The title refers to Proust’s Episode of the Madeleine, in which involuntary memory overwhelms the protagonist when he bites into one of these small cakes. I also sometimes experience poignant memories from our fondly remembered trip triggered by various catalysts.
These five episodes in this set of pieces attempt to capture the essence of some of these memories. The first piece, Mémoire triste dans un café (sad memory in a café), serves the purpose of a prélude. One might conclude that the madeleine is sampled in this location.
Il pleut á Brest (It is raining in Brest) evokes memories of the wet weather in Brest, a city in Brittany near the coast. I was curious about this area because, during our travels, we met a boy in Paris with dark and dangerous eyes named François (François et ses yeux dangereux) who was from that area. In Il pleut the sound of rain alternates with church bells and fog horns (one of the poetic sensations I remember vividly about Brest).
The third piece (François) is a blend of a barcarolle and a funeral march. I continued to send one-way letters to François after we returned home, and one day the French police called to tell me that he was dead and that they had found one of my letters on his body, which had been tossed into the Seine. They wanted more information, and they revealed that he had been smuggling drugs out of Turkey.
I think the next piece, Promenade dans la ménagerie de Versailles (Walk in the
zoo at Versailles), is tempered by later memories of a trip I took to the zoo at Schönbrunn palace near Vienna, the oldest Baroque zoo, which was in a terrible state of decay when I saw it, hence the wistful air.
The finale of the set, Madeleine déteste les devoirs (Madeleine hates homework)
is a bow to the French primer I grew up with, which had as one of its main characters a little girl who I think may have been named Madeleine. I know her father was named François. My memories are mixed up: the actual François Thibaud is remembered as the inventor of the fast- track method of learning French, which was in vogue when I first studied it in 6th grade. The idea here is that Madeleine, the daughter of François, is having a tantrum and playing with her hoops or a bike rather than doing her English homework.
Unlike much of my music, Three Impromptus does not rely on any extra-musical impetus. The primary inspirations here were works in the same genre by Schubert and Chopin. I’ve
always thought that Chopin and Schubert’s Impromptus didn’t sound extemporaneous or improvised. They don’t give me the impression that they were tossed off without any preparation, except maybe in the case of the shortest and earliest efforts. I wasn’t attempting to write something that sounds spontaneous either. Instead, my Impromptus have obvious formal boundaries.
The first of the three is in an ABA’ form, with a cantabile melody enclosing a more turbulent middle section. The second movement is a very slow sustained waltz with several secondary themes in duple meter. The last of the set of three is a syncopated dance with macabre undertones cast in rondo form.
Astro Dogs, the most recent of the pieces included here, was completed in 2019. This work is a sequel to a much earlier guitar suite I composed named Astro Cats.
Unlike the structure of the earlier work, in which there is an unspecified cat type for each sign, the idea here is more elaborate in that each sign of the zodiac is somewhat casually associated with a specific dog breed. The inspiration is largely drawn from dogs I have either owned or known and the agility class I have taken with my yellow Labrador Retriever, Tukker. Some of the choices regarding which dog represents which zodiac sign are due to an interest in esoteric astrology and some choices have more to do with popular (sun sign) astrology.
In the mix is also my impression of particular dogs I have known that are members of each of these breeds. People typically want to know why I chose each type of dog for each sign. In the end run, my choices were whimsical, not driven by hard science.
I chose the Beagle for airy Aquarius because this sign of the zodiac represents all that is universal and humanitarian. An example might be the Peanuts character, Snoopy: not much fuss, everyone’s dog.
Taurus is an earth sign, and Basset Hounds are close to the ground. The middle of the piece reveals this hound as being a sober thinker, even deeper than we might have thought.
The tiny, unpredictable Bichon Frise is portrayed here as the highly-strung air sign Gemini, whisking around the dog agility course, through tunnels over hurdles, weaving through obstacles.
Sun-ruled Leo was the obvious choice for the Saint Bernard. I owned one and he was both proud and heroic, standing to face the blowing snow and howling wind.
I also have met a Standard Poodle, in this case depicted as the Venusian sign Libra. The dog was vain, pompous, imposing, and slightly crazy.
The Presa Canario (Canary Mastiff) presents an imposing and formidable countenance that only a mother could love. I chose the spooky water sign Scorpio for this breed, reflecting the macabre, intensely focused nature of the dog. I think the music suggests the beast is longing for recognition of its inner beauty.
Jupiter-ruled Sagittarius was the obvious choice for the Labrador Retriever. Roaming over large expanses with a goofy gait, the sign fits my dog’s personality and some of the more mundane traits of the Sagittarians I’ve known.
The Chihuahua has always seemed somewhat sad to me, at times fragile and wistful, just as sensitive as the emotional water sign Pisces. The music begins as a melancholy tango, only to be interrupted by a rowdy Mariachi band during the middle section.
Toy Boston Bull Terrier
My mother had a Toy Boston Bull Terrier when she was young. I have a photo of her clutching the dog in her arms perhaps on the way home from school. Mercury-ruled Virgo captures the industrious, practical side of the breed, but the music may be more influenced by the tender- ness captured in the photo.
Pekingese dogs, in my experience, bark quite a bit, and circle the table rapidly. I chose Cancer, ruled by the Moon, as the sign in this case because of the domestic food-loving qualities of this canine.
Saturn-ruled Capricorn has associations with the horned goat, the devil. The Werewolf was the obvious choice.
The set ends with the happy antics of the Irish Wolfhound which is known for its bravery, like those born under the sign of Mars-ruled Aries. These variations on “The Irish Washer Woman” capture some of the energetic playfulness of the breed.
Programme notes by John Carbon