Thaw was set to receive its premiere this summer at Clarinetfest(r) in Reno, but that’s been postponed for obvious reasons. Which has given me the opportunity to finally write its program note:
I wrote Thaw during my third winter in Fargo, and it was an act of optimism, because spring hadn’t hinted its arrival when I completed the piece. My intent was to provide a meditation on the nature of melting snow and the slow, steady revealing of things last seen in November. I thought of the piece as figurative as well, hinting at the defrosting of our preconceptions, our assumptions, and our expectations. In hindsight, it seems appropriate that this piece was written in 2020, a year in which has seen a thaw in a number of ways.
Also, I’ve finally–FINALLY–written a program note for Joyride, which I wrote four years ago. I’m pretty happy with it.
Joyride is a duet that oscillates from being loud and raucous when it thinks you’re not looking to well-behaved and almost polite when it catches you watching. The back-and-forth motive suggests either a lack of control by either player or a complete abdication of any responsibility. Sure, there are some nice chorale-sounding moments, but even those get a little out of hand when in the hands of these two. Seriously, don’t trust them. Years later, they’ll look back on this and say “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Program note for One Sows for the Benefit of Another Age, which is new this summer:
I started writing what would become One Sows for the Benefit of Another Age in 2013, as I was sketching ideas for what became a piano trio. I liked what I had created, but two things became evident: The piece was destined to be for orchestra, and I was not good enough as a composer to finish it. Over the next seven years, I kept returning to this piece in my spare time, adding some sections, tweaking some others, and at some point I gained the experience to finish it. But the trade-off was that I no longer had the time. At least until Spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic put most of my projects on hold, and I was able to return to–and finish–the work.
The title came last. My ideas while I was writing centered around Americana (I was listening to a lot of Copland, Barber, and Ives) and infusing my history and experience in the Ozarks and on the plains. I knew I wanted to make use of the idea of illumination, of dawn. I wanted to start in the shadows and end aglow. The darkness was such a defining feature that my working title was Aegri Somnia, loosely translated from Latin as “troubled dreams”. As I continued working, I realized that the focus wasn’t the darkness–the focus was the change.
I discuss change a lot in my teaching. Students often see change as transformative change–massive, radical, sweeping change, like winning the lottery, or winning an audition. Transformative change is easy–it usually involves hoping for a situation or a Deus ex Machina, and if it happens, it benefits us immediately. Iterative change, however–small, repeated, incremental change that builds up over time–is hard. An extra half-hour of work every day, a little extra contributed to savings every month, these changes add up over time and become significant. But it requires intention and action, and it doesn’t reap immediate benefits. It may not end up benefitting us at all.
One Sows changes iteratively. It starts from a dark place, but is sprinkled with seeds of hope. A descending motive introduced in the violins brings us out of the darkness, albeit slowly. The idea spreads, develops, and eventually becomes part of a new idea, a new paradigm, that takes over.
In searching for a title, I came across “Serit ut alteri saeclo prosit,” North Dakota’s Latin state motto, whose English translation is the title of this work. It’s a recent addition to the North Dakota statutes, but a timeless message. Our work isn’t finished yet.
An upgraded program note for Creatures from the Black Bassoon:
Creatures from the Black Bassoon is, as the title suggests, a virtual menagerie of beasts and environments fashioned entirely from processed and unprocessed sounds of the bassoon. Key clicks, reed squeaks and squawks, multiphonics, notes played through various stages of assembly and disassembly, and other traditional and extended techniques are organized by similar properties into species. Some of our creatures appear to be cute, chirpy, fuzzy critters, while others are vicious predators. These beings are placed in a number of tableaus of length devised by the golden ratio, with certain sections designated as “windows” with substantial contrast to the surrounding sections.
Earmarks was commissioned by the Boreas Ensemble at North Dakota State University, and despite my best efforts, it took on a vaguely political theme. In the early stages of writing this piece, I shared online the idea of writing a work for piano, clarinet, and saxophone where the piano played for as long as the performer chose, the wind players were silent, and I’d call the entire thing “Filibuster”, after the political tactic of talking for as long as possible to delay any actual work being done. Among the comments egging me on, there were a handful of those who dissented. Oh, they agreed with my incredibly clever title idea, but they balked at the idea of a piece of music, especially one without a text, being political. After all, they said, Stravinsky tells us that music is unable to express anything.
