Holly Twyford in Sounding Beckett. Photo: Jeremy Tressler.
Three of Samuel Beckett’s late one-act plays (from his “ghost period”) are the source material for Sounding Beckett, an interdisciplinary collaboration that is entering its second (and final) weekend of New York performances at Classic Stage Company on September 21-23.Theatre director Joy Zinoman has enlisted a fine cast of actors and resourceful design team, Cygnus Ensemble directed by guitarist William Anderson, and composers Laura Kaminsky, John Halle, Laura Schwendinger, Scott Johnson, David Glaser, and Chester Biscardi to create a production that is both respectful of the playwright’s work and imaginative in its incorporation of music.
Beckett was quite specific about what sounds and music are to be added to his plays: one can’t just insert incidental music willy-nilly without running afoul of his estate.Sounding Beckett avoids this pitfall, instead allowing composers to have the last word: after the actors have left the stage. Each of the plays - Footfalls, Ohio Impromptu, and Catastrophe – has been supplied with a musical “response” by two different composers. A composition is played directly after the performance of each play (the “cast” of composers rotates. This past Sunday afternoon, the show I attended featured music by Schwendinger, Halle, and Kaminsky).
In a talkback after Sunday’s performance, Schwendinger underscored that the pieces we heard were meant as musical responses to the plays: not necessarily programmatic outlines or storytelling. Thus, her piece responded to the strong emotions churning under the surface of Footfalls with sustained passages of controlled, but angst-imbued dissonance. After seeing actor Holly Twyford’s simmering performance in the play, one could readily understand Schwendinger’s poignant, elegantly crafted response.
Halle’s piece after “Ohio Impromptu” featured a more effusive language, with arcing lines surging towards, but never quite reaching, a place of closure and repose. Again, while not mimicking the action on the stage, his music seemed like a kindred spirit to Ted van Griethuysen’s mellifluous reading of a tragic story of love lost; it also resonated with the silent, but facially expressive, performance of actor Philip Goodwin. I was also quite taken with Kaminsky’s composition, which nimbly captured the emotional content portrayed by Catastrophe’s three disparate characters.
Cygnus Ensemble (Anderson, guitarist Oren Fader, flutist Tara-Helen O’Connor, oboist James Austin Smith, violinist Pauline Kim, and cellist Chris Gross) were impressively well-prepared; they performed all of the compositions with top notch musicality. Anderson, a composer himself, has supplied a multifaceted overture and economical music for scene changes. His work draws upon the sound world of modern classical music in a way that is simpatico to the compositions of the featured composers, while also referencing the type of incidental music one hears in current productions of plays in New York. If Anderson needs another hat to wear, he might consider creating incidental music for more plays!
SOUNDING BECKETT will perform Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. from September 21 to 23. Tickets are $50 and $75 and go on sale starting July 20. Tickets can be purchased by calling Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111 or on online at www.soundingbeckett.com
It’s understandable for composers sometimes to wonder if one of their pieces has been orphaned or abandoned. Years go by without it being heard from and its creator asks him or herself: will I ever hear this piece performed again?
It can be particularly hard to countenance when it is a piece that you believe in; one that you feel is representative of what you had to offer during a particular period of your creative life.
Last week, going through some tapes, I found an old cassette of my Quintet (1998), the first piece I composed while at Rutgers University as a doctoral candidate studying with Charles Wuorinen. It was also the first in a group of pieces inspired by abstract expressionist artworks.
I paused for a moment before resuming filing, thinking, “I’d love to hear this piece again sometime. I’ve sent it out to a bunch of places and no one has programmed it. Guess I’ll have to keep trying.”
Last night, I got an email from pianist and conductor Paul Hoffmann asking for score and parts for an old piece, my Quintet for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and vibraphone. Helix! will be reviving it on Sunday, October 28.
Quintet was first played at June in Buffalo by New York New Music Ensemble in 1998 and was later performed by Helix! in Fall ’98 and by Ionisation (Darren Gage’s excellent group) in 2006.
This will also be the first time I’ve had something done at Rutgers – except in masterclasses – since I graduated in 2001.
