Friday, July 8, 2016 at Boston Court in Pasadena found Vicki Ray featured in a concert presented by Piano Spheres, the long time champion of new music in Los Angeles.. Fifty Shades of Pianissimo was the fitting title for the concert which consisted of a single piano work, For Bunita Marcus (1984), by Morton Feldman. A sizable audience gathered to hear this extraordinary piece, filling the larger Main Stage performance space at Boston Court. A video by Clay Chaplin accompanied the 75 minute work that was played continuously, without intermission.
As Ms. Ray took her seat at the piano the entire theater was darkened, and a prolonged period of meditative silence established the mood before the first notes were heard. A series of soft single notes then sounded, and a slow, meandering melody arose that carried an air of quiet mystery. This continued with the occasional appearance of a two-note interval or – more rarely – a single chord. After a few minutes of quiet playing the video appeared on a large screen behind the stage, consisting of an edgewise view of the keyboard. As the piece progressed, faint ghost-like shadows of moving hands could be made out. This morphed into a series of successively more abstract views of the piano, with the images multiplied across the screen. All of this complimented the music perfectly.
The later music of Morton Feldman is famously quiet, subtle and always in the moment. The composition of this piece hinges on the metering, as described by Feldman in the program notes: “For Bunita Marcus mainly consists of 3/8, 5/16 and 2/2 bars. Sometimes the 2/2 had musical importance, like at the end of the piece. Sometimes the 2/2 acts as quiet, either on the right or the left or in the middle of a 3/8 or a 5/16 bar, and I use the metre as a construction – not the rhythm – the metre and the time, the duration which something needs.” In addition to the quiet, contemplative feeling – which in itself commands concentration – the phrasing of For Bunita Marcus unfolds by what seem to be two independent but parallel lines of single notes, whose interactions of pitch and time invite the listener to evaluate the sounds of that brief instant. These interactions recur every few seconds, keeping the ear focused and the hearing constantly engaged. The audience responded accordingly, with undivided attention and complete silence for the duration of the work.
New music concerts are normally held in the Branson room at Boston Court, a smaller space with generally reliable acoustics. The larger Main Stage is used primarily for theater productions and the performance of a subdued work such as For Bunita Marcus doubtless caused concern for the Piano Spheres brain trust. The piano was situated in the center of the stage, with the lid completely removed. There was a microphone just above and over the center of the piano interior, but it was unclear if this was for amplification or recording purposes. In any event, everything worked out satisfactorily. Each note was clearly heard and rang out cleanly into the silence of the audience, without loss of detail or nuance. The lighting and projection of the video were flawless and while there was some acoustic competition at times from the low hum of a ventilation motor, it was not a distraction. The Wild Beast at Cal Arts might have provided superior acoustics for a Feldman piece such as this, but the Main Stage at Boston Court met the challenge reasonably well.
By the midpoint of the performance the video shifted to a series vivid views of the night sky, often including thousands slow-motion trails of starlight. The effect was an amazing combination of the natural and the mystical. At times the star fields blended together in a sort of moving fog. At other times meteor trails could be seen arcing through the sky – it was very much like listening to the concert while sitting outside on a summer evening. The music also seemed to evolve at this point from spare sequences of single notes to a more fluid sound with a slightly faster tempo . The notes fell within the same upper and middle registers as previously and the dynamic remained a restrained pianissimo – Ms. Ray seemed to caress the keys as the quiet notes drifted upward and outward into the audience.
The stamina and concentration of the soloist was extraordinary throughout and For Bunita Marcus closed as it began, with the stage and house lights dimmed to complete darkness. A long silence of reflection followed, and the audience responded with enthusiastic applause, many standing in ovation. This performance of For Bunita Marcus was a remarkable realization in sight and sound of the classic late 20th century music of Morton Feldman. Piano Spheres continues to bring to Los Angeles the gift of contemporary piano music carefully curated and brilliantly played.
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On Tuesday, June 28, 2016 at Monk Space in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles, the Microfest series concluded with Beyond 12, a concert devoted to the music of alternate tuning, present and past. A full house turned out to hear Aron Kallay and Andrew McIntosh perform seven varied works from six different composers.
