A Composition Update and Remembrance of Dimiter Christoff
Updated: May 2
It has been about a year since, on a fine spring day in 2022, after the last April snow “surprise” hereabouts, I started to compose. I had little prior evidence of my own abilities as a creator of music, unless you count a number of arrangements I have done of others’ music, and in some ways perhaps these do count, but the act of writing a new piece of music requires a level of inspiration and confidence that I wasn’t convinced I had. Aside from a modest store of musical knowledge and experience, what really did I have to go on?
Twelve months and more than fifty brief pieces later, I can say that a small kernel of inspiration goes a long way. Most of the way in fact. It’s what Beethoven called the poetic idea, or what Bruce Adolphe in his wonderful new book on composing refers to as the vision stage of the creative process. It can be a mood, a rhythm, a melodic gesture, an intriguing quotation from literature, a photo or other image, a blade of grass, anything. Not necessarily anything grand or elaborate, or even all that specific. For many of the pieces I have composed (most for piano), inspiration has come from my students, whose choices of musical parameters such as tempo, rhythmic motif, interval size and direction, and character have excluded other choices I might have made on my own. As with any other type of inspiring kernel, these pre-determined aspects help guide and speed my journey down a creative path that is unique for each piece.
I have long marveled at others’ ability to thrive under what might be considered self-imposed creative constraints. My father’s very successful forays into the sestina form in poetry, where a set of pre-determined words must end each line in a pre-determined order that shifts from stanza to stanza, come immediately to mind. So do the always arresting works of Bulgarian composer Dimiter Christoff, who rarely used an interval wider than a whole-step. I too have discovered the hidden delights of such constraints, and find myself eagerly seeking them. One of my recently composed solo cello pieces uses just four notes (albeit over four octaves). Sometimes I opt for direct repetition over motivic development or transformation. One recent piece for cello and piano is limited to textures reminiscent of Beethoven, while another evokes those of Chopin, and a third those of a pop ballade. Sometimes my initial plan plays out much as expected, but with many pieces it morphs into something else along the way. I enjoy stepping back and hearing what is taking/has taken shape, and wondering at the very existence of something that wasn’t there before.
I can also say that a small dose of improvisation goes a long way. It is no accident that the greatest composers—Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and so many others—were noted improvisers, whose ability to extemporize at the keyboard was on par with their compositional mastery in the most extended and intricate musical forms. Without the slightest hope or intent of rivalling any of the great masters, I started improvising with a creative focus on September 25, 2022. I remember the date because I had been demonstrating different types of tetrachords on the cello to some of my students, and after the class was over I continued to play around with tetrachords for another 20 minutes of my lunch hour. Later that day I composed my first piece for string orchestra, part of what is now a four-movement suite based on Homer’s Odyssey. I have to confess I was a little impressed with myself for laying down a 3-minute ensemble piece in a couple of hours, not something I had ever imagined myself doing. Of course there were many minor revisions later on as I became occupied with the practicalities of performing it. (Thanks to Christa Saeger-Dean and her students for giving the premiere!)
Earlier this month I composed four little piano pieces that I conceived of as a set. As I worked on the first, I thought of Dimiter Christoff. A professor of polyphony at the National Academy of Music in Sofia, Christoff had the charming habit of referring to a small fugue as a “fugueche” or “fugintse,” adding these Bulgarian diminutive endings to the Italian word. My thoughts turned to Christoff’s seven Ricercari for cello and piano, one of several of his cello works that I have had the privilege of performing. What would Christoff call a small Ricercar? A Ricercarche? A Ricercarintse?
The “searching” aspect of creativity (and life), looking for something and being open to other things that happen instead, is very present in Christoff’s music. He captured that presence in the title of his cello-and-harp work, Jolting Further, written for me and harpist Anna-Maria Ravnopolska in 1999. It is a presence that is also an absence, a record of and reckoning with loss, an acknowledgment of a fullness of living that had been denied or rejected. I hear the inescapable undertones of tragedy in this piece, undertones I associate with the early death of Christoff’s daughter in a plane crash. We never spoke about this, but the impact of this sudden bereavement on Christoff’s personal life seemed to be common knowledge. With me Christoff was razor-focused on encouraging me to write—not music, but a dissertation. Even as I dragged my feet, he cheerfully and methodically continued his quest for years on end. We would meet at various local bakeries to discuss my progress, and for a long time—until a dinner before an all-Christoff concert in Shumen—I never saw him eat anything but cake. Tall and distinguished looking, he was ever a lone, well-groomed figure, always dignified in suit and tie, yet with an earnest twinkle in his eye as we brainstormed new theories about the development of the American cello concerto (my one-time dissertation subject). Among Bulgarian composers of his generation, he was the “hubevetsa ot grupata (the handsome one in the group),” as Lazar Nikolov once said of him.
Collaborations… Anything meaningful in music is expressive and is necessarily emotionally charged in its creation and performance, says Adolphe in Visions and Decisions, in resonance with the aesthetic ideas John Dewey articulates in Art as Experience. I would add that anything meaningful in music is the result of some kind of collaboration among people. I experience a special joy in playing a grand Bruckner or Mahler symphony as one of a grand band of musicians, or working on a new piece with a composer, whether the composer is present in the flesh or only in spirit. With Christoff, the composer-performer collaboration was very much a co-performance—he choreographed every phrase I played with visual gestures, insisting that the dramatic arch of his music be seen as well as heard. Remembering Christoff as I composed the four Ricercarcheta continued our posthumous dialogue—a dialogue born of memory and imagination, celebration and regret—inspiring me to jolt further, to accept and even relish what happens next, what happens instead…
I write about and share my own music with trepidation, knowing how easy it is for great expectations to accumulate about what you are about to hear, only to have them disappointed in the actual hearing. As you lower your expectations to a minimum, please know that these little pieces are what they are, with no attempt or intent of sounding like Christoff’s music or anyone else’s. I hope you find something you like in them!