What’s in a title? Also, what’s in my new string quartet “Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake”?


Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake. Cake not pictured.

Over a YEAR ago I started working on this piece – only to be sidetracked by school and my Composer-in-Residence position with Laudate – and I finally managed to finish it! The other reason it took so long may be because it’s fairly up-tempo. In the case of composition, more ink on the page just means more work. But I digress…

The first thing you’re likely to notice about something that hasn’t been heard before is the title. Yes, this piece has a quirky title but it’s more than just a quirk for a smirk. I used to hate hate hate having to write a title on a piece. I longingly wished for the privilege of churning out “SYMPHONIES” and “SONATAS” and “SOFAS”. But if I were to take that philosophy to its logical extreme then why would I put a title on anything at all? I admit that the time savings would be generous but in a world where people insist on going to concerts titles are a powerful thing. Especially in classical music.

A title is, quite literally, the first thing a listener will encounter on their way to your music. While it can say a lot about the character and structure of the music it can also put the listener into the best possible emotional state for your music. Resist the urge to poo-poo that sentence if you can. The way in which we frame our music is a big deal and as proof I would cite an incident wherein Joshua Bell – arguably the grandest violinist in the world at the moment – played in a New York subway station for an audience of commuters that ignored him completely. It’s almost as if we could say we as a species can’t see the art when we lack the frame. A title is, in the best possible sense, a flare of the frame that can accentuate your work and help an audience connect with it.

In the case of, “Patrick Stewart Bakes A Cake” I was going for something that captures a bit of the character of the music but also an emotional primer that gets a listener into the right state of mind. The humour element is a sort of an olive branch I outstretch from behind the manuscript paper that I’m starting to realize I’m good at wielding. I’m fairly self conscious about how classical music is perceived by the wider community and this is a way of defending classical music against this perceived elitism. Though if I’m being entirely honest I think some – or a lot – of that perception is accurate. And that’s a whole lot of blog post for another day.

Now to hunt a premiere…. I’m sure I can find one around here somewhere….


A Cruel Circumstance

Eva Tidlund recently asked me to write a piece for a choir concert she’s putting together in April.  After some hemming and hawing I settled on this text, by my friend Alison:

I can’t for the sake of popular voice
detach myself when I write
that a fire of grief and desire
is scaling my throat and parching my voice,
evaporating my tears before I cry.
This is a cruel circumstance
that we may tempt but we may not try.

I like how a lot of the text seems to relate to the mechanism of singing.  The line,  “that a fire of grief of desire is scaling my throat and parching my voice” is especially suggestive of a musical concept.  It made me want to make the main motive some sort of rising pattern that could easily be extended into a longer line that brings the text to life.  So I wrote this melody:

The first bar contains the motive I use to build the long line that, “scales my throat and parch(es) my voice”.

The other part of that phrase, “a fire of grief and desire” also begged for some special treatment.  I wanted the words fire of desire to really sting so I used a really nasty chord built of a perfect fourth and a tritone (It has a really wailin’ major seventh pinch on the outer voices).  It’s in the second beat of the second bar below:

(Note the slur missing on the word grief in the alto part.  I would kick my copyist’s ass if imaginary people had butts attached to them.)

The concert is slated for the end of April.  Exact times and locations will be divulged when there are times and locations to divulge.