The first piece was Fugitive Objects (2007) by Kyle Gann, and this was performed by Aron Kallay at a keyboard that was programmed for pitch sets outside the conventional 12 tone equal temperament. Fugitive Objects opened calmly, with a series of solitary ascending notes, conventionally pitched. This was repeated and by the third time through, new and less familiar notes were heard combined with a deep pedal tone that supplied a simple but effective harmony. All of this had a somber, reflective feel, well within the sensibilities of a listener unacquainted with alternate tuning. As the piece progressed the incidence of unconventional pitches seemed to increase, but the melodic line remained clear and direct while Kallay’s sensitive touch added to the quiet, introspective demeanor. Fugitive Objects proved, through its pragmatic approach, to be the ideal piece to begin this concert.
Intonation after Morton Feldman 1 followed, the first movement of Les Duresses (2004) by Marc Sabat and performed by violinist Andrew McIntosh. This piece is the result of an extensive study by Sabat to create an etude for string players that would allow them to master the famously subtle intonation so characteristic of Feldman’s later music. This began with slow, sustained tones with an altogether quiet and solitary feel. As the piece progressed some lovely harmonies emerged, and as the unconventional pitches made their appearance the intervals heard took on a very expressive coloring. This was played with great confidence by Andrew McIntosh who had to contend with both the quiet intonation and the unfamiliar tones. Towards the end a bit of tension crept in, especially in the higher registers, but overall, this movement of Les Duresses is an excellent study of the supremely understated Feldman style.
The centenary of the legendary composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) is ocassion to celebrate. After Augustus Arnone’s three recitals earlier this season playing Babbitt’s complete solo piano works, now his group Collide-O-Scope Music is treating us to another rarely performed gem: Babbitt’s Arie da Capo (1974). It’s the major mixed ensemble chamber work from Babbitt’s middle period, and named in dedication to its original performers, the Da Capo Chamber Players, whose flutist Patricia Spencer is also now a member of Collide-O-Scope and is part of the ensemble performing Arie this Friday—now that’s authenticity!
Babbitt drinks tea
Arie ca Capo rewards the listener on repeat hearings, which thankfully are possible. Although premiered by the Da Capo Chamber Players, Arie was recorded by Harvey Sollberger and the Group for Contemporary Music (Nonesuch 1979) and later by Ciro Scotto (Nimbus 1987). As with most of Babbitt’s mature works, its sectional structure maps out a variety of textural combinations (or shall we say combinatorics). Each of its five sections presents a solo instrument in an aria against the other four accompanying players: clarinet, cello, flute, violin, and then piano each has its turn in an intricately shadowed limelight. Moreover, each of the five arias contains a quintet, trio, quartet, trio, and quintet again. (The relation between its rhythms, textures, pacing, and precompositional structures are discussed in a 1988 Perspectives of New Music article by Ciro Scotto.) Of Babbitt’s works, this one especially abounds in loquacious social interplay. It will be conducted by Robert Whalen and played by Arnone (piano), Spencer (flute), Marianne Gythfeldt (clarinet), Gregor Kitzis (violin), and Valeriya Sholokhova (cello).
Additionally, Arnone will again tackle the solo piano work Tableaux (1973), from the same time period as Arie, and Patricia Spencer will play Babbitt’s later work None but the Lonely Flute (1991).
Charles Wuorinen, a composer associated with and influenced by Babbitt but whose music sounds nothing like Babbitt’s, is represented on the program by his trio for piano flute, and bass clarinet (2008)—a polished and vibrant neo-baroque surface full of bustling energy and clarity.
from Chris Bailey’s Timelash
Christopher Bailey’s rapidfire Timelash (1999/2016), also to be performed, bases its “quasi-morse code rhythms” on the first 16 measures of Babbitt’s violin and piano work Sextets. Resonances of carefully selected harmonies are also explored in this piece (of which further details here.) On the same program, a composition by Lou Bunk exploits the pliability of the clarinet, presenting cross-sections and intersections of three distinct themes, separated by silences.
