More on Diabelli

June 23rd, 2009 · Write Comment · Uncategorized

A few more comments on the Diabelli Variations, following up on my post of April 1. 

Katherine, the musicologist/protagonist in Kaufman’s play, is more affected by the maestoso aspect than the martial.  For her the variation regally announces embarking on an odyssey that will demand courage.  Let us think of another situation in which Beethoven marks “maestoso,” the introduction of Op. 111.  There seems to be nothing regal about this, unless the scene means to depict the regent desperately embattled, perhaps with a deity hurling bolts of lightning.  Rather than majestic reassurance in the face of trepidation, Variation 1 in my mind embodies more of the rude juxtapositioning that Diane Walsh alludes to (see the recent issue of LISTEN, article by Linda Fowler, p. 30), and which Beethoven is so well known for.  A further confrontational interpretation comes from Dary John Mizelle, who explained the contrast in more nationalistic terms, that Beethoven’s first variation aimed to Germanicize the Italianate theme. 

And about that theme, once examined more fully, it shares much more musical DNA with themes of Beethoven beyond those already discussed.  For instance, the great c-minor sonata for piano and violin, Op. 30, No. 2, readily offers comparative examples.  Take the first four notes (plus initial grace note) of the Scherzo – same gesture as Diabelli’s motif.  We have just been discussing triple vs. duple meter.  The rhythmic argument of the Scherzo is founded upon this rivalry.  Then think of the opening motif of Beethoven’s first movement, and relate it to the eighth note bass figure of the Diabelli theme, measure 3 into 4.  This same grouping is then the principal subject of the 8th Symphony.




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Inspiration vs. Influence

April 1st, 2009 · Write Comment · Uncategorized

To further my attempt at discussing inspiration (blog entry August 1, 2008), I quote Peter Malone, who writes that “influence and inspiration make an uneasy pair.  Inspiration is the recognition of something perhaps already present in the deepest self, and in any case only knowable intimately.”  By contrast, “influence is a force that may spring from any point in the surrounding cultural environment.  The difference between them is that an artist can choose to respond to influence, while inspiration is felt on too deep a level for discourse.  An artist’s ability to accept or reject influence is often taken as a sign of growth and maturity.  But inspiration is not even perceptible until its transfer is complete.  Inspiration is private, idiosyncratic and easily relates to intuition, sensibility, and those properties we associate with feeling.  Influence on the other hand is public.  It transpires in a shared environment.  It can be located, mapped, imitated, absorbed or discarded.”  Malone sees power in inspiration, weakness in influence.  “Unlike influence, the purely instinctive nature of an artist’s inspiration is often difficult to convey in words.”  He quotes Arthur Koestler: “true creativity often starts where language ends.”

The complexity and mystery of the inward process by which inspiration ultimately manifests itself in a finished externalized work are difficult to unravel. A case in point for Malone is Barnett Newman, who “wrote eloquently of an inspirational visit to ancient Native American burial mounds; yet “finding a visual correlation to burial mounds in Newman’s work is at best a challenge.” (from Inspiration, Influence and Choice: The Education of Ying Li, exhibition brochure March 2009, KCC Gallery/Bklyn/CUNY) 

Sylvano Arieti spoke of true creativity as a “magic synthesis,” an interconnected process involving disciplined and directed thought, deceptively “inactive” outward behaviors, dreams and visions, and sudden illumination.  He noted that the mind itself, once supplied with the crucial stimuli, seemed to work things out on its own.  James Gleich remarked also about the gestation phase of the process as often giving a mistaken impression of indolence or lack of industry.  Stravinsky was concerned about what a composer does in his non-composing time, hoping that it lend itself to the unconscious working out of creative problems, rather than constrict the flow toward solutions (for instance, by having to correct counterpoint assignments!).  Apropos of all this is a passage from a study on sleep apnea, published a while back in Harvard Magazine.  The researcher used as a simile that process which allows the pianist, who finds one day a figure almost impossible to get into the fingers no matter how long he practices it, but after a restorative night’s sleep, wakes up the next day suddenly able to play it with ease.

