A Masterpiece from My Middle Period

By the time you reach thirty or so, if you have designs on becoming a great composer, you should have pretty much mastered the art. At least, that’s what history tells us. Not to say that you will no longer have anything to say later on, or that you won’t further refine your voice and become a better composer, but you should a) basically have your technical shit together, b) have a clearly defined style (or voice) of your own.

This kind of thinking was, consciously or not, in my mind by the time I hit my early 30s. It was partly subconscious and partly competitive. By the time he was 35, Beethoven had written his Eroica Symphony. By the time he was 35, Mozart was dead. Come to think of it, many great composers were dead by then or slightly later.

I had my work cut out for me. I worried about composing in all of the standard forms that composers made their names with: piano music (sonatas, etudes, preludes, whatever), symphonies, and string quartets. When I was 32, still living in Los Angeles with our first kid on the way, I decided it was high time I compose my first true instrumental masterpiece in the form of a string quartet.

Why string quartet? Back in the day, say up until the mid-20th century, the ultimate proving ground for serious composers writing in the European tradition was the string quartet. The reason is simple: a quartet of homogeneous voices, two high, one middle, one low, no words, to fancy effects—just music pure and simple. You can’t rely on a variety of instrumental colors or the huge forces of a symphony. You have to rely purely on musical ingenuity.

There were two problems for me here: one, I wasn’t composing in the European tradition, and two, by the time I was seriously composing, the string quartet as a form was far from relevant in modern culture. Maybe it was always far from relevant in any culture, but then again, it was never meant to be a popular form. It was created, in a sense (maybe by Haydn) as a form specifically for composers, not regular people.

Well, I was and am a composer, first and foremost. Despite what some people may think, it’s the thing I do best. And by the time I was 32, thinking about that first kid, the meaning of life, etc., I decided I need to write a string quartet. Not just any string quartet, but a massive tome, one that summed all of my musical thinking up to that point. And pushed me to the next level of compositional mastery.

In short, it was time to compose a goddamn masterpiece. And so I did.


But before I get to that, let me backtrack just a bit. This was actually to be my third string quartet. I wrote the first, a single movement in three sections when I was about 20, shortly after officially declaring myself a “composer,” as opposed to a “jazz musician,” which was what I was unofficially called. The quotes around those words do indicate my disdain for such labels. I had already been composing, and I never gave up on my jazz roots or jazz language. In coming out as a composer (and I remember the moment precisely), I was declaring my independence and freedom from the standard jazz ethos of the time that valued improvisation above all else. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in improvisation and do it daily in my musical life.

What no longer worked for me was the standard jazz format: play a tune, improvise on said tune’s chord changes, and play the tune again. It was not only limiting but, more often than not, boring. I wanted to extend my musical ideas beyond simple song forms and improvisations on the same. Declaring myself a composer was the means to that end.

And to declare my complete independence from jazzdom, I need to compose something completely outside the standard jazz formats. For me, those formats were mostly jazz trios (piano, bass, drums) or quartets/quintets (adding sax and/or trumpet.) My favorite instrumental groups of all time (John Coltrane quartet and Miles Davis Quintet(s) are in the form, so this was a pretty big deal for me.

To be clear, I was not rejecting their music; just saying that I could no longer do anything with the format. Or not even that: I needed a break from the format before doing anything creative with it.

But the string quartet certainly offered a clean break. The first quartet was basically a written jazz piece but pretty tightly structured. Nothing was improvised, but the violin solo in the middle was written in an improvisational style.

In 1984, at 23 years old, I wrote my 2nd quartet while studying composition at the Aspen music festival. It was again a one-movement deal but far more substantial in terms of length and, more importantly, compositional technique. It won the festival composition award that year.

And then, I moved on to other things for almost a decade.


(more to come…)

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