River People

There’s a river in the Ukraine about 200 miles from Kovel, where the Zapruder side of my family lived before they came to America. The river is called the Prut River, and, as our name is Zapruder, we’ve heard some speculation that maybe our name means something like “Prut River People.”

In the summer of 2014 I spent a few weeks in Alaska as part of the Composing in the Wilderness program, including one unforgettable night in Slaven’s Roadhouse on the banks of the Yukon River, here:

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The video above was taken at around 3 or 4 in the morning, after I had spent the night writing the last movement of a new piece.

That piece will be performed next week at Bates Hall at the University of Texas, and, this being the first performance of one of my pieces at UT, and because the piece is an atypical one for me, and because I wrote it in eight days, and because I think it is in some ways an atypical piece of contemporary composition, I have things I want to say about it.

The piece is called How You Found It, and it is a four movement piece for piano, horn, trumpet and trombone. It’s about 12 minutes long.

One of my teachers described it as “an attractive little piece” (hereafter, ALP), and I think that’s generally pretty accurate. Ordinarily I would chafe at the suggestion that one of my pieces was merely “attractive” and “little” – like most composers I am attracted to composition for its depth, and for the arduous but profound process of connecting a musical idea – a set of relationships of one kind of another – with something that ultimately feels like truth (or at least feels like the absence – the banishment – of lies). Writers discover the truth of what they are trying to say by writing it; composers discover the truth by composing it.

So I have in myself an ideal of composition that includes truth but also depth, and, so far, my best compositions are the products of considerable toil, and are finished when the musical ideas has been developed fully. Something like that, anyway.

But (whether or not my family name means “river prut people”), after swimming in and spending a full night writing music and looking at the Yukon River flowing by, I am also undoubtedly a river person. That time beside that river was one of the peak moments of my (contemplative) life, and the movement I wrote that night reflects the simple fact of the river and my place beside it.

To say I was humbled would be accurate but inadequate. To say I was annihilated by the power, the sense of time, and the utter implacability of the Yukon would be going (just a little bit) too far. Like in many experiences in deep, wild places where the planet asserts its natural identity, I nearly disappeared into something vast.

In that experience, I could not and would not want to write something complicated. I was looking to touch a unity that is profound and far from simple, but which also is plain, ordinary, dirty (in the sense that nature is basically made of dirt).

So the last movement is a love song to the river and to the people I met in Alaska, and it is – and here’s the key thing – humble music. This is where contemporary composition and this particular experience create some interesting friction. The Yukon River made me write an ALP (ok, having only 8 days did, too – after all, I could have developed the music after I got back, I suppose).

I am not in Alaska anymore, and I am just as susceptible to vanity and concern for what people will think of me as anyone else, and so, as the musicians and I rehearse the piece and as I think about how I will feel in the concert hall as the piece is played, I notice a lot of things happening.

I worry that the piece will not work, of course. It is actually fairly hard to play, not because it is technically challenging, but because it is, in many places, not particularly technically challenging. There is little complexity behind which I can hide any compositional failures, shortcomings, etc. In the last movement, there just aren’t very many notes, and the ones there are come slowly and are difficult to time.

I worry more that my new colleagues and friends at UT will not like the piece, or worse, that they will think I am not ambitious or that I cannot write more developed music or that they will think this piece is a typical one for me. I have to question myself here, and this is where the whole ALP/contemporary composition vs. the Yukon River comes up – what has more authority, presence, enduring realness: our thoughts about contemporary composition, or the Yukon River?

Like the dude, the river abides. I like knowing its out there. And (among other things), this piece tries to honor the raw fact of the Yukon River and of wild Alaska in general, while also sustaining at least some values of contemporary classical music, among them depth and complexity. I find that interesting and also somewhat scary. How You Found It also wants to satisfy those values of musical depth that a piece written in eight days might not be able to manage. Then again, it might, and that is maybe the most interesting thing of all. Looked at from another altitude, so to speak, putting this piece on this concert is an effort to further broaden the permissible or expected types of music that our new music concerts encompass. And I don’t mean in terms of ALPs, I mean in terms of wildness, immediacy, simplicity, roughness, and maybe even raw expression, which is a term that came up in a recent meeting of CLUTCH, our UT composers’ concert series group.

I will post the audio and video of the performance next week and you can decide for yourself, and I will also post the performance of the last movement as the soundtrack to the full video I took of that ineffable Yukon River powering by, and we’ll see if the music seems to be, to coin a phrase, “lying or trying,” by which I mean is it lying or is it (at least) trying to tell the truth.

Yours, in curiosity,


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