If you are feeling poorly about a particular piece’s future chances, hang in there. Keep sending it out to sympathetic professionals and performing ensembles.
Contemporary “Pop songs” and Long Songs for Flute and Piano
Amelia Archer, flute, and Hubert Ho, piano.
“What can one say musically in 3 minutes or less? A lot. A series of 6 compositions for flute, piccolo, alto flute and piano, by composers Christian Carey, John Bilotta, Nora Ponte, Bert Van Herck, Claude Debussy, and Edgard Varèse, are framed by more typical-length pieces, both new and established. Isang Yun’s Garak filters Korean sensibilities through an acerbic filter of dissonant gestures. Aaron Copland’s “flowing, poetic, and lively” Duo ends the program. The program also features a new piece by Hubert Ho written for this collaboration, and a reprise of Tremble, written for Amelia Archer.”
Hubert Ho: Tremble for flute and piano
Isang Yun: Garak for flute and piano
Claude Debussy: Syrinx for solo flute
Christian Carey: Bagatelle for alto flute and piano
John Bilotta: Caprice for flute and piano
Edgard Varèse: Density 21.5 for solo flute
Nora Ponte: Falling for piccolo and piano
Van Herck: Whilst Dreaming for flute and piano
Hubert Ho: Injection Refraction No. 2 for flute and piano(World Premiere)
Aaron Copland: Duo for flute and piano
Friday, August 24, 2012, 8pm
West Valley College, Saratoga, CA
(park at Parking Lot 7, closest campus road is East College Circle)
I am very much looking forward to this Friday’s Locrian Chamber Players Concert. It features music by Caleb Burhans, Georg Friedrich Haas, David MacDonald, James Bunch, and yours truly. Doubly excited because, after all, how often does a composer get a chamber group to agree to prepare a piano?
Several press outlets have been kind enough to run previews of the event.
LENOX – It was such a treat to have the opportunity to hear Gloria Cheng in recital at Tanglewood’sFestival of Contemporary Music. It included works by Birtwistle, Rands, Knussen, Benjamin, Harbison, and Salonen. I wrote the essay for her program and thus had taken the time to assiduously study all the scores in advance. But hearing them come to life in Cheng’s performance was still revelatory. Her accounts of the pieces were technically assured, meticulously detailed, and interpretively thoughtful. Those listeners who fear the post-tonal wing of contemporary repertoire, finding its dissonance forbidding, should make a point to hear her perform. She makes these works sing; your phobia will likely be cured before intermission.
There was a score that I hadn’t seen prior to the recital: her encore. To commemorate his 80th birthday Cheng commissioned a piece from John Williams. Mindful of the weighty program that listeners had already heard, the pianist made one request: that the composer write a short piece: one that could fit onto a single page.
After she explained this stipulation to the audience, Cheng unfurled the page of staff paper that Williams had delivered to her. His Conversations was indeed written on one page: one BIG page that could fill a grand piano’s entire music desk!
The audience certainly didn’t mind, and Cheng gave a stirring rendition of a work on which the ink was barely dry.
Those who know John Williams’s music from his film scores might assume that his concert music sounds similar. It doesn’t. Indeed, it fit right in alongside the formidable offerings already hear on the program. Who says one can only compose in one style?
And who said that a “single page” had to be 8″ 1/2 X 11″?
On Friday, August 24 at 8PM, Locrian Chamber Playerscelebrates the John Cage centennial with brand new works for prepared piano and ensemble by Christian Carey and James Bunch. The piano in these works is prepared to the specifications of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes.
Georg Friedrich Haas de terea fina
Caleb Burhans Contritus
Caleb Burhans Escape from New York
Christian Carey Gilgamesh Suite*
James Bunch Permanent Emotions*
David Macdonald New Ostinati*
* World Premiere
10th Floor Performance Space,
91 Claremont Avenue,
New York, New York 10027
Directions - North of W. 120th Street – One block West of Broadway
On July 22nd via his PostClassic blog, Kyle Gann published a post titled “One Less Critic,” more or less announcing his retirement from music criticism. Writing for nearly thirty years in a number of publications, notably the Village Voice and Chamber Music Magazine, Gann has been a thoughtful, often provoking, and even, occasionally, a polarizing figure in discourse about contemporary classical music. He’s also been active in a number of other activities, first and foremost as an imaginative composer, a professor at Bard College, and a musicologist who’s published articles and books on a wide range of composers, including minimalists, microtonalists, Conlon Nancarrow, and John Cage. His book on Robert Ashley will be published this fall.