In Malone’s essay on Ying Li, one discovers that the experience of an almost insignificant image can trigger a dynamic response on canvas and even point the direction for a painter’s stylistic evolution.  The Diabelli Variations are attracting much attention these days as a result of the new Kaufman play.  Over the course of 33 variations,  Diabelli’s trivial waltz theme is ultimately transformed by Beethoven into a monument that rivals Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  (I say ‘ultimately’ because at the outset, Beethoven’s strategy is to summarily obliterate Diabelli’s waltz by making his first variation an aggressive march.  Violent!  Hilarious!  Necessary.  ‘Must reduce example into heap of its parts, then rake through wreckage for salient materials overlooked by author…’ What did Beethoven think of the theme – it was a “cobbler’s patch”?  Further hilarity in the choice of metaphor – an old shoe heel or snippet of sole that finally fell off after dancing too many bad waltzes!  It is only after the vehement repudiation of the ¾ theme accomplished by the march that we are permitted again to utilize triple meter – immediately after the march, we have 7 variations in a row in three; eventually 21 of the variations will assume either simple or compound triple meter.) 

What is it about the theme that offers genuine catalyst?  Maybe the use of the raised tonic pitch in the pickup to bar 5 (Beethoven loves this coloration).  Possibly the melodic motif in the sequential phrase that starts with the pickup to bar 9 (compare this to the opening theme of the last movement of Op. 10, No. 3).  Perhaps the B-flat to A and C to B-natural component of the bass line at that point, not so much as a “B-A-C-H” quotation, but for the chromatic potency it holds for Beethoven.  It becomes the countersubject of the Var. XXXII fugue in a slightly re-ordered – actually retrograde — form (E to F and D to E-flat). And with the transposition, we realize that it is that same four note nugget that the composer develops in the Eroica Symphony and the Eroica Variations, having formulated it in the incidental music for Prometheus from an otherwise negligible contradance he had written even earlier on (so plain is the contradance version that the octave leap in the bass has not yet been made – the B-flats of m. 2 & 3 of the theme remain in the same register). The absence of the pitch E-flat in Diabelli’s theme might also have intrigued Beethoven.  What a miracle that from these minute elements such a complex organism has arisen.  It’s tantamount to creating human beings from clumps of raw earth.  Of course the old proverb reminds us that “great oaks from little acorns grow.” 

How does the inspiration/influence distinction obtain in this Beethoven example?  The ingredients that I identified, which fascinated Beethoven in various contexts, are the acorns, the inspiration.  Among the external forces that fuel or “influence” the project complementary to inspiration are the inferiority of the variation theme and its originator (Diabelli), and the indisputably superior standard set by Bach in his Goldberg Variations. The first impetus arouses dynamic self-assertion, the second invites emulation and offers challenge.

One might suggest that complementarity is required for the creative process to be complete, that successful artistic outcomes depend upon both internal motivators (inspiration) and external motivators (influence), and that both must be present in some combination.  An example of an external motivating factor that in my own mature experience has always served constructively the externalization of inspired forms: the deadline.  Can seem ominous and fateful at first, but almost always turns out to be a blessing…


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Bravo for student performance of “Wolf”

March 30th, 2009 · Write Comment · Uncategorized

Kudos to soprano Jessica Cain and cellist Stephen Marotto of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, and pianist Nathaniel Baker of the Hartt School, for their impassioned performance of my piece “Wolf” last Wednesday afternoon in Hartford.  It not only showed a high degree of preparation and conviction, but offered encouragement to other young musicians to take the risk and venture into contemporary repertoire.  Thanks guys!

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Was George Cacioppo a relative of yours?

