Category Archives: Composition

Weaving the Backstory with Sunny Yang


Sunny Yang:   Color is Everything

Last Friday, in UCSB’s Geiringer Hall, fans of music, new and old alike, were treated to a master class featuring Sunny Yang, cellist of the Kronos Quartet,  On the hotseat, our own music department’s Young Artist Piano Quartet playing Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor.

The Young Artist Piano Quartet is the graduate scholarship quartet in residence at UCSB, and the members are some of our best and brightest.  They include:

Leslie Cain – piano

Youjin Jung – violin

Jordan Warmath – viola

Larissa Fedoryka – cello

A master class is a wonderfully terrible experience. The performers strive to impress a luminary, all the while knowing that any peccadillo is going to be fair game for criticism and correction.  There’s almost a temptation to leave a breadcrumb trail of errors as a defense mechanism. At the same time, the audience is listening ever so carefully, waiting for problems and trying to pick out which aspect of the performance, which little failure the expert will select to discuss. No matter how hard you try, there is no perfection in a master class. Ever.

Sunny Yang is currently the cellist with the Kronos Quartet. She holds a Master of Music degree, earned at USC as a student of Ralph Kirshbaum.  Her first order of business was to put the quartet at ease with her embracing smile. Then she chose to focus on the variety of emotions the piece presents.  She asked pianist Leslie Cain to recall one of her sweetest emotions of childhood. Then she asked Larissa Fedoryka about what she was thinking and feeling.  Larissa took a moment and replied that she was trying to convey deep sadness. It was then that I realized how difficult it can be to name the emotions we bring to music.

I thought back to elementary school, and our fourth grade lesson on vivid verbs. Each student would try to outdo the next with a more specific word.  If Jack went to the store, Alissa walked, Danny trotted, Jace tumbled. When Miguel had juice, Jimmie drank, Natalie swigged, and Cody guzzled. I realized it’s like that with music.  What I had been thinking of as merely sad is really drizzled with poignancy or haunted with elusiveness, and happy becomes crystallized with joy, twinkling with tenderness, or cloying with sweetness.

Next, Ms. Yang talked talked about timing, and how each individual player must give time and take time from the others. Again and again she spoke about how to put “color” in the music at the cost of technical perfection. She asked Youjin Jung to play a pair of notes on alternating strings repeatedly.  A first tendency is to repeat the notes with equal pressure, equal bow angle, equal time. In reality, we can alternate those same notes in hundreds of different ways.

Ms. Yang complimented Jordan Warmath on her ability to communicate with the cellist and violinist, and discussed the difficulty of including the piano in the the circle.  She suggested that while dynamics must be appropriate to the emotion, they are also  one of an ensemble’s best ways to signal changes in mood, and that the piano, with its greater dynamic range, can share its dynamics to widen the circle.

What occurred to me as Ms. Yang spoke is that there are a very limited number of traditional fancy foreign words that composers have at their disposal, and that timing, dynamics, and mood can quickly become unreadable if the composer is extremely specific.  And suddenly I had the great revelation that we aren’t supposed to be technically perfect — that we, as artists are responsible for supplying the gradations that would have only cluttered up our manuscript.  The music is just the outline, we must bring our own story.

When I was little, my coach, Yi Huan Zhou, would tell me micro stories to match the music I was playing. In one, a little girl runs away from home and becomes afraid.  In another, the little girl fails her spelling test after staying up all night, then realizes that it isn’t very important at all.

I think we, as members of an ensemble must also create stories, not just images of joy or sorrow, but entire stories.  More importantly, we must share our stories with each other.

When the violinist chooses to interpret a phrase with anticipation, and the cellist, with trepidation, they should be very specific about the emotions they intend to convey, and discuss them by telling a tale.  Then the pianist won’t be inspired to jump in with enthusiasm, when cajoling is what’s called for, and the cellist will tiptoe rather than stomp in.  Color balancing color.

What I learn in this master class is that color is everything, and that without sharing the emotions we bring to a piece, we have only colored our own thread, we haven’t really woven a collective back story.  The colors of our story must entwine with the colors of others if we want to present the audience with a cohesive emotional understanding of our music.

