Thank Heaven for Masochists

Thank Heaven for Masochists

Earlier this week, I completed a new piece, Extraordinary Rendition, for the amazing singing violist, Wendy Richman. I sent her a pdf of the score and I also sent samples to a couple of other interested parties before heading off to sleep. I awoke to multiple messages with two recurring themes: 1) cool piece and 2) freaking difficult.

While I was composing the piece, I focused on simplifying my vision. To me, this piece was a study in trusting myself and in refusing to hide behind intellectual complications. In that regard, I refrained from employing several of my typical compositional tricks, most notably I kept the materials homorhythmic for entire sections. Of course, I was writing for a player to sing and play simultaneously, which creates certain challenges. I wanted to create a voice part without text and utilizing extended techniques, notated simply in International Phonetic Alphabet. Although the vocalizations are not inherently complicated, the player is forced to learn new methods of vocal production and to apply them in odd combinations. I wanted the piece to have a simple yet unusual harmonic language, and so I created a microtonal scale (which modulates several times) utilizing quarter-, sixth- and eighth-tones. Unlike most microtonal music, this piece is fairly fast—at times even hinting at a heavy metal sound. And, finally, to make the fingering more gracious, I ask the player to retune the bottom two strings down one half step.

In short, my attempt at creating a simple piece resulted in a fast microtonal composition for singing violist playing scordatura while using extended vocalizations.

I’m struck by two aspects of this:

First, I feel that in many senses we are in a golden era of musical performance. There are dozens upon dozens of musicians who relish challenges and who soar to incredible heights when presented with interesting complexity. At Peabody, I have heard first-year percussionists give a commanding performance of Xenakis, and players who are raised on this type of musical diet show no fear when presented with difficult music, and indeed often seek ever-greater challenges. I know that Wendy will present my new piece with the same beautiful intelligence and musicality that in previous generations would have been reserved for performances of the standard warhorses.

Second, I will continue to trust my internal vision and simplify as much as possible. I am reminded of the apocryphal story where an artist—in various versions reputed to be Giotto, Leonardo or Raphael—proves his mastery by drawing a perfect circle freehand. The more I attempt to simplify my musical arguments, the more I’m astonished at the difficulty I find in so doing.

And in a tribute to this being my thirteenth column, one final note on heavy metal aesthetics.

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10 thoughts on “Thank Heaven for Masochists

  1. Armando

    Hey, at least you didn’t ask her to retune the lower two strings WHILE she was playing/singing the thing! There are limits, it seems.

  2. wendyrichman

    @armando: ha! I think I could do that as long as it just involved turning the pegs and not actually finding a pitch (inherent viola joke fully intended)…

  3. mclaren

    This sounds like a fantastic piece
    Any word on where and when we can hear it? As in, mp3 download? CD? DVD? Something?

  4. smooke

    thanks and thanks
    Thank you so much for your interest! I will certainly post a recording when I have one and will make a score available at my website. Your asking is very much appreciated.

    Thank you for posting the link! What a cool piece–I love how the mood shifts. And the playing definitely supports my argument above. Those musicians gave Dillon’s piece an utterly transfixing performance. They were making music, not learning notes.

  5. Frank J. Oteri

    There’s actually a whole tradition of retuning while playing in bluegrass which was initiated by the great Earl Scruggs. To facilitate his doing so without resulting in going out of tune afterward, the legendary banjoist even invented special gadgets now commonly called Scruggs Tuners or Scruggs Pegs in his honor. Here’s a wonderful video demonstrating this unusual performance technique.

    Admittedly, this is much more difficult to do effectively on a violin (or fiddle), but fine tuners on the tailpiece offer a viable alternative to trying to detune from the frog.

  6. smooke

    Your link sends me to the Dillon piece again (not that I mind giving that piece another listen!).

    Banjo ftw! Holy moly.


  7. amc654

    retuning while playing
    My favorite example of this is the massive cello detuning in Xenakis’s ST-4…. That descending pizz section is fantastic.


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