Joel Gressel (b. Cleveland, 1943) received a B.A. from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. in music composition from Princeton University. He studied composition with Martin Boykan and Milton Babbitt, and computer music with Godfrey Winham and J.K. Randall. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State CAPS program. His computer music has been recorded on the Odyssey and CRI labels. He currently lives in New York, working as a computer programmer, maintaining and extending software that models tax-exempt housing-bond cash flows.
An Orderly Transition (1985, revised 2007)
I had begun a piece for unaccompanied computer which, though viable, had no goal in sight, when Rachel Hadas presented a poem to my wife and me describing an evening spent together. It touched on major life changes afoot: my mother was to die of cancer a month before our first daughter was born. I could not resist the challenge posed at the end, “What music will you make for her, I ask.”
The music already written was recast as all that happened before the opening word “After.” Since the music was composed more than 20 years ago, I have only fragmentary recollections about what I was thinking at the time – that the equation between birth and death should be expounded by wrapping pairs of related row forms together to form the voice lines; that the crawling cockroach, purring cat, and bearded father formed a progression from lower to higher life forms, reflecting the baby developing in the womb; that in the overall musical program this development was followed by the labor and elation of childbirth.
The title is both an ironic comparison of becoming and losing a parent with the nation changing presidents, and a description of pitch procedures used in the piece – row forms are only partial transpositions of one another. This is a revised version of the piece, using a more modern computer “orchestra” than I had in the 1980’s and conforming to strict metrical notation. All sounds are created by small computer algorithms; there are no prerecorded or sampled sounds. The original version proceeded more slowly and essentially demanded that the soprano memorize the playback and then fit her part to it.
The portrait of me (above) for the festival program was drawn by my daughter, Katherine, “the child in the amnio x-ray.”
After the apples brought down from the country,
after the Chinese food and beer and kisses of reunion,
sleepily with what syllables are left us
we talk of death and birth,
of terror and of comfort, their equation:
grandmother dying of cancer,
baby astir in the womb.
The cockroach crawls in the beer mug.
The cat with the ulcered ear
purring reaches up a paw to knead
the beard of the father-to-be
who from his fragile tower
is soon to be pulled down into the gene pool
to paddle down the generations' river
as far as an unfathomed fertile sea.
Parked for a while above the common lot,
each of us, gazing at it, either thinks
of our own mother and father or does not.
The child in the amnio x-ray shakes her fist
and in the baby shop you tell me of
a teddy bear, wound up, makes white womb noises,
amnio growls to soothe the savage breast
of a new creature thrust cold and wild
into such a strangely naked world.
What music will you make for her, I ask.
Used by permission of the poet
Performed by Linda Larson