7 July 2023
The Right Note
© Charles Foulsham
Beginning with a blank page of music manuscript, everything and anything is still possible. The endless possibilities are constrained only by the composer's imagination. And then as each note builds on the previous the universe of possibilities becomes slimmer as musical logic dictates the progression of ideas and the work takes shape and becomes something new and impressive.
Or at least that is the view some people have of how a new composition comes about.
But, in reality, the page is never blank. All the composer's previous experiences both musical and extramusical, all of the expectations and demands of performers, peers and audiences, all of the practical constraints of an instrument's mechanics and a musician's sinews, all of the other musical works the composer has ever written, even all the works by others that have been studied or just heard by the composer: the weight of logistics, culture, and civilisation all perch on the composer's shoulder like the bats and owls of Goya's famous The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, casting a critical eye of judgement on the composer's hand even before the 'blank' paper bears a scratching of ink or pencil.
And then the imaginative, creative, motivational and physical limitations of the composer come into play because they also surely reduce the range of possibilities to a small fraction of 'everything and anything'. As Schopenhaeur enigmatically put it, "Der Mensch kann tun was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will." In one translation that reads as, 'One can choose what to do, but not what to want.' And in another, 'One can do as one wills but not choose what one wills.'
Inadvertently, I once convened a discussion of sorts on this topic between two of my mentors: George Crumb and Luciano Berio. As a Fulbright student of George in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1980s I mentioned to him my interest and PhD research on Luciano Berio. George in typically gentle and laconic fashion said, "That Luciano Berio - he always seems to choose the 'right note.'" When I mentioned this comment to Luciano about four or five years later (after I had completed the PhD) he laughed and said, "That is such an American attitude." Because from Berio's point of view the somewhat mechanistic idea that there was such a thing as a 'right note' and that a method could be found to locate it was too simplistic. Luciano had waved his cigar in a broad gesture encompassing the ancient city of Florence, the Tuscan hills beyond and the entirety of the European and Classical tradition, as if to imply that everything in a composer's experience and birthright leads to the inevitability of the first note and the next note and the one after that - be they 'wrong' or 'right'.
Haydn was apparently once asked about his Bassoon Concerto. He said, "I don't remember writing it at all - I must have written it in my sleep." For a composer whose output was so vast this seems to suggest that he was simply so overwhelmed by his workload that one piece blurred into another without clear definition. But it also means something more - that the process of composing was more or less an involuntary expression of the unconscious mind. Haydn lived in a world of relative consistency and certainty albeit constrained in his freedom as a servant of the nobility; but regardless of his servitude, his task to create music was clear and his position was enviably secure within the subtle Habsburg hierarchies of the last days of the Holy Roman Empire. For Haydn, all the practicalities of composing would also dictate a certain familiar similarity of form and content between his works. His range of influences and circle of antecedents was relatively small but very deep whereas in our time the range of influences for a composer is likely to be huge but superficial. A composer these days is often like a small boat on a vast but shallow lake tossed around by every fashionable and political shift of current and wind direction.
In my case I would say that, unlike Haydn, I can remember every moment of composing my Bassoon Concerto - and there were many moments of concentrated work and communication over six months in 2022. Partly this was because I was in Boston living in an unfamiliar environment and a break with routine tends to increase self-awareness; also, because my 'normal' process was disrupted by travel and further, because of the unique factors that affect the composing of any concerto especially for a less familiar instrument such as the bassoon.
The initial impetus for the concerto had come largely from the businessman who commissioned the work for WASO, Geoff Stearn. Geoff was himself a bassoonist in his youth and so his interest in a concerto was always evident from our first meeting ten or more years ago when we met to discuss a commission for Musica Viva for their tour by the British vocal ensemble, I Fagiolini. Between then and the Bassoon Concerto he has commissioned quite a number of works from me including another large-scale concerto for WASO, Maali in 2018. Maali was written for the same scoring as Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante - with solo oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn - but with a much larger orchestra than Mozart had at his disposal. My own background as a clarinettist had meant that I was familiar with the Mozart and most of the woodwind concerto canon and always interested in adding to the repertoire. Prior to that in 2011, I had also written a sizable piece, called Deep Blue and Dirty for bassoon and piano for the ASO's principal bassoon, Mark Gaydon, so I knew enough about the bassoon to know I didn't know enough!
So, in this piece working with the soloist, Jane Kircher-Lindner, was absolutely critical. Jane was a great and conscientious collaborator, but truth be told all of our many, many discussions of the developing work were remote - via Skype, Zoom, phone and email. With Jane in Perth (and sometimes in New Zealand) and me in Boston (and sometimes in Sydney) there were certainly logistics to consider in our communication. Australian friends who were also working at Harvard said because of the large time difference their life had two days - one in the US and one in Australia - and I will admit that this was true for me too. No doubt the globalised world has made that a workplace reality for many people. In this case, Jane and my first in-person meeting was just days before the premiere.
Throughout our discussions, I encouraged Jane to be as direct and forthright in her views as possible because her expert knowledge gave me a chance to enhance idiomatic writing. That close consultation gives a composer the opportunity to 'get it right' and eliminate awkward moments. My aim in any concerto is to write virtuosic music that suits the instrument rather than works against it. Both in matters of detail and in the larger artistic shape and concept Jane's input was invaluable. She was keen to know the what and the why of everything I wrote and always insightful as to how something could be interpreted or reworked.
The bassoon, like its woodwind cousins, is a complicated bit of machinery with numerous interconnected levers, springs, pads and keys and a substantial weight and size requiring great breath control and physical stamina. The agility and range of the instrument in the hands of a great player are astonishing but like any woodwind it also has its tricky corners to avoid where possible. The expressive voice can be everything from poignant to fragile to grotesque but the bassoon is also an instrument that naturally blends with other instruments to the point of potentially being enveloped and concealed in an orchestral passage. Those factors really came into play in planning and orchestrating a concerto. And then the double reed which the player blows into has its own peculiarities. In fact, my double reed playing friends would probably say that every double reed is peculiar. So, coming from the relatively uncomplicated world of the clarinet, I take my hat off to the virtuosity, insight and resilience of a player like Jane and her commitment to creating something new.
Read more about the Concerto and the soloist and hear brief excerpts here.
© Australian Music Centre (2023) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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Composer Andrew Schultz was born in Australia and lives in Sydney. He studied at the Universities of Queensland, Pennsylvania and King’s College London and has received numerous awards, prizes and fellowships. His music covers chamber, orchestral and vocal works and has been performed and broadcast by leading musicians internationally.
He has held many commissions including from all the major Australian orchestras. Andrew has written a large-scale works including three operas (Black River, Going Into Shadows and The Children’s Bach) and three symphonies (Journey to Horseshoe Bend, Maali, Endling and Song of Songs). Andrew has held residencies and academic posts in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, USA and the UK. He is Emeritus Professor of Music at UNSW and the Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University.
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