Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Making of World's End Preludes (2012-2015) for solo piano

Ridge side of the Devisadero Trail (with view in the distance of sacred Taos mountain)

When I composed Devisadero (2002-2007) for solo piano, from sketches made during walks on a trail of the same name near Taos New Mexico, I regarded it as a piece that would eventually be connected to miniatures I had been commissioned to write, by invitation from member Mollie O'Meara,  for the New Mexico Music Teachers Association (now the Professional Music Teachers of New Mexico), that would be premiered by my colleague Falko Steinbach at their next annual meeting in 2002. Perhaps the most misunderstood of all my titles, Four Romantic Miniatures (2001-2002) was written to be played by students, high school and up, though Falko thought it worthy of performance as part of his recitals and he programmed it many times all over the world. The use of the term "romantic" hearkens back to the 19th century sense of self and world, a philosophical stance well understood at that time, rather than solely as a "style," which was confusing for some since neo-romanticism was (yet again) all the rage and, worse, I was exploring tonality for the first time. Each miniature was influenced by a composer whose work I admired and borrowed from something characteristic of theirs. The first (and best of them I think) was influenced by Miles Davis and borrowed material from the Joseph Zawinul tune (Pharoah's Dance) that opens Bitches Brew. The second and third were influenced by Charles Ives and John Lennon/Brian Wilson respectively with the latter a "mashup" of one of my favorite chord progressions (John Lennon's opening to If I Fell) and the last chord (all vocals) before the final section of Brian Wilson's Good Vibrations. These two don't really stand alone so I didn't plan on using them elsewhere. The final one was the first I wrote, influenced by my favorite composer of the time Robert Schumann, whose work I had begun to explore in great detail following an off-hand comment by my dear departed friend, the great composer and writer Konrad Boehmer, who when discovering that I didn't like Schumann, knowing only the orchestral work and hating his awful (and badly written) timpani parts, recommended I listen to his three violin sonatas. That did the trick and I've been studying him, like the master he is, ever since. You can hear all four of my "romantic" miniatures here:

Four Romantic Miniatures (2002), Falko Steinbach, piano

Devisadero was put aside as I worked on my Songs of Love and Longing (2001-2003) and then after finishing that I started writing a four movement piece for winds and percussion, Openings (2004-2007), dedicated to my father Terry Shultis, who had begun the slow process of dying from Alzheimer's Disease. By then, I was living part time in Pennsylvania and pianist and composer Curt Cacioppo, who teaches at Haverford College, asked me to write him a solo piano piece. I finished Openings in June, sketched in the Manzano mountain wilderness in New Mexico but composed in a chapel inside Ardmore Presbyterian Church in Ardmore Pennsylvania, and using sketches from the Devisadero Trail, I composed Devisadero in that same chapel, completing it just before the end of the year.  Devisadero was premiered first in 2008 by Curt Cacioppo, and my father was well enough to attend the premiere of Openings the following year in 2009. He and I sat next to each other in Popejoy Hall as the UNM Wind Symphony, under the direction of Eric Rombach-Kendall, gave a definitive performance.

By then, I had started walking in the woods of Pennsylvania, the trails along the Wissahickon at first, then the trails near French Creek, and finally along the Appalachian Trail, in particular the section that begins at the Hamburg reservoir, past Pulpit Rock up to the Pinnacle, highest point of the AT in Pennsylvania. I composed two pieces sketched from walks on these trails, (From) Waldmusik: Wissahickon, Pulpit Rock, French Creek (2009) for two pianos, one played by a percussionist and Circlings (2010) for four Gayageums, electronics and video by Hee Sook Kim. You can hear and see them by clicking on these links:

Waldmusik (2008-2009) performed by the Hoffmann-Goldstein duo, video by Hee Sook Kim

Circlings (2010) for Gayageums and Electronics, performed by the Gyeonggi Gayageum Quartet, video by Hee Sook Kim

