So even tho this is technically my “getting back into the swing of things” post, today I’m going to be doing something a bit different. Instead of featuring music that someone else wrote and I like, today I’m going to be talking about a piece that I wrote. Specifically, I’m going to be talking about the work that I premièred on my recital in September: Rotational Games.
Of course, this puts me in rather the opposite of my usual position. Normally, I have to scrounge up scraps of information about obscure pieces and then stitch them together into some kind of cohesive contextual framework; today, I know everything about the composer and the context of the work’s creation, and I have to figure out what to cut. (I also have to figure out how honest I’m feeling. History is full of composers being . . . less than fully open about the inspiration and intention behind their music, with wildly varying degrees of deviousness driving them to do so. How much of the below is post-hoc fabulation meant to explain the inexplicable subconscious processes of art or to cover up the tracks of a more secretive agenda? You’ll have to decide that for yourself . . .)
Let’s start in the ordinary way, at least, with a brief thumbnail bio. I was born in Canberra, Australia in 1991 to a pair of plant cell biologists doing postdoctoral work, but I was only there until I was four months old, at which point my family moved to Columbia, Missouri, where we lived until decamping to Amherst, Massachusetts. It was in Columbia that I really started getting into classical music; one day, the local radio station played Peter Schickele’s Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony Sportscast (in which a performance of the first movement of the symphony in question is broadcast with live commentary in the style of a major sporting event) and I, having missed almost all of the jokes in it, hunted down our family’s recording of the non-sportscast original and listened to it obsessively, so that the next time the Schickele version came on the air, I would be prepared. (I don’t think the radio station in question ever played it again while I was tuned in, but I still reconnected with it years later and it is, indeed, hysterical.)
On moving to Amherst, I took up, in rapid succession, the violin, the clarinet, the bass clarinet, and the bassoon, all the while continuing to take piano lessons, having started to study that instrument back in Columbia. (My piano studies would ultimately fall by the wayside in middle school, tho I still compose at the piano and can kind of hack my way thru simple accompaniment parts if I really have to.) Unlike the rest, bassoon took, and it’s still my primary instrument. I majored in music with a focus on composition at Yale University, ultimately writing an original musical for my senior project. After graduation, I took a job as a music archivist (and sometimes arranger) for Michael Feinstein out in Los Angeles, and that’s where I am now. (But I’m also applying to grad schools for the fall of 2016, so I may not be out here for very much longer. Watch this space?)
Moving on to the music: As I was working my way thru Bach’s third cello suite and posting the movements to YouTube one by one, I started thinking about what I wanted to tackle next. The sad fact is that there simply isn’t very much music out there for unaccompanied bassoon, and much of what does exist is contemporary repertoire that calls for notes that my instrument simply will not produce. So I decided to write my own*. It quickly grew in the writing until it became a full-fledged sonata for bassoon and piano, providing in turn the impetus to put together a public recital to première it.
On the off-chance that you’d rather listen to an abbreviated version of the rest of this post than read it, you can check out my mid-performance remarks here, but the somewhat more thoro version is as follows. In music theory, a “rotational form” is one that passes (or “rotates”) thru a fixed sequence of musical events several times over. Sometimes these are traditional themes and sometimes they’ll be more abstract things like textures or motivic zones, but regardless of what distinguishes them, the music will go A -> B -> C -> A -> B -> C and so on. Sometimes one of these sections might be prolonged or omitted, but it would be highly unusual to go from B back to A. Some works move thru those rotations smoothly and without incident, but more frequently pieces will have Great Difficulty accomplishing a complete rotation, and really nifty things often happen in such cases. (To refer back to how I got into this music in the first place: Much of Beethoven’s metaphorical and emotional power comes from the moments where his music is trying and failing to do the normative thing.)
Now, obviously, outside the world of music theory jargon, lots of things rotate and revolve, and this piece is built with these double meanings very firmly in mind. (Hence Rotational Games — there’s a lot of deliberate playing with implications behind the scenes.) So the first movement looks skywards to shoehorn in the movements of the heavens. A “synodic period” is how long it takes one heavenly body to return to the same position relative to two other bodies (usually the Earth and the Sun)**. Since the reference points are often also in motion, this results in a delightfully intricate dance of lagging behind and overshooting, and can require some rather elaborate math to calculate correctly. In the music, this is represented by a repeated melody and a repeated bass line that aren’t quite the same length. The first statement of both is loving and tender, a warm and tranquil start that reveals little of what’s to come. There is, at one point, an unexpected lurch into the minor, but as the bassoon plays a long, sequential descent, this gradually calms back towards the warmth of the opening.
By the second statement, the bassoon has already started drifting away, but it’s only in the third that the imperturbable front of the piano begins to slip. The bassoon is quite distraught, interjecting scathing dissonances with flatulent flutter tonguing, and things quickly become too much to bear; the piano breaks off from playing chords to take flight in a swirl of melodic fragments, leaving the bassoon to insistently plod along the original bass line. One muffled crunch later, and the piano aggressively seizes control of that line, pounding out an implacable alteration under contorted fragments of the long-forgotten melody. This builds to a shattering climax that leaves only mournful echoes in its wake, the music having fallen victim to the chaos that can so easily result from following very simple rules very strictly.
Right from the start, the Allegory announces itself as something completely different. Bright, staccato chords in twitchy, irregular meters bounce around with playful abandon, conjuring up the feeling of experienced Jazz musicians jamming for the sheer fun of it in a basement nightclub tucked safely away in some hidden corner. After a lengthy piano introduction, the bassoon finally enters, carrying on in much the same buoyantly off-kilter vein. The piano opens out into waves of arpeggios, but this is still the first time thru the allegory — we’re only getting the literal surface meaning — and the music deflates; something is missing. The second pass is more successful. The piano once again opens into rolling arpeggios, but this time we’ve grasped the hidden, allegorical meaning and the music blossoms into a rapturous exaltation, concluding with a few final, knowing winks now that it’s in on the secret.
In the final movement, Flight, the rotational aspect is even further abstracted, buried further beneath the surface of the music. A spluttering, moody opening gives way to a prickly fugue (launched by the bassoon with the piano sneaking in after), which in turn gives way to an ecstatic transfiguration of the opening material, not unlike the climactic passages of the second movement. But instead of flourishing and finishing as in the Allegory, here the music overreaches and tumbles into turbulent waters. A short, insistent, obsessively repeated figure emerges from the tumult, and the music builds and builds in intensity until collapsing into an unexpectedly bleak coda. There is, briefly, a glint of hope in an extended piano interlude, but this too subsides into futility and thence into silence. These musical vistas flash past as quickly and abruptly as landscapes viewed from an airplane window, but the deeper tie is to the larger voyage: We often go back to a place we once called home only to discover that it has changed in the time that we’ve been away, making a true return impossible. We may long for the closure and stability of circular time, but in the end, we are forced to live our lives as lines instead.
*I was a little reluctant on this front at first. If I’m writing for an instrument I don’t play, I can focus on just making the music good. But in writing for one that I do, I felt an additional pressure to make something “bassoony”, ie something that sits well under the fingers and otherwise showcases the best qualities of an instrument I know so intimately well. I don’t think I was ready to handle this even last year, but by this past winter, the time had come.
**The explanation of this concept in the video on YouTube is actually incorrect, my bad! I think this explanation gets it more correct, but I am not an astronomer, so if I am off the mark, please correct me!