I’ve been doing a fair amount of pondering these last few weeks about THE CONCERTO. Not my concerto necessarily but the general idea of THE CONCERTO. Currently, I’m sitting at coffee shop in Raleigh, scrunched between (count ‘em) two different Bible study groups (how did I ever get so lucky). With me is my copy of the full score to the five Beethoven Piano Concertos and my pencil which, when I get the necessary arm space, vigorously scribbles down a few of my findings. All of this is in preparation to begin work on my own piano concerto slated to be premiered in the spring of 2019.
Now I’m not one to sit and think a great deal about the “philosophy” of a piece. Meaning, I don’t take a lot of time asking myself questions a la David Lang like “why is an audience at a concert” or “what is silence” etc.. Lang does ask these types of questions and comes out the other end with very fine pieces that seem to question the very structures of classical institutions. But the practice just isn’t quite for me. However, it’s different for me when it comes to this concerto. The concerto, more than almost any other classical genre (if that’s even the word), carries the most philosophical baggage, historically speaking. In almost every era of classical music, composers have had a unique take on what the role is of an instrumental soloist in relation to an orchestra. In the late Baroque and early classical era, the soloist jumped through musical hoops with dazzling virtuosity while the orchestra’s role was to lay out the themes in which the soloist would elaborate. With Mozart and especially Beethoven, the soloist almost takes on the role of an individual in musical dialogue with a large ensemble. After the First World War and onward, the concerto took on a much darker, political tone with the individual (soloist) attempting to stand up to the masses (the orchestra) with the masses eventually violently taking over the soloist. And now in the twenty-first century, like a lot of things, everything is musically up for grabs. This leads to a composer (yours truly) musically drifting out in open waters. So what is one to do with THE CONCERTO?
This past summer, I traveled to New Jersey where my boyfriend lives and in preparation for what I knew would be a fair amount of commuting in and out of the city, I picked up a book from a local bookstore before leaving Indiana. I bought a copy of Matthew Desmond’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted. The book follows eight families through their experience of desperately trying to pay rent and eventually dealing with chronic homelessness in Milwaukee during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. In Milwaukee, families whose last move was involuntary (due mostly to evictions) are 25 percent more likely to experience long term housing problems. Eviction is to poor, mostly black woman and children what prison is to black men; a constantly revolving door which is difficult to leave once one has been trapped. As Desmond puts it “Black men are locked up, black women are locked out”. Contrary to popular republican belief, evictions and homelessness in the United States are not entirely due to a lack of work ethic or “bootstraps”. Most Americans are one car accident, medical emergency, or paycheck away from having to choose between paying rent or paying a life saving expense. This is due to extractive markets. When a landlord sets up shop in a less than desirable neighborhood, the landlord, by taking individuals in with bad credit or prior evictions, can set their rents at a higher price than necessary to financially balance out taking in high risk individuals. So in mid sized cities where evictions are rampant, a poorly maintained house that’s not up to code in a crappy neighborhood can cost as much as a nice apartment in downtown. This is how families who are evicted are kept in the revolving door.
As I read Evicted, I would be on a train passing through Trenton or North Philly or Newark…these were the environments I was reading about...literally right outside window. Living in the midwest for the past year, I had forgotten that these places still exist. It’s amazing how that can happen…
So what does this have to do with THE CONCERTO? Once I had finished Evicted, I started to think, for whatever reason, about sonata form. Simplified, a composer introduces a musical idea and drills the motive or melody into the listener's ears (sounds painful but the goal is to get the tune implanted). This material is referred to as A. Then the material has a life of its own, as it were, and changes and is put into different contexts and moods and develops. This playing around with the tune is referred to as B. Finally, to bring a sense of closure, the A material comes back in its original, tried and true form. The ABA form is not merely a musical device as much as a dramatic one. It's the form of almost every story we know. Dorothy is in Kansas (A), Dorthy does some crazy stuff in OZ (B), Dorothy is back in Kansas (A). It’s the idea of home and back again. This turned out to be my lightbulb moment.
The A material in sonata form is often referred to as home. Tonic, in music, is also often referred to as home. Home, musically speaking, is meant to be familiar and comfortable which is why it is related to the first thing a listener hears in a piece of music. With Evicted on my mind, I made a literal and metaphorical connection with the idea of home. What if, for this piano concerto, I restricted the opening A material for the end. Even though I have a lot of writing left to do for this concerto, I want the soloist to be searching for this material throughout the piece…getting closer and closer as the piece progresses. Needless to say, I’m working backwards. Currently, I’m writing the ending and will subliminally place the “motive” throughout the rest of the piece.
It is difficult to write music about something when there is no text. The only device I have to convey a concept is a collection of pitches and rhythms. Chords can't depict homelessness. A motive can't depict homelessness. But what I think I can do is write an emotional piece that is inspired by something I care about and incorporate concepts that bridge the gap between music and Matthew Desmond's book, in this case the form of the piece.
My piano concerto, Shelter, is being premiered spring of 2019 at the Boston Conservatory. The wonderful Kevin Madison is both the commissioner and soloist. More to come…