41 Fathead premieres...some thoughts

[UPDATE of October 5 - I have now added audio of the world premiere of this piece at the end of this post.]

Greetings folks and apologies for my long absence, which I imagine has been twisting you into pretzels of despair. 

Next weekend promises to be one of the busier musical weekends to date in my young life, and I wanted to share some thoughts on a composition that I’m having premiered (over a year after its composition) by two wonderful musicians, pianist Bridget Convey, and percussionist Lynn Vartan (in from Utah for the occasion).

The oddly titled 41 Fathead arose from a commission by these two performers for their Maine residency, which was envisioned several years ago, initially planned for last November, and then rescheduled for this September. The opportunity to write for piano and percussion, two instruments near and dear to my heart (I play both, but percussion will always always be my native tongue) was irresistible, and I was fortunate to be able to fund the commission with a Maine Arts Commission Good Idea Grant.

Last summer, near the beginning of my momentus Fall sabbatical, I interrupted furious work on my opera, The Summer King, to fulfill this commission. I had just turned 41, which was a momentous and long-dreaded age for me – the age at which my father, one week fresh off of his third New York City marathon, dropped dead on his morning jog. In an always-seeming-non-coincidence, it was actually the day of my first drum lesson. I was eleven years old (it was Halloween, 1981), and I had walked back home after the lesson to find an empty house and no explanation. Several hours later my aunt and sister arrived to let me in and deliver the stunning, surreal news. It took me a good thirty years to address the strange marriage of those two life-changing events in any form of art. 

It had long been on my mind to write a memorial piece for my father, and as the first new piece of my 41st year, the subtext of the composition was a matter of little choice. But I had more recently been plagued by another loss – that of my old college friend Christopher Hume. I have written of Chris’s passing elsewhere (and, have apparently been the source of this info for many unwitting web surfers, searching for news of their old friend, collaborator, or mentor). Chris’s influence on the course of my own musical life is equal to that of my most significant composition teachers. During my sophomore year, we lived in the same dorm, down the hall from one another. To the not-quite-delight of our neighbors, we would sometimes open our doors, plug our guitars in, and trade fours at maximum volume. Chris was a self-described “composer,” which was exotic and strange to me. But he was also a burning electric guitarist, as well as a deeply skilled, and deeply self-confident classical guitarist. His broad ranging musical interests were paralleled only by his unending sense of mischief, of impish gamesmanship and dryly arch humor. Chris would give poetry readings, his voice amplified and distorted, a wah-wah pedal in play. His poems, “Bee Sting,” “Meatwagon,” “Gibley,” were their own fresh brand of sound art, and in the creative hipster enclave of Bard he established his own personal plane of strangeness and inspiration. For a time, I was completely and utterly under his spell, monkeying his mannerisms, his speech; hanging on his every musical judgment (he was immensely judgmental. He HATED Stravinsky and Bartok; adored Ravel and Debussy; but adored above all else, the semi-obscure Spanish composer Federico Mompou).

Chris was reckless with his own health in college – he experimented and indulged with almost everything, and he seemed anyway of particularly weak constitution. I remember several hospital stays, and endless stories of epic excess. The morning after I returned home from Dutchess County Hospital, having drunk myself there in an ill-conceived public drinking challenge (these sort of things happened at Bard back in the day), Chris greeted me as a kind of conquering hero. “You must have one hell of a hangover,” he said. When I told him “nope, feel fresh as a daisy,” he simply clapped my back and said “The man!” His respect, however ill-gotten, always meant the world to me, as I perpetually saw myself as a sad gray also-ran next to his bedazzling wicked charisma and flair. It took me many years to recognize that he harbored genuine musical respect for me, and I realized it almost too late. Back in the day, Chris volunteered to record my singer-songwriter concerts, helped engrave parts for my senior project orchestral composition (for precious little compensation, an early adaptor – and to a professional degree – of the musical engraving software that would transform modern music composition) and was a particularly vocal supporter of my song "Tiny Town." Years later, in a series of emails shortly before his death, he paid me complements that I’m too modest to share, but that touched me to my core. Behind the madcap exterior, I knew then as now, there was a sensitive and loving soul, and my encounter with both – the inner and the outer Hume – were signally important.

