During a residency at The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in 2017, each residency artist was invited to give a presentation about their work, their interests and approaches.
I came up with the presentation below with 2 things in mind:
Any single, given piece of music I compose may not seem representative of a general approach.
I have found that all of my music has a “backstory”, either in its genesis or its performance history.
So I put together a collage of musical excerpts and provided their backstories.
Press listen and start reading.
Cumulus Nimbus - for orchestra
There were two composition teachers who tried to discourage me from writing this piece and taking the extensive amount of time to hand copy the score and parts. One of them said, "You'll learn your lesson when it sits there gathering dust on a shelf."
I blame/credit my motivation for writing this piece on my love for the orchestra repertoire and my improving ear, which nagged me to see the Quixotic task through. There is no greater joy in composing music than to hear something in your head that you like and that you're pretty sure hasn't been written yet.
Cumulus Nimbus won a Broadcast Music Incorporated student composer award in the last year, nay the very last day of my age-related eligibility. Sometimes it’s good to be born on January 1st.
The award included a stay at the Warwick Hotel in NYC, all red velvet and brass in the lobby. I would learn later that the Warwick is the hotel where The Beatles stayed on their first trip to America. Had I known that, I would have taken the complimentary notepad, pen and toiletries.
Alexander Broude Incorporated published the work and in a few years, were getting some nibbles of interest from a few orchestras. All of a sudden, the Saint Louis Symphony, directed by Leonard Slatkin, scheduled it. At the time, St. Louis was the preeminent American orchestra in regard to performing new music and the orchestra was happy, energized and supportive. The success of the premiere led to it being programmed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the next year. The next year after that, the Louisville Orchestra performed it and recorded it. This activity led to interest by other orchestras in the other orchestra scores I was mulishly working on.
The Moral: Composing new music is such an impractical matter to begin with, you may as well go for it.
In Time - electro-acoustic
Commissioned by choreographer, Michael Kelly Bruce
Michael wanted something relentless, implacable for a work that expressed the rage and anguish of losing friends to AIDS.
Coma Concerto - (wind ensemble version)
Concerto soloists: Coma Theater:
Kim Corbet, multiple instruments
Chad Evans, percussion, multiple instruments
Bruce Richardson, brass, multiple instruments
Meadows Wind Ensemble, Kevin Hanlon, conductor
The concerto soloists have no music. The music of the supporting ensemble is composed in sections (many featuring indeterminacy) that are freely chosen as to order or whether they are played at all. In the premiere of this version, one of four versions so far, 23 excerpts were rehearsed, only 10 were used, in a performance that was over 43 minutes long.
This particular excerpt makes use of an odd musical ostinato that occurs in Manos, The Hands of Fate, a particularly notorious movie made on a bet by a fertilizer salesman in El Paso, Texas and lampooned by the TV cult classic, Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Kim Corbet is responding to the stimuli in an inimitable manner and I have left the podium with a subset of the ensemble to entertain a member of the audience who had her eyes closed. She was a good sport about the crash cymbal cued behind her.
Chamber Music - for chorus and harp
The University of Texas Concert Chorale, Adair Lowrey, conductor
The text is from the James Joyce poetry collection, Chamber Music. Notwithstanding the poetry from an Irishman (part of my heritage) the French quality certainly arises from my love of that repertoire, but it may be worthy of note that my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Beatrice LaLiberté.
Also, I make good crepes.
Benjamin Croucher, drums
Carl Ferre-Lang, bass
Kevin Hanlon, guitar
When percussionist Jamal Mohmed and I would jam and improvise for dance classes at SMU, a little compound meter passage (4/4+7/8) emerged and mutated into this instrumental. There’s a Youtube video of the Quintet for the End of Time playing this.
I bob my head a lot.
Three Movements for Percussion Quartet and Piano – II
Kevin Hanlon, conductor
I wrote this piece in a kind of defiance: I was feeling rebellious about a certain de rigueur in writing 12-tone music. I had every intention of getting approval of the finished score from my teacher and then ripping the music to pieces in front of him. However, in the course of writing the piece I realized it was my responsibility to make music that I liked to hear. From that point on, any syntax or approach was innocent, damaged only if I were to disconnect aurally from the audible outcome of whatever process.