Both pieces include field recordings, the first, a surprise recording of a siren on the Lenape Trail in the French Creek State Park (which turned out to be a warning siren for a nearby nuclear power plant), the second, field recordings in the mountains of Korea from my first visit there in 2009, including recordings of Buddhist chant (male and female) in temples found in Saraksan (male) and Gonju (female). But the inspiration of Circlings began with a disastrous walk in the woods of French Creek, the same trail where I heard the siren, where Hee Sook and I, suffering from heat stroke on a very hot and humid afternoon, got lost in the woods. A park ranger had to actually seek us out. After years of walking alone in the New Mexico wilderness, with (typically) no real trail markings of any consistency, I got lost on a supposedly well-marked trail in the woods of Pennsylvania. The text that accompanies Circlings goes like this: "In the woods, all directions seem the right ones." I'm spending some time on these two pieces because they along with Devisadero and the piece I will now discuss, the World's End Preludes, together with my electronic work Wind, Water, Walk (2008-2009), recorded on the Spruce Spring trail, the same trail where I sketched Openings, complete the piece I've been working on since 2003: Waldmusik (2003-2015) started during a Wurlitzer residency in Taos in the summer of 2003. That piece began with the following, before I'd ever written a note:

walking in woods
listening ...
what I hear :

Interestingly enough, I wasn't really walking in the woods when I wrote that text, certainly not the thick woods of Pennsylvania where the impenetrable forest changed things drastically for me--used to finding my way by the ever-present sun in New Mexico as well as the confidence of knowing that mountain trails literally go up and down, rather than the more typical circles I've found in the Pennsylvania woods. My Pennsylvania pieces are, I think, some of my very best but they are darker, troubled even. And I began to wonder why ... why such dis-ease walking in the woods? In contrast, my walks in New Mexico were a kind of meditation, a Buddhistic "sitting while walking" as the artist Mayumi Nishida once described it in conversation.

Not long after writing those pieces, I went camping and walking in north central Pennsylvania, finding a great WPA built campground called World's End State Park. It started in July of 2012, when I took this picture and posted it on Facebook:

I thought it was funny--the world's end in north central Pennsylvania?--and immediately decided the new preludes I would add to my "Preludes and Miniatures" project would be called my "World's End Preludes." The piece, finished in Taos, New Mexico three years later, ended up not being funny at all, instead pointing me to a new direction in my life and work.

Spending a few days there camping and walking, a beautiful place. Below is a photo from the highest point, Canyon Vista, looking down into the canyon:

The first clue that I had found myself somewhere I'd never been before, similar to how I felt getting so lost on the Lenape trail in French Creek, was when I started reading the historical markers near the campgrounds. Anyone who knows me, knows I stop for all of them, always wanting to know what they say and what in that place has such historical importance. Here's a photo of the first one I saw:

Maybe I'm the only one who finds this sign's message a bit strange. I understand the significance of the path itself, obviously a main thoroughfare and, as I found out, almost all the great Indian paths are now, like this one, turned into a road. But who was this Moravian Bishop Ettwein, so well known apparently that the sign doesn't even include his first name? And who were these Christian Indians with whom he was traveling in 1772, only one year before the Boston Tea Party sparked an eventual revolution in this country? And finally, what was the significance of this "City of Peace" on the Beaver River? I didn't even know where the Beaver river was at that point. I decided to find out the answers to all these questions and following that story became the path that led to my World's End Preludes.

I spent quite a bit of time reading about John Ettwein and the history of the Moravian presence in this part of the United States and learned about how Ettwein and a group of Lenape (known as Delaware by the Moravians) took the long journey from near present day Wyalusing to what they called Friedenstadt (the Moravian's native language was German) or as the sign translates into English "City of Peace." Here's a map of the Wyalusing Path they followed (World's End State Park is located on the Loyalsock):

At the bottom of the map you can see "to Shamokin" and that's the Great Shamokin Path which Ettwein and his converts used to travel across the state of Pennsylvania. Here's the sign that commemorates their journey on that path:

Now we finally learn that it was John Ettwein (not just his last name) and that he had "200 Indians and their cows" with him. We also now know they were at this point of the trail in July 1772. The Great Shamokin Path was, as mentioned, a major thoroughfare and it was used by Ettwein and his followers to take them most of the way west across what is now the state of Pennsylvania.

