You’ve Got to Work It

Something wonderful happened!!!

My piece White Apples has been chosen by the Lehner String Quartet for performance as part of the Contemporary Quartets series, hosted by Vox Novus and produced by Virtual Concert Halls. The concert will be streamed online on May 28, 2022 at 2PM. (Keep an eye out for a link on my Facebook and Instagram pages!)

I am so excited! It’s a really significant opportunity to partner with these incredible musicians and organizations.

Of course, there’s a story behind it. Behind the piece, and behind getting to this point.

The performance with the Lehner Quartet is not technically a premiere, but it might as well be.

I wrote the piece in 2014 while I was studying through the Continuing Education program at New England Conservatory. In one of my classes, we had the opportunity to work with a string quartet throughout the year to workshop our pieces. We met with the group twice a semester and received some feedback. The students in the group mainly complained that my piece was too difficult but couldn’t tell me how to adjust those sections. There were a couple of places I wasn’t sure how to notate in the best way, but no one could give me a clear answer. Additionally, a different cellist came to every meeting, and even to the final performance.

At the end of the year, we had a composition studio recital. Each of the students’ string quartets was performed. When I arrived, the string quartet was rehearsing with the new cellist. The first violinist was also new. It was clear they had not rehearsed previously. I get it. They were students and very busy; it was the end of the semester; the previous first violinist had already left for a summer internship.

But my piece is not sight-readable, nor is it something that can be put together in an ensemble’s first run-through. Needless to say, the premiere did not go well. I’m not sure the audience noticed, but it definitely interfered with the communication of the piece’s ideas.

It’s a quirky piece. It has four sections, and they are all very different. The cohesive material that holds them together is there, but it’s a bit obscured. The piece will not make sense if the movements are separated. The first movement starts off in atonality, and the piece morphs through different moods and harmonies until it finally arrives solidly in D Major. Our teacher had given us the poem “White Apples” by Donald Hall to consider as inspiration for our pieces. I love poetry and found something in the poem, so I took the bait.

These are my full program notes for the piece, and since this is my blog, I don’t have to worry about word count.

“White Apples” is loosely based on the poem of the same name by Donald Hall, wherein a young boy is awakened in the night by a knocking at his door the week after his father’s death. Like the poem, the composition explores the concepts of sleeping, awakening, death, and change.
Mvt. 1: Incognizance
“White Apples” opens with harmonic and rhythmic ambiguity reflecting the incoherent,
incomprehensible nature of the sleep state. The musical lines roll over and around each other, lulling the listener into an ineffable, yet palpable, experience of oblivion.
Mvt. 2: Awakening
The second movement summons the sleeper to unwelcome wakefulness with an abrupt
sforzando. The following measures capture the struggle between the longing for continued slumber and the acceptance of waking reality.
Mvt. 3: Emergence
The third movement explores the inner changes that occur as we enter a new reality, whether the subtle acclimation to a new morning or the more momentous adjustment to life-crises such as the death of the boy’s father in the poem. We start to transition tenuously but become stronger as time goes on.
Mvt. 4: Resolve
The decidedly tonal final movement brings resolution to the harmonic ambiguity of the
previous movements and finally arrives at its destination: a melancholy D Major. It affirms the decision to move forward and to be present and committed in a new reality – full of yearning and hope – yet also recognizes the lingering sadness of the memories and the life left behind.

I had three pieces performed at that recital, which was the first public performance of any of my compositions. I was very disappointed with the performance of the string quartet. I was discouraged, wondering if it was just plain too difficult. I was discouraged by the dismissal of the piece (and the others) by some musical friends of mine at the time. I had sent recordings to one of the local music teachers I had collaborated with over several years, and he emailed back, “Don’t bother me with this! I don’t have time to listen!” Another could only comment that the strings were out of tune. The general response from my broader social network was one of disinterest. Composing a piece is not a big deal to them, I guess, and it just wasn’t the type of music they were interested in.

It was really hard to keep composing after that. But I did.

I put away White Apples for a while and focused mostly on putting in the effort to keep trying, keep writing. I also got busier accompanying community choruses and helping my children finish out their last years of high school.

In 2018, I revised White Apples slightly to address some problems with double stops and clean up some notation. I also reworked a section that I felt didn’t have the strength I was looking for. I began sending it out, hoping that someone, somewhere would understand this unusual piece and love it like I do.

In 2019, it was chosen for performance at the national conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers. Unfortunately, that string quartet was also incredibly busy. When I arrived at the concert, I learned that, due to travel constraints and limited rehearsal time, they were only able to perform the first two movements. They performed those two movements well, but as I said the piece makes no sense if it is not complete. The second movement ended with a thud.

At one point, I had created a system to keep track of when and where I submitted each piece, but I lost track. I estimate I’ve sent out White Apples about ten times in the last four years. It finally landed in the right hands.

I faced a lot of frustration along the way. I don’t think anyone would have faulted me for giving up on White Apples. I could have easily let it fall by the wayside while focusing on what I was composing next. But when you believe in something, you’ve got to keep working it.

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