Thursday, November 20, 2014

Four Influences

But enough about you, let's talk about me! Wait, I mean, enough about all these famous composers from the past and present, who are all, face it, boring old white guys. Let's talk about my music, after all I'm a, um, well, sure, another boring old white guy. But, as Harrison Ford averred in Six Days, Seven Nights, I have "skills". Sure, I can't repair a de Havilland Beaver like he did, but I can write music.

Back in October I put up a post on my Symphony No. 3. One of these first few symphonies is going to be premiered in an orchestral concert in January (or maybe February). I didn't get many comments on this symphony, so I request you visit that post and give it a listen. I think it has some nice bits!

What I want to talk about today is why I started writing symphonies, after just writing for guitar or chamber music with guitar for most of my career. Coming out of that will be some thoughts on just what composers inspired me and influenced me.

I started composing just a few months after I started playing an instrument. The instrument was the bass guitar and what I wrote were songs. I probably wrote forty songs before I was twenty years old. They are all lost, except someone might have a reel-to-reel tape of three or four of them.

After I became a classical musician, at around twenty, I spent a number of years simply mastering the technical challenge of the guitar before returning to composition. I wrote a couple of pieces for solo guitar, but the best one from those years was a piece, inspired equally by Ligeti's piece for harpsichord, Continuum and by Steve Reich. My piece was titled Music for Two Guitars and Harpsichord and it was very well received by the audience. Unfortunately, both the score and recording of it are also lost (don't ask, evil moving company!).

When I started teaching a lot and chairing a guitar department at a conservatory, I began to think about writing for students and I wrote a few pieces for a guitar orchestra I was conducting. I do actually have a recording of one of those pieces, Long Lines of Winter Light:


This is in moment form, invented by Karlheinz Stockhausen in the 1950s. How that works is there are a number of small musical "cells" arranged in a kind of flow chart. The conductor indicates what level in the flow chart the players are and when to move to the next one. At each level, the players have options as to which cell they choose to play. The conductor can also select particular players to go back or forward and play particular cells. For example, in this performance, I pick the very first cell, the "snare-drum" effect one, and have it keep intruding later on, threatening to blot out whatever else is going on. The piece ends with a few players playing a little lyric melody.

I didn't continue with this sort of thing. In fact, for quite a few years composition was rather hit and miss as I didn't consider it my central musical activity. This changed several years ago. I realized, bit by bit, that the really important activity for me was composition. I started out writing again and the influence of Steve Reich was important. But soon I drifted away from that and realized that what I wanted to compose was music that used more traditional devices, especially harmonic ones. My feeling was that harmony was where a lot of the most interesting, subtle and affective musical impact came from. Most contemporary music, Steve Reich included, does not make a lot of use of harmony in this manner. Harmony for Steve Reich is rather static and for a lot of other composers it is unrelieved dissonance. Mind you, with composers like John Adams, Osvaldo Golijov and Esa-Pekka Salonen, this is no longer true as they seem to be using harmony in a lot of interesting ways. Not to mention Philip Glass!

So as I worked with various pieces for odd ensembles like violin, harpsichord, harp and guitar, or two guitars, or violin, viola and guitar, I was trying to rediscover harmony. I wrote a couple of suites for guitar with this aim. I recorded and posted the five movements of the first suite here, here, here, here and here.

As I worked on the pieces for solo guitar, I discovered that fully half of the ideas I was having simply could not be fitted onto the guitar. So the radical idea occurred to me of writing for orchestra! I was encouraged in this by discovering that it was not so difficult to write for violin and I had previously written for flute. I had never written for brass or percussion so I wrote a short piece for choir and brass to try it out. Then I set out to write an overture for orchestra. This was so exciting and fulfilling that decided me on writing symphonies.

Who influenced me? I have owned recordings and attended concerts of symphonies by the Big Three, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, for many years. But recently, much as I love Mozart and Beethoven, it is really Haydn that keeps interesting me. Over his 106 symphonies he did an astonishing number of remarkable things. The next, chronologically, would be Jean Sibelius. Yes, I'm skipping over everything written between 1830 and 1900 (Sibelius' first symphony was written in 1898/99, but it is really his second that grabbed me), but the very large 19th century symphonies really aren't an influence. I must give a mention to Franz Schubert, though, whose last two symphonies are simply magnificent.

Of the 20th century symphonists it is Sibelius that really grabbed me first. Then I did a seminar on the symphonies of Shostakovich and that has really stuck with me. Utterly unlike Sibelius--unlike anyone else, really, largely tonal, but powerful and expressive. The last of the four influences is Philip Glass who has to date written ten symphonies. Yes, I like them and I think they are good music, but I think what I get most from Philip Glass is simply permission to write symphonies. You might think that the romantic idea of composers responding only to their inner muse or compulsion is the truth, but it is not. In fact, composers, from before Haydn on, tend to respond to the needs of their patrons. Or, in the 20th century, the fashions of the day. If everyone decides the cool thing to do is to write multi-media oratorios, then a surprising number of composers will do just that. Have a look at a lot of the stuff written in the 1960s if you don't believe me. So the fact that a cool composer like Glass is writing symphonies tells me that there may even be people who want to hear them.

So those four influences I mentioned in the title are Haydn, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Glass. Let's have a listen to one of them to end. Here is Philip Glass' Symphony No. 3 played by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies (the same ensemble who recorded the complete Haydn symphonies!):


Rickard Dahl said...

I haven't had the opportunity to listen to your two most recent symphonies (I was busy and it just turned out that way) but I will attempt to do that asap and probably comment.

Good point about Philip Glass giving permission to write symphonies. In a sense I think it shouldn't matter much to a composer whether or not a style is popular or permissible. Popularity or fashion is the principle pop music relies upon, not classical.

Bryan Townsend said...

I should probably explain that comment about Philip Glass giving permission. I was using that word to make the point that even composers can be influenced by the trends of the day. In 1730 every composer was writing suites for keyboard and concertos and most of them were writing operas or hoping to. In 1800 every composer was writing symphonies and piano sonatas and concertos. In 1960 most composers were writing pieces called "Structures" or "4:33" or "Spiral" or "Momente" or some other abstract title. Very few composers were writing symphonies or sonatas. Whether we call it fashion or stylistic trends, there are certainly differences between different eras. When a composer who is as influential and important as Philip Glass has been for the last forty years, starts writing a whole series of symphonies, this is a indication of the health of the genre. I'm Canadian and still there are almost no (only three or four) Canadian symphonies. Once I complete my Symphony No. 4, that will pretty much double the Canadian symphonic repertoire! I live in Mexico and the only Mexican composer I know of who wrote symphonies was Carlos Chavez who wrote six between 1933 and 1961. So in most parts of the musical universe, writing symphonies is still rather out on the fringe it would seem!

Rickard Dahl said...

I get your point. I think I would call it inspiration rather than permission though.

Rickard Dahl said...

Or maybe motivation.