November 1st, 2008 · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

George Cacioppo was born in the same year as my dad, in Monroe, Michigan.  He was a great composer, a charter member of the ONCE group, head of the WUOM radio station, and an intermittent professor in the school of music there.  He studied with Ross Lee Finney, among others, and at Tanglewood was a student of my own mentor, Leon Kirchner.  People began asking about our relatedness as soon as I got to music school as a freshman.  In the late 1970’s my parents moved from Ohio to Michigan, taking up residence in a town maybe 40 minutes from Ann Arbor, where George lived.  When I’d visit them, I’d drive on up to Ann Arbor to see George, and it was during that period that we first got to know each other well.  We talked endlessly about all sorts of musical questions, hung out in the radio station and listened to rare tapes, ate lunch at one of his favorite restaurants, The Cracked Crab, or made spaghetti together in his kitchen, all the while discussing issues like determinacy vs. indeterminacy, tonal vs. atonal, urban vs. folk, the efficacy of -ism’s, the limits of notation, etc.  We had had the intention to figure out how exactly we might be related, but never seemed to have gotten around to it, because it was more urgent and interesting to talk about these other things.  So I still can’t answer the question definitively. 


George’s reputation reaches nationally and internationally.  I was on a panel with George Crumb not long ago, who was recalling how when he first came to Penn, he conducted “Advance of the Fungi” with his contemporary music ensemble.  In Venice last November, the Ex Novo Ensemble played a new music concert at Teatro La Fenice,  which included one of my pieces, and various members and other participating composers were asking about George.  His “Cassiopeia” score I believe toured extensively as part of a Library of Congress exhibit of contemporary American music, along with those of Cage and others.  At this point I’ve had the opportunity of meeting two fellow members of the ONCE group, Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma, owing to my involvement with the University of New Mexico Composers Symposium.  I teach George’s music in some of my classes, especially “Time on Time in Miracles,” a real masterwork.  His untimely death in 1985 was a tragedy.  Bill Albright set up a memorial fund in his name at Michigan, and not long after, when he came to Haverford to do a concert with me, Bill and I did a 4 hands performance of George’s “Piano Piece No. 11” in his honor.   Actually I think that recording was aired a year or so ago by Chris Shultis on his KUNM radio program.  Equally sad was the loss of Bill a decade or so later, just as he was reaching the peak of an already prodigious career.  I regret that my sons, both composers now in their own right, never had the chance for direct contact with either George or Bill.


In the U.S. the Cacioppo name is rather unusual, but in Italy it’s not at all uncommon – you never have to instruct anyone on spelling or pronunciation.  And particularly in Sicily, it occurs frequently, and in towns like Sambuca, Camporeale, or Montevago, it proliferates.  It’s difficult then to determine how closely individuals from different branches might be related.  Thanks to the efforts of my uncle, Dr. A. J. Cacioppo, I can trace my own genealogy with certainty to the early 1500’s.  Further heraldic investigation suggests that the line may go back to centuries previous, as the coats of arms that have come down to us incorporate motifs from the time of the Crusades (the Templar insignia and the crescent moon, for instance).  The origin of the name itself is still debated.  George assumed a direct derivation from the Greek Cassiopeia, and my Uncle Tony also saw this as a possibility.  After all, Sicily was part of Magna Grecia.  But Sicily was also ruled by Arabs for a long while, and there are still today as many place names in use that stem from Arabic as Greek.  So this becomes very difficult as well.  The Coccia Institute in Florence asserts that “cacioppu” — with a “u” instead of an “o” at the end — indicates an etymology in a term from Sicilian dialect that refers to the trunk of a tree, and is used to designate someone engaged in woodcraft. Who knows?  Maybe the earliest Cacioppo’s were Arab wood carvers in the employ of King Roger or Frederick II making psalteries, flutes and fiddles for use at Court!  

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What audience are you writing for?

October 15th, 2008 · Write Comment · Uncategorized

This is another FAQ that I hear.  To answer it, I might cite the two extremes.  There’s the school of thought that says the composer does him/herself a disservice by being concerned with audience reception, that you’re first and foremost writing for you.  You can’t worry about who’s going to like it, the important thing is that you carry out your mission in a way that satisfies you.  I recall a faculty composer scolding me when I was an undergraduate, saying, “You’ve got too much of the listener in you.”   Of course that was back in my Beethoven phase, when I wrote strictly tonal music, so maybe he was justified in some degree.  But this philosophy is still prevalent.  Just last spring, at a very animated composers symposium at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, much of the discussion reinforced the notion that you can’t be true to yourself creatively if you allow the prospective audience to look over your shoulder.  On the other hand, there’s the approach that aims to placate or appease the audience, calculating the palatability of what is served up, at times even pandering to the poorest tastes.  (Remember The Fountainhead?)

