Every now and then Jeremiah Pecker will be invited to hold forth at one of those curious institutions we call a “master class.” All musicians know what this is and what it entails. If you’re an instrumentalist or a singer, such a class is a pretty straightforward affair. You play your Chopin etude or sing your Puccini aria, and some honored guest artist, after politely listening, heaps gobs of fulsome praise on you and then over the next twenty minutes ritually disembowels you before an audience of your peers and your embarrassed teacher. And the whole thing is captured on video so you can enjoy it over and over.
With composers it’s a slightly different kettle of fish. The usual format requires the host professor to choose four or five students to show their wares while their classmates sit in the back of the room, listening, following along with the score and now and then checking their cell phones.
For the composition master class the student composer, aka “THE VICTIM,” distributes copies of the score to all in the room. In the old days, long before music software, the student would bring in his or her piece in a spiral bound notebook, and everyone would hover around the piano while the composer banged through the piece, squinting at the obscure pencil hen scratchings on the manuscript pages and yelling out comments. For those of us who were not pianists that hour could be the worst of the week. But nowadays young composers arrive with a beautifully bound, engraved score in multiple copies. Plus they will likely bring along a compact disk (or memory stick if you’re excessively cool) of the music.
Most students will be able to provide a recording of a recent performance. Depending on the talent of the available instrumentalists in the school, these performances can vary from barely adequate to absolutely stunning. Composers at the Yale School of Music, for instance, are able to play recordings of dazzling, impressive performances of their pieces for full orchestra played by the Yale Philharmonia. But that’s a rare luxury situation. More often the student will have a recording of a smaller group, sometimes made by friends that have been corralled, bribed or even blackmailed into playing.
This is more like life in the real world, as once you graduate and get out of school, you’re more likely to have to put up with sketchy performances of your music for a long time to come. You can console yourself with the thought that Charles Ives never heard a good performance of any of his orchestra pieces until he was too old to leave home.
At a recent master class I had the pleasure of hearing a composer who had written a crazy, delightful piece for saxophone quartet, one that called for all four of the sax players to play not only their own instruments but also to double on wildly zany homemade percussion instruments and noisemakers invented and constructed by the composer. It was a splendid piece. Not only that, but we were able to hear the piece live, as he arranged to have the group show and play it for the class.
But more often than not the presentation in the master class is in the form of a recording either live or computer simulated. The true bottom of the barrel experience will be a MIDI version, in which case all the music is eerily precise and the sampled strings sound like a section of high-strung chipmunks.
But no composition master class deserves its rightful name without the main event: AUDIO PROBLEMS. How many university and conservatory classrooms are equipped with adequate sound systems? Here we are in the 21st century in a culture that lives and breathes recorded music every minute of the day, but all university music classrooms inevitably have a malfunctioning audio system. Or, failing that, the student has to make do with playing his or her piece on a miserable little boom box (as was the case with a classroom in a world-famous music conservatory). The AUDIO PROBLEM begins just as the first student is about to play his piece. He puts the CD in the carriage, pushes “play” and nothing happens. Everyone present sits in embarrassed silence for 90 seconds. Then the teacher plus one or two “helpful” students come up and all hover around the antiquated CD player and antiquated amplifier, randomly pushing buttons labeled with enigmatic words like “source,” “return mix,” “send,” “bypass,” and “aux mode line output.”
Eventually a loud pop, frequently enough to blow the tweeters, announces to the class that the AUDIO PROBLEM has been located and solved. The student composer sighs and the master class is officially underway.
On occasion the student (aka “the victim”) may precede the listening of his or her piece with a verbal presentation. Such presentations can be nearly as interesting as the piece itself, as in the case of a young composer who introduced his piano piece by saying “all the important motivic information is in the first movement…which I’m not going to play for you.”
Others will preface their presentations by some anecdotal background: “I got this rhythmic idea from the weird way my roommate snores.” Or “I broke up with my girlfriend in the middle of composing the adagio, so that’s the reason for the sudden percussion entrance.”
(Don’t laugh. Honestly, I know a prize-winning composer who embedded into an orchestra piece the initials of a high school sweetheart who’d jilted him twenty years earlier. And he was a grown man when he did this. And I am not making this up!)
I would hazard a guess that eighty percent of all student compositions follow a similar formal structure, and I as a young composer did pretty much the same. We begin in a hushed, nervous semi-silence. A viola plays a slowly repeating, throbbing figure sul ponticello; meanwhile a marimba trills on a low C, while a flute (or clarinet, or oboe) plays a lamenting, atonal melody alone in the high register. The tritone is the featured interval for this section, because it is expresses life’s eternally unresolved mysteries.
