Notes on the work and a conversation about my music:
Like many artistic works, my new quartet was born in tragedy, more than one in fact. The first was the presidential election of 2016. The Amernet Quartet and I had just decided to do a piece during this time and so the work begins with the feeling I, and many others, have about the present condition of our politics. The second movement is dedicated to my mother, Anna Filameno, who died weeks after the election as described further below. The finale of this work is my emphatic rendition of The National Anthem.
The music of the first movement is emotionally complex. The score is marked Furioso and Savage, and those feelings are mixed with what I call the ‘heart theme’ which expresses hope and transformation. The language of the music reflects this conflict in terms of its tonal construction.
Another tragic event which informs this work is that of the death of my mother, Anna Filameno. Within weeks after the election she was in hospital stricken with cancer and she died at the end of January 2017. Not only this, but she died watching in horror as CNN displayed tragic imagery as to the present state of political affairs. Anna possessed and instilled in me a deep concern for politics. She wanted to see the first woman president and was, again, horrified at what occurred. All of this certainly adds to the intensity of emotion present in movement one and is also the prime inspiration for movement two which I dedicate specifically to her memory.
Anna, in addition to being a political activist, was a fine actress and a screen writer. This influence is present throughout my quartet. When I was composing the first movement and the music was coming to light, I needed to define for myself clearly the form… when the term ‘Scenic Variations’ came to my mind I knew I had it. The various themes act as ‘characters’ who interact with each other and develop in ‘scenes’ throughout.
The second movement, ‘Jitterbug/Lamentation’, begins with what I call the ‘jitterbug theme’. My mother was, in the day, jitterbug champion of New York City three years in a row! Dancing and dance themes infused her work and life and so I begin her movement with this theme and it returns throughout the piece. Lamentation begins with a viola solo, is taken up by the quartet and develops into a unified expression before the dance theme returns to end the movement.
There was another event, tragic in nature, which I needed to include in this music, i.e. the death of my former teacher, the great composer Karel Husa. At first I created themes using the letters of his name, as I have been wont to do in the past on similar occasions, but again, I had to continue to search for my solution. Additionally, there was a musical problem to solve… how to get from the language of the first two movements to a place where a setting of the national anthem sounded like a natural progression.
Like many good solutions, the answer was simple. Karel Husa is famous for his work, ‘Music For Prague’, and in it he used the Czechoslovakian War Song, ‘Ye Who are Warriors of God’. Mr. Husa wrote this work in reaction to when the Russians took over his country and, (shh boom) I found that to be appropriate as well for our present situation. Also, the melody (of which I use only the opening characteristic phrase) is a perfect lead-in to our national anthem. So, by using this tune from Mr. Husa’s work I honor my teacher, transition musically to the finale and provide political context.
There was still, however, the overall context in which to house this homage. At first I conceived of a scherzo movement to follow the movement dedicated to my mother. I like the music I came up with, but decided it was part of a future work. Instead, a rather esoteric notion came to mind. Movement three of my quartet is titled ‘Cosmic Node’ and is a depiction of a spiritual idea, that of the time between lifetimes. You will hear what sounds like radio waves and static from which emerge echoes of themes from the earlier movements, specifically the heart theme and the jitterbug theme, which here transforms and becomes gentle and calming before yet another element is introduced.
Once I was in this place, I imagined I heard from another spirit in the void. A few years ago another of my chief mentors from the past died, composer Donald Erb. And so at this point in the quartet, before reaching the theme which acts as homage to Karel Husa, I included an homage to Donald Erb. For this I created a variation on his theme for his Concerto for Brass, which premier I was present for in years past, an event I will never forget. [I created a short (7 minute) memorial film for Don which you can visit here: ErbMemorial.]
So there it is, my ‘freedom quartet’ in which I celebrate many forms of freedom; emotional, american political and others, and also ‘freedom from’ what may be considered ‘fashionable’ in today’s musico/political world. In this piece I evolved my musical language to express the ‘intent’ of this work. I certainly think more about ‘intent’ and ‘motivation’ than ‘isms’, perhaps another influence from having an actress as a mother, who instilled in me from an early age appreciation of the great character actors who express true ‘range’ in their art. Even so, at the end of this compositional process I realized there is one ‘ism’ I might be willing to accept the usage of, especially in reference to this work, i.e. ‘expressionism’… ‘American Expressionism’.
One more thing. I had a friend lend me his ears on this work… and he thought to hear a kind of battle between ‘atonality’ and ‘tonality’ and ‘tonality’ wins! I calmly bit my tongue and thanked him for his thoughts. I then informed him that I thought his idea was a bit uninformed, certainly as to how I think about music, and I let him know I find the term ‘atonality’ ridiculous if not offensive. I informed him of my philosophy on the subject…
The science is in! People experience color… psychologically, physically, emotionally… therefore all music is tonal… it is a matter of the range of a composer’s palette… and the techniques that get you there.
And I pray your definition of musical color, i.e. tonality, is not limited to mere diatonic procedures…
Therefore ‘atonality’ is a ‘non-term’… I, in fact, experience it something like an ethnic slur… so please don’t use it in reference to my music!…
All music is tonal, atonal/tonal are political terms. I am proud to say that my range is rather extensive. I can write this new quartet, with all of its emotional and philosophical complexities, compose beautiful works for family audiences which they adore, create my ‘environmental works’ which combine ‘music concrete’ compositions created from natural sounds, live players and video… and on.
So it is NOT, in my quartet, a battle between atonal and tonal (al gore sigh), but rather a complex of colors designed to express specific intents having to do with the subjects at hand. I use no tone rows or other procedures of the kind… I did such things in high school and value the experience… one must assimilate… in fact it is ‘freedom from limiting terms’ which is another freedom celebrated in this music, and, ironically, freedom from music politics.
I, of course, totally respect those who have evolved different artistic philosophies! Sure beats being an arms salesman…
Such went our conversation! Thanks Joe!
Enjoy the music and, again, my sincerest thanks to The Amernet Quartet, without whom this work would be still wandering in the cosmic node.