Recently described as “the New England master of the short piece” in a recording review, John McDonald is a composer who tries to play the piano and a pianist who tries to compose.  His Music for Big Bees, Only Louder will be performed by cellist Elizabeth Rice on our November 13th concert.  Here are his program notes and some follow-up questions we posed to him about the piece.

Here is a piece which strikes three attitudes: singing, stinging, and industrious. It’s inspiration comes from “A Smattering of Ignorance” by Oscar Levant (Doubleday,
1940), which tells a little anecdote about Schoenberg on page 126:

“One especially naive young man (aspiring film composer) took one of his problems to Schoenberg, hopeful of a quick, concise solution. He had been assigned to write some music for an airplane sequence and was not sure how he should go about it. He posed the problem to Schoenberg, who thought for a moment and then said, “Airplane music? Just like music for big bees, only louder.”

[The piece hopefully sounds more like a bee at close range than like an airplane.]

CSB: What about the anecdote about the film composer’s interaction with Schoenberg resonated with you?  Could you tell us more about your personal connection to the piece and the ideas and sounds (and ideas of sounds) that surround it?

JMcD: I had been asked by pianist Sarah Bob to participate in her New Gallery Concert Series in Boston early in 2012; the concert theme was “honey and bees.” Sarah had contracted a soprano and a cellist for the event, and instead of writing for them together, I offered some music for voice and piano and placed this cello solo so as to break up the vocal numbers.

Oscar Levant’s story about Schoenberg likening airplane sounds to “big bees” makes me laugh, and so the cello sounds I tried making expound on Schoenberg’s dismissive and lightly cynical response to the student composer’s obviously earnest question. It’s hard to know with Levant (who was a celebrity as actor, musician, bon vivant) whether the story is really true or not. Here, I wrote three kinds of cello music that I describe as “singing, stinging, and industrious.” I was thinking “busy bees,” amplified by the cello’s particular capabilities.

CSB: We also thought it might be interesting if you could say a little about your work with smaller forms and how you wanted to explore the cello in the piece.

JMcD: I’m interested in capturing ideas within short forms/spans so that they loom larger in the memory than perhaps they did at first physical hearing. Distilling an essence, seizing a moment. I fancy that I do this by writing as clearly and concisely as I can. [shaped phrases, clearcut contrasts, strong rhythmic profiles]

With the cello, I particularly like the rub of whole or half-steps involving open strings. I also like the intensity of high cantabile cello playing, but that aspect may come out less with “Big Bees” than the busy-ness of the “stinging” and “industrious” materials. I also like and look for the cello’s athleticism—the generosity of necessarily big gestures [because it’s a pretty big and very flexible instrument].

Here are a couple of aphorisms I’ve come up with about writing miniatures:

There are hour-long pieces that are too short and two-minute pieces that are too long. (Fall 2011)

Are you wasting resources? Do you need all those notes? (Spring 2013)

Everything is only something most of the time. (16.10.15)