If the piece is a text setting, the poetry will be either by Pablo Neruda or Sappho. These are the de rigueur poets for all graduate student compositions. The only other alternative would be poetry written in the bleak of night by the composer’s roommate. (My senior thesis composition was a setting of poems written by a classmate of mine who only wrote when he was stoned on LSD. And I am not making this up either.) Vocal pieces usually favoring cruel leaps for the singer—up a ninth, down a tenth, back up another ninth, and then some interval expressing anguish.
But back to the typical instrumental composition: The slow, nervous, unsettling introduction will most likely be followed an up-tempo OSTINATO. The ostinato has gained great prestige of late because students wrongly believe that this is what made Steve Reich and Phil Glass successful composers. They misunderstand the essence of minimalist technique, thinking that by merely introducing a repeated, grinding rhythmic figure they can achieve satisfying musical form.
The ostinato may or may not have a harmonic modulation in it. Usually it will pump and grind away for about four minutes on the same tonality, building and building before it comes to a frightening, colossal, overwhelming, earth shattering CLIMAX. (This is where said composer’s girlfriend dumped him or her for a garage band punker.)
This climax is great fun for the percussion player, who is usually the only one in the ensemble with serious tattoos and other identifying marks.
Now if the school has a computer music maven, this is a good time for a solo for MAX MSP!!! If you don’t know what Max MSP is, don’t even think of asking. It may involve Jitter, and it may be live or prerecorded. The big moment usually will sound like recycled hip-hop or an Aphex Twin outtake. The composers with Max MSP in their pieces usually wear torn jeans, high-tops and a black tee shirt with the logos of a metal band or a portrait of Franz Kafka on the front. They will be the most intellectual and “indie” looking of those in the class, whereas those students who write trumpet sonatas or choral anthems usually dress more conservatively, favoring Dockers and in rare instances, especially in Utah, neckties.)
The bone-crushing climax is followed by the bleak, hopeless coda. (Oh, I wrote a lot of these in my younger days, believe me.) This coda may have a few minor eruptions of waning violence, usually featuring minor ninths and clusters of minor seconds. Depending on how angry and pissed off the composer was while writing the piece, the final bar may or may not have a subito fortissississimo. But more often then not things just kinda fade out into an existential oblivion.
The piece is over and now it’s time for The Master (i.e. the guest disembowler) to say something meaningful. This is not as easy as you might think. You want to be helpful and not just make bland, encouraging comments like Mom and Dad. On the other hand you remember your own student days and recall how super super super sensitive you were. An unkind cut can be devastating. I once lost a competition that I thought I had in the bag and was so outraged that I called one of the professors who was judging and bawled him out.
Some big time composers who give master classes, anxious about being liked, just bail on making critical comments, preferring rather to finesse things by talking about superficialities. “I’m not sure that sul tasto will cut through there…maybe you should give that line to the trombone.” Or “hey, did you do that with Finale or with Sibelius? What version do you have?” Or “is this score in C or transposed?”
I try to deal with the real nitty gritty, the mega-issues, as difficult and as dangerous as that may turn out to be. One very daunting challenge for young composers is how to judge the scale of what they’ve constructed. Since most pieces written in school settings are understandably brief (say between eight and twelve minutes), building a meaningful and satisfying expressive form is a challenge. Inexperienced composers often give over the larger part of their pieces to relatively low-interest, low-event material. Most pieces start slowly and for a long time haven’t much to chew on. I often have to remind students about Beethoven and how gratifying it is to have a powerful, confident idea stated in the very first bar. But then…one has actually to have a powerful, confident idea, and those don’t come a dime a dozen.
The other issue that plagues so many student compositions is vagueness of harmonic language. We live in a post-style era in contemporary classical music. Students are blessedly free of the kind of bitterly divisive battles of style and orthodoxy that made life so brutal forty years ago. But the down side is that the “anything goes” climate of composing now produces thousands of pieces with no real internal cohesion. The harmonic character of a piece is of absolute, essential importance. It’s how we know immediately that a Messiaen piece is by Messiaen or why we can identify a piece by Ligeti or Feldman or Reich instantaneously. Unfortunately most young composers come to their profession with little awareness and even less interest in creating a unique harmonic profile for their music. This is one reason why so many pieces resort to OSTINATO—it’s a kind of default mode to create a gravitational sense in the music.
But these comments often are met with blank stares. Either the young composers are unaware of the lack of harmonic comprehensibility in their pieces, or they believe that other aspects like instrumentation or dynamics or repetitive design will trump harmony.
The class ends and the Master offers to meet any and all aggrieved students out in the parking lot where they can take turns telling the Master just what they think of him.
Copyright © 2010 by John Adams
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