Continuing the tradition begun earlier this season, this concert’s intermission will feature an interview-discussion between me and the composer-theorist Robert D. Morris, who, in parallel with the latter half of Babbitt’s career, developed his own independent approach to serial and post-serial composition. Morris has also been an avid listener of and writer on Babbitt’s compositions over several decades.
Collide-O-Scope: Chamber works of Babbitt, Wuorinen, Bunk, and Bailey (mid-concert discussion with Robert Morris) Friday, June 17, at 8pm, $20, $15 (Students/Seniors). Tenri Cultural Institute, 43A West 13th St., NYC.
Most New Yorkers are walking about, minding their own business, completely oblivious to the international sonic earthquake vibrating through their midst all week: The New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival (NYCEMF). The first wave of the festival (seven concerts) took place as part of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial at National Sawdust in Brooklyn last week. Yet the lion’s share of the festival is happening right now: 28 more concerts during June 13-19, at Abrons Arts Center on Grand St., for a total of 35 concerts. Yes you read that correctly: 35 concerts of electroacoustic music, including some 350 works, by almost as many composers from all around the world! Indeed a mammoth undertaking organized, produced, and presented miraculously by Hubert Howe, Travis Garrison, David Reeder, Howie Kenty, and a highly dedicated energetic staff.
The variety on offer is astonishing. There are pieces for live instruments or voice and electronics (live processing or premade sounds); pieces for synthesized sound, sampled sounds, and both together. Some works feature video. Other works feature graphics generated through live video feeds of the performer, or graphics generated through movement. Concerts are heard alternately in two small traditional auditoriums and a cozy cocoon-like space with 16-channel surround sound, seating in the round, amongst stratospheric ceilings. Sound art and visual art installations are mounted in the hallways and foyers. The concerts are at 12:30, 2, 4, and 8pm; workshops and paper presentations on such topics as “Oral History as Form in Electroacoustic Music”, “Orient Occident: An Alternative Analysis,” and “Wireless Sensing” occur in the mornings, at NYU.
Among the international cast of composers and performing artists heard in the festival are Tania León, Ken Ueno, Alice Shields, Clarence Barlow, Elizabeth Hoffman, Simon Emmerson, Alvin Lucier, Shelly Hirsch, Annie Gosfield, Phil Niblock, Alan Licht, Judith Shatin, Michelle Jaffe, Maja Cerar, Marianne Gythfeldt, and Arthur Kampela. Most of them are on hand and the casual atmosphere is conducive to conversation with and among participating artists.
Togo seed rattle
One of the most interesting works I heard was Precuneus; Sonic Space no.8—Iteration No.4 (2016) by Michael Musick. This is a work for live performer and “sonic ecosystem.” And yes, it sounds as great as that sounds. During the performance, Mr. Musick gently wafted throughout the stage, as if in a trance, while playing sometimes a recorder and sometimes a Togo seed rattle and other percussion instruments. Meanwhile Mr. Musick’s software reacted in the most delightfully musical way. Its “digital agents” listen to the live sounds and spontaneously extract features from them and then generate new sounds sculpted by these features. These sounds percolated and jiggled all around the hall in a delicate lavander tornado for the ears.
Zhaoyu Zhang’s Night Snow brought my ears close up and inside mysterious objects and intriguingly close to strange materials in action—as though my ears were intimately touching the source of the sounds, quiet sounds of brushing, crushing, caressing, burning, scraping, and feathering. Deeper sounds were felt more than heard, creating an altogether visceral experience, evoking what the ancient Chinese poet Juyi Bai’s calls the four senses: tactile (cold), visual (bright), feeling (to know), and auditory (to hear)
On the same concert, Larry Gaab’s Weird Orbits Need Explaining seemed to use the lyrical gestures and sweeps of melody to steer the trajectories of other sonic material. An eerie yet friendly vocality emerged. So much I wish I could go back to hear again
violinist Maja Cerar in action
The highlight of the late afternoon concert was Xiao Fu’s Longing, a ravishing audio-visual kinetic spectacle that lasted nearly a quarter of an hour, involving two performers supported by a crew of four who manipulated hand-held projectors and sound. It is based on a song of the Huang He Ge from the Chinese Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD). Beautifully colored hand-painted animation of Chinese calligraphy was projected on a video screen with computeized sound before two women emerged in flowing costumes, gracefully dancing and singing (both). One of them later played the flute against the sonic digital backdrop while a new, and highly original, ornate style of colorful animation permeated the visual field, zooming and granulating. Strikingly colored calligraphic imagery punctured the progression toward a taut climactic episode in which the second performer dramatically played an accelerating drum pattern against flickering virtuosic lines of the flute.
