I'm a composer living and working in the Twin Cities. I'm married to an amazing music teacher and oboist and our son plays French horn, guitar, drums and electric bass and is developing into a successful songwriter and producer. I play the cello and have created a catalogue of over 100 pieces found on this website under the heading, Boys Art Music. I am never likely to apply again for a "grant" to create a new music composition but I always like to respond to invitations to compose for specific performers. I've found the best inspirations and most gratifying musical experiences flow from first-person music-making; abstract (long-distance and impersonal) connections are difficult for me and my process. A commission is a composition assignment (not one of my own) and I prefer to take on projects that meet one or more of these criteria: they should be challenging or unusual or full of potential to reach wider audiences. I got an invitation out of the blue from two of my musical colleagues: Rolf Erdahl and his most knowing wife, Carrie Vecchione. Together they have created an unusual family business, OboeBass!, which produces a series of concerts in Lakeville, Minnesota along with tours, recordings and residencies. They have formed a successful enterprise by encouraging new works since so little has been composed for this duo. So, the challenge Rolf posed was to create an arrangement of Stephen Foster's song, My Wife Is a Most Knowing Woman.
I don't ever want to create "arrangements." I look for ways to create a "setting" of someone else's musical ideas...and this is exactly how I approached this assignment. Stephen Foster is one of this country's most prolific and successful composers/songwriters. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970; his songs continue to form the foundation of American popular song and inspires them even today. The most obvious challenge was to set a song with clever lyrics for a bassist and oboist who do not want to sing in public. Ever. Never.
II. Singing Instrumentalists.
The composing assignment was to "set" a song for oboe and bass! But neither the husband nor wife duet like to sing in public. So what about Stephen Foster's charming lyrics? Should this be an instrumental theme and variations for oboe and bass? A fantasia on a melody? A sonata inspired by rhymed couplets? And then I heard how Rolf and Carrie sing. They sing like me and like so many of the instrumentalists that I have worked with over the years. They sing in tune and with feeling but would never ever consider being a solo singer. You might want them standing next to you in a choir or join them in a rousing version of The Star Spangled Banner. When they sing, their personalities come through and that is what you want in a singer of Foster songs. Authenticity. Colloquial authenticity. Musically colloquial authenticity. Their audition convinced me that A Most Knowing Woman should feature them singing...at least some of the time. Give them a listen.
I think their audition expresses how their personalities are complimentary and so individually revealing. I could not have imagined a better pair of people (married to each other and each one an accomplished musician) to express the troublesome wisdom and complex humor of Stephen Foster. The next post in this blog will explore why the subtitle of A Most Knowing Woman is "An Exposition of the Seven Elements of Comedy."
III. The Seven Elements of Comedy
This music has a snooty title and like all snooty titles, it starts with a catchy or humorous headline, a hyphen and then a much more revealing subtitle. Thus:
A Most Knowing Woman: An Exposition of the Seven Elements of Comedy • Repetition • • Exaggeration • • Wordplay • • Little Over Big • • Spirit in the Object • • Surprise • • The Forbidden •
One of my best friends (Phil Adamo) has a most interesting biography. Besides being a nationally awarded teacher and published author of Medieval history, he has been a professional art mover, dog-walker, parking valet and classically trained clown. He is the one who introduced me to the "seven elements of comedy" which he had been taught while attending Barnum & Bailey's Ringling Brothers Circus. I've been so fascinated with these seven elements, I've begun researching examples in concert music as a means of teaching other composers how to be intentionally funnier(!). We need more humor in concert halls, don't you think? I've found that using only one of the elements is.not.funny. Three elements at once is better than two elements. And sequencing elements is best! For example...
It's relatively easy to find the musical uses of Repetition, Exaggeration, or Surprise: melody, harmony, rhythm, register, silence, dynamics, articulations, tempo, meter, crescendo/diminuendo, or timbre. Wordplay. Think puns...and so much more. Example: "The spin cycle fantastique trick." Spirit in the Object. Think persistently annoying or obnoxious sock puppet. Example: The little bicycle. Little over Big. The basis of irony. Example: "If there had to be a bastardized version of Krusty, I'm glad it's you." The Forbidden. Example: "Kill wealthy dowager" or Homer's pants coming off on the tiny bicycle.
The next and final post will be a video of a performance by OboeBass! At that time, a copy of the score will be available right here.