Thursday, December 29, 2011

new pieces

I recently played a recital at the Levine School of Music in Washington, DC. On the program were many of my own pieces. I had to learn them a bit too quickly for my liking, so the performances aren't exactly polished, but representative enough of the compositions that I hope you'll give them a listen if you weren't there! Here they are, with the notes I wrote for them.

Notes on the original works performed tonight:

I've been trying to compose music, on and off, since I was very young. I wrote quite a few “model” compositions—works modeled specifically after the styles of past composers—in college, but I was only ever satisfied with one of them. It wasn't until just over a year ago that I managed to compose with any consistency—or any general success (though I suppose the jury is still out in that regard). The Silent Night fantasy, which you will hear tonight, was cobbled together in two days, one year ago, in the run-up to my recital in this same hall last December, and revised this fall. The Fugue from the Prelude and Fugue in D major, after Bach was written in 2007, when I was a junior in college. The Star-Spangled Banner Fantasy was written in the last week of June, just before this year's 4th of July, while the rest of the pieces were written from September onward.

These pieces were written obsessively and unpredictably, in fits and starts. At times, I would sit down, intent on working on them, and nothing would happen at all. At other times, needing sleep, I would stay awake as long as the ideas kept flowing. All in all, (too) many of them came together in their final form about two weeks ago. You may believe that since I wrote these pieces, they should be easier for me to play, when in fact, the very opposite is true. Because these pieces have in many cases been through multiple revisions, it has taken extra time and care to delete the past versions from my memory and muscle memory, and replace them with the new ones. Accordingly, I put aside my originally ambitious plan to complement my own pieces on this program with other pieces that were new to me, in favor of some music that I'm more comfortable playing.

When you hear my music, you might miss the influence and inspiration of one “composer” if I didn't give her due diligence. Gabriela Montero is not only my favorite living pianist, but a truly brilliant composer, though her “pieces” are all improvised. Since I discovered her improvisations two years ago, they've been a revelation for me. She improvises with the skill of a jazz player, but in a huge range of styles. She can take any tune, from any time, and turn it into something completely different, all seemingly instinctively and almost without conscious thought or foresight. Her playing was critical to making me realize how rhythmic and textural variety can add so much, can indeed completely change the character, of a simple melodic or harmonic idea. She made me realize also that composing is just as much a physical act as a cerebral one. So much of the music I've written came about not from thinking, but just from putting my hands on the keys, seeing what came out, and then refining it.

The “style” of these compositions, if I may claim have the authority or perspective to comment
on them, is eclectic, but they share a conservative outlook, a debt to past styles that is extremely uncommon in modern “classical” music. A good friend of mine heard another one of my pieces (not being performed today), which I wrote and performed in June, and criticized it on the grounds that it “sounded like a hybrid of Mozart and Schubert.” My immediate thought was, that's a criticism?! But at the same time, I feel such a need to justify the existence of this music, that I suspect deep down, at least a part of me shares his criticism.

The question he raises is a serious one, and gets at the heart of what we consider the value of art. Is it, at its core, an aesthetic experience, or do we care about authenticity, about the meaning behind the experience? On the one hand, I believe that music is just music, and all that matters is how it sounds. If it sounds good, it is good, and if it sounds vaguely like Mozart or Schubert, then it's probably really good. People like to say there's no point in writing music in Classical style (capital c-Classical denoting a system of form and harmony in common practice in Europe from roughly 1750-1830) because we already have the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. But if, tomorrow, we discovered a trove of previously unknown, mature works by any of the above, is there any doubt that they would

dominate concert programs all over the world? That if Mozart had lived another 30 years, he wouldn't have written hundreds more works that we would still be playing today? Perhaps this is an irrelevant thought experiment, mostly because I don't claim to be capable of writing music that could be mistaken for that of any of these composers. But that doesn't mean that music that sticks to old styles has to be strictly imitative. Each of the above found a way to express himself within a set of rules that gave his music structure and definition, and I think that's what all composers, indeed all artists, strive for.