AV artist Michelle Jaffe
The overflowing diversity of creativity witnessed in this festival is simply inspiring. What I described above is only a snippet of what happened on the first day. After today there are still five days left. So most of the highlights are yet to come. It’s well worth the trip to this somewhat neglected corner of Manhattan, between Chinatown and the Williamsburg Bridge.
The New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival (NYCEMF), June 13-19, Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street, near the F/M train Essex st. station) Each show $15 (evening shows $20); day pass $40; festival Pass at $160.
The 12th annual Dog Star series of concerts are in full swing all around Los Angeles and the venue for Sunday, June 5, 2016 was The Wild Beast, located on the Cal Arts campus. An evening of experimental music was presented in a concert titled The Theater of an Open Space and some 30 performers were on hand to realize reference works by John Cage, Manfred Werder and Pauline Oliveros. Additionally, two new pieces were presented by Casey Anderson and Todd Lerew.
The first half of the concert consisted of four complimentary works given serially and without pause. Four segments of Variations IV, by John Cage formed a framework while From Unknown Silences by Pauline Oliveros, 20121by Manfred Werder and 0’00”, also by Cage, were woven neatly into the continuous 32 minute performance. The first segment of Variations IV began with the players of the ‘orchestra’ arranged around the interior of The Beast according to a drawing a the center showing lines of direction and spatial locations. The players followed a timed score and at various intervals certain familiar pitched or non-pitched sounds were heard – the rap of a hammer, a ringing alarm clock, a coffee mug vigorously stirred or the knocking of rocks together – and suchlike. These sounds were separated by a few seconds of silence. Sometimes the player would move towards the center while performing – then return – and sometimes the sounds from two or more players overlapped.
At first the familiarity of these sounds evoked their normal mundane context in the mind of the listener. As the sequences were repeated, however, and especially the ones that involved movement of the players toward the center, the proceedings acquired a more ceremonial character. The movement of the players became choreography and the actions took on an imagined symbolic character. All of the segments of Variations IV had a similar pattern, but with some minor modifications involving the number of sounds heard concurrently or the number of players in motion. From Unknown Silences, the Oliveros piece, fit perfectly within this framework with a similar sequence of independent sounds, preceded and followed by periods of silence. The feeling here was perhaps more introspective and acute. Cage asks us to consider familiar sounds in the context of performance; Pauline Oliveros invites us to listen deeply to solitary sounds, processing them in the silence that follows. The two works intertwined seamlessly.
At about the midpoint the players rose and gathered together in the center, exchanging scores they had written during the first half, and this action marked both the Manfred Werder contribution and the 0’00” portion of the program. The last two sections of Variations IV followed these new instructions, with the materials and form similar to the opening. All of this was a bit reminiscent of Water Walk – another Cage composition – that asked us to evaluate ordinary sounds in a musical context. Variations IV aims for same sensibility, but from the perspective of the familiar as ritual. This was ably expressed by the 30 performing players of the orchestra.
On Friday, May 27, 2016 WasteLAnd presented a concert titled subterranean tracings at Art Share LA in downtown Los Angeles. Five works were presented including new pieces by Michelle Lou and Nicholas Deyoe. An overflow crowd turned out on the start of a holiday weekend and packed the roomy Art Share performance space.