Relentless Time - for orchestra
Meadows Symphony Orchestra, David Milnes, conductor
Commissioned by The Brooklyn Philharmonic, Lukas Foss, conducting, this piece was done on a tight schedule. (less than 4 months) My plan, given that I had a full teaching schedule at the University of Arizona at the time, was to compose most of it on a round trip train trip between Tucson to Chicago for Christmas holiday. (of course, I would get nothing done at home) That plan hit a bump when I discovered that I had left the middle section (about 3 minutes of music) on the train, which was obligated to continue on to Los Angeles. I had 48 hours to FedEx the score to Foss. I wrote about 94% out from memory with an ongoing inner pep talk about how the forgotten 6% would be better. Somewhere, the forgotten middle section continues it’s solitary eternal voyage on the Sunset Limited.
The concert, a tribute to Duke Ellington upon the discovery of his unfinished opera, Queenie Pie, was a wild mixed bag with new pieces by Ornette Coleman and Horace Silver. But what is truly burned into my soul occurred on the second night when Duke’s son, Mercer, correctly assessed that we might want to hear his father’s band, half of whom in 1984 were the original guys, play Caravan and A Train.
I’m still processing this concert.
I’m in Love (Armaggedon can Wait)
Carl Cherry, drums
Kevin Hanlon, guitars, bass and vocals
Wiley Ross, atom bomb
My best friend while at the University of Arizona was the director of the recording studio, Wiley Ross. Having no personal lives at the time, we spent countless hours in the studio playing around and making demos. Channeling my inner Sammy Hagar for the lead vocals, this song is written from the point of view of a selfish idiot.
While singing “baby” with overdone irony, I died inside a little.
Fun Fact: Carl Cherry, a giant of a human being, makes a brief screen appearance as one of the pissed-off black fraternity brothers toward the end of the rollicking National Lampoon rip-off, The Revenge of the Nerds. To everyone’s relief, I declined the offered role of a choir director in the film because of the overnight shooting schedule only to later do extra work in Dallas that included an overnight shoot for Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. Tom Cruise had not gone mental yet and I have yet to find myself in the protest and riot scenes because a stop-frame version of Where’s Waldo holds little appeal to me.
NOISE - for audience and NOISE app for iPhone
In the autumn of 2016, I scheduled a recital in Caruth Auditorium, the primary concert hall at Southern Methodist University. In all honesty, there have been some fine concerts in Caruth, but complete honesty recognizes the problematic acoustics of this hall, in the audience and on stage. Thus, I titled the recital Caruth, A Love/Hate Story and programmed pieces that in turn, mocked, celebrated or commented on the hall.
As I worked on ideas for the concert the summer before, I happened across a free tone generator application for iPhone called NOISE. I appreciate the continuously variable transformation of the sounds provided and was inspired to compose a piece performed by the audience.
Program notes invited members of the audience to download the app at their election. There was another app (it had a silly name that escapes me) suggested for Android.
A graphic score was provided with the program notes. No music reading experience was necessary.
A brief chat
I sit down
They had the option to provide me with contact information so that I could provide them with a recording of their performance.
The Lark of Avignon - for wind ensemble and piano
Meadows Wind Ensemble, Kevin Hanlon, conductor, Kurt Knecht, piano
A commission from Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. The piece was already well under way when I heard the news of the passing of Olivier Messiaen. I was immediately aware of how much the existing ideas were in debt to his work and refined the formal concepts to a general rumination of the Holy Trinity.
A side note: The mother of bass player, Carl Ferre-Lang, heard above in Jamal’s Dropbeat, would spend happy Sunday afternoons in her student years in Paris listening to Messiaen improvise for hours at Notre Dame de Paris.
Second Childhood - for toy ensemble (mostly)
Joseph Schwantner, teaching a course called Current Practices at the Eastman School of Music, gave the class an assignment to write something outside of their comfort, something different than their normal inclinations. I cheated and used the assignment as an excuse to compose a piece for a large ensemble of mostly toys, something I had wanted to for a long time.
Don’t tell Joe.
Instrumentation included balloons, plastic rulers, toy piano, (I acquired a Jaymar at the kind advice of David Burge) an amplified ukulele, an amplified jack-in-the-box, plastic recorders (which, at one point perform continuous glissandi on a trill via immersion in buckets of water), a key melodian whose lack of resistance could prepare the player for high mountainous altitudes or an iron lung and a couple of “legitimate” instruments like piano. I mustn’t forget to mention the rolling push toys, whose performance practice at times had the performers manically traversing the stage.
The harmonic language was derived as closely as possible from the toys that featured fixed pitch content. (the push toys and the jack-in-the-box)
In something of a misdirection, I excerpted music from the Rite of Spring in the ukulele part, but I refuse to change the title to Second Adolescence.
Age is but a number.
