The Artist's Studio
About this work:
This is a piece about a piece that has never been written, and never will be. It is a scattered collection of manuscript scribblings; sketches of a non-work born of common stock, yet disparately realized. Imagine a romanticized instantiation of a compositional process, in which a few granular ideas explode into larger and larger chunks of music, ultimately yielding a polished final product that seems to have been organically conceived and executed. This final product, assembled as a score or consumed by an audience, hides from view the punctuated dynamism of its creation.
What if we were to dismiss the finished piece, exchanging it with glimpses of moments leading up to its completion? What if, on a timeline of creation, we cut off the last segment, but retain the constructed teleology that precedes it? A stylized version of the process itself would be presented in lieu of the product. Presented without explanation, the process would be repackaged as the product, and the music possibly lambasted for its compositional transgressions. But what would happen if the composer wrote a program note explaining all of this, begging our indulgence through a series of “what if” questions? Would we then be more willing to accept the somewhat paradoxical situation of the “snapshot” of the process of creation being substituted for the “real” music? Would we accept, then, a situation in which the “composition” was “the process of composition?”
Perhaps. It may be that my first attempt at writing these program notes (contained in paragraphs one and two above—you are now reading the transition to the second attempt) inadequately describes what is going on in my piece, or does not facilitate access to the music. I have not even mentioned the paintings that “inspired” the piece. So now I will try again, and this time I will write as if this piece (which is not a piece) were a finished work.
The Artist’s Studio is as an elaborately constructed sonic allegory with origins in the world of the visual arts. The title has been appropriated from a painting by Vermeer (1632-1675) of the same name, but the content of the work owes its direct inspiration to a painting by Velázquez (1599-1660) entitled The Maids of Honor. Both paintings portray the artist in the act of painting. For the sake of clarity, I will briefly describe the basic representational content (as opposed to the technical content) contained in the painting by Velázquez:
A scene depicting a young princess being attended by her maids dominates the foreground of the painting. She is clearly being prepared as the subject of a portrait that is presently in the process of being painted. Velázquez himself is situated on the left side of the painting, facing the viewer, ostensibly pausing for a moment from painting a portrait of the princess to his left. He is pausing to acknowledge the presence of his patrons, the king and queen of Spain, who can be seen in a mirror behind him. On the same wall as the mirror we notice several finished paintings. In fact, the artist’s studio is a gallery of finished artwork. The work-in-progress of the painted Velázquez cannot actually be seen, given our vantage point, but we do see the back of a portion of the frame and structural scaffolding, which gives an indication of the size and scope of the finished work to come.
Velázquez, by offering a painting of a moment in the painting of another work, is showing that the process of production can be just as interesting, if not more so, than the product itself. In fact, the process can be reconstituted as a product possessing great intrinsic value.
I was interested in creating a temporal, musical analogue to this depiction of the creation of a work. Now that I have provided some historical motivation for my piece, The Artist’s Studio, as if to substantiate and validate the act of its composition, I would like to construct and apply to the work a “programme” with commentary. What is happening now, then, in my current attempt to write these program notes, is an act of interpretation. I will be applying a narrative to the piece in which I may or may not believe, and which I hope will be seen as only one of many possible ways of encountering this process/piece (which is also not a process piece…).
*The pianist is the composer. The piece opens with the pianist trying to compose the piece in progress. Some ideas are “good”, some are “bad.” The bad ideas frustrate the composer/pianist, who then rejects the material. At times the rejection is violent, as if crumpling and destroying the manuscript while kicking a chair or something; sometimes only slight modifications are necessary, and it is a good thing that the composer writes in pencil.
*Gradually the composer begins to conceive of the piece as being appropriate for a chamber orchestra. The composer explores a variety of avenues, replete with “interesting” orchestrational choices, false starts, and odd configurations of the material.
*Things are bad, and it’s time to step back and breathe… The pianist composes himself, and tries a different approach. All the while, the composer dreams about his new coil binder, and how this will change everything.
*After indulging in a self-gratifying piano solo (just for fun—this would never be allowable in a real piece of music), the composer finally settles on what seems to be a good idea. This idea had been tentatively proposed through improvisation before, but now it is ready to be seri-ously composed. The pianist/composer plays through the material in a number of interesting ways, but quickly finds that he does not know how to continue. With increasing frustration, he tries to orchestrate and play his way out of the idea, but cannot avoid repeating himself (an unusual situation for a composer…).
*Full rejection is the only solution (perhaps the composer is drawing from “life experience”). Now the work is finished, but as in the Velázquez, the audience only sees the back of the canvas. Through the coil-induced haze of the percussion’s bull-roar-frame, we catch glimpses of what the final piece might be like. The view is oddly jagged, and time is compressed because the audience is not seeing the piece from a frontal vantage.
*In a martial spirit, the pianist/composer wishes to have done with the work, and proceeds to take the music in a different direction. Once again having second thoughts, the composer backs off from the material. This time, however, as he retreats, the composer suddenly realizes that the musical materials should be reconfigured as a string quartet. Thus it is that the most fully formed idea in the piece leaps from the torso of the larger “work,” and takes its place as an embedded, separate entity on the far wall of The Artist’s Studio.
This is a piece situated between my last piece and my next piece. It is also a piece about a piece that has never been written, and never will be. Yet it will likely be revised.
Version: Piano and Chamber Orchestra
Year composed: 2005
Ensemble type: Orchestra:Chamber Orchestra with Soloist(s)
Instrumentation: 2 Flute, 1 Oboe, 2 Clarinet, 1 Bassoon, 2 Horn in F, 1 Trumpet, 1 Trombone, 1 Bass Trombone, 3 Percussion (General), ,1 Piano soloist(s), 2 Violin, 1 Viola, 1 Cello, 1 Double bass, 2 Harp
Instrumentation notes: Solo pno - 2d2.1.2d2.1 - 18.104.22.168 - 3perc.2hp - 22.214.171.124.1