Twinkle Dammit

A Matter of Style

When I was a baby composer, just entering the Cleveland Institute of Music, one of my primary musical ambition was to learn to write music in “all different styles.” As a budding musical theatre fanatic, I had noticed that many of the shows by my heroes had songs in different styles—a tango here, a hoedown there, a bossanova, an Andrews Sisters-type song, a waltz—and I wanted to be able to do the same thing.

The composition department at CIM was all about art music, though, and, being a good student, I instead threw myself into those challenges. The word “style” did not apply to individual song types; instead it was a matter of finding one’s own individual style, one’s own compositional voice. That process begins with imitation of composers and pieces one admires; the idea is that one then explores out from there to eventually claim a little piece of stylistic turf to plant a flag on.

Even at the time (the early 1980s), one had to look awfully hard to find a stylistic patch that didn’t already have someone’s flag planted on it. In the subsequent thirty years, as the number of composers has increased, it’s become well-nigh impossible. The analogy with our nearly-fully-explored planet seems pretty accurate to me; it’s not that there aren’t unsettled areas, but they’re either extremely hard to get to or not any place you’d want to live.

It’s pretty much guaranteed that any music a composer writes now will be derivative of something; the only question is what. Some composers are turning to open assimilation of disparate influences. Mashing up two different styles that no one else has thought of mashing up before is the functional equivalent of finding your own turf—your music will sound different than everyone else’s (for a while). Some have avowed that the entire world of musical style is their oyster, and they can and will pick and choose musical style elements from anywhere. Even the ironic distance that used to be de rigeur for such quoting seems to be no longer necessary. Perhaps this has been influenced by the rise of sampling in pop music—it’s been okay to base your music on someone else’s for a couple of decades now.

So I guess I was just a few years early wanting to become a master of pastiche (the craft of writing in a style not one’s own). I’m left wondering what the difference is, if any, between the approach I grew up admiring in the musical theatre scores of the 60s and 70s and this post-postmodern globalization of musical style. Certainly the questions of colonialism and the ethics of appropriation that one sometimes hears “classical” composers fretting over never seem to have made it onto the radar in the world of musical theatre, so maybe there is some difference behind the scenes, as it were.

All these years later, when I do write musical theatre, it tends to be pastiche of various pop styles (see the demo for the musical All About The Kids that I’m slowly working on with Erik Johnke, if you’re interested). And while I don’t overtly (at least consciously) borrow stylistic elements, I’m not above borrowing a tune from somewhere else. Later this year Margaret Leng Tan will be performing her terrific dramatization of my piece for toy piano and toys Twinkle, Dammit! An Obsessive Variation on a Well-Known Children’s Song on a music festival in Singapore. Here’s the video of her premiere performance of the piece on the 1st International Toy Piano Festival in New York a couple of years ago:

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Toy Toy Toy!

Last Saturday night I descended into the bowels of the DiMenna Center in New York City to see my piece Twinkle, Dammit! being played as part of the 3rd night of the 1st ever UnCaged Toy Piano Festival. (It featured the 4th annual competition winners, but it was the 1st festival. I don’t know if it’s going to be repeated, or if so how soon.)

The lobby featured toy piano exhibits such as this one:

and this one (the Edible Toy Piano, or Resistor JelTone):

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What you hear in the background is a robot toy piano by playing Erik Satie’s Vexations (“to save wear and tear on valuable human pianists”). Both the Edible Toy Piano and the Vexbot are by Ranjit Bhatnagar.

The real action was inside the hall, though. When the doors opened, we saw four different toy piano “stations” positioned across the stage floor, one for each of the four artists performing, one with the toy piano on a table, the others one the floor with tiny stools next to them. Scattered among them were laptops, microphones and other sound gear, and toy drums, a melodica, a toy glockenspiel, a rattle, a rubber hammer, a jack-in-the-box—the theme of this year’s festival was “Toy Piano and other Toy Instruments.” The lighting was low and the house lights stayed on for the concert; a couple of the performers played barefoot, all of which which gave the evening an informal feel of which I heartily approved. (Barefoot concert music is new to me, which probably just means that I hang out uptown too much.) It was far better attended than a lot of new-music concerts, too.

First up, Takuji Kawai played three Japanese pieces. Perhaps this is just a cultural divide at work, but to me they all three seemed overly serious and self-indulgent. Besides which, the toy piano he played, a very different model than any I’ve heard before, had a very pure sine-wave-like sound; compared to the slightly raucous sound of the toy pianos everyone else was playing, it was distant and unengaging.

Phyllis Chen, the competition and festival’s founder, was up next. Highlights of her set included this year’s competition winner, Rusty BanksBabbling Tower to Tower for toy piano and cell phones (the program note pointed out that this was either the world’s cheapest or most expensive live audio processing, depending on whether you count just the cell phones or the towers and networks) and the 2009 competition winner, Toy Toccata by Fabian Svensson. I have to say that my reaction to hearing Toy Toccata  was one of open-mouthed envy; it isn’t often I hear a piece and think “Damn! I wish I’d written that!”, but I did this time. It’s a virtuosic tour-de-force on a very simple concept, with a terrific shape and build, and Phyllis played it like her hair was on fire.

David Smooke played his improvisation Water/Ice/Steam, a piece which was performed almost entirely inside a toy piano (with portions of the sound looped electronically), bowing the bars with fishing line, hitting them sticks, vibrating them, rattling them. It was a fascinating sonic landscape which, however, went on far too long, gradually losing impact until I was just waiting for it to end. (It was greeted with enthusiastic whooping and hollering, though, so maybe it was just me.) David raised an interesting question in introducing his piece: he said that although he didn’t know why, it was important for him that the audience know that the electronic gadget under the toy piano was only recording and playing back the toy piano sounds, not providing any others. I think that has to do with issues of authenticity, which is a fascinating can of worms to open in the context of an instrument that is a “toy” version of another instrument. Not to mention what it says about the use of electronics in live music performance. But I digress.

Then it was Margaret Leng Tan‘s turn. I really liked Für Enola by James Joslin, for toy piano, jack-in-the-box and spinning top (winner of the competition’s Most Ingenious Combo award)—the jack-in-the-box and top were a brilliant new spin (sorry) on indeterminacy, which went with the I Ching-inspired musical organization of the rest of the piece. Another standout was Phyllis Chen’s gorgeous Carousel and Cobwebbed Carousel; the first added to the toy piano a hand-cranked music box with a custom piano-roll-type punch-card; the second used the same punch-card, but fed into the music box backwards. The strange, slightly-out-of-tempo feeling given by the hand-cranking of the entirely mechanical punch card was creepy, haunting and lovely all at the same time, and Margaret mirrored it perfectly in her playing.

And then there was my piece, Twinkle, Dammit! (An Obsessive Variation on a Well-Known Children’s Song), one of two which Margaret presented as part of her explorations into becoming a “sit-down comic.” (The other was Jed Distler‘s One Minute Ring, which is probably much funnier if you know Wagner better than I do.) I’ll leave you to judge my piece; I’ve blogged about the process of working on it with Margaret here. All I’ll say is you can hear the audience laughing… (I stopped the video before Margaret’s thunderous and richly deserved applause because I had to put the camera down on the floor to go join her onstage. But believe me, it was there!)

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I hope to visit The Land of the Toy Pianos again—it’s a strange and wonderful place.