Book of Days
Book of Days
for clarinet, viola, and piano (2011)
Premiere: 19 March 2011 / The Mondavi Center, Davis, California / Curtis On Tour / Kelly Coyle, clarinet / Ayane Kozasa, viola / Ignat Solzhenitsyn, piano
Dedication: Commissioned by the Curtis Institute of Music, 2010
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Music, being an abstract art, “means” nothing; on the other hand, it can get at truths deeper than words. On the one hand, music “means” whatever the listener (usually a music critic takes it upon themselves to explain how the composer failed, but sometimes a composer hurls themselves off this particular cliff) says it does—or nothing at all. It is one of the reasons that program notes are dangerous and, as Virgil Thomson once noted, often high-, middle-, and low-gossipy things. At best, they can give a glimpse into the intent of the composer; at worst, they are the composer’s attempt at marketing the piece.
People hear what they want to hear when they hear music, ascribe whatever motivations to the composer they want and need to; they cannot help but project their own expectations and requirements on an unfamiliar musical work. Anyone who has parented knows that this is doomed. Tasked by the Curtis Institute in 2011 to craft a piece for their touring ensemble, a flood of memories came back to me—both pleasant and stark. I found that these memories triggered music, and so I wrote a suite of descriptive movements about my student days, thirty years ago.
I share that source of inspiration and the notes that follow, but, in light of what I said in the previous paragraph, I also invite the listener to put this program note down at this point and to listen without them. There are seven movements. I give each movement the title of a day of the week just to keep them straight in my head. They could be any day.
Monday. The first movement begins with a little chorale I composed for theory and analysis teacher Ford Lallerstedt during the first week of classes I attended at the Institute. The tune is a gloss on the melody of Ring a Ring o' Roses, a nursery rhyme which has come to be associated with the Plague. It immediately morphs into an instrumental version of my setting, from the cycle Phantoms of Myself, of Susan Griffin's poem Her Sadness Runs Beside Her Like a Horse. It is included as a tribute to Karen Hale, my dear friend and classmate, for whom I composed Days Without You, a cycle of Anne Sexton settings for soprano and orchestra. Somewhere in the Curtis library is a recording of the 1983 premiere.
Tuesday. The burgundies, blood-reds, and dirty vermilions of this movement are a recollection of the 1982 night I fell in love with my then girlfriend. I shall never forget being sprawled out on the wine-dark, plushness of the carpet in the Horzowski Room, listening to her practicing, from memory, illuminated only by light creeping in from a streetlamp outside in Rittenhouse Square, the Bartok Solo Sonata.
Wednesday. A cadenza for solo clarinet is my musical recollection of how it felt as a student when, tears coursing down my cheeks, I first heard Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps performed-purely, before learning its title, history, or program.
Thursday. The trio together, recalls the night that I visited Norman Stumpf, my best friend (a talented composition student at Curtis who took his life) in his hospital room. I imitate the sound of a heart monitor, "slap-tongue," in the clarinet, doubled with pizzicato in the viola, just as I did in my opera Amelia as Icarus died. I follow the quotation of the tune to which Norman had set our favorite poem, Roethke's The Waking and with which I memorialized him back then in a symphony.
Friday treats music from the beginning of Amelia, as though to give an idea of whom I have become in the intervening years. Saturday revisits music first written for a setting of Byron's Sun of the Sleepless in my cantata Light Fantastic in order to give a taste of the insomnia that set in like a piton during my Curtis years.
The final movement, Sunday, revisits the Plague chorale. It is meant to soothe, to draw closed the curtain on those years. If, on the one hand, one risks by looking backwards turning into a pillar of salt, one must also recall that nostalgia is often "the bread of creativity."