I don’t subscribe to either point of view.  I’m proud to be a fellow listener, a part of the audience, and I have a player’s background.  Also, I have a sense of adventure, and I trust that altogether this orientation allows me to produce music that others will find rewarding.  “Accessible” AND “challenging” – this is said repeatedly about my work, one of a number of pairings that I am happy to accept.  Truthfully when I’m writing, I don’t think about listener accessibility or challenge, but just keep the faith that if it pleases me, it will please someone else too (I’m not that different from the next person).  It comes back to what I was saying above – if the music stems sincerely from the emotions, it is bound to communicate on a human level.

I do, however, think consciously about the performers and how they are going to regard the work and the task of preparing it.  I intend to challenge them, but at the same time offer a vehicle for their own self-expression and application of skill.  If the performer can come to the piece each time and find something new in it, bring new energy to it and not have the interest wane, then I am delighted.  If the performance experience is gratifying, the reception will be that much more positive.

Certainly there is no greater feeling of fulfillment than to receive the applause of a warm and appreciative public.  But you can’t always predict the reaction to a work, and that in itself may be a reason not to fret about it too much.  Things come across differently depending region, country, etc.  Now and then you can be very surprised.  I remember one time I presented my music in a recording-plus-commentary format to a small gathering.  Among the listeners was a Belgian engineer who had moved to the U.S. after the Second World War.  He had been in a concentration camp and seen it all.  One of the examples I played was a vehement, atonal Klavierstück.  This appealed to him greatly.  By contrast, I then played an elegiac Largo for strings, a tonal piece in E major.  This threw him into a rage: how could anyone in good conscience write anything beautiful again after the horrors that had been perpetrated during the war?  It was the most difficult and polemical situation of my career, an anomaly, but one that I’m not sure I have fully resolved.

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What goes through your mind when you hear a new piece of yours premiered?

October 1st, 2008 · Write Comment · Uncategorized

Another question commonly asked. I’ve been blessed with the privilege of having some of the finest ensembles in the world present my music, and of having many other equally dedicated and amazingly skilled musicians (some still in the students years) perform it as well. No matter who it is, and no matter how much preparation and detail work has been done, there’s always an element of risk in a first performance that makes it special and can often give it an exciting edge. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in the preparation of most of my premieres, so that increases the sense of security for both the performers and myself. Much of the anticipation or Erwartung is in the fact that you’re witnessing the birth of something that didn’t exist before, its complete form made aural reality for the first time ever by the artists on stage. Even when I haven’t been able to attend rehearsals for a premiere, things have generally worked out well. Many questions can be dealt with via email, fax or phone, and if your notation is clear and accurately reflects what you intend, it can be incredibly reliable in ensuring a good result, especially if you’re dealing with a superbly trained musician. I can’t say that I’ve ever had to sustain a genuinely disappointing or disastrous premiere.

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Is it easier for you to play your own music than other music?

September 15th, 2008 · Write Comment · Uncategorized

No. Strangely enough it’s the same, if not more difficult. I learn the score just as I would any other, making decisions about fingering, phrasing, fine articulation, going over the gnarly spots endlessly, etc. It might be a little easier to memorize, but that trades off with the problem of having to correct bad habits that may have formed while playing through passages less than meticulously in the haste of writing. If it’s a piece with other players or voice, the process is the same as it would be if preparing the Brahms quintet or the Book of the Hanging Garden of Schoenberg. That includes working through all of the various possibilities of nuance and balance with my collaborators. I should say that I usually wait until a piece has gone through rehearsal and performance to enter all of the fine markings into the score, and the contribution of the players in terms of bowings, dynamics inflections, even little rubatos, becomes part of the final edition. I am quite receptive to suggestions the musicians might have, and within a certain framework, am curious to see how interpretation of a piece changes from player to player, or concert to concert. Chopin never played any one of his pieces the same way twice. The structure invites a plurality of readings – that’s precisely what classical performance is all about.