 After college Chris and I lost touch for many years. Occasionally I would have a strange, anonymous (but unmistakably Chris) message on my answering machine, leaving neither name nor return number. Then, in about 2005, Chris and I got back in touch and exchanged many emails. He was back in Long Island, living with his folks, and both convalescing and working on various musical projects of great import. It seemed difficult, in these days, to distinguish fact from fantasy – although after Chris’s death, when I went back to read all of his emails, I was struck my how thoroughly cogent they in fact were. Chris had been felled by chronic ailments, was more or less bedridden, but was still harboring a dream of traveling to Japan to teach. He had made arrangements with some school out there, and ended up selling much of his prized musical possessions to afford passage – at least this is how I understood it. Apparently, though, when he DID finally get out there, the trip was a disaster; he was taken advantage of, and left in a dismal financial and personal position. He made his way back to the States, and after some side-travels, back to his parents’ home. We exchanged a couple of emails in January 2007, after the whole disaster had unfolded, but nothing too detailed. I wish now that I had asked more questions. He took his own life later that month.

Chris’s death, like my father’s, has been a slow burn. We had been so infrequently in touch, and in some ways the news was so unsurprising (hard to explain exactly why), that at first it registered almost as a matter of course. Who could imagine Chris Hume in old age? But over the years, the pain of his early demise has magnified; it makes less and less sense, feels more desperate and tragic. I suppose our losses are part of what makes us who we are, and they stay with us, growing and revealing meaning through the years. I think of Chris so often – his influence on me, how he thoroughly shaped the course of my life, and how I wish I could share my music with him today.

Similarly, I wish my father had a chance to see the musician I’ve become, and hear the music I’ve written. He was a successful businessman, but also a talented amateur musician, with a burning intensity that kept him up through the nights, working in his basement shop, building, of all things, guitars. He died on the day of my first drum lesson, and so never heard any of the countless high school bands I played in, or my early college forays into composition, to say nothing of the later pieces that were, you know, real music. I was just a kid who couldn’t sit still, banged on everything, and was offered drum lessons as an outlet for unruly and unfocused percussive energy.

So I felt emotional during my 41st year. And I thought of that pivotal number, 41. 4-1. In musical terms, in the 12-tone system where each pitch has a corresponding integer value (C=0, C#=1, D=2 etc.), 4-1 is E-C#: a descending minor third. This interval had particular significance with regards to Chris. In ear training class, he taught us all to remember the descending minor third by referencing the childhood taunt “fat-head.” It was such an effective mnemonic that the interval was almost instantly so dubbed by all of us, and I don’t think any member of that class has ceased thinking of it as "the fathead" to this day. So these swirling thoughts and numbers, 41, fathead, coalesced rather effortlessly into a piece about both childish exuberance, mischief, and ultimately, mourning and loss. The two moods occur interchangeably throughout the piece, which is an extended etude on the interval of a minor third. In the end, the mournful sensibility wins out, but ultimately sparks a moment of catharsis, when the two instrumental performers begin to sing that timeless mnemonic, “fathead,” in music that is ethereal and transcendent.

Written right before the electric sabbatical push that resulted in the completion of my opera, this work is most definitely the most personal and emotional piece of music I have yet penned. I have been living with it only in my ears and imagination for long enough, and am so eager to hear the premiere performances at Bowdoin College and the University of Southern Maine next weekend. Concerts are at Bowdoin on Friday, September 28, and the University of Southern Maine on Sunday, September 30. 

UPDATE! Here's audio of the second performance from the premiere weekend - this is Bridget and Lynn being thoroughly and deeply awesome throughout.