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“Anything Therefore is a Delight”: Questions and Answers; plus, The Wisdom of John Cage

November 30, 2011

Pam Kragen, the arts editor and writer for the North County Times did a nice feature about the UCSD Toy Piano Festival this year, including a more detailed look at my world premiere on the festival. Anyone  interested in the Festival or in my composition, Anything Therefore Is a Delight, may enjoy reading the questions Pam asked in August, and my emailed responses to them. I’ve edited out my blatant plugs for the show.

1. Is this the first time you’ve composed for the festival?

Scott Paulson, the director of the festival, has been asking me for a composition ever since he started the festival 11 years ago. For over a decade I wasn’t interested in composing any more concert music; I told myself if I really wanted to write anything, I’d make the time to do it. About a year ago I started composing again, and decided I would finally write the piece that Scott had requested. Part of my creative problem which resulted in a dry spell was resolved in abandoning my former techniques, and wholeheartedly embracing random procedures, which is one reason I dedicated the piece to Cage. I spent my youth trying to impose myself on the music, but when I let chance operations impose musical materials on me, I discovered the entire composition process was more pleasant. That was something that Cage’s music taught me to do, and I’m very happy with the results.

Next year will be Cage’s centennial, so I’ve dedicated the work to him, in part to celebrate his music, in part to acknowledge him for writing the first concert work for toy piano, and in part out of gratitude for providing me with the key to unlock my creativity after so many years of dormancy.

2. How many years have you been performing there (or will someone else play your piece)?

I may be wrong about this, but I recall performing at the first festival, and have played every year since, except for last year, when family matters required me to leave San Diego. I’ve played movements from the Cage Suite for Toy Piano, which is always fun. One of the highlights of my performance history there was premiering a duet for toy pianos composed by Pea Hicks. Scott also does a concert series at Geisel Library which predates the Toy Piano Festival. It’s the Short Attention Span Series, and I’ve been able to play a wide range of music—popular and classical from all periods—at those concerts.

I’ll play my own work for the Festival next week. Each performance will consist of different movements (there are five total); we’ll ask audience members to select movements, which I hope to shape into the most compelling interpretation I can muster on the spot.

3. Is there any special compositional technique you must use to compose for a toy piano?

From years of playing toy pianos in public, I have a strong understanding of their limitations, and I’ve tried to avoid those. First of all, the tuning from one instrument to the next is always different, so you have to accept that the E-flat you hear on a Yamaha piano will not be the same E-flat a Schoenhut toy piano produces. The toy piano has a limited dynamic range, so extreme or subtle dynamics for the instrument do not translate well. A performer has no control over cutting off a note on the toy piano, unless they reach inside the instrument and damp the metal rod to cut off the sound.

I don’t think harmonies work very well on the instrument. It’s difficult to tell the quality of a chord. If a composer wanted to exploit that, I suppose they could. I chose to write mainly in two-part textures, which I think the instrument negotiates much better than working with chords. My piece takes all of those considerations into account.

There are other ways of playing the instrument (I mentioned reaching inside to stop note), but I limited myself to writing notes played in a traditional manner on the keyboard. Someone wrote a toy piano fanfare which Scott Paulson usually plays each year, in which he lifts the piano up and shakes the whole instrument back and forth, which produces an eerie vibrato. Maybe next year, for the centennial, I’ll play Cage’s Music for Amplified Toy Pianos. It’s one of his graphically notated scores, and calls for pizzicato (plucking the metal rods with the fingers), electronic “noises” (Cage doesn’t specify what those are, so there’s leeway in interpretation), and percussive effects.

4. How many people come out for the festival each year?

Dozens. I’d guess at least a hundred. It’s always full, with people sitting on the stairs and standing in the halls because there aren’t enough chairs to accommodate everyone.

5. Tell me about your piece.

When I was a composition student 30 years ago, many young American classical musicians had no interest in playing modern music, and so I always wrote with the understanding that everything needed to be spelled out for an interpreter. These days young performers have a far greater awareness of contemporary compositional trends, so now I’m interested in giving performers less directions in my music and seeing what they come up with. If you look at Baroque music, usually there’s little more than pitches and rhythms notated. You rarely see marks to indicate phrasing and articulation or dynamics, and often there’s no tempo marking. Nevertheless, performers bring their musical instincts and apply their analytical skills to these works and produce beautiful realizations. I’m striving for the same relationship with performers. I want them to put themselves into the notes, so it will be a genuine collaboration.

Anything Therefore is a Delight is a suite composed of 5 movements. The titles of the suite and the individual movements were taken from John Cage’s first book of essays and anecdotes, Silence. There are no interpretive markings in the music except for a few places where I want the music to breathe a little, or slow down. A performer selects the movements and the order in which they are played. There are correspondences from movement to movement, so it’s important that at least two of the movements are programmed in a performance. I also allow performers to repeat one of more movements, so the overall length will be determined by the performer’s preferences.

As a young composer and listener, I was very impressed with logic and order in music. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve opened myself up to irrationality as an equally compelling force. Debussy; Satie; Cage; John Zorn; Takemitsu; Howard Skempton: these composers wrote (or write) music which resists analysis. How does Debussy take you along in his later works without ever giving you a full tune? Every time you think you’re about to get an honest-to-God melody, he lets it unravel and moves onto something else. Pop ditties interrupt classical textures in Debussy, Satie, and Zorn. Why does one chord follow another in Skempton’s music, or one musical texture follow another in Takemitsu? I can’t tell you, but there’s something magical in how these composers play with your expectations. I’m trying to discover those same kinds of fantastical connections that these composers make, musical choices that appear illogical on paper, but sound perfectly right to your ears.

Video excerpt of me premiering “Anything Therefore is a Delight”

John Cage performing his Suite for Toy Piano

I also gave Pam a bonus anecdote about John Cage:

My senior year at the University of Michigan School of Music, I took a field trip with a small group of composers to hear John Cage perform in Detroit. This was in 1983. After his performance (not really musical—he read one or more of his mesostics about Satie, Joyce, and Thoreau), he fielded questions from the audience. I stood up and asked him, “What advice would you give to a young composer?” He pondered that for at least minute, pacing back and forth on stage with his head down. After what seemed an uncomfortably long time, he stopped, looked up at me, and said, “I would tell him or her to do what they believe in.”

I was disappointed with his response. It seemed so obvious as to be above stating. I remember asking myself, “That’s all he could come up with?”

A decade later, after far too many years of sparring with my peers and navigating and negotiating from one teacher to another, winding up thoroughly confused and creatively exhausted, it dawned on me that Cage had given me the very best advice I had ever received about composing.

An earlier blog post of mine discusses how I chose the title of my toy piano suite and its movements.

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