The map is so big I'll show it below in two parts:

You can see in the upper right hand corner where they would have picked up the trail west, "to Towanda" can be found on both maps and it is likely they would have reached the Great Shamokin Trail somewhere between Muncy and Montgomery.

From Kittanning (the end of the Great Shamokin) to Friedensstadt, or at least the marker where Friedensstadt used to be, is around fifty miles. The nearest present day town would be Moravia near the Beaver River, alongside which (as the original Wyalusing sign mentioned) Ettwein and his followers settled. To give some basic geographical perspective, Friedensstadt is about forty miles north of Pittsburgh. Altogether, from Wyalusing to Friedensstadt would have been approximately three hundred miles, a long trip. Here is a photo of the marker, taken by me in June 2014 during a drive taken by Hee Sook and I following the path of Ettwein west:

So now more information. Ettwein did not "found"the settlement called Friedensstadt (as described in the Wyalusing Path sign) but instead did something that actually makes more sense, joining a settlement already founded two years earlier by his fellow Moravian Bishop David Zeisberger. But it's another sign, found near this same location that tells the rest of the story:

Friedensstadt was "abandoned" because it was no longer safe for them to stay there. So they moved west where they had connections with the native population. Their settlement in Ohio was called Gnadenhütten (which I translate as "Cabins of Grace") and here Ettwein, Heckewelder and Zeisberger formed a large and successful farming community with their Lenape brothers and sisters. Below is a photo of the countryside just outside of the present day Gnadenhütten, taken in June, 2014:

It is the last sentence of the marker previously shown that brought me here. I knew the story already from my research, which led to my trip west in the first place, but following their path in person and physically being in the places where Ettwein and the Lenape with him had been, convinced me that there was something I needed to do. I stayed in Gnadenhütten and visited the site of the massacre, which is described in some detail in this historical marker:

To be exact, ninety-six were murdered on the site where this marker is located, executed, as mentioned, by Pennsylvania militia who "mistook" them for "Indian raiders who had struck in western Pennsylvania," first with a club to the head, followed by each of them being scalped. The village by the way was "abandoned" because the bishops were accused of treason by the British, who by then were at war with the colonies, and were called away to testify regarding their innocence. The massacre occurred during their absence.

When I was in Gnadenhütten I visited the massacre site several times and also visited the Moravian church that still exists in Gnadenhütten, the John Heckenwelder Memorial Church (named after one of the bishops who came there with Ettwein and Zeisberger), where I was given a very informative tour by Sigrid Miller who works there. As someone who attends a Quaker meeting at home (Old Haverford Friends), I felt a strong connection to the Moravians, who, like the Quakers,  share my pacifist beliefs.

I had by then realized that my uneasy feelings walking the trails of Pennsylvania had to do with the sense of absence I felt walking on them. The trails of New Mexico were made by native peoples who were still there; the trails of Pennsylvania by native peoples who were gone and never coming back. For me, the path of Ettwein and the Lenape became a kind of representation of this forced absence, a great tragedy that served as a symbol of the much larger tragedy of what happened to the native population everywhere across what was, at the time of the massacre in Gnadenhütten, about to the become the United States of America. Traveling to Gnadenhütten was meant to prepare me for a reversal--I planned to walk from Gnadenhütten back to World's End, and when I got there take the sketches, some of which I'd already written, and compose my World's End Preludes.

