It’s Ed’s birthday today. Happy Birthday, Love. And as is tradition now in our relationship, I will gift Ed another viola/piano duet I compose for the occasion, each one called “Evocation”. This year my husband will receive Evocation XXIV.
I haven’t been doing much composing lately. Unless one counts the operas I get schoolchildren from Kindergarten to fourth grade to create – and I don’t count that as me composing – my last composition was last year’s Evocation, for Ed’s previous birthday, part of my ever expanding non-musical theater sideline of chamber music.
It has been a year of grieving. My father’s death last spring was followed a half year later by a series of deaths of close relatives and friends. In the course of four weeks alone Ed and I attended three memorial services. Including the one that, strangely, gave rise to Evocation XXIV.
Vince Buscemi was a Quaker in Ed’s meeting. He and his wife Ernie were part of Ed and my Clearness Committee, a group that is formed to meet with a couple that requests their marriage be taken under the care of a Quaker meeting. Vince was very excited about the prospect of Ed and me marrying. Morningside Meeting was the first Quaker meeting in New York City, let alone religious congregation of any kind, to welcome same-sex marriages. They married their first male/male couple back in 1980. And yet in 1998 Ed and I would be only the second. It’s a small congregation.
Vince was our greatest champion, and openly hoped I would become a full fledged Quaker like Ed (but I have been content to keep my spiritually unaffiliated status as a “Friend of Friend”, as spouses are designated in Quaker nomenclature). This happy, lovely, sweetest of men died in his early 90s, his final years marked by Alzheimers; a history which painfully mirrored the recent passing of my 94 year old cousin Monroe, for whose care I had been primarily responsible the previous seven years.
Vince, Monroe, the cascade of recent deaths close to me, all were not far from thought as Ed and I found our seats in the pews of 15th Meeting House where Vince’s memorial service took place. Quaker memorial services are structured like Quaker meetings for worship. There is no minister conducting a service, there is only the full congregation, seated in silence. If anyone feels moved to speak, they rise, and give a short message. Which is followed by an appropriate amount of silence while the congregation absorbs the message; then another congregant may feel moved to rise and speak. Or silence prevails. A regular Quaker service for worship may have few messages, even be 60 minutes of complete silence, depending on how the Spirit moves the assembled. Quaker memorial services, like Quaker weddings, however, tend to encourage a lot of messages.
I don’t often attend Quaker meetings for worship. And when I do, I don’t rise to give a message. I stay silent. And in that silence, what comes to my mind is usually music. Not words, or dreams, or memories. It is music that fills my mind in the silence of a Quaker meeting. Which is why I believe, if pressed for an answer on denominational affiliation, I would say my religion is Music.
That day, during Vince’s Quaker memorial service, a rather odd musical idea popped into my head. Not music I knew, which I would have expected, but a melodic line, by a string instrument. A willfully odd melody. Not even sure if it could be called a melody. Maybe more a motif. Which would leap up over one octave and jump back down multiple octaves. Which makes it the kind of motif one can not easily hum to oneself. It just felt weird and awkward trying to silently hear it inside my head. Not something for the human voice. But it made sense for the viola.
The motif with its improbable leaps and glissando sigh seemed to ask to be repeated. Then two more repeated motifs answered it, with ever odder leaps up and down the scale, and another groaning glissando slide down a low string. Then a more melodic, melancholy, downward snaking melody requested to be the fourth and final motif to complete the series. I wasn’t sure what to make of this music, whether I even liked it. I’m still not so sure. But in the silence of the meeting house, it felt to me like Vince wanted me to hear this; at the very least his memorial called up these gangly viola complaints.
So I wasn’t to question the quality or meaning of the music that imposed itself on me in the silent hall and insisted I keep repeating it in my mind, hearing the pitches, visualizing the notes. Clearly this was to become the viola part for Evocation XXIV. After the service, before going to the buffet, I pulled out a pen, and the only piece of paper I had on me, the New York Times daily puzzle page (Ed and I like to do KenKens and the crossword on the subway together); I scribbled symbols for rhythms and letters for pitches and arrows for skipped octaves (see photo above).
Later I transcribed those scribblings into more conventionally readable notes on the computer:
Evocation XXIV – main viola part (as played by the computer)
That’s not a viola playing in the recording. That’s the computer doing its best viola imitation. Which of course leaves something to be desired (I’m never completely comfortable with sharing my music via computer generated sound files; I am basically hoping a good enough sense of what the music would sound like with real instruments playing will still come through). One thing the computer absolutely doesn’t reproduce is the slow sliding glissandos indicated by the straight lines between notes at the ends of the first and third motifs. You will have to imagine those:
As will I, at least until I get to hear an actual viola play these parts. That won’t happen until later today, at the earliest, when Ed and I try out his latest Evocation. Ed will be playing the viola, I will be at the piano. The piano parts were suggested to me, not specifically but more evocatively and amorphously during the memorial service. When I sat down to compose them, in two separate work sessions, one for the first rendition of the main theme, the second for its more dramatic reprise, I thought I might be in for a bout of frustrating problem solving. But the piano parts just kind of came to me, odd and particular in their own way, moving me to just accept the ideas that came, because they essentially worked, and not overthink or overcomplicate the process; much like how the viola ideas just presented themselves without explanation or second guessing.
The computer program renders the piano part relatively well, even somewhat capturing the reverberating grotto echo feel of a sustained pedal, albeit if not nearly as dramatically and mysteriously as the sustained pedal of a real grand piano would. What the computer absolutely does not reproduce is the swooping glissandos machine-gunning their way from the lowest to the highest pitches, alternating between the black and the white keys of the piano, in measures 32 – 36 (page 4). So that section will not sound anything like the real thing in the following sound file:
Evocation XXIV – as played by the computer
Someday I may share this and the other Evocations as played by, you know, actual violas and pianos, performed by professional musicians. Fancy that!
For now even I have to wait to hear what Evocation XXIV sounds like for real, outside of my imagination and computer generated reproductions, until Ed and I give it our own best effort.