Steven Stucky, one of my favorite living composers, once said during a pre-concert talk (and I will paraphrase) that "we are never more stupid then when we are young and know everything." I have had the great fortune over the years to say a lot of radically stupid things around very intelligent people. I still manage to still put my foot in my mouth from time to time and always end up learning something after being promptly told I’m an idiot. For instance, telling a room full of my musician friends that Brahms and Tchaikovsky were probably the two worst composers was a pretty terrible thing to say (I will note that I was 17). I then dug deeper by saying that the two periods in music that really mattered were the Baroque and Modern. Once again, reference Dr. Stucky's quote above. Telling a bunch of young musicians whose main repertoire consists of the time in between the Baroque and Modern periods that their repertoire was essentially not important was plain stupid. After soon realizing what I moron I was, I made a point to listen to as much music as possible and not to simply dismiss something on the basis of the first 45 seconds of the piece.
A few years later, I am happy to report that this experiment of sorts has worked and I think I'm better for nippin' it in the bud as early as I did. Learning the difference between something being good but not quite for me and just plain bad music has helped me discover loads of new stuff I never imagined I would enjoy. Now I must settle my relationship with Johannes (Brahms). The calumniation, as it is, with this relationship is my new piece Letter Writing that I am currently working on for clarinet Ian McKenzie. The work was commissioned to go along side the Brahms 2nd Clarinet Sonata, a work that even in my rebellious anti-Brahms phase was something I still took great inspiration from.
I love writing pieces in the presence of other pieces. That is to say, creating a piece that will pair well with something classic gives me just enough room to be creative but with enough constraints to make the creativity possible. New music really can’t exist without some sort of influence from the past. Anyone that is, by their own definition, “free from influence” is lying. The way in which I extract raw musical materials from an older piece is by essentially taking great liberties with it. Charles Ives was a pretty intense example of somebody who really ripped apart the classical/Americana canon. The result can range from something humorous (finale of the Second Symphony) or moving (The Alcotts from the Concord Sonata) or meditative (Fourth Symphony). I don’t believe I go as far as Ives in my expansions or elaborations of preexisting music but I take influence of how he explores older music.
Letter Writing takes raw materials from both Brahms and Schumann. The title itself has to do with how this music is, in a way, in correspondence. The first third of the piece deals with Brahms by being rooted in strict, typical 19th century piano accompaniment and quotes bits of Brahms Fourth Symphony. The final third of the piece looks further back, by only a couple years, to Schumann and how his music laid influence for Brahms. I guess that this line of influence of musical correspondence ends with me, being the much lesser of the first two composers. In a way, it is incredibly humbling to work with the music of older composers. There is so much to learn from veteran composers, but that only happens after ending a young and stupid but knows everything phase. I think that phase is over, but I know ten years from now I will still look back at my young and stupid twenties.