Recital this Friday: Windows and more

Tia Wortham and me, Stan Curtis

This Friday at 8:00 p.m., EST, at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia, I will present a recital with some friends–Tia Wortham, a fabulous soprano, Dr. Ben Keseley, the music director of St. George’s, and Dr. Ina Mirtcheva Blevins, an amazing pianist who is my colleague at George Mason University.

In addition to some unaccompanied pieces for trumpet–“Where are the rests!?!”–and an aria for soprano by Paul Hindemith, we will play three of my own compositions.

For more than 10 years now, I have been composing pieces based on stained-glass windows at my church, St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. This summer, my efforts have culminated with a recording project in the nave of St. George’s, where I have been collaborating with some of my close music colleagues to record five of these compositions, each of which relate to the themes and artwork of the windows. The particular themes for these five are the stories of creation, Daniel, Epiphany, the Crucifixion, and Judgement Day. Sunlight, streaming through St. George’s windows, breaks into a prismatic rainbow, and for this reason, I call this group of compositions “Refracted Light.” Refraction, referring to the bending of light, such as in a prism, also speaks of my spiritual path, which has bent, and changed directions, finding me where I have been when I came to St. George’s and leading me to truer, more spiritual directions.

Creation Window

The short piece for soprano, trumpet and piano, called “Without Form,” is the musical setting for the Creation Window, and is my earliest of these window compositions. But the music started with a different text from a poem by T.S. Eliot called Little Gidding. After reaching out to the T.S. Eliot estate for permission, I was told that they do not want his poems set to music, so I was left with a song that needed new words. I turned to the creation story from Genesis, loosely paraphrasing with an eye to making a piece that musically depicted the Creation Window at St. George’s. Some of the music had to be changed, but I think the overall result was effective. Soprano, Tia Wortham, sang both versions of this piece and has continually helped me to better understand the craft of setting words to music. Indeed, many refinements of the text setting come directly from her not only for this piece, but for the other two vocal pieces in this album.

Epiphany Window

My Epiphany Window composition is derived from a concerto for trumpet and orchestra called Night Passages, which was my first multi-movement work for soloist and orchestra. This current version has only piano accompaniment. I play three instruments: flugelhorn for the first movement, B-flat trumpet for the second and third, and piccolo trumpet at the end of the third movement. It presents three different perspectives from the Epiphany window, which is depicted at night. The first movement of my composition is called “Night Fall: What the Stars and Camels Say” which musically represents the beginning of the evening, as the sun goes down and then the stars come out; “Night Walk” presents a frightening nighttime sojourn, and is subtitled, “The Magi Journey by Night”; and, finally, a Latin setting transports us in “Night Club; Dancing with Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.”

“Night Fall” begins with overlapping melodies and some shimmering figuration, depicting a spectacular sunset. The introductory lyrical theme, played on flugelhorn, features the downward melodic interval of a third. This opening theme gets lower and the accompaniment gets darker until “stars” begin to appear. Then the main theme of this movement appears, which originally began as a melody written for my son, who plays violin, as a kind of lullaby. The cadenza, normally an unaccompanied part of a solo composition, here is accompanied by piano. This effect is intended to evoke an ancient poet punctuating his verse with the strumming of a hand-held harp. Although I did not directly borrow from his work, Vaughan William’s Lark Ascending was an inspiration for this movement. In addition, much of the material is derived from Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” and J. S. Bach’s “Gute Nacht, o Wesen,” the eighth part of his Cantata 64. And actually, the melodic material from these two pieces, as well as the opening theme of this movement, gets reused throughout the other two movements.

The next movement, “Night Walk” opens with a short and frightening motive that frames the repetitive and initially-relaxed bass line, over which I play long phrases, often interrupted by unpredictable outbursts. The bass line becomes more and more unstable until rhythmic and melodic chaos breaks out, representing a run from terror—possibly the fear that the Magi surely had of King Herod, or the panic Herod had when he heard of the prophecy of Jesus’ future as king of the Jews. After the framing motive returns, relative peace is restored to the end of the movement. Structurally, this movement traces the root structure of one chorus plus the interlude of Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.” In general, each chord change in the original jazz standard is spun out over ten bars in my piece. Melodically, much of the melodic material is drawn from the bridge of Gillespie’s composition, while incorporating Bach’s “Gute Nacht, o Wesen” from time to time. The movement finishes with the overlapping melodic sweeps that lead directly into the third movement.

