Incidentally Music (2008)
Five movements for flute, clarinet, guitar, violin and cello
Approximate duration: 20 minutes
Premiere: February, 2010
New York City
featuring Rupert Boyd, guitar
In 1989 I had the good fortune to be a member of the composition class under Bernard Rands at the Aspen Summer Music Festival in Colorado. Thick in the middle of my graduate studies at the Mannes College of Music of thorny, late twentieth century composition, the festival offered me respite from the required hard core academic atonal abstract composition and devote the summer to the more light-hearted work of my Clarinet Sextet. In addition, the joy of being immersed in music full time in such a magnificent natural setting inspired me to contemplate a buoyant, jovial piece of several short movements for flute, clarinet, guitar, violin and cello. I even got as far as sketching out a page or two: I remember a jaunty first movement opening in ⅞. But what time wasn’t devoted to working on the clarinet sextet was spent enjoying socializing to an extent that I hadn’t previously known, including my first protracted exposure to alcohol, and when I returned to New York for my master’s year this initially trivial and for-pleasure piece got relegated to the back of my head.
This piece resurfaced in 2002, a crucial period in my life when I was fundamentally re-examining what style of music I wanted to write and what type of audience I wanted to reach. The idea of a jovial, tonally simplistic, rhythmically buoyant piece seemed suited for this exploration. The original instrumentation also allowed me to explore writing for the guitar, an instrument for which I had planned a very important role in an opera project I was (and still am) contemplating.
In addition to those needs, this piece ultimately served as a life raft to my ability to compose at all: 2003 had me grappling with the deaths of three people very close to me, each one successively more traumatic. By 2004 I was certain that I had no business being involved in music at all. Tackling this piece reminded me that I could still put notes together in some coherent fashion, and the simplicity of the structure of each movement - both intentional and subconscious - confirmed me in my conviction to move away from the accepted, academic expectations of complexity for complexity’s sake.
In 2009 I was introduced to mezzo soprano Anna Tonna, who was at the time co-director of the New Music New York ensemble. In discussing the possibility of her tackling my Canciones Andaluzas, she suggested doing a showcase concert of my work, for which the inclusion of this piece - at the time titled Serenade - seemed a natural fit. For the highlighted guitar part, she suggested Rupert Boyd. After studying the work for a few days, Rupert - then as always the consummate gentleman - gently inquired what instrument the part was intended for, as it surely wasn’t guitar. He bravely tackled transforming it into a workable part for the bargain price of numerous cocktail outings, during which I had the added pleasure of getting to know this refined, consummate artist.
The Serenade received its premiere at the aforementioned New Music New York showcase concert on February 2, 2010. Ironically, while I had been aiming for an overall less complex compositional style, the first movement proved rhythmically challenging to the players, to the point where, if I remember correctly, at the performance the movement had to stop and begin again.
With its central guitar role, the piece is heavily influenced by various Latin dance rhythms, particularly from Spain. 13 years after its original conception, the first movement turned out to be exactly what I’d envisioned: a buoyant, jaunty, rhythmic ride, structured in the manner of Bach with blocks of material juxtaposed in different harmonic settings. The lack of outright melodic or thematic material is contrasted in the second movement with its sinuous song-like piece. In the third movement I indulge in a little paean to the bossa nova genre, with which I was fascinated at the time. The fourth movement nods to cante jondo, affording the guitarist a chance to display his/her cantabile chops against a gently pulsing background from the rest of the ensemble. The fifth is a sort of concentrated, furioso alegrías juxtaposing 3 and 2 rhythms in immediate succession.
Ultimately the title Serenade seemed both too nondescript and amorphous. The piece has no great aspirations other than to be engaging listening, almost as if serving as incidental music in combination with another medium (I’ve often wondered whether it wouldn’t make good choreographic material). Hence the change in title to Incidentally Music.