Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Commission (II)

It was now pushing three in the morning. Later than I should be up, but not unusual. But the commission I had just accepted was unusual by any measure.

When a composer writes a piece of music, he or she might be doing it because he or she wants to -- due to inspiration (whatever that is), pure musical or intellectual curiosity, as an exercise in keeping musical "chops" in shape, or as part of a larger project. On the other hand, she or he might just be doing it as work for hire: someone wants to play a piece with your name on it, or someone needs some functional music. The best case, of course, is when someone comes along and commissions you to compose precisely the piece you had wanted to write anyway (okay, even better than best: had already written). Getting paid for work that you would've done voluntarily is a sweet thing.

However, in the commission at hand, I was not being asked to do something that I had wanted to do. The patron presumably knew that, but his assumption was that given the right price I would be able to do what he wanted. His price was right and he had explicitly asked me if I were "an educated composer". I understood my affirmative answer to this to mean that I was trained in the skills associated with classical music: harmony, counterpoint, formal theory, and free composition, and that I was familiar with the repertoire (Viennese, late 18th century) I was to... imitate? emulate? approximate? forge? fake? And there was precisely the point that, at 2:57 a.m gave me a sudden pang of uncertainty, perhaps regret, at taking this commission.

I have no experience as a forger. Musical forgery is not an unknown field, but, lacking certain lucrative dimensions associated better with the visual arts, it is a field that has had only limited cultivation. Some musicologists have shown talent at completing a missing voice or two for old polyphony when some of the part books have gone walkbout. Some musicians have completed the works left unfinished by departed composers. Mozart's Requiem, Puccini's Turandot, and Berg's Lulu are each well known in versions completed by second parties. There's even a small and highly competitive, if friendly, industry involved in completing Mahler's Tenth Symphony (as well as an even smaller, but equally competitive and much less friendly, industry associated with Ives' Universe Symphony.) But I was not being asked to re-create, finish or forge the work of a known composer. I was being asked to compose a piece under my own name, but meant to sound as if it belonged to a repertoire some two and a half centuries old and associated with a city, Vienna, which I scarcely knew. Perhaps the closest parallel was to be found in the "baroque" works of a fictional "Giovanni Paulo Simonetti" which were published as "composed and edited by Winfried Michel", a contemporary recorder/flute/continuo player and editor. Michel wanted to extend the traditionally-styled repertoire for his instrument directly from his experience as a performer with a deep engagement with the repertoire. I was an experimental American composer being asked to be a classical Viennese composer. I determined quickly that whatever I would end up doing, I would do so without pretending to be anything other than experimental or American.

(A Borgesian literary friend of mine would later say that I was being asked to play Pierre Menard to Mozart's Miguel Cervantes. I reminded her that Menard had it easy: he had time, while I had less than 24 hours. She said: "Then write it up as a "real-time" TV series").

An algorithmic composer friend said that all I needed to do was enter a bunch of authentic pieces into a data base, fragment them following some sort of analysis, and recombine them. I said that thought that that would be impossible in 24 hours, no fun, and cheating. The idea was to write my own music, but to write it so that it might slip undetected into the repertoire. No matter how I chopped up fragments of Haydn, Mozart, or Czerny (Czerny?) they'd eventually get recognized, for two many of those fragments are recognizeable. No, I had to back up a bit, and find enough standard material -- the cliched stuff that everybody was using then -- and combine it with just enough original material to create a distinctive, yet undeniably classical, composer's personality. And what about this business of embedding the woman's name into the music? Using existing fragments of real music was clearly not going to work.

When I indicated to my prospective patron that I had the skills and knowledge he required, it was formally true, but to be completely honest, I was hedging his question. As Bill Clinton might have put it: it depends upon the meaning of "have" is. Like most American music students, I had some real training in the classical musical skills, even showing some talent for modal counterpoint in particular, and had practiced imitating Palestrina Masses, Bach Chorales, and Haydn Sonata-Allegros. But those imitations were highly synthetic and done in a context that was far removed from the originals. To pass the assignments, I had to slavishly follow rules that the composer-to-be-imitated would have scarcely recognized, the works with text were often in languages I did not command so my diction was probably faulty, the essential baroque and classical theory of Affects was treated only in passing, and the dimensions of my exercises tended towards the minimum rather than the optimal.

But I accepted the commission. And I did so because of a deep and dirty secret, one held by members of what we will here call The Composing Guild. And -- in full knowledge that I may be risking my Guild membership in telling you -- that secret is that all composers get along by carrying bags full of tricks. Composing tricks. Sometimes these tricks are very small. (For example, Hans-Werner Henze knows how to make an orchestra sound luxurious just by adding a bass clarinet to the right place in a tutti.) Sometimes these tricks have a long pedigree. (Henze picked up the bass clarinet business from Richard Strauss.) Sometimes the tricks are so well known that they become trademarks. (Try entering a contest with a piece featuring a Henze bass clarinet thing: the Guild will backlist you in a semiquaver and it's even possible that your license may be on the line. As they say in The Guild: we watch out for our own).

My own bag has a lot of tricks that are common to many musicians, many that I share only with like-minded composers, and a handful that are mine alone, but that handful makes all the difference. In a pinch, I can pull out some of my semi-random-walks-around-the-tuning-lattice or my special pulling-some-tonal-voice-leading-out-of-a-row trick, and make the music sound all mine. But in order to find the right tricks for making music that would pass for Viennese classical music, I was going to have to dive very deep into my bag, into tricks that I hadn't put on stage for a long time, at least since my student days. But using those tricks alone would only reproduce those student exercises. I was going to have to add original tricks to the mix, and it was getting very late in the night for this old rabbit to learn some.

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