But as we drove back, intentionally following the path's modern descendent, part of it a several lane highway, I began to understand that it wouldn't be very practical to walk three hundred miles with a heavy backpack on highways, even dangerous in all likelihood, and certainly not conducive to the inspiration I was seeking in order to compose the piece. We stopped at one point, where we had read there was still an original section of the Great Shamokin Path. Here's a photo of the sign that led us directly to it: 

If you look back at the map, you can see Cowanshannock, it's not far from Kittanning, as we followed the road leading to the path, we noticed we were driving into a private neighborhood and when we parked, at the head of this section of the trail, we were met with great suspicion by the person who owned the house at the foot of the trail. And though he was fine after he found out why we were there, I was also feeling increasingly apprehensive about someone like me walking across parts of Pennsylvania that probably haven't changed much in their opinions about outsiders since the eighteen century time period that brought me there in the first place. Here's what that part of the trail looks like, with Hee Sook walking on it to give some idea of its scale: 

We took careful notes, looking for places I could camp, measuring according to miles how long I could walk and if there were no areas suitable for camping looking for motels or churches where I might be able to ask ahead. It was time consuming and frustrating, especially since it was so obvious, as is true almost everywhere in the United States, that travel by anything other than car was simply not going to be a very good option. And then, thanks to the long drive, including a visit to Walden Pond where we were researching the opera we are now writing for the Akros Percussive Collective, I hurt my back and went into a long period of physical therapy. My plan for retracing the walk of Ettwein in reverse was over.

But after I recovered from my injury and started walking the trails of Pennsylvania again, I began to also revisit my sketches. One came from a another visit to World's End, written on the Loyalsock Trail in October 2013, where I took this picture:

Here's that sketch, where I've already written what is essentially the material of the last prelude, "World's End" with the subtitle, borrowing from the last three lines of T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men": "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper."

Just recently, the composer Curt Cacioppo (for whom I'd written Devisadero) drew my attention to a recording of Eliot himself reading this poem. I translate the three repeated lines ("this is the way the world ends") into music, not a low D like in the sketch but just above middle C, and played at 40 mm per quarter note, very slow. In Eliot's reading the tempo is quite fast, even faster than my original sketch of 120 to the quarter.

My sketches also provided a very strong sense of form and even back then, long before I visited Gnadenhütten, I had been thinking about connecting the World's End Preludes to Devisadero. While staying at a cabin in French Creek, I sketched out the form and, thinking aloud, tried to decide whether the preludes in their completed version would begin or end with the World's End Preludes, after which I decide ("this is it") in favor of ending with Devisadero.

At this point, I'm still thinking of including the miniatures--MD for five Miles Davis influenced miniatures after the four preludes of World's End, a minute of silence, after which five Schumann influenced miniatures would come before the six preludes of Devisadero to end the complete work. The text above is my writing out of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki's commentaries on the Ten Ox Herding Pictures (number 9 and especially number 10 describing the second version where the fat man returns bearing gifts) which were intentionally being used by me, numerically and otherwise, as a means of making decisions about the form of the piece.

Another important sketch concerns the use of sleigh bells, realizing that I wanted there to be a connection between the World's End Preludes and the "French Creek" movement of my (from) Waldmusik. In fact, the idea of having the same material came to me on the same trail where I wrote that French Creek movement, the Lenape Trail.

Walking the Lenape Trail again, like I am in the picture above, I knew then that putting Devisadero at the end, and the World's End Preludes at the beginning, not only made sense but also told me where I would finish the piece. Not in a place where the trails were empty of native peoples, but back in the place where I lived for more than thirty years, and specifically back to the place where I wrote Devisadero, the high mountains near Taos, home of one of the great Pueblo tribes of New Mexico.