The piece has an odd performance history, including the time I played a recording of it for Leonard Bernstein and Louis Krasner. (Krasner premiered the Berg and Schoenberg violin concerti.)
Why did I inflict this oddment open them?
That summer at Tanglewood, I had opportunity to note at close quarters the duplicitous treatment of Bernstein by the composition community with to-the-face obsequy and mutterings against him in the corners. I liked him, especially in his generosity with the Tanglewood student orchestra and students of conducting. We had occasion to chat and joke around. So, at an annual cookout hosted by Bernstein, he wanted to hear examples of music from each of the 8 fellowship composers and all strove to put their best foot forward, even those who expressed their disdain for the maestro. I went last. I had been thinking of playing a reading session of Cumulus Nimbus, but instead asked if he would like to hear something long and serious or short and funny. I was happy that Bernstein requested the latter and so it was that my goofy assignment descended upon all gathered.
The next 2 pieces, both composed in 1980, are presented in the hope of providing some perspective on the disparate nature of my interests.
An die Ferne Geliebte - for baritone voice and piano
I was in a long distance relationship and felt motivated to express my devotion in song. I was aware of the Beethoven cycle on the text of Alois Jeitelles, but heard another potential. Because the distant beloved was also a composer, I did not feel that traditional harmony was necessary for her listening pleasure and so I intended to couch the ideas in a contemporary syntax. At the same time, I was looking into all available translations from German into English. All violated meaning and nuance in favor of rhyme. Try as I might, the piece would not catch fire. Only when I surrendered to the music that was coming directly from the original German text, did the music move forward somewhat.
Well, long distance relationships are difficult and this one faltered and failed.
A revelation occurred: The Distant Beloved was now a devotion to an earlier musical style, one that was a composite of my experience as a singer of Lied, whether Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler or Wolf.
As the work proceeded I was plagued with a concern: What is the programmability of German lieder solidly in a 19th century language written by a 20th Century Hoosier? (The odd nickname bequeathed on those born in the cornfields of Indiana. Actually, the best explanation of the origin of that curious assignation came in a conversation with Linda Ronstadt.)
My way out of this dilemma?
I contemplated that aspect of his work that surrendered ego in favor of pursuing the most rewarding musical approach.
With that in mind, the work proceeded smoothly.
I thanked him later.
Toccata - for piano
John Ferguson, piano
Part of my work as a composer is pondering the repertoire in regard to instrumentation, wondering if an idea might present itself.
This process may have started when a teacher prodded me to consider writing a piece for brass quintet. I was not familiar with composing for that ensemble and proceeded to listen to a 3 LP set of American contemporary music for brass quintet. By the end of the brassy binge, I thoroughly loathed brass quintet.
I did have one idea at the end of my ordeal: I envisioned 5 dunking tanks, such as you might find at ramshackle charity fairs that like to mix water-based masochism with target practice. The music played by the quintet would likely be freely atonal and formless. The structure would be determined by the accuracy of the throwing arms of audience members. Maybe the trombone is given a watery double bar first, maybe the 2nd trumpet. And so on, until all have been brought down, the only sound possibly being that of the players noisily expelling moisture from their horns, which they are wont to do anyway.
This idea was the first in what I have come to call the Revenge Series; pieces that are based on a specific critical observation, including the horrific and cruel Surprise!, a work that has elicited terrified whimpers from the audience and very nearly started a riot at the University of Arizona.
Playing around with the ongoing question of what I could possibly contribute to the solo piano literature I imagined a Toccata, muscular and driving.
The initial sketches revealed material I liked, but I noticed that changes in details were persistent, desirable.
The greatest amount of time over the month long composition was spent devising the notation, which blended specific indication with indeterminacy.
Besides the obvious physical challenges in playing the Toccata, there was a new challenge: the requirement that the player make in the moment decisions for every performance.
The excerpt features the pianist playing hand crossing phase figures while improvising a melody with their foot on the middle pedal.
Excerpt from Mind Virus
Gouge – a free improvisation ensemble
Chad Evans, percussion, multiple instruments
Kim Corbet, multiple instruments
Kevin Hanlon, guitar and multiple instruments
One of the great joys in music making for me is ensemble improvisation, particularly when it is a small ensemble with particular chemistry and musical rapport. Gouge was an ensemble that played for years throughout the 90s.
There is something wonderful about composing a piece spontaneously that will never ever exist again.
In this excerpt, we move from music that might be described as acid jazz to something that is careening into Primus territory.
This took place in a coffee house.
These excerpts are not representative of my compositional output.