In this weird week between Christmas and New Year’s, my neighborhood is quiet, gray, & I’ve been holed up in my apartment scrambling to tie up some loose ends for 2015. A lot’s been happening with me (!): my new ensemble, Echo Chamber (more on this in a moment), has given its first 2 concerts; I’ve written a whole big pile of music for some dear friends; I did some arrangements for Derek Piotr, coming out on an EP early next year. Most of my days as of recent have been spent editing / staring at (other people’s) new operas, which is simultaneously very edifying and very exhausting also. I was in London in June, where I had occasion, among other things, to saunter through the Soho red light district. Here is photo evidence:
On the front burner are two string quartets, for ETHEL and for the JACK (we’re feeling the uppercase, so mostly the music sounds like I’m shouting at people, but what else is new). Until now I haven’t written any string quartets, possibly because I’ve been scared into a corner by Haydn and Beethoven and Bartók, with whom I spent most of my cello-playing high school years. The ETHEL piece is rather liberating, in that sense, because they’re an entirely different breed of string quartet, 1) being amplified, and 2) having the viola and cello on the outside. So you can imagine that I’m having a great deal of fun relegating the poor violins to background status. In any case, these two quartets coming to a New York near you mid-2016!
On the Echo Chamber front: I’m, along with Adam, helping run this sextet—clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, cello, bass—which is dedicated solely to commissioning and performing contemporary work. I wrote a thing, Light Echo, for the group, which we’ll do in February at Pulsing & Shaking, and we’re in the middle of sorting out a bunch of exciting commissioning projects. The current item of interest is a Kickstarter, which we’ve put together to help create four new pieces of music by Brooks Frederickson, Matt Frey, Molly Joyce, and Pascal Le Boeuf. Go watch our cheeky video and then BACK the project & help make new music happen! olé!
Speaking of high school, I’m in the middle of this incredible book Home Fires, by Donald Katz, which details the development of the postwar American suburban family from 1945 through the 1980s (I’ve just made it out of the 60s, barely alive). What’s incredible about this thing is, because it’s written as a sort of ethnographic study of a single family (which happens to be composer Ricky Ian Gordon‘s family, as it happens), one gets a kind of insider view of how the suburbs developed over time, and how the usual stereotypes (alienation, false sense of community, etc.) came into existence. We see the planned Long Island suburban communities morph from charming, almost-utopian enclaves into streets of houses with families pitted against one another, especially as the counter-culture takes root. It’s a highly detailed, almost neurotically thorough year-by-year look into the American nuclear family. Beyond that, it also offers a quasi-firsthand account of the turmoil of the late twentieth century in this country.
If you know anything about me, you know that I have a strange obsession with suburban America and literally anything to do with it. One of my favorite favorite books, Music for Torching by AM Homes (are we sensing a pyromaniac theme here?), details a suburban, presumably Westchester, couple who within the first 20 pages burn part of their house down and flee to a motel with their 2 young children. The book goes on from there: husband cheating with a younger woman only known as The Date (who at one point forces him to get a pubic tattoo during his lunch break), wife having a Lesbionic Awakening with the Perfect Housewife a few doors down, children scattered across town. You should all read the book, like right this second, but know that it ends in a horrifying & thoroughly chilling scenario, which serves as a kind of indictment, I think, of the potential energy built up by a divisive, every-family-for-itself suburban culture. This subgenre of work, rooted in John Cheever’s reading of postwar American life, isn’t unpopular: American Beauty, The Ice Storm (both book and film), Freedom. What makes the pairing of Home Fires and Music for Torching particularly piquant, though, is that the latter is, one feels, the (il)logical extension of the former. The suburbs are built up and destroyed from within, and then we arrive at Paul and Elaine’s batshit existence (and conclude with the aforementioned Scary Moment).
So it’s the end of the year. I made a list of things I liked this year, not necessarily in order:
1. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
If you want to be entirely devastated, read this book. I was crying in Tompkins Square Park through the last quarter of it this summer. I still think about the characters, often, many months later.
I could have chosen any number of Martland things—I’m minorly obsessed with his music right now (and always)—but Patrol is unique for him in that it doesn’t involve big band-like instruments. It’s quasi-Baroque, and quasi-Arvo Pärt, but also driving and relentless in its fast and slow music.
Finally, if you grew up with the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances like I did, you’ll appreciate this outrageous Twitter account, @HyacinthReacts.