That being said, only one of the pieces you'll hear tonight was conceived specifically to sound
like music from a by-gone era (the prelude and fugue that opens the second half). I haven't set out, generally, to write music in any specific style, but rather to play only that which I find good enough to be worthy of repetition. Still, the things I write have a habit of sounding as if they were written for another century, , which, at least superficially, defies the idea that music is a reflection of the culture and the times in which it was conceived. I think people who would make this claim confuse the normative with the positive, the idea that music is inevitably looking back, a reflection of its time, vs. the idea that it must be, in a predictable way, reflective of its time. Nobody in 18th century Europe knew how Classical style was especially suited to its time and place. All I can reflect on in my own music is my own philosophy regarding music; if I am so lucky, perhaps one day people will see some connection to the world in which I lived. But to me, it doesn't much matter.

Sam Post
December 20th, 2011


  1. MCPNE!
    Good concert, bigguy! Wish I'd been there.

  2. Have listened only to the fantasias on given melodies. Like the way you save up, build towards, and then proclaim the dissonances towards the end of the Star-Spangled Banner. In both that and the reflections on the carols, I love the way modulations open a text up. Let's just take this airplane up through and above one more cloud layer. Your entertainment of Hark the Herald Angels Sing also illustrates the way to open it up by modulating the rhythms, by choosing which emphasis or which dance mode you're going for next. This all accords with what you write in your post. Prokofiev and Balanchine would seem to give the lie to the idea that classical style is anachronistic. Even Merce Cunningham started with a tap teacher. Dancers of any kind who are serious at all spend some time with ballet, painters who hate cities still spend a year or two in New York or Paris, and the writers who haven't studied Latin will at least have read plenty of sonnets and the prose written in the various 17-18th-century styles. This stuff furnishes core material, a rich array of the possibilities for treating material, lets one know when, how, and to what effect one can break from it, and how to see how to begin even without the "break from X," how to Invent (in medieval rhetoric "inventio" was the choice of what topic, approach, and style one was going to use for the occasion of one's writing or speaking). ---The jazz guys sometimes play stuff written originally as jazz, like the early things by Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden, and the blues composed around such early circles. But much of the time they are playing (around with) standards or hymns. Your carol fantasias reminded me (mainly in concept but occasionally in experience) of the way jazz has taken "A Closer Walk With Thee," which is now almost impossible to imagine otherwise. And last fall, yours truly, tho' capable of only one or two notes at a time, picked out "Amazing Grace" (a truly abused song) and added dissonant ornaments to it in order to give it some new body. (Or at least it did so in my own mind.) If classical music were anachronistic, really, then why would so many people still want to listen to it, and why would so many oriental people, many of whom have grown up with other scales, find this part of western music so compelling, so comprehensible? In the wave-shapes of historical time, there are particles or currents that keep getting brought forward even as other bits lapse. (And those bits just get evaporated into the clouds of a later rainfall.)

    Thanks! --Ellen Martin (one of the TD people)

  3. Hi Sam,

    I fully appreciate your views on composition. I started out writing in the usual avant-garde styles myself, but several years ago decided to try and re-discover (or re-invent) harmony. I am a classicist, in that I think that the finest music ever written was by Bach and Beethoven and you could learn a lot more from them than from most of the avant-garde. But I also love Shostakovich and I think he found some interesting ways forward.

    Please, keep doing what you are doing and I'm sure many listeners do and will enjoy it!

    Here are a couple of posts on my blog that you might find interesting:

  4. Thank you for your comments and compliments! For Ellen, I mostly agree, but could never put it as artfully as you do. My argument would go ever-so-slightly farther, though. I suppose I've been somewhat misleading, as I left out one video from the recital. Unfortunately, the performance isn't quite up to my internet-available-forever standard (though really, what is??), though I prefer to blame it all on a horrendous buzzing note in the piano. At any rate, the piece I left out was entirely in Baroque style, not derived from, not modified in any way, and though I felt compelled and comfortable in my other pieces to throw in moments of modernity, I also want to say, well, isn't the Baroque piece good enough? Isn't that style still ripe for composition? Your analogy in art makes me think of something that's always puzzled me, (and goes along with the puzzling obsession with authenticity), which is the issue of forgery in art. If something is a forgery but it's good enough to pass for a Picasso, then isn't it as worthy of being in the Louvre as a real Picasso? I can't say I fully appreciate visual art in any of its forms (I know, I know, my loss), so maybe I should refrain, but really, the whole thing doesn't make any sense to me....

  5. Bryan, as for your comments, I'll have to check out your blog and comment there!