Incidentally, the premiere of Night Air with the CCO was terrific. There's a lot of talent and grace going into that group's inaugural season and I'm damn proud of everyone. Keep up the great work, all.
It's always nice when a piece incites questions and discussion rather than tepid cocktail-party compliments. I had a couple of the former, including a complaint or two as well as several rogue interpretations. I don't mind multivalence, actually I get quite a kick out of it, but it was so interesting to hear that the group had read Night Air as a winter piece--one player even imagined it taking place indoors during the winter. It's not right or wrong, I suppose, it's just wildly different than my opinion on the matter. The discussion made me realize that I have never written a winter piece, and if I have any influence in the matter I will never, EVER, write an "indoor piece." I'm not a winter guy by nature, and I think my music is all essentially summer music: if it takes place in a certain setting, it's likely evening or night in the summer, emphatically outside, imbued with that estival mysticism which is one of my favorite things in life.
And which one finds manifested gorgeously in Bartók's "night music" movements.
Earthiness: it's not often associated with contemporary music, virtually never with jazz, and it's a part of my personality easily ignored at the piano. (The acoustic guitar is stereotypically earthier.) I have a difficult time maintaining it in the winter, as well, without that breath of warm fresh air to remind me. It's an element that just goes dormant in the winter, and I'm tremendously energized when it wakes up again in the spring. For this reason living in Texas was pleasantly and constantly over-stimulating to me; the summer feeling was present almost all year.
Well, this winter I'm not in Texas, I'm in the Canadian Rockies, which have their own charms (it's been snowing for three days). But I'm wearing this little bracelet I bought for a dollar at the Banff trading post. I like to see it on my wrist when I'm indoors, playing the piano; it serves as a reminder of that summer feeling, connects me to that crucial part of my soul.
This actually has quite a bit to do with why the string quartet made such a glorious medium for Béla Bartók. The great modernist composers are praised for their cerebral qualities and bold inventiveness, but they weren't the earthiest bunch, with Bartók as the towering exception. For him of course it was peasant folk music that connected his intellectual probings, his harmonic and formal experiments, to solid ground. In a much more fundamental, wide-ranging manner than my bracelet, of course, but there's a connection. It's in Bartók's music that the braininess of modern music feels most clearly to be an outgrowth of nature--as all music, of course, as all of us ultimately are.
And the string quartet? Well, I love Bartók in all media, but his orchestra music has this colorful airiness, and his piano music this cold, hard exterior. The string quartets are warm, grounded, inviting -- they are the earthiest music of an earthy composer. There's something direct and sensuous about the quartet that is lost when expanded to a full string section. So throughout these six monumental pieces, even at their most abstract, there is a certain pull. People who don't know modern music criticize it as unemotional, somehow inhuman; the string quartets are among Bartók's canon perhaps the most brimming with humanity.
For the record, Night Air was written when I got to Banff in October, and it was still lovely outside. It was a winter concert, so if it needed to serve as a winter piece, I can accept that. But that doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to spring.
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