the only thing that would have to go

I'm so tired and my friends
to be able too
see my friends to be able too
see my tweets of people are going out

I'm not sure if I could be a good day
to be a good day for me to be a good day
to be a good time to get a good day to be a good day

The only way to get the same thing as the first
place would have been a good idea but I can't even get the hang of it

— the text predictor

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mahler, and the Seventh

IT WAS A FELLOW employee at the Berkeley Post Office, Gary Jerburg I think his name was — this was after all sixty years ago — who introduced me to the music of Gustav Mahler. In those days he was still a neglected, even an unfamiliar composer — of works one knew only by reputation, and the reputation was far different then.

I remember, for example, a paperback guide to the symphonic literature, The Symphony by Ralph Hill, published by Penguin Books — in those days serious how-to-listen books seemed important. ("The purpose of this book is to guide the intelligent and serious listener towards a deeper understanding of the masterpieces of symphony, which he is likely to hear frequently in the concert hall, on the air, or on the gramophone.") Mr. Hill did not take kindly to Mahler, "Bombastes Furioso, caustic, cynical, ironic, intolerant and dictatorial…"

Gary brought me a couple of long-playing recordings of Mahler: the Bruno Walter recording of the Fourth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, and I was hooked. Before long I'd added Walter's recording of the Ninth to my shelf. I think it was the long-playing record, and especially the then-new stereo technique, that made the popularization of Mahler possible: before long, of course, Leonard Bernstein finished the job, and Mahler's been a permanent fixture of the standard repertory ever since. His time has come, as he had promised it would.

The other day Mahler's Seventh Symphony was in the air hereabouts — the Bay Area, I mean — as Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony through it. I didn't hear it: I was away at the time. I probably wouldn't have heard it even if I'd been here, as I'm not fond of Thomas's way with Mahler, and I'm particularly fussy about the Seventh.

At one time I studied the Seventh fairly closely, probably in the early 1960s. I bought the Eilenberg edition of the pocket score in April 1962, according to my bookplate, and when the Berkeley Public Library acquired the Universal Edition edition a few years later, with Mahler's many changes from the earlier state the Eulenberg edition presents, I carefully added in all those changes into my copy.

There were two recordings of the Seventh in those days, as far as I can remember: Hermann Scherchen's, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, and Maurice Abravanel's, with the Utah Symphony. I liked them both, for different reasons. When I "listen" to the Seventh with my mind's ears, it is with Abravanel's tempi and weighting, though I seem to remember Sherchen's version often seeming more graceful.

The Seventh has curious architecture. Landscape architecture, I think I mean. Two long developmental-but-episodic movements start and finish the piece, whose central movement is one of those shadowy Mahler scherzos, flanked with two fragrant, rustic serenades. The orchestra includes cowbells, a mandolin, a guitar. The very opening is striking — a quiet steady but uncertain rhythmic figure which Mahler wrote came to him as he was rowing, at night, on an Alpine lake, with a suddenly cautionary but peremptory solo on the tenor-horn. If you've walked the Alps at nightfall you know the feeling.

Siege Ozawa led the San Francisco Symphony in the Mahler Seventh in 1976, and I remember thinking he led it beautifully. It was the only work on the program, as is often the case — it runs over 80 minutes in most performances. Ozawa had asked me it I had any ideas as to what to program with it, and he was surprised and I think amused at my answer: Start with Strauss's Tales from the Vienna Woods, I suggested, and continue with the Webern Symphony op. 21.

This would of course have added maybe twenty minutes to the program. I thought you could take a short intermission after the Webern. The connecting thread through the pieces is the plucked strings: zither in Strauss, harp in Webern, mandolin and guitar in Mahler. Austria throughout.

The most important thing, I think, is not to let Mahler's finale get too boisterous. Most conductors fall down here, and I think that's what made Ralph Hill think of Mahler as "Bombastes Furioso". The Seventh is on the Haydn model, not the Beethoven: the weight's on the opening movement, not the finale. Allegro ordinary, Mahler says, though he added Pesante to the second version in a number of places, and does, it's true, end fortissimo. But I think the rhythms are jaunty and rustic, not pushy and overpowering; Mahler's still in the mountains in lederhosen, not in uniform on a parade ground.

So I prefer these days to look at the score from time to time, and to "hear" the piece from the page, and from memory. But note, if you've read this far, that this morning, thinking about writing this, I discovered the Abravanel recordings available as a download, from a source I don't usually like to patronize, for only $2.99, for all nine completed Mahler symphonies, with a few song-cycles thrown in. The recorded sound is far from adequate these days, but the tempi and weight and attitude strike me as just right — at least in the Seventh, which is the only one I've dipped into so far.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Lullaby and Finale

Eastside Road, November 8, 2014—
JUST WHEN I THOUGHT there was no particular reason to write any more music — in July, 2004, to be precise — Eliane Lust asked for a new piece. She was planning a recital program of lullabies and thought I’d like to supply one. She’s a favorite of mine; she did such a splendid job with my piano sonata Bachelor Apparatus , even consenting to play it in costume seated at a piano perched on a cart being hauled across the stage by a strongman in Margeret Fisher’s amazing dance/theater piece drawn from our opera together.

And, by coincidence, I’d just bought a new piece of notation software which made it easier than ever to print music, and even to synthesize it somewhat suggestively; and I’d installed it on a new laptop, a tiny one that I’d taken with us on an annual week in Ashland, where we like to go to see Shakespeare (and other plays), and where we were when Eliane’s e-mail request came.

Partly to learn the software (and to demonstrate it to a friend who was among those spending the week with us), partly to see if I could write a lullaby, I quickly composed this piece. The next day, after the computer played it to us and I discovered how incredibly long it is and how somniferous, I decided to add a Finale, partly to awaken the audience, more really to awaken the performer.

The pieces have something to do with the music in the Trio for Violin, Piano, and Percussion. The same chromaticism is there; the deep clusters; the insistent repetition. I don’t think these have much to do with Minimalism; to me they are more closely related to the hermetic poetry of Gertrude Stein. But I could be wrong about that. In fact, Lullaby is a sort of by-piece to the much longer Sonata 2 Compositio ut explicatio.

Eliane introduced both movements in a program of lullabies and barcarolles given at The Dance Palace, Pt. Reyes Station, California, Oct. 17, 2004.

click here for synthesized performance (.mp3)

click here for score (.pdf)