I Learned a Thing or Two: Post-Composition, Pre-Performance

As the premier of The Debussy Project approaches, some thoughts on composing at the edge of an instrument, preparing difficult works for performance, and pragmatic solutions:

     My contribution to FuseBox New Music's The Debussy Project is hard. Really hard.

     At the first rehearsal of The Debussy Project, the only new work that Jessica Nance, Christina Webster, and Tabitha Reist Steiner read was Scott Steele's Prairie Logic, which concludes the program. We didn't even touch I Learned a Thing or Two, but I felt its presence throughout the rehearsal, and as we concluded our session, Jessica asked for "a quick pow-wow" to discuss the viola solo that opens my movement.

     The solo is jam-packed with atypical techniques, sounds, and gestures, and rapidly moves between ideas with little to no warning. It's very intimidating, and often combines difficult techniques in an effort to produce extreme timbres. Jessica was concerned that certain moments weren't sounding properly. We talked about the techniques a little bit, but what we ended up discussing in the most detail was the moodof the solo, and how it related to the rest of the piece.

     When I was writing the opening solo, it was after I had scrapped a half-completed draft which also showcased the viola, but in a much different way, more in the way of what could be called "traditional virtuosity," that is, those techniques violists see in the traditional showpieces for the instrument - rapid scale passages, intense obbligato, and lyrical melodies. Surrounded on all sides by Debussy's masterful writing in those categories, I felt it was incumbent upon me to provide a break from that kind of writing, in order to provide the kinds of contrasts necessary to sustain a 45+" work. So, working from my research into extended cello technique, I started to explore the possibilities of those techniques when applied to the viola. 

     What I found is that the viola brings an incredible kind of delicacy to techniques used in cello writing. There's a fragility that comes with these techniques, because of instrument's small size in comparison to the cello, and that fragility became my inspiration.

     When I was an undergrad at Valparaiso University, we had the pleasure of hosting a performance of Bach's B Minor Mass by Maestro Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan. The musical experience was extraordinary, but what I remember most was Suzuki's talk on their use of period instruments in performance. He argued that the use of these instruments was necessary to preserve the sound of "approaching the edge," or pushing the technical boundaries of the instrument. Bach's music is well within the reach of the modern string instrument, and the Maestro believed that to preserve the intensity of Bach's writing, the music must push the boundaries of the instrument producing it. We see similar developments over time - in his string quartets, Beethoven assigns high passages that would normally be given to the second violin to the cello, pushing the instrument to its edge, and achieving an intensity that could not have been duplicated by another member of the ensemble, a move that ensured cellists' proficiency in thumb position playing. Ravel asks for extremely high, "out-of-tune" natural harmonics in his quartet. Mid-century modernists pushed the boundaries of possible leaps, tremolos, and non-standard bow positions. Steve Mackey detunes a violin string by nearly an octave. All of these moves accomplish an important goal: find the emotion, anxiety, and fragility that exists at the furthest reaches of every instrument, and use it.

     Despite her prowess as a performer, Jessica still has her concerns about some of the more difficult passages in I Learned a Thing or Two, and I don't blame her. Some passages perhaps pushed the envelope further than it is ready to be pushed, and some passages have been modified to ensure a coherent musical result. However, by pushing the instrument to the edge and feeling the fear of dropping off the edge into the realm of the unplayable, I found a place to escape to, and a desire to make simplicity come out of disorder. In this sense, I'm simply following the lead of the composers I mentioned before - trying to find the intensity that comes with the "edge," and use it not only for its' own merits, but to find a new way to appreciate the sweetness and stability of more traditional writing. Starting from a chaotic beginning, I Learned A Thing or Two relaxes into slow melodies, free playing, and simple textures which, without the precedent of the viola solo, risk being perceived as overly simplistic and kitschy.