The first piece on the program was for Chris Marker by Brian Griffeath-Loeb and the impressive forces deployed on the stage consisted of bass clarinets, euphonium, tuba, cello and double bass. For all of their potential power, however, the sounds coming from the instruments were small and subtle – a soft tapping on the cello, a light flapping of the valves on the euphonium, the occasional pizzicato note. A low trill in the bass clarinet added some movement and the accumulated clicking and clattering began to form a sort of rhythmic percolation. A low, guttural sound in the euphonium was heard, followed by a single tutti chord and extended silence. The knocking sounds reappeared, accompanied by the sound of rushing air moving through one of the horns. The piece proceeded in this way – a soft clatter of various sounds, a loud tutti chord and then silence. Even in the absence of musical tones, the sparse percussive texture provided an engaging continuity. The overall effect was a something like hearing a car cooling down in the driveway after a long hot drive on the freeway. for Chris Marker is a quiet piece, inviting the listener into contemplation and reflection while immersed in a new sonic landscape.
Next was A way [tracing], by Jason Eckardt, for solo cello. Ashley Walters was the featured soloist and this began with a strong flurry of notes at a brisk tempo. More rapid passages followed producing an active, bouncy feel while other sections seemed almost angry with a variety of heated phrases and aggressive sounds. A way [tracing] is a complex and challenging work – for both listener and soloist. The swirling texture and often agitated phrasing was accurately and confidently played, a showcase for the virtuosity that Ms. Walters dependably brings to all her performances. Enthusiastic and sustained applause followed.
Michelle Lou, the WasteLAnd featured composer for this season, presented an untitled work that called for an imposing ensemble with no less than trombone, trumpet, horn, tuba, contrabass clarinet, bassoon and contrabassoon, english horn, flute, cello and double bass. With Nicholas Deyoe conducting, this began with a low, fluttering in the bassoons – a sound felt as much as heard. Countering this were creaking and groaning sounds from the cello and bass, adding a measure of tension, followed by a large tutti chord from the woodwinds that added to the ominous atmosphere. A watery sound from the trombone gave the piece a nautical flavor, like being on an old wooden sailing ship creaking along on a foggy, moonless night. More powerful chords came from the winds at regular intervals, each increasing in volume, as if approaching some unseen danger. Rapid calls by the trumpet and trombone added urgency to the sense of warning while the clicking sound of ratchets markedly increased the tension.
Since its inception, the Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM has displayed a catholicity of style in its program selections. This year is no exception. Director Louis Karchin and the players present works ranging in character from serialism to spectralism, with a bit of neo-tonality in between. This is only fitting: the League has long welcomed composers of myriad styles into its membership. This year’s season finale is equally representative of this musical diversity.
Huck Hodge’s Alêtheia is filled with percussive passages, glissandos, and extended techniques juxtaposed with supple melodic gestures. It makes a bold impression. In a recent interview with League member Luke Dahn, Hodge clarified his particular use of orchestration as follows, “There is the combination of roughness and elegance in my music – the way that coarse yet sumptuous timbres may create a framework from which emerge elegiac lines of melody. Some listeners have identified a certain violence in my music, but it is a regenerative violence — destruction as an act of rebirth — like the restorative nature of a forest fire.”
Sempre Diritto! (Straight Ahead!) by Paul Moravec is a robust work filled, as one might imagine, with direct melodic gestures. These are supported by harmonies redolent in Romanticism. However, the piece is not merely nostalgic for a bygone era or a particular geographic area. Instead, Moravec molds these various elements into staunchly individual music of considerable character.
Composed for the pianist Peter Serkin, Charles Wuorinen’s Flying to Kahani references his opera Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The title is the name of the second “undiscovered” moon of earth, found in Salman Rushdie’s book upon which the opera is based. A piano concerto, but one cast in a single movement, it is abundantly virtuosic, both in the piano’s solo passages and in the orchestral parts. While its harmonic language is unmistakably chromatic, like many of Wuorinen’s recent pieces there is an exploration of pitch centricity (Kahani is built around the note C) and reference chords.
