Happy New Year. What’s happening 2015 from singles to Detroit The Opera, which looks like it’s going back to high school.
Roger CortonWhat to look forward to?
JCHEnough. As I said in our last action packed episode, since The Solid State Siren did OK, we can book another tour. And there is more. I think I’m going back to high school.
RCI thought you got your diploma?
JCHI’m (cough) in negotiations to do a suite of Detroit with a pretty top-notch performing high school band. I’ll get more specific after the deal is sealed.
JCHYeah, there is always a right of refusal. When I wrote Detroit The Opera it was with specific players. I had mostly kids to rehearse with and do the backing sessions. But there were also a few ringers because I wanted to write what I wanted to write and that has a lot to do with the sound.
JCHYeah, the most obvious example is the solo trumpet, Don Bils. The Valveless Wonder. I learned more about what a trumpet can do in three months than I previously knew my entire life.
RCWithout getting too into the weeds, what do you mean?
JCHHere’s an example. Remember the trumpet solo at the end of [The Beatles] Penny Lane? People don’t realize what a miracle that is. Even the best players in the world would struggle to re-create that. Whoever that was, it was one for the ages. But you don’t write that kind of solo because it’s probably gonna be a disaster. You have to know what is reasonable to expect from players and that’s kinda why most concert music has a certain same-iness. Composers go for ‘what works’ because unless you are Duke Ellington and you have your own band to try things out on 365 days a year you probably don’t want to experiment too much. I put in a lot of time trying to figure out how to make Detroit ‘playable’ and often I would guess wrong.
But each time, Don would tell me, “Let me worry about that.” So there are bits which are that ‘Penny Lane’ sound, so I’d write it out for that key of trumpet. He’d take one look, scowl and head out to his van and grab a lower pitched instrument from his ‘rifle rack’. And then transpose it on the fly and play it more ‘baroque’ than I thought it could be. Great players do that.
At about that time I was studying some scores of Brahms and I noticed that they really empty. No dynamic markings, accents, etc. At a time when all other composers were starting to put in the most elaborate instructions to players to get exactly the sound they wanted he went totally in the opposite direction. He was considered notoriously lazy in this way.
But the truth is more like what Don was trying to tell me… unlike Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, etc. Brahms was not a string player. Didn’t have a clue about a lot of the details of bowing and breathing and fingerings and so forth. So my theory is that he did the smart thing: he let the pros worry about that. His two best friends at various points were both great gypsy fiddlers.
Anyhoo, the trumpet parts in Detroit are crazy difficult because I had a ringer. And then there are other parts that are probably too easy because I had kids.
RCSo then the score should be ready to go right now, right?
JCHYou might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment. But when you’re writing for gifted students, it’s kinda the opposite. The work has to be at least somewhat pedantic. I mean they’re not as interested in ‘drama’ or ‘deeper meaning’. You have to give them something musical to chew on. But you can’t drive parents nuts.
RCWhat do parents have to do with anything?
JCHYeah another aspect they don’t teach you in the Norman Rockwell Comic Book School Of Composing Arts. There are tons of spots where the strings play col legno. And that shit doesn’t fly with a lot of band directors.
RCCol legno is bad?
JCHYeah, it means whacking the strings with the wood side of the bow instead of the hair side. It can be murder on bows, which cost a small fortune. The point is that you aren’t just writing whatever. It just does my head in all this stuff.
RCBeing told what to do?
JCHYou do know me (laughs). But particular, ‘taking notes’.
JCHYeah, whenever anyone asks me to change anything, I see the face of that manager in Office Space, “Hey, we were just thinking. Can you tweak these 12 bars and put them over there? That’d be greeeeeaaaaaat.” But if I can get past that, it means I’ll have a version that can be played anywhere.
RCYeah, but high school?
JCHIt’s not like that. The good performing arts schools play pretty much anything in the standard repertoire. We should talk about that more at some point, but the state of composition and concert music is so nuts that if we can pull this off it’s way more flattering to me than to them. Just getting any music played by an ensemble of more than five people is about as likely as…
RCWinning the lottery?
JCHI was going to say ‘getting bit by a shark in Seattle’.
RCThat’s pretty dark, even for you.
JCHA shark winning the lottery.
RCSo there’s a tour to look forward to but anything else ‘customer facing’?
JCHYou mean that fans will give a shit about? Hopefully some singles.
RCSingles, you say?
JCHSongs that never fit other places. ‘Singles’ are where the world is now. In the past, if a song didn’t fit into whatever album I was working on, it got thrown into the circular file. Now? I’m not gettin’ any younger so why not? In the past, I’d do these at shows, but now that I tour so little, it occurred to me that very few people will get to hear them otherwise.
RCI’m glad to hear that you’ve had a change of heart. I know you’ve got hundreds of cool things locked away somewhere.
JCHWell, hundreds of things that’s for sure. It’s a pretty small ratio of ‘public to private’ but that’s as it should be. One other thing about Brahms which I enjoyed learning: apparently his public to private ratio was like 1/10.
RCYou mean only a tenth of his music was published?
JCHI mean only a tenth of it survived the flames. He was ruthless about destroying any physical evidence of his existence that he wasn’t happy with. Music. Correspondence. He would demand that friends give back letters he had written in his youth just so he could burn them. Today he would be considered a master of ‘reputation management’.
RCBut people were aware that he was doing this. Didn’t that strike people as odd? It strikes me as pretty out there.
JCHThat is the funny part. He wanted to be remembered only for his music and only for the stuff he deigned worth remembering. But historians notice as much how hard he worked at that than anything he might’ve destroyed. Depending on one’s mood, one can either view that as the height of self-deprecating modesty.
RCOr the height of cuckoo controlling behavior.
RCIs that your wistful ‘boy I wish I could burn all my stuff and get away with it’ sigh?