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Dame Ethel Mary Smyth’s Double Concerto for Horn and Violin

The First Feminist Composer, Ethel Smyth

Until earlier this year, my sole experience with turn of the century British feminist history was a footnote in my high school AP European History book. So when asked about Emmeline Pankhurst on the AP exam, I would have been out of luck were it not for the Sherman Brothers’ “Sister Suffragette” lyrics that I’d remembered from the movie-musical, Mary Poppins.

Sister Suffragette” is a high-energy, shower-worthy tune, with lines like, “Our daughters’ daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus, well done, Sister Suffragette!” Down in the less catchy zone of the lyrics is the phrase, “Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again”, a reference to one of the leaders of the British Suffragette movement. So I aced that question on the AP exam. Fortunately, I wasn’t asked to name the real anthem of the suffragette movement, as Mary Poppins offers no help there.

That honor belongs to “The March of the Women”, written by composer, Ethel Smyth, with lyrics by Cicely Hamilton. Smyth dedicated her song to the Women’s Social and Political Union, and with help from Emmeline Pankhurst, it was adopted as the group’s official anthem. Ethel Smyth was a rarity – she was not just one of the earliest female composers, but one who’s work is inspired and infused with a feminist agenda.

I will be playing Smyth’s Double Concerto for  Violin and Horn in the not-to-distant future.  I haven’t been able to find much about it, so I have written some program notes just for myself.

About the Double Concerto:

Dame Ethel Smyth’s Double Concerto for Horn, Violin and Orchestra/Piano is a challenging piece by any measure.  It runs close to a half an hour, and is joyous, somber, and even frilly in some places.

I Allegro Moderato

The double concerto opens sweetly with a wistful, aspiring theme that says, “Here you have it!”  as if we are to undertake a challenging task that will involve many different approaches. We are fresh to do our work, we will rise to the challenge.  Small successes are greatly celebrated, while a brief failure or two are swiftly and softly mourned before the task is again undertaken.  In some ways, we feel as if we are solving a five thousand piece puzzle. Much examination of each piece, pairing by color, sorting by shape, and grouping smaller sets into larger, we begin to recognize a forest, then a granite-faced cliff, and a small town town emerges in the background. As the puzzle comes together, we creep into the landscape ourselves and try to peep around a corner.  But we realize that it is all an illusion.

II Elegy (In Memoriam)

Smyth’s elegy is quite restrained.  I wish I could have stepped inside her mind to understand what she was trying to describe. It’s not a dirge or a funeral march, its a gentle lament.  If it weren’t for the dynamics, I fear the piece would be a washout.  But with the right dynamics, it does feel like a rainy day with thunder in the distance. I can just hear pages of yesterday’s newspaper fluttering almost inaudibly, blown against a screen door that is no longer slamming now that the wind has died down. I wonder if Dame Ethel was too optimistic and happy to write a properly morose elegy, I’ve certainly heard much more depressing music than she seems able to muster.

III Presto

There is pageantry of dervish proportion in this runaway march-flavored finale. What surprises me is that the movement has a sort of Disney feel to it for most of its approximately ten minutes of playing time. The horn and violin separate a little more in this movement, as if their individual stories have somewhat independent outcomes. The horn urges the violin to follow, and they do play together for a while before diverging. The violin returns to seek safety in the sand while the horn sets sail for the big wide world.  It’s an altogether a fitting finale for such a wonderfully virtuosic pairing of instruments.

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Full of Noise

Music is like a woven tapestry.  It has rich silk jewel tones, rough tufts of earthen fibers.  A decent chamber composition is gentle enough to separate as you listen, a little crochet hook in your mind lets a special passage flow through your deepest emotions and evoke long unvisited memories.

At least I thought that I understood music this way — and then I listened to some pieces by the British composer, Thomas Adès. Adès is a forty-something artist who has shared his love story with the expression of sound in his book, Thomas Adès: Full of Noises: Conversations with Tom Service by Thomas Ades, Tom Service.

I’ve put the book on my wish list so that I can eventually write a serious review of it. Will I be convinced that there is purpose and meaning behind works that alternately sound like Mozart gargling with sand and a kitten singing in the dryer on a gorgeous autumn day? As it turns out, there is a stately, surefooted beauty to that sort of thing.

Adès’ violin concerto, Concentric Paths, seems like it would be particularly amazing to play. I’ve listened to some recordings of it, and they were surprisingly very differently interpreted. I think there is always going to be room for a fresh take on it. I’m not quite so sure I could sell my chamber orchestra friends on it, but stranger things have happened.

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