After a short outburst from the piano, the trumpet introduces the melody, drawn from the main theme of “Night in Tunisia.” I used traditional Latin figurations, such as the “montuno,” derived from Cuban music, to make this movement feel like a salsa tune. The middle of the movement takes a brief look backwards to the opening melody of the first movement before launching into a small baroque-like counterpoint section. At the end of this short movement, I switch to piccolo trumpet with a variation of the main melody played in harmony with the pianist’s right hand.


Crucifixion Window

In 2012, I began to compose Advent, which, despite its name, is the piece I wrote to go with St. George’s Crucifixion Window. I was greatly moved by a poem of the same name by the American Poet Laureate Donald Hall. My intention was to provide a “Trinity” of variations for each of the three stanzas (three flexible interpretations based on the concepts of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost). Each stanza, therefore, has a set of three variations, making a total of nine iterations of the melody first sung at the beginning by the soprano. Regarding the text, “rood” in the first stanza is a cross; “Tenebrae” in the second stanza refers to a Christian religious service celebrated during Holy Week marked by the gradual extinguishing of candles; “Horror vacui” in the third stanza literally means “fear of empty space” and usually describes artwork which fills the entire space with visual detail. The original version of this extended aria featured an extremely unsettling phase-shifting mixed-meter melody between trumpet and piano with soprano singing in the rests, in an effort to imitate the artistic meaning of “horror vacui”, but an alternative, lyric, ending proved more effective in the long run.



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Trumpet mastery is like writing a fugue

Facsimile of Bach’ Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, beginning of movement III

Do you like fugues by J.S. Bach? I do. But writing a fugue is a compositional challenge, because you cannot just write anything for a subject and then expect the fugue to work out. Once you start putting the counter subject in, and then layering on a third voice, and maybe a fourth voice, each with its own countersubject, then you will have to go back and revise the subject, so that the imitative entries make sense. Then as you change the subject, the other entries have to change. If it doesn’t work out, then you have to revise again. Of course, this is even more true for a cannon (a stricter type of composition where there are no deviations from imitation).

By the way, if you want to really learn how to write a fugue, your best bet is to find an old book by George Oldroyd called “The Technique and Spirit of Fugue,” published by Oxford University Press and designed to help music students at Oxford write a fugue for their examination. Try to find this book in a good music library and make a copy for yourself, because it is out of print. 

But why is composing a fugue like gaining trumpet mastery? Because their are many psychological/pedagogical components to master. And once you start making an effort in one area, the other areas are affected and they will need redirecting. This process continues for the rest of your life. For me, the basic components of trumpet mastery, and trumpet satisfaction, can be divided up in this way:

  1. Awareness of the larger musical world as it was, as it is now, as it probably will become
  2. Awareness of yourself–your personality, your capabilities, your probable potential
  3. A goal to achieve: what niche do you want to occupy? This must be constantly revised as the realities set in. There should be an almost perfect match between the optimistic ideal and the practical necessities.
  4. A process to achieve that goal. This process must be full of time commitment, focus commitment, organizational commitment, a commitment to quality control and a commitment of effort. This is almost always made better by working with a great teacher
  5. A positive way to react to real results. Things will not happen the way you want. You will try and you will fail. In the failure, you will rise like a phoenix and try again (hopefully). This cycle can be very short: you practice a passage, and you fail. But you think about how you can do it better, then you try again. Thousands of times, until you get it. This cycle can be long: you perform a recital or an audition and you have an implosion. You want to hide under a rock, but you must crawl out and schedule another performance or audition and try again. The best is to keep your cycles of “failure/trying again” as short as possible, so that you can have a little more control. Your resiliency is key here. Each personality reacts to failure differently, but push yourself to optimism and happiness. This is really the reason I am doing a year-long Trumpet Happiness Project.

Most trumpet methods focus on number 4 (the process). This seems natural, since they assume that you already know the musical world and yourself and that you want to join the legions of working musicians who have gone before you into glorious orchestras and bands. You will need to constantly revise your goals to somehow connect with the realities of the musical world as it is today. What is it that people want from musicians? What is it that you think you can give to the world audience? What are your limitations now? How much can you improve to achieve your goal? Keep asking yourself these questions, just like Bach kept wondering about his counterpoint from beginning to end. The more you do this kind of recalculation, the more you can see the problems before you even get there. Just like Bach saw much of his composition in the whole before he finished–but if he didn’t, he had the technique to get himself out of the corner he painted himself into.








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