Once I was back above the tree line (above a picture near Gold Hill, altitude around 12,000 feet) things went very quickly. I followed a routine that included long early morning walks into high mountain wilderness and then, thanks to permission from St. James Episcopal Church in Taos, I would spend the afternoons composing in their sanctuary on a beautiful Steinway grand. The movements had already by then been decided, four as previously mentioned, with the titles, "Wyalusing," "Friedensstadt," "Gnadenhütten," and "World's End."Wyalusing" and "Friedensstadt" were composed first, using sketches and then basically improvising at the piano, only writing down in shorthand what was needed to perform and then recording myself after it was finished. In "Friedensstadt" I refer back to the church bell chiming sound found in the second and sixth preludes of Devisadero, there influenced by the sound of church bells as I was composing in a chapel of Ardmore Presbyterian Church, but here related to what will come later in the movement: excerpts from Moravian hymns written at (or before) the time of the massacre found through research in Moravian hymn books at the University of New Mexico library. The Moravians loved to sing hymns and David Zeisberger translated many of them into the Lenape language. I chose three, (in the order shown below with the excerpts I used marked), placed at the end of the "Friedensstadt" movement that moves without pause into the following prelude "Gnadenhütten."

"World's End" was already essentially complete before I came to Taos as can be seen in the pencil sketch I made at St. James (see below):

Here is a recording of me playing the last prelude "World's End" in St. James Episcopal Church, just after I finished composing it (July 2015).

All that was left to compose was the third prelude "Gnadenhütten" which I knew had to be a sonic depiction of the massacre itself. Unable and unwilling to compose this music in a sacred place like St. James, I traveled south to the University of New Mexico where I shut myself into room 1111 in the Center for the Arts, with a piano that had received much abuse from me in the past, and it did that night as well. Ninety six high As, sempre mezzo piano, half note equals forty throughout, with the rest of the instrument played brutally like a percussion instrument--hard mallet on piano interior and left forearm on the keys, gliss on strings. I didn't leave until it was finished, exhausted, I took the long drive back to Taos. It had been only three weeks since I'd arrived and never before had I put a piece of music on paper so quickly.

In March of 2016, I was invited to be part of the John Donald Robb Composers' Symposium and Emanuele Arciuli, for whom I had written the World's End Preludes gave a solo recital during the symposium where he premiered the piece. We also recorded the Preludes in Keller Hall at the University of New Mexico for an upcoming CD. Liz Rincon was the recording engineer and below is a picture of us from that recording session:

You can hear Emanuele's wonderful premiere performance here:

I've always written music out of a necessity, a need inside me, in this case to make peace with the place where I now live and walk by acknowledging those who came before me, those who walked there before me, and who are no longer there.  When I hear the World's End Preludes played alone, I always feel a deep sadness, especially when I hear those hymn excerpts just before what I know is coming next.  But as with the Ten Ox Herding Pictures, the tenth picture has two versions--one is the void, emptiness, but the other is a "fat man returning from the void, bearing gifts." When paired with Devisadero, the one minute of silence after World's End depicts that emptiness, and then, when you hear the "Walking" movement of Devisadero begin, for me (and the opening of the movement is literally the pace of my walking) it is like that second Ox Herding picture, putting the tragic story of the Lenape in contact with Taos--a magical, spiritual and healing place, where I personally was healed long ago and thanks to my own return, now back in Pennsylvania, healed again. And bearing gifts.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Composing "water/peace"

In 1989, artist (and fellow UNM faculty member) Basia Irland asked me to collaborate on what would eventually become "water/peace." I was reluctant. The year before, she and I--along with many others--collaborated on what up to then was the artistic highlight of my life: serving as artistic director for a John Cage retrospective where Cage himself was the featured guest. But 1988 was also the year when I first experienced symptoms of a performance-related injury that, by 1992, would incapacitate me to the point where not only couldn't I play percussion instruments, I couldn't even hold a pencil.  Since percussion was what I knew, and I was losing the ability to play, what could I contribute? Basia wouldn't have known that when she asked; when I agreed it became a way of finding out.