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Where and when did your interest in Native Americans originate?

September 1st, 2008 · Write Comment · FAQs

This is discussed more fully in the interview with Joe Horowitz in the site’s media section, but to give a brief response here, as a youngster in Ohio there were many markers and allusions to the original inhabitants of the area.  The name of the state itself, and the river, the name of the town I grew up in – Cuyahoga Falls – and the Cuyahoga River and Valley, the meaning of the word “portage” – Portage County, Portage Path, Portage Lakes, all of which referred to the portage that the Indians made on foot overland, carrying their canoes over their heads, to cut the distance from one point in the crooked river to another – and a monument depicting the portage, an image that I drew over and over again as a school boy.  That’s where it began, as early as these motifs registered in my mind.  The history of Goose Egg Island, in the stretch of the Cuyahoga River that ran past our house, and the band of Seneca that had camped there during the days of Tecumseh, fascinated me.  I used to stay up all night to watch the sunrise over that little island…  Fast forward to the present, and I’m a veteran professor of a social justice course called Native American Music and Belief.  I helped endow a Native American Fund at the Quaker college where it is taught (Haverford), which some of my CD proceeds go to.  It has helped to promote Native American awareness by hosting visitors such as Mary Youngblood, and has contributed to projects such as the preservation of music from one of the Navajo chantway ceremonies.  To find out how to donate to the Native American Fund directly, please feel free to contact me via email through this site for information.

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How do you weight your roles of composer and pianist?

August 15th, 2008 · Write Comment · FAQs

Composition is the highest priority, but the piano has been central in my development.  Being able to perform as a soloist and in collaboration with others laid a groundwork of trust that led to important first commissions.  When in residence as as a composer at, for instance, the Grand Teton Festival or the ACF Pacific Symphony festival, I’m there also in the dual role of performer.  Maintaining a performance schedule keeps me in touch with repertoire old and new in a concrete way.  I like very much introducing works of fellow composers, consulting with them on the interpretation of their music, experimenting with different possibilities of sonority, texturing, extended techniques and in some cases improvisation.  I also need to stay connected with the standard repertoire – recently I did a recital with my oboist friend Jonathan Blumenfeld of the Philadelphia Orchestra — just Bach, Schumann and Hindemith — and not that long ago did the Beethoven Choral Fantasy.  It takes much discipline and time management to keep it going along with composing, but I never want to let go of this kind of actual “music making.”  

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What inspires you?

August 1st, 2008 · Write Comment · Composition, FAQs, Italy, Native Americans

This is the question people most frequently ask me about composing.  Where do you get your inspiration, your ideas, and then, how do you set about actually writing?  The first part is about catalyst, the second part refers to method and craft.

I was maybe 14 when I first started composing.  Initially I drew inspiration from music itself, mainly by imitating the music I had absorbed from studying piano, playing or singing in ensembles, or from what I’d heard in concerts, broadcasts or on recordings.  What I had in my ears ran quite a gamut.  My piano lessons were classical, but before that, I had sung in the church choir and spent summers at choir camp.  As time went on, I was in various school ensembles – concert band (as a percussionist), stage band (Dixieland mainly), and accompanied shows and assemblies (Broadway tunes, traditionals) – and had a little combo that did its own arrangements of pop songs like “Washington Square”.  A while after that I had a jazz quartet that leaned toward tunes like “So What” and “Watermelon Man.”  In addition, I like the majority of American kids my age had been exposed to a decade and a half of music transmitted through radio and TV, everything from Dinah Shore and Tennessee Ernie Ford to Elvis and the Beatles to movie and TV themes and commercial jingles.  I had seen Liberace’s show many times and was no stranger to Dick Clark.   After a certain point, I started to exercise selectivity about which type of thing to emulate and which not.  The line up seemed to include Beethoven and Chopin from the classical side, and Brubeck and Bill Evans from the jazz side.  These were the people I chose as my models, and their music provided direct inspiration.  But as I say, this was all something of an imitative trial effort.