The longest work on the program, clocking in at some twenty-five minutes in duration, Felipe Lara’s Fringes explores the world of spectral composition, serving as an homage to the work of such French composers as Tristan Murail, Gerard Grisey, and Pierre Boulez, However, Fringes is not just built on the harmonic series found in orthodox spectralism, but also on a complex array of effects-based orchestration. Much like Hodge’s work, there is an architecture of sentiments – of gentleness contrasted with violent outbursts. Another layer of Lara’s music is his use of antiphonal seating, with instruments spatially dispersed onstage creating a vibrant colloquy. Thus once again in its Season Finale concert, the Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM shares a collection of pieces from the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first centuries that display diversity, virtuosity, and a wide range of reference points. One thing shared by all the works: the durable quality of the music.
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On Monday, May 23rd, with a performance by JACK Quartet at the 92nd Street Y, the New York Philharmonic’s second Biennial begins. Running until June 11th, a plethora of concerts are contained in this year’s offerings. Last week, Music Director Alan Gilbert outlined some of them at an “Insights at the Atrium” event. You can watch a video of it below.
On Tuesday, May 24th, Q2whets listeners’ appetites for the Biennial with a 24-hour marathon devoted to the NY PHIL. Hosted by composer Phil Kline, it features recordings from the orchestra’s archive and record label. At 7 PM, there will be a live broadcast from National Sawdustof violinist Jennifer Koh playing from her Shared Madness commissioning project.
A few other events that I’m particularly enthused about:
Cheering for the home team, the Orchestra of the League of Composers/ISCM, conducted by Louis Karchin,presents a concert on June 1st at Miller Theatre with works by Huck Hodge,Felipe Lara, Paul Moravec, and Charles Wuorinen.
On June 2-4, a staging of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest will be given as part of the NY PHIL’s Contact! series.
Cellist Jay Campbell curates Ligeti Forward, a series of three concerts on June 3-5, performed by alums of the Lucerne Festival, conducted by Gilbert. Using György Ligeti as a starting point, the concerts incorporate a number of composers who have been influenced by his work, including Unsuk Chin,Marc-André Dalbavie, Gérard Grisey,and Alexandre Lunsqui.
On June 8, the Aspen Contemporary Ensembleperforms a program that features the NY Premiere of Steven Stucky’s composition for tenor and ensemble The Stars and the Roses. A setting of three Czeslaw Milosz poems, the affirming character of both the words and music of this piece are made even more poignant by the composer’s recent passing.The concert also includes NY premieres of works by Esa-Pekka Salonenand Stephen Hartke.
On June 9th, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, San Francisco Girls Chorus, and Brooklyn Knights join forces on two programs that feature pieces by, among others, Lisa Bielawa, Theo Bleckmann, Philip Glass, Aaron Jay Kernis, Carla Kihlstedt, Nico Muhly, and Caroline Shaw.
There’s more Stucky on the Biennial’s finale on June 11th; a concert given by the Philharmonic features the New York premiere of his Pulitzer prizewinning Second Concerto for Orchestra. Also on the program is the cello-filled Messagesquisse by Pierre Boulez and the U.S. Premiere of Per Nørgård’s Symphony No. 8.
On Saturday, May 14, 2016 Microfest presented a concert of string quartet music at Boston Court in Pasadena. This is the latest in a series of concerts around Los Angeles featuring music created with alternate tuning. The Isaura String Quartet performed works by Kraig Grady, John Luther Adams, Gloria Coates and a world premiere by Andrew McIntosh.
Chippewayan Echoes by Kraig Grady opened the program, and this began with a smooth melody that started in the violins and was passed around and down to the lower strings. New lines were started and similarly shared, the various instruments weaving the melodies into a pleasing pattern. The harmonies were full and plaintive with perhaps a hint of sadness and solemn introspection. Chippewayan Echoes is a re-imagining of Native American melodies, as Kraig Grady writes in the program notes: “There is no attempt to produce an authentic historical rendition. Such a thing is not even possible. What is sought here instead is an emphasis on their melodic qualities that a translation to string quartet brings forth.” The piece is based on a single seven-note scale, with 7-limit just intonation. The result was a full sound, internally consonant and very smooth to the ear as played by the Isaura String Quartet. Chippewayan Echoes succeeds through the simplicity of its construction and the economical use of natural harmonic materials to impart a convincing encounter with primal sensibilities.