In his blog post, Gann writes, “Criticism is a noble profession, or could be if we took it seriously enough and applied rigorous standards to it, but you get pigeonholed as a bystander, someone valued for your perspective on others rather than for your own potential contributions.”
He’s not the first composer/critic to voice these concerns. It’s fair to say that those who write about others’ music potentially imperil their own. One’s advancement in a career as a creative and/or performing artist often involves blunting their candor and, upon occasion, judiciously withholding their opinions, delicacies which a writer (at least, an honest writer) can ill afford.
Certainly, I haven’t always agreed with Gann’s assessment of the musical landscape. In 1997, I first read his essay on 12-tone composers in academia, in which he likened those in grad programs studying with Wuorinen and Carter to be a wasted generation of composers, like lemmings leaping to their (artistic) deaths. At that time, I was a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers: studying withWuorinen and writing a dissertation on Carter! I didn’t transfer or change my topic.
That said, I respect Gann’s formidable intellect and, even when it stings a little, his candor. I hope that during his “retirement” from criticism, he will find many new opportunities provided to him as a composer. In the spirit of bygones being bygones, maybe some of them will be in collaboration with ensembles that, back in the day, got a rough review from him!
Hong Kong’s Intimacy of Creativity Re-ignites the Process of Making Concert Music
by guest writer Karissa Krenz
As a recovering composer–turned music writer, it’s been years since I’ve sat through anything resembling a chamber music workshop. But last month, the representatives of a new project enticed me to fly halfway around the world to check one out. Now that I’ve returned home, conquered jet-lag, and have had some time to ponder, I’ve realized that these all-too-rare programs highlight the importance of community, and illustrate how, if the Classical music industry wants to remain a relevant, it needs to focus the shared experience of creation—which might just inject some new life to into the genre.
The Intimacy of Creativity (IC), which just completed its second year at the Hong Kong Institute of Science and Technology (HKUST), is an annual gathering that brings together emerging composers, master composers, and chamber musicians for an unusual type of workshop. The brainchild of composer, performer, and Artistic Director Bright Sheng, IC hopes to re-ignite the kinds of intensive partnerships between composers and performers that, according to Sheng, don’t exist in the concert music world as much as they did over a century ago, when people working as “composer/performer” was the norm.
Six emerging composers participated in the two week long workshop: Britain’s Emma-Ruth Richards, Hong Kong’s Austin Yip, Portugal’s Pedro Faria Gomes, and America’s Michael Djupsrom, Matt Van Brink, and Matthew Tommasini, who also served as IC’s Associate Artistic Director. IC’s three “master” composers—who also had works under the knife—were Sheng, violinist/composer Mark O’Connor, and composer/pianist Joan Tower, and the invited artists included Canto-pop star Jonathan Wong (who worked on transforming one of his songs), Ensemble-in-Residence Camerata Pacifica, Van Cliburn Gold Medalist Haochen Chang, cellist Trey Lee, and violist Sophie Stanley.
The process itself divided a grueling schedule of 11 works (plus an additional two by Beethoven) into two week-long segments. After an initial rehearsal, each piece was presented in a discussion (also open to HKUST students), during which all of the participants chimed in with suggested improvements. The composers had a day or so to edit (depending on the schedule) before another closed rehearsal and final open discussion. The works were rehearsed again —and tweaked, if necessary—before the HKUST preview performance, which was followed the next night by the World Premiere Concert at Hong Kong’s City Hall Theatre. Add jet-lag to the mix, and it was an exhausting—yet apparently exhilarating—experience that made the whole thing seem a bit like “Composition Workshop: The Reality Show.”