A bit further along I got wrapped up in Schubert Lieder, and wrote some art songs in that vein.  I even sent one (a German setting) to Fischer-Dieskau who, by God, actually wrote back (!) encouraging my “great gift” yet advising that I “put it in the hands of a severe taskmaster.”  This marked a turning point and I began to study harmony and orchestration very seriously, and plunged into score analysis.  My focus was adjusted almost solely on the classical tradition, with an aperture toward more modern achievements in large form composition – Strauss, Sibelius, Prokofiev… and Leon Kirchner would soon make an appearance in the horizon.  For the moment, Beethoven remained the supreme figure, but relying on him for inspiration soon would end.  The imitative phase would be over.

My beloved and severe taskmaster, the mentor who guided my piano and theory studies, and who beyond that had fostered broader humanist interests, died.  Suddenly the kind of composition I had been doing was insufficient to express my feelings.  In my loss I discovered that the deepest source of inspiration is within.  Intense emotion impels one to its externalization.  I now sought means to accomplish this, and set out on the road to fashioning my own language.

Still today, if I think about it, real music emerges from the caldron of our emotions and human experiences, from the font of the imagination.  It would be easy to say that I love spending time in Italy, and that the landscape, the hill towns, the monuments are my inspiration.  It is more complicated.  Even a piece like Impressions of Venice is more than a description, a travelogue.  In each of its multiple sections, which granted are designated by titles like “Sunrise over St. Mark’s,” the music conveys my personal, emotional response not only to the site but to the human condition associated with it throughout time.  Scenes from Indian Country is more than a triptych depicting the topography of tribal lands in the Southwest (admittedly another area that I view with awe and where I love to spend time).  It rather presents an emotional landscape colored by sympathy for indigenous peoples and what they have endured, and admiration for their tenacity.  In virtually all cases, the primary motivating factor for me in executing a work is the fundamental human need to externalize emotion in musical form.

Perhaps I am defining inspiration as a manifold process instead of an isolated element.  Something to continue to ponder.  To the question of how I set out on a project, what my method might be, there is no single answer.  I have to feel my way into each different work; rarely do I write in linear order starting at the beginning and moving straight to the double bar; the amount of sketching and length of “gestation” period can vary greatly.  I remember when I was composing Wolf, which sets an excerpt from the poem by Peter Blue Cloud.  The text speaks of a wolf that has been maimed, it has only three legs, and is hiding in the shadows trying to dodge its pursuer.  To get into the right mode, I went out to the woods nearby and, using I suppose Stanislavski technique, got down on three limbs and limped around, panting, trying to find cover, acting out the part of the wolf.  On another occasion, I took to making glyphs on the walls of my studio, drawing diagrams and figures, with fragments of music here and there in different shades.  This was a step in getting the concept out of my head and onto a screen where I could quickly see the relationships between one thing and another regardless of how disparate.  I believe Leslie Marmon Silko does something like this before she writes – she paints large bands of color on the wall of her kiva studio for an hour before setting to work, to bring about the right frame of mind.  I saw her in an interview talking about this.  In my case it helped lead to a very successful final product compositionally, although it got me in trouble with my landlord, and probably set a bad example for the kids!  Generally I don’t have to resort to such extremes.  With most pieces, a certain “divining” takes place, where you let the accumulated material take you where it wants to go.  The moment of confidence that a piece is really on its way is when the “Eureka!”  experience occurs, and like Archimedes, I find the lever.  Suddenly I “know how it goes,” how everything will work out — the solution is in hand.  From there the uphill stage is over, and if you’re lucky, you just cruise to the end.  When you have the sensation that “the piece is writing itself,” it’s a joy.

Then, of course, there might be the urge (the “inspiration”?) to make revisions.  I’ve been asked about that from time to time as well, but will save the topic for a future post.

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