A new feature in this blog: happy birthday to composers and other musicians whose music I’ve enjoyed, or been challenged by, or have personal stories about…
Jan. 2nd: Eric Whitacre, Dana Reason, Dean Moore
(A disclaimer: I’m putting Dana Reason and Dean Moore in one paragraph at the end not because I consider them to be less important musicians – that is absolutely not the case! – but because I happen to have an anecdote about Eric Whitacre’s music…)
I first heard Mr. Whitacre’s music when I was assistant-teaching a high school symphonic band class. The regular teacher was gone to a meeting, and there was a student teacher who’d been given free reign what to do that day (the band had just finished a major concert, and more or less had a free day as well). He had decided to try a new piece by one of his favorite composers – Eric Whitacre.
He played me the piece first on iTunes. I was surprised because it was a choral piece, though I soon realized it was “symphonic” enough to have an orchestral arrangement as well. The piece was “Cloudburst”, and it was a bit of tone painting as descriptive as Smetana’s “Moldau” or Philip Glass’ “Train”. Partway through the piece, percussion suddenly came in, and the entire chorus (or band) started snapping their fingers randomly – the result sounded as much like rain as was possible indoors.
I listened as the band played the piece, and added my part in the percussion (tam-tam and bass drum) – the percussion parts were improvised. If the idea sounds like a cliché, it certainly could have been (and to be frank, Mr. Whitacre’s music borders on the commercial); but his writing was an interesting enough polyphonic interweaving of impressionistic chords to prevent this.
My enthusiastic response to the piece turned to shock and surprise, however, when one of the students (a girl who’d been playing the clarinet) approached both of us afterwards and said, “That was totally weird. Don’t make us play it again.” Both of us groaned a startled “huh???” but the other teacher recovered quick enough to inform her that it only sounded weird because she was unfamiliar with the style, and he gave her a quick overview of the history of late 20th / early 21st century classical music. I just gaped at her (the student) in disbelief…
The same occurred about ten minutes later. The band was putting away their instruments, and another student (this time a boy) approached me and asked if I’d like to hear one of his compositions. I said certainly, and he sat down at the piano and began to play a quick, heavy-handed, sharply dissonant piece that sounded much like some of Luigi Nono’s harsher works. Another boy came over and announced pointedly, “Give it up; nobody likes to hear your so-called music.” As the pianist immediately stopped playing, I again grunted an amazed “huh???”. I hadn’t particularly liked the piece up to the point where he’d stopped, but I certainly recognized at least this part to be the beginning of a surprisingly well-made composition for that of a high-school student. This time it was I who recovered quickly enough to tell the insulter that it only sounded like “so-called music” because he was probably unfamiliar with the style, and I gave him a quick lecture about Schönberg and Varèse (with examples from my iPod).
This story has no conclusion. I don’t know if these two students changed their minds or at least accepted modernism and post-modernism as legitimate types of music (the other students in the class didn’t seem to have any difficulty with either piece). I went to the public library and checked out a CD of Whitacre’s music (all of it choral music) and was rather entranced by its juxtaposition of jazz and impressionist chords with a timbre and texture reminiscent of Palestrina. Second or third listenings have dimmed this impression somewhat (some of the pieces are rather formulaic); but, this is a composer who just turned forty and so one can assume that his best music is yet to come.
Two other musicians of note (pardon the pun) have January 2nd birthdays: Dana Reason and Dean Moore. I don’t have any particular anecdotes regarding their music, but I’ve heard both in concert and both are among the most inventive of today’s improvising musicians. Ms. Reason plays the piano (I’ve written a review of one of her concerts and one of her CD’s). Mr. Moore plays percussion; specifically, gongs – a Dean Moore concert is a stage full of gongs of all sizes, sending ethereal resonances into all corners of the performance space. He doesn’t just strike them, of course; gongs make a variety of sounds when they are scraped, rubbed, or bowed, as well as being hit by different kinds of mallets or sticks. I had the privilege to play a concert with Dean, part of an early version of some of the “StormSound” pieces (also with Stuart Dempster, Mary Kantor, and Neal Kosaly-Meyer). Later I discovered that one of his recordings fit into another of my “StormSound” pieces as if he’d been listening to my piece while he played it. I have a version of it on my iPod with his recording added – but since I haven’t gotten his permission to use his part, I won’t let anyone else hear it, yet…