Friday, September 02, 2016

Wind music



Eastside Road, August 31, 2016—

I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED to write a piece for woodwind quintet. I played bassoon in high school, and a little clarinet and French horn then and in my early college days, and playing chamber music for winds was a lot of fun.

I'm not sure I've ever heard a piece for winds that didn't please me. Especially the Czechs, of course: Janáček's Mladi has been a favorite since I found a ten-inch LP in a used record store in San Francisco back in the 1950s. But all the others: Reicha, Mozart, Haydn. Even Schoenberg, whose Wind Quintet I think is one of his masterpieces.

Here's how close I've come to writing for wind quintet:

1965 Ces désirs du quatuor, for any four musicians
1970: Bachelor Apparatus, for pairs of winds
1974: Parergon to woodwind quintet: trio, for English horn, bass clarinet, and bassoon
as you can see, not very close. There's another Parergon, for unaccompanied flute; and there's Rose, for unaccompanied clarinet. They were meant to go into a sort of kit for wind quintet, the idea being that any of the independent pieces can be pulled out of the box and played alone, or in sequence, or superimposed on one another if the performing space allows the scattering of the performers. I may get back to this one day.

In the meantime, as a self-imposed penalty for moving further into the ninth decade, I've been trolling the files, sorting out gems from dross. Precious few gems, but some intriguing relics: and among them a few tiny essays for recorder ensemble, written in early 1960, while approaching my 25th birthday.

I was working as a clerk at the post office in Berkeley, where I fell in with a serious, intelligent, good-humored fellow named Charles Watson. Like me, he played the recorder, and before long we’d put together a little recorder ensemble — three or four of us playing soprano, alto, tenor, and bass recorders.

Charles was an engaging man with connections in the community, ranging from the African Methodist Episcopal Church to a louche bar called The Chicken Box, and before long he suggested our ensemble should work up a little concert. He got us into the AME Church somehow, and we played a short program of mostly arrangements from Baroque masters.

I had not yet studied composition — only a couple of rudimentary college courses in harmony and modal counterpoint, in which I fared not so well, finding them tedious and, I thought in the heady flush of Modernism, irrelevant. The twelve-tone method attracted me, but I hardly knew what it was. I had come by the four-LP set of Anton Webern recordings put out by Columbia and was fascinated by the master's short, glittering pieces for instruments; no doubt they lay behind these juvenile recorder pieces.

I'm preparing scores of them in the original instrumentation, for soprano, alto, and bass recorders. In the course of doing that it occurred to me to arrange them for a more conventional ensemble, and here's the result. The upper two voices, for soprano and alto recorders, were left at the original pitch location and given to flute and oboe: the lower two, for alto and bass recorders, were transposed down an octave for clarinet and bassoon. A few other notes had to be transposed an octave one way or another to suit my new orchestra, and I got rid of a few fluttertongues that would have been too brash on double-reed instruments; otherwise the thing's the way it was, fifty-six years ago.

One reason for doing all this, perhaps: play with the fossil and see if it can lead to something. I might add some notes for French horn, and then I'd finally have addressed that old desire. Or I might insert silences along the way — I've come to like them more and more — or cut up the pieces and reconfigure the scraps, to get rid of that stuffy four-movement tempo layout. Don't know. We'll see.

Meantime, you can see the score here and listen to a synthesized recording here. It won't take much of your time. Three minutes.

No comments: