Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Composing at Seventeen


I took notice of the story by Katherine Shaver, “A Very Real and Unusual Talent” in The Washington Post, Dec. 14, about seventeen year old Bethesda MD composer Tudor Dominik Maican. (This is archived and requires purchase from the Post now; link.) First, the reader should look up (and purchase if necessary online) this link, where the Post provides a short indie film “Composing at Seventeen” (5:09) about Maican and plays some snippets of his piano and orchestral music. The article says that Maican was born on Beethoven’s birthday, so that would mean he turned 18 on Dec. 17 2006.

Every composer develops his own “sound” which evolves throughout the composer’s career but always identifies him. People with good ears for music learn to identify a composer by his “stamp” even when hearing a work for the first time. Thus Mozart and Haydn are similar but usually easy to distinguish. Beethoven and Schubert are very different. Brahms and Schumann have a similar outlook, but still are easy to distinguish. The same for Mahler and Bruckner, Tchaikowsky and Glazounov, or even Schoenberg and Berg. And Debussy and Ravel. Maican says he "hears the music" and writes it down, a point made in the MGM film Copying Beethoven when the composer describes how he composes the Grosse Fugue.

In the video, Maican’s piano music reminds me of Gershwin a little bit (even “Porgy and Bess”) but the orchestral extract sounded a bit like Leonard Bernstein, maybe a bit of “On the Waterfront.” Maican hmself mentions French impressionism and Romanian music (folk music? Enesco?) If I heard more, I could tell more what his music says. I couldn’t find anything else easily online, and I couldn’t find a CD yet on amazon, but I presume that will happen in time.

The Post has a link to an audio file of tone poem in progress, "Another World" (D'un Monde a l'Autre), at this link. The sound here is a curious mixture of impressionism with snippets of Schoenbergian expressionism. Maybe Charles Koechlin's Jungle Book (refers to Rudyard Kipling's stories) makes a good comparison. Imagine this music if they every get around to filming the Dominion-hopping (that is, world-hopping) of Clive Barker's novel "Imajica."

There is also "Reflections on James Joyce", link here,
for Soprano and chamber ensemble, partly atonal (but with repeated bass figures), a bit like Pierre Boulez. Then the impish "Trio for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon" at this link. Both of these were composed at 15. You can search the Post site for the photo gallery, too.

I had some of the same talents as a boy, and wrote three piano sonatas. The first, A Major, is rather perfunctory and rollicking (written around age 13, 1956). The second, d minor, which I wrote at 16 (1959), was inspired by Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. I think I have a thrilling D major climax at the end, but the harmonies need much more variety. The third, which I wrote in the spring of 1962 after my William and Mary “expulsion” documented elsewhere on my sites, nominally in C, is long and ventures into the twelve tone technique. In the first movement, there is a perfunctory theme in C, followed by a second theme in a minor, and the development section parses the themes into twelve tone rows. The recapitulation starts in E-flat minor and goes back to C. The second movement is a prestissimo (quite unplayable) scherzo in triple time in A-flat; the slow movement is in E-flat minor but has an opening theme based on a twelve tone row, and plays with the rows throughout. The finale is a bit Sibelian. If I really could get Cakewalk working and everything hooked up, maybe I could get somewhere with this. This news story gets me thinking.

During that lost semester at William and Mary in the fall of 1961, I had a friend from California, John, who claimed to have composed 57 symphonies. I don’t know whether to believe this, but he played for me a piano reduction of an E-flat major piano concerto, that I still remember today and could reconstruct if I had all the software set up. The second movement was a plainsong in g minor and had been composed in a hospital.

All of the juices rolled forth in 2002 when Warner Brothers TV presented Everwood, in which a surgeon, after losing his wife to a car accident, moves his daughter and piano prodigy teenage son to Colorado. The son, Ephram (Gregory Smith) plays both Beethoven and jazz, and there are many episodes where he improvises jazz (and a little of the Maican film reminded me of this). Ephram tries to get into Julliard, and his life takes an unfortunate adolescent turn, which viewers of that show know well and which I cover elsewhere. In one episode, Ephram's dad Andy Brown (Treat Williams) turns his garage into a high tech piano studio complete with computers and performance analysis software. A later episode shows Ephram "composing" jazz by playing it and watching the midi convert it into musical notation on a computer monitor display. The Post story did not mention the possibility of Maican's composing this way.

The history of music shows a lot of youthful brilliance. We all know about Mozart. Richard Strauss wrote most of his major tone poems in his twenties, and Mahler completed his first symphony at 28. Arnold Schoenberg wrote the first two sections of his massive Gurre-Lieder in his early to mid twenties, but couldn't complete the climatic finale until his late 30's. Eugen d’Albert wrote a massive Liszt-like piano concerto in b minor at 20, a work that seems to use a theme like the Everwood music, and works it up to a sensational fugue and majestic close. Of course, Ralph Vaughn Williams wrote many of his important works late in life. Bernstein’s work tended to spread across his career.

For me, twentieth century music begins with the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, one of the most subtle orchestral conceptions ever.

Dumbarton Concerts has his resume and list of works here.

Related post about music prodigies -- CBS "60 Minutes" story.

Resume from Davidson Fellows Press of Tudor

(Since this story is largely about the performing arts, I put it on this blog. The picture is of my own d minor sonata manuscript.)

Related link about a movie about a concert pianist, "Orchestra Seats".

Update: Oct 2007. National Public Radio has a link with some more of his music, such as the last movement of Quartet #2, here. In an audio interview on NPR, he discusses one of his quartet movements based on a Romanian folk song theme that seems to resemble the repeated notes theme in the finale of Beethoven's 8th Symphony (or Stanford's First). The quartet itself sounds a bit like early Bartok (like Bartok's own first quartet, which has a similar spirit). There is also a review by Robert Battey from The Washington Post (April 2007) on the Dumbarton site of a Borromeo Quartet concert in which Quartet #2 was played. I did not hear this; I did attend a Dumbarton series concert of the Beethoven Grosse Fugue in March 2006. The reviewer says that (Maican's) music lacks "distinctive voice" but it sounds somewhat distinct to me. The first quartet excerpts, played on NPR, definitely sound familiar already; have they been used somewhere in the movies or television?

Something else about a theme from String Quartet #2 (and a later work called "Solaris"): the whimsical figure somehow reminds me of the opening motive of the Piano Concerto #4 of Camille Saint-Saens.

Here is another article on the composer from the "Renaissance Research" blog.

His piano and orch. music on these websites now reminds me a bit of the Ravel-flavored music of Vincent d'Indy, especially the d'Indy Symphony #2 in B-flat, a work of "impressionist post-romanticism" that has a brazen conclusion. (Koch, cond. James DePriest.)

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