I have been very hard at work these days on a new piece for the terrific Afiara String Quartet, who have commissioned a new work with the one proviso that the music be ‘Pop-inspired’. My immediate inclination was to fashion something brand new from pre-existing material – from my electro-acoustic piece Tsimo!, whose connection to the medium of the string quartet is its use of two quotes from Schubert’s Death & the Maiden Quartet.
Since I began composing this new music however, it has been conceptually challenging (read: agonizing) to find the right balance between what is Pop-inspired and what is not. At the outset, I knew I wanted to keep my original Tsimo! melody, as well as the Schubert material, but what is the relationship between the two in this new context? How do you tie them together so that the music does not sound like a string quartet ‘jam session’? After realizing that what was emerging was something distinctly ‘rhapsodic’ in nature, I came across some very apropos advice in a completely unexpected context. After a fairly directionless day of composing, hopping from clip to clip on YouTube, I ended up revisiting the Barenboim Masterclass on Beethoven. The session begins with Daniel Barenboim coaching no less an artist than Lang Lang and, fortuitously for me, the Barenboim’s very first words actually pertained to my creative problems that day:
“The more a piece of music has many different characters, and many different colours and attributes, the more it’s important to think of it strategically; to know that because of this, that, and the other, I’m going here. In the tempo, in the dynamic, in the phrasing, in the articulation. So that you never find yourself in a situation where suddenly you don’t have to manipulate the music, but you should also not be manipulated BY the music.“
– Daniel Barenboim to Lang Lang, BBC Masterclass on Beethoven, 2005
I have highlighted the last sentence because I think it is incredibly profound (as is most of what Barenboim says). I should mention that the whole masterclass is worth watching, so I have posted the video below. Barenboim was referring to Lang Lang’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata, but his comments struck a chord with me insofar as writing a rhapsodic piece was concerned. While they of course offer no direct solutions, they have helped me identify potential pitfalls. I don’t want to be forced to manipulate the music in any way; I would rather it develop organically. I don’t want to feel manipulated into making certain compositional choices either, and I certainly don’t want the listener to feel manipulated. Ok, back to work!