the voice of the composer

No, not the speaking voice. But if you want to know what Tchaikovsky’s speaking voice sounded like, you can check that out here.

I’m talking (see what I did there?) about the composer’s musical voice. It’s what alerts your ear – having never heard a particular piece before – that a composition is by Beethoven, Pärt, or Higdon.

I’ve had a fair number of composer friends over the years, and some of them I’ve known since they were in their formative years as composers. Just as performers imprint upon important musical role models in the course of their musical growth and exploration, composers also dig deep into the work of those who have come before them (or are doing important and interesting stuff right now). They listen ferociously, picking apart every musical aspect of a given composer’s music. They are trying to find out what makes the music speak to them, and how the composer accomplished that feat. It’s a bit like reverse engineering. Take apart an existing product to find out how it was made, so that you can in turn make your own version. These composers had their periods of being obsessed by Hindemith, Poulenc, Boulez, Reich, Rorem, Corigliano, etc. But each of them, through a process of exhaustive listening, composition lessons, and relentless self-editing came out the other side with their own distinctive voice.

Knowing this, it’s always incredibly irritating to hear people say that “composer X always sounds the same”. Well, I hope so! Even if this were true (which it’s not), the really good and great composers have an evolution to their voice. Great instrumentalists and singers do, too. In the case of performers, some of it is due to the physical changes that come about through aging. One physically isn’t the same at the age of 60 as at the age of 18 – and those changes in the body’s structure and mechanics affect the way we produce sound. Composers aren’t subject to those restraints (though some would argue that composers like Britten and Shostakovich, whose music became very spare and austere in their final years, were constrained by the physicality of writing music on paper, which affect their writing style), but they do have changing relationships to the sounds that they hear, and thus to the sounds that they then seek to put down on paper.

Of course, all composers have various compositional ‘tells’ that are a common thread throughout their careers. Beethoven uses small, obsessive rhythmic motifs. Brahms uses the violas as the bass voice to the cellos. John Adams sets up a groove, and then yanks the rug out from under the listener by jogging the beat off by a fraction. Shostakovich uses a major chord as a tragic moment – as does Schubert. John Williams uses repeated scrubby patterns in the violas under soaring melodies in the violins, who are doubled by the cellos. Mozart uses divided violas to add richness to his slow movements. Bruckner doubles the cellos with the French horns. I’m sure there are many much more erudite examples that could be supplied – but I’m not a composer. Ask any composer about the way that other composers write, and you’re in for a fascinating conversation that will leave you searching for ways to enhance the way you listen to music.

So, when I hear someone complain about how composer X’s music all sounds ‘the same’, I’m all side eye about it – because that ‘sameness’ amounts to having one’s own individual voice. And that’s a good thing.

Are you a composer? Let me know what your thoughts are about how you developed your unique voice!

lenny @ 100

Today marks what would have been Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. The internet has been awash the past few days with articles dedicated to this august event. So here I am to add to the tide. One of the things that struck me this year was just how many professional musicians have been either blasé or outright dismissive of this anniversary. Why is that, I wonder?

Could it be Lenny’s sheer omnipresence in our culture? Perhaps it is the presence of just a few celebrated works which are played over and over again. Maybe it’s also due to the absence of his active conducting presence. Is it the famous familiarity that breeds the facile contempt? I’m not sure, but I do understand it to a degree, perhaps even share it. If I just think about how many times I’ve played the overture to Candide in slapdash performances over the past 25 years or so…

But there is magic there, in the lingering presence of a man whose influence and championing of various composers, old and new, has left a lasting imprint on the cultural fabric of America. He performed large swaths of Haydn symphonies when most orchestras were playing them hardly at all – recording a good selection of them with the New York Philharmonic. He performed and recorded works of his own near-contemporaries and predecessors – Copland, Blitzstein, Harris, and Ives. He almost single-handedly brought the music of Gustav Mahler back into the mainstream repertoire (a la Mendelssohn and the music of J.S. Bach), and recorded the cycle masterfully in two highly-regarded cycles with the New York Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. He wrote one of the greatest Broadway musicals of all time in West Side Story. And he incubated an entire generation of young musicians (some of whom later became a new collection of American masters) with his Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic.

Isn’t that enough of a legacy to deserve respect? What’s tiresome about that?

I wish I had a personal Lenny story. I came close, being an alternate to the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1990, which was the occasion of his last concert. But his ghost has hung over Tanglewood ever since, and when I was a Fellow there in 1994 and 1995, his music and legacy was a constant presence in both the programming and the philosophy of the festival.

Mostly, his influence on me came through his recordings. Especially the cycles of the Brahms and Mahler symphonies. I vividly remember the video of him reaching the main theme of the last movement of Brahms’ First Symphony and just standing there, and letting the magnificent Vienna Philharmonic do its Vienna Philharmonic thing, with that luminous and rich string sound. And staying up late at night to listen to the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony – so strikingly slow, with every possible drop of emotion wrung from each aching note. Good stuff. I may have new preferences for my current favorite interpretations, but revisiting these recordings is like going back through the geologic record of layers of sediment, and seeing where my musical formation really began.

Thanks, Lenny.

more random musings

I come up with these ‘random musings’ posts every now and then. What do they mean? Mostly they mean that I’m thinking about what I’m doing in a new way and becoming more engaged in my music making. Or I am just bored and want to write something. Take your pick.

This week we’ve been rehearsing a wonderful (if very traditional) program of Glanert, Mozart, and Brahms with a stellar young violinist (Benjamin Beilman) and excellent guest conductor (David Danzmayr). So, some observations relating to the rehearsal period and first two concerts. Tickets here.

  • Mozart is really, really hard to play. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If they do, immediately discount any of their other opinions as completely worthless. Part of the difficulty, as I see it, is that Mozart’s writing is so perfectly symmetrical and logical. One’s phrasing and musicianship must be equally as impeccable to pull off a performance better than merely solid. Beilman really has the goods here. Lustrous tone, beautifully in tune, interesting ideas.
  • It’s been just under five years since we last played Brahms’ First Symphony, and I’m struck by a number of things. First, our woodwinds, playing as a choir as they must often do in the works of Brahms, are simply phenomenal. Such blend and unanimity of phrasing! And their solo work is also good – Martha Long in her big solo in the last movement, Martin Hebert in his leaping, yet sinuous solo in the first movement, John Cox with the gorgeous alphorn call in the last movement. And our brass in their chorale, etc. Deep bench and more than a few star players. We’re so lucky here.
  • There is little as terrifying as the pizzicato entrance and accelerando in the last movement introduction. So much can go so wrong and be so audible to everyone! But when it comes off well, it’s electrifying!
  • In the string chorale (reminiscent of Beethoven’s 9th finale) in the last movement, there is nothing better than playing the descending counter line in the violas. Especially when the section is allowed to really play. So much fun!

Those are my musings for today. Hope to see you at one of our concerts!