I’m perhaps the wrongest person to tackle that criticism or to write a political piece, and the idea of writing a piece about politics in the United States in 2018 seems like cheating. It’s too easy. There’s already so much being said. And I’ve never considered myself a political activist–I’m far too introverted for that. I reject the notion that our political discourse is only effective when it’s loud, obnoxious, and riddled with expletives. I think that sometimes change is affected through the church sermon that makes you uncomfortable enough to put a little more in the offering plate. Sometimes change is achieved through laughtivism. Sometimes all it takes is a bit of quiet solitude in a voting booth.
And so, Earmarks is a musical (and hopefully humorous) view of some of the issues in today’s political climate, designed to make you make you laugh–or to make you think. And definitely to make you talk.
It starts out with Echo Chamber, where everything you hear is everything you want to hear. As we move more and more of our lives online, we’re at the mercy of algorithms that try to deliver more of what we like–and give us options for removing that which we don’t. The more time we spend in these echo chambers, the less we hear from dissenters. (The piano tries to come in with a new idea later in the movement, but is largely ignored).
The second movement, Filibuster, does what I initially intended. Although all three instruments do get to play, it’s a lot of repeated, pleasant-sounding milquetoast stuff without a great deal of substance that never really resolves. And it has a repeat sign at the end that allows it to be played as many times as the performers wish. How long this movement is depends entirely on the whim of the pianist.
A swing state is a state with a similar level of support for both parties that can go either way during an election. Likewise, Swing States is a piece for saxophone and piano, and a piece for clarinet and piano, and it’s a struggle to see who’s going to win. Will they sort out their differences? Will we?
Political opinions–like works of art, scientific discoveries, and everything else of value–are only improved when they are allowed to be constructively criticized, discussed, and defended.
Earmarks receives its premiere on July 9 at Clarinetfest in Ostend, Belgium.
Walter Jordan has just delivered the program note for Crosswinds, and like his previouswork, it's pretty fantastic.
Crosswinds represents a melding of the traditional woodwind sound of the clarinet with digital live electronic techniques, and the piece explores the potential for this relationship in three parts.
To begin the piece, the stage performer breathes through the clarinet, which serves to inform the electronic elements to come. This initial breath is captured by the computer program and is modified and reduplicated to create the sonic tone of a soft wind always present beneath the piece to come. This is the first step in uniting the digital and woodwind elements, as the same breath which animates the clarinet also activates the electronics.
From this most fundamental element, the breath becomes a single sustained note from which the computer will generate all of its subsequent tones. The impression is one of a mentor relationship, where the traditional instrument provides the tools and the support for the electronic elements. The disposition is contemplative, though it alternates between a subdued easiness and a playful mystery, as if to introduce the digital aspects to the range and variety of the clarinet’s moods. The rapport between the two is hesitant in the first part: the electronics contributing a subtle reverb as the performer teaches the computer dexterity through a number of broad leaps, hinting at but never fully embracing the main motif.
As the theme becomes more self-assured, the digital element now produces its own tones, parroting the clarinet melody to signal its readiness to be an equal partner in the conversation. As the clarinet begins the second part of the piece, the computer now provides a harmonizing undercurrent each time it is invited to do so by the performer.
In the third part, the electronics play counterpoint to the skill of the clarinetist, the two elements intricately entwined. From the elemental sound of wind first produced by the performer and perpetuated by the computer, the piece concludes in a celebration of the relationship built between the two, and the main theme is fully expressed as the two take it in variations.
Crosswinds is, in many ways, an experience of the history of our music through the relationship between traditional clarinet and modern digital techniques: the common elements they share, the singularity of their own particular strengths, and the beauty that can be experienced when they collaborate.
Program note by Walter Jordan
Please credit Walter Jordan when using this program note