Monday, April 17, 2006

Pulitzer Prize goes to...

Yehudi Wyner. One of the most conservative (but yet widely regarded) prizes in music composition lived up to its reputation, giving this year's award to Yehudi Wyner for "Chiavi in Mano", a piano concerto premiered in 2004. From the program notes:

" As in many of my compositions, simple, familiar musical ideas are the starting point. A shape, a melodic fragment, a rhythm, a chord, a texture, or a sonority may ignite the appetite for exploration. How such simple insignificant things can be altered, elaborated, extended, and combined becomes the exciting challenge of composition. I also want the finished work to breathe in a natural way, to progress spontaneously, organically, moving toward a transformation of the musical substance in ways unimaginable to me when I began the journey. Transformation is the goal, with the intention of achieving an altered state of perception and exposure that I am otherwise unable to achieve.

"Chiavi in mano" - the title of the piano concerto - is the mantra used by automobile salesmen and realtors in Italy: Buy the house or the car and the keys are yours. But the more pertinent reason for the title is the fact that the piano writing is designed to fall "under the hand" and no matter how difficult it may be, it remains physically comfortable and devoid of stress. In other words: "Keys in hand." --Yehudi Wyner, December 13, 2004

Now, I include this as an excellent example of how not to say anything in your program notes. There is no requirement that one's program notes be musically descriptive, but I'd at least hope that my fellow composers might consider that notes can direct the listening experience of the audience in profound ways. In the example above, Wyner begins with a short manifesto on composition, then includes a rather hilarious oxymoronic statement about a spontaneous progression in a written piece of music. I teach my own students to be cognizant of their work from the very beginning, and to have a clear idea of what they want to say. Without this focus, a lot of time can be wasted (in my opinion) by misguided explorations. I don't mean to suggest at all that experimentation has no place in composition (QUITE the opposite) but rather that a composers musical expression can be muddied most easily by not knowing what it is you're trying to say!

And finally - what is with that title? An easy piano concerto (I know I know, it isn't "easy", it just "feels good").


Blogger Mike Boyd said...

I feel that program notes are extremely problematic for many composers. At a recent SCI event, I heard a few pieces that I liked much better than I anticipated based on rather incoherent program notes that seemed superfluously abstract. I sense that this is one of the major issues Susan McClary takes up in her article about the avant garde (particularly Babbitt); after reading it, I feel like McClary might actually like some of Babbitt's music, but is really bothered by the way he presents it in prose (and that it's hard to separate the two). The moral of the story: think very carefully about what you write about your own music!

4/18/2006 2:43 PM  
Anonymous stephen f lilly said...

To be the devil's advocate, in the last ten years, I have only twice known what I "wanted to say" from the beginning of the compositional process. Most of the time, ideas come to me as I explore a programming language, an instrument, or as I collect source sounds. I often rethink the materal/form/concept several times during the compositional process - obviously, each time I try to limit myself (i.e. focus) more and more. I think this is a question of personal taste. If every composer listed his/her favorite works by other composers, I am sure every list would include pieces that began completely preconceived to those designed with more improvisational working methods.

As for program notes, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't. No matter what you write or omit, you will alienate someone in the audience (e.g. Mike's Babbitt/McClary illustration). Whether right or wrong, I lean toward explaining concepts and technical methods; on occasion, I've even made the program notes a piece in and of themselves. I think the problem with Wyner's notes is an abundance of cliches and truisms. I don't think they say much about the piece, and when they do, they just betray how conventional the musical thinking is behind the work.

4/22/2006 10:18 AM  
Blogger Kristian Twombly said...

Stephen - I don't think that we're far off in our compositional approach. By that I mean that once we settle on an overall concept of the piece, beit working with Chaos Theory, sieves, sets, text, etc., we try our best to stick with that idea, and further focus comes along the line. We might abondon explorations that could later become new pieces of their own, but in general, the pieces that I hear that have been composed in more of a through-composed manner are not nearly as interesting as those that "suffer" from clarity.

4/27/2006 8:44 PM  

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