Philadelphia-based composer and pianist Michael Djupstrom participated in IC as both performer and composer. The harried pace was at times frustrating for him—he never felt quite prepared enough when performing others’ works, and he only had only one night to make the initial edits to his own piece before its next open discussion.
“Practically, I can’t think of any better way to do it,” says Djupstrom. “It’s not like you’re going to be able to get performers of that caliber who are going to have the time or take more time to travel to Hong Kong and do that, or the composers for that matter. But I wish we would have been able to fully prepare the work as it was pre-existing on the page, and then present that “finished version” to the whole group, and then get their feedback.”
On the other hand, Britain’s Emma-Ruth Richards handled the tight schedule remarkably well.
“ I have an affliction of writing too fast,” says Richards. “I think if I would’ve found myself in this position maybe two or three years ago, I would’ve been, not out of my depth, but I would have been far more stressed about it. But actually, an afternoon in my room to make changes and things is totally fine. And to see them change the next day, is far better than waiting two weeks or having to have this conversation over the phone with the performer that’s miles away.”
Sheng encouraged the composers and performers to make changes right up until the World Premiere performances, and while on one hand it made the whole experience a bit of a nail-biter for some, it also illustrated Sheng’s belief that music is a living, breathing entity.
“There is only one rule,” said Sheng, “that you have to make beautiful music, and whether you write it down or improvise it, or at the last minute you change something, or the players are adding something—this is all part of music making and creativity.”
While this kind of discussion and working-out process is the norm in most other genres of music, it’s not as common in the concert music world. Having the players chime in, too, was vital: Beyond the obvious technique advice they could offer, they often made interesting suggestions that approached compositional problem solving from another angle.
“Having performers articulate the same problems we would see in a totally different language,” says Djupstrom, “reinforces, for composers, that if person has that musical sensibility—and has developed it into a professional situation—you should trust them to bring a lot to the piece. I learned that their point of view was just as valid as all of the other composers sitting in those workshops.”
And when you’re working on something that’s as abstract as new “Classical” music, the discussions can be challenging—especially when everything happens within such a condensed schedule.
“In chamber music, where there aren’t any words—there might be a program or a story, but no words—we have to dig a little deeper to find out what the hidden syntax of the music is,” says Brooklyn-based composer Matt Van Brink, who, when the group realized his ten-year-old piece’s title was actually hindering its interpretation, decided to change its name. “On that level, conversation can get very theoretical, from the composer’s standpoint. From the performer’s standpoint, it’s very expressive and emotional—I think it’s very concrete. But for the composers—all of a sudden everyone has their own idea of what the piece is supposed to be doing.”
In addition to bringing people together and exposing each other to new music and new ways of thinking, they discover everyone’s capabilities, and form lasting artistic partnerships—Camerata Pacifica’s Artistic Director Adrian Spence even mentioned that he was thinking about commissioning some of the composers in the program.
In spite of numerous problems that still need to be worked out—it is a young program with some built-in challenges—IC’s participants ultimately seemed to take away a majority of positives from the experience, from improved pieces to performances by incredible chamber musicians.
“The most important thing I took away is that the piece is never done,” said Djupstrom. “The piece on the page exists kind of abstractly, but it doesn’t exist for any practical reason until you hear it. Even Beethoven doesn’t exist until someone plays it, which means that, every time it’s performed, in a sense, the performers are recreating the piece…and we’re always making decisions that really do shape the piece.”
In addition to reviving the true ensemble spirit of music making, the players, performers, and repertoire in general stand to receive other benefits from projects such as the Intimacy of Creativity. And by illustrating the importance of making music together in Hong Kong, all of the participants have hopefully returned home to spread the love of living music—and one hopes future IC participants will do the same.
“It’s an admirable process,” says Djupstrom, “and I think it’s something that we can use a lot more of.”
Karissa Krenz is a New York City–based editor, writer, and communications professional specializing in the arts and entertainment. Her articles have appeared in a variety of publications including Time Out New York, Muso, and Playbill, and she is the former Editor of Chamber Music magazine. She regularly works on projects for a variety of organizations, including The Actors Fund, The New York Philharmonic, and Lincoln Center, for which she edits the special Playbill for the White Light Festival.