Basia was at that time already a well-established professional artist with a strong sense of aesthetic intention so her invitation came attached with both a general idea--water in relation to peace--and a project: performing at the North American Conference on Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution in Montreal, Canada, March 2-5, 1989. Our session was titled "Sculptural and Percussion Performance: Water as Metaphor." Her contribution to the work was the making of light sculptures, which created the environment where the music would be performed, book sculptures included as part of a long list of musical instruments from around the world, and the selection of texts, in some cases hand copied by Basia from the original sources. She also came up with the brilliant idea of wearing spelunking head lamps so we could see our instruments and read our texts in the otherwise darkened space within her light sculptures. I composed the structure: three sections, seven minutes each, with a four-minute collage to begin the work that included all the sounds and texts heard in the following twenty-one minutes.  Much of this was pre-recorded with the assistance of composer Daniel Paul Davis, who also made a computer-generated score by notating all the musical material in the recorded sections, which I myself performed. 

List of musical instruments for Montreal performance:

Score page of "water/peace," Davis transcription:

Sketch of collage:

To connect with the themes of water and peace, I included two water sources, provided by Daniel Davis, who as a sound designer for theater productions had a catalog of choices: the first, an up-close recording of a stream; the second, a recording of ocean waves that included the occasional sound of seagulls.  The electronic tape that we made included seven minutes of piano (played inside like a percussion instrument), seven minutes of vibraphone, and seven minutes of crotales.  At that time, in order to not be influenced by my own personal taste in sound selection, I chose pitches according to whether or not they were found in the source words of what I was working on. In this case, water and peace gave me the pitches, A and E (in water) and A, C and E (in peace).  Not fussy about naturals, sharps and flats, these choices provided me with a fairly large number of pitches: A-flat, A-natural, A-sharp; E-flat, E-natural, E-sharp, C-flat, C-natural, C-sharp. In section I, I played the piano interior, using the pitches A and E (water), and improvising my choices, one every eight seconds. In sections II and III, I did the same with vibraphone and crotales (respectively), improvising my choices every seven seconds and using the pitches, A, C and E (peace). These were recorded by Daniel Davis on the spot and became the underlying foundation of the twenty-one minutes that follow the opening collage.

Here is the piano score I used to improvise that first recorded section:

In addition, there were twenty-one texts chosen and read, both by Basia and I, some live and some recorded, one per minute.  On top of all this, Basia and I divided up the instruments, forty-one altogether, and played them--first (rapidly) in the four minute collage section, and then (in a less hurried context) over the course of the remaining twenty-one minutes. 

If pitch was decided somewhat arbitrarily by word choice, the form of the piece was carefully designed by numerical choices, both global and personal.  I mean both literally, as I was not much inclined then (not much now either for that matter) toward symbolic reference. Global references gave me continents (seven) and countries inside those continents. This latter count, in those pre-internet days not likely accurate then and certainly not accurate now, determined how many attacks there would be in each section. If the large scale form was as previously described a simple ABA  structure, the smaller scale division of seven was determined by the continents, three minutes each. With Antarctica placed in the middle, this meant that for those three minutes, because there were no countries, Basia and I stood in silence--no readings, no sounds.

The personal side of this involved the crisis that was happening in my life concurrent to my composing "water/peace," due to my already mentioned physical injury that, in turn, was inflicting enormous psychological and spiritual damage.  Writing and preparing "water/peace" included weeks of practice with Basia in a small make-shift studio using a boom-box to play the tape and placing the instruments on shelves that surrounded the room. Those practice sessions were, in themselves, healing events. Basia and I became closer as friends, and I was also able to continue playing percussion, which up until then was my entire life.  I enjoyed helping her learn to play the instruments. And it was gratifying to hear how good the piece sounded as we played it together. Only the second composition I had ever written in my life (the first was a solo percussionist piece I wrote for a concert in Baltimore the year before, written to replace a composition I could no longer play because of my injury), "water/peace" was clearly going to be a big success. I was so pleased!

"Water/Peace," at twenty-five minutes, still the longest piece of music I've ever composed, is also the last piece of percussion music I ever performed: an artistic marker of the end of my days as a percussionist, as well as, thanks to Basia's invitation, the beginning of my new life as a composer.  For that, and many other things over more than two decades of friendship, I'll be ever grateful.