Saturday, June 9, 2018

Where credit is due


We are in rehearsal for Rattensturm, and today was the first day - glorious day - where we had everyone in the room: actors, singers, instruments, video and triangle.  It made all so happy to hear it together; I could see the light shine forth from everyone's eyes. 

This piece really is Peter Wagner's.  It's his libretto, his architecture, his direction, his video, his concept.  I really am just the composer.  But the music still does something big.  The reporter from the Kleine Zeitung asked if the music was atmosphere and I said no, it really is setting the text, even the spoken text, and has a structure and impetus of its own.  In the interview, Peter talked about the „suggestive Drive der Musik“ and the goosebumps it brings forth so I think he sees that. 

But even the music isn't all mine, and while I listened I scribbled down what I remember of what I was thinking of during while writing the piece.

I explicitly stole a favorite chord progression from Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte for the virtual choir section at the end of Act I.  I don't think anyone would notice, although there is a tickling when I listen to it that makes me thing there is something in the violin accompaniment that came from another piece through a less conscious path, but maybe not. 

Ravel was a very careful composer who created very few but absolutely perfect jewels whereas, at least in this particular piece, I was scribbling as quickly as I could, the first two acts in Firenze during a week last December, and the rest in bits and pieces in my basement and here and there in hotel rooms in Europe - a process that doesn't lead to perfect jewels, but speed invites the muse. Listening to it here today I have no idea for much of the piece if I wrote it or how it was written. 

Just before, in the cathedral in Ravenna, the Empress and I heard Natalia Haszler's Credo universale. It's a lovely lovely piece, and she has a way of handling speaking and chant-like text presentation, which the Empress commanded me to use, so I did. But again, no one would confuse Haszler and me. 

When I was a boy, I heard somewhere - one of those idiotic rules that stick in the brain - that it was very bad to double instruments in chamber works, but I do it all the time, and in this piece, the way the strings and the piano mix together reminds me of one of the Faure piano quintets that Sara Klancke played, as well as some bits from Michael Nyman's opera of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. And I always like how Fred Frith would double the vocals with the violin. I did it just a little, but consciously so, so I mention it here for completeness. 

The string writing in the aria Der Krieg bringt hohe sittliche Kräfte.. is from part of Doctor Atomic that the Empress mentioned just as I got to that bit, and it was on my mind so into the pot she goes. 

When I first was thinking about this piece, I was improvising at the piano and came across some chords which, after some time, I realized were thinly disguised versions of chords I have used many times before, but shortly thereafter noticed a modal similarity to the chords that begin Schubert's Der Doppelgänger, and since Peter liberally quotes lots of texts of the time I thought why shouldn't I, so I mixed in some of me with some of Mr. Schubert's song. My favorite Schubert musics are the dark musics, e.g. the above, Die liebe Farbe, etc. 

And there is a direct setting of Ich hatt' einen Kameraden, as a traditional quote, originally suggested by Peter, as well as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden from the St Matthew Passion - which was my father's favorite hymn and which still makes me cry. It suddenly came to mind as I was reading the War Speech by Peter Rosegger: Je mehr der Stahl geglutet, Je besser ist das Schwert. Je mehr ein Herz geblutet, Je größer ist sein Wert. And I had told myself to take my first impulse so again hop la! 

The prayer section, Aus seelsorglichen Gründen..., is the one bit that someone looking at the score and who was familiar with L'Histoire du Soldat would say hey, what?  And that's the second time I've done that with Stravinsky, but I could claim it is because L'Histoire was written right during World War I and anyway, I went to his grave on San Michele and I cried and asked for forgiveness and I feel absolved.   

I steal from myself as well, but that's common among composers.  Bach did it, and maybe that was because like me he had to write so much so fast. All of Act IV is based on an unrelated piano piece of mine: The obsidian blade is made of winter. And when writing fast, one falls back on tricks that worked before. You've got to put some notes down for the players or the producer will say why am I paying them to play when they aren't playing, so time to do the Wold thing, mixing in some arpeggios and some 5s against 3s and some 7/8s and the usual stuff. And that noisy sound I use throughout - sampled from a radiator in the National Gallery in Moscow, just around the corner from those incredibly beautiful marine paintings by Ivan Aivazovsky - is so much like the whistling thrumming noise I used in Sure Fire. But now that I think of it, this opera is all about the sea so maybe again this wasn't my decision at all. 
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