Tread Softly, by Andrew McIntosh, followed and this was the world premiere Tread Softly was written earlier this year for the Isaura String Quartet as a gift from the composer. This piece was originally envisioned as an etude for harmony in just intonation for string quartets, but ultimately became, as Andrew McIntosh writes: “…a small song with speech-like rhythms and miniature arpeggiated melodies.” Tread Softly begins with a sequence of soft tones coming from all the instruments and a bouncy feel – a bit like being on a boat rocking in a gentle swell. If the harmonies sounded a bit unusual, they were always agreeable. The second section sounded a bit more dramatic with some added tension in the chords. A pattern of alternating tones and single pitches prevailed and this produced some interesting harmonies. The last section was lush and flowing, with a settled, comfortable feel. Tread Softly offers a fine sampling of feelings and emotions, artfully expressed through just intonation
The Wind in High Places, by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams was next, and this three-movement work sets out to sketch some of the more remote places in North America. The music of John Luther Adams is informed by his commitment to environmental causes and a long-time residence in his adopted state of Alaska. Above Sunset Pass is the first movement and the title refers to an isolated opening in the Brooks Range near the Arctic coast. This begins with high, needle-sharp tones in the first violin and sustained tones from the other strings, entering in turn, that evoke the sense of blowing wind in a mountain pass. The entire piece is played on open strings and this contributes a wide, expansive feel that adds to the feeling of majestic inaccessibility. As the pitches descend, inviting harmonies develop that are remarkable for their cordial warmth – the landscapes throughout this piece are never portrayed as harsh or inhospitable.
Peter Maxwell Davies died about two months ago. I started writing this the week that Max died, but was unable to finish it before now.
I met Max Davies in 1973 at Tanglewood. I had graduated from New England Conservatory in the spring. I had failed to get into any graduate school, which was a sort of minor scandal at NEC. Gunther Schuller was president of the conservatory and also ran Tanglewood, so I got into Tangelwood as the booby prize. Max was the big composer who was there most of the summer. When we met I showed him my music and told him my sad story. Later when I had gone with David Koblitz to see him at the house in Lee where he was staying, he told me with a great deal of urgency, “You need to get out of the country as soon as possible. London is good. You should go to London.” I called my teacher Mac Peyton to see what he thought about that, and he said I should get some guarantee from Max about studying with him if I did go. When I asked Max he said, “I don’t teach, but if it’ll help you you can say you’re studying with me.” So I went. It’s not at all exaggerating things to say that Max changed my life.
Max was at the time thirty-nine years old. Eight Songs for a Mad King had been played for the first time four years before. He had just recently written The Hymn to St. Magnus, which was his first big piece connected to Orkney, which he had only recently moved to (while maintaining, at the time, houses in England). The Devils and The Boyfriend, the movies of Ken Russell for which he had written the music, had both been released two years earlier. I have on the bulletin board next to my computer a snapshot somebody took of Max in the composers’ class. In that picture he has a bushy hair cut and is wearing a white tee shirt and striped pants, he’s standing with his hands turned forward. He might be playing the jester in a production of Taverner, his opera which had been staged at Covent Garden a year earlier. In person he was almost always in motion, almost as though he was a dancer, and his eyes were always flashing.
People often talk about a sort of twelve-tone, or at least modernist, anti-tonal (whatever that means) orthodoxy holding sway at that time in a way that I don’t exactly recognize from my experience, or at least from my memories, but, even so, Max’s willingness to concern himself with and incorporate into his music popular elements like Foxtrots (something very much on his mind and in his conversation at the time) as well as very old elements like isorhythms and plainsong (which he also talked about a lot) was striking and refreshing and seemed very much in contrast to the sort of world view of what music could be and what kind of serious music could be written that I had come to be accustomed to, even at a not very ideological place like NEC. The power and greatness of his music and his musical mind were also inescapable and enthralling.
As it turned out I did do something which amounted to studying with Max. I lived in England for two years, and I saw him about once a month the first year and once every other month the second. A lot of those times I would go to the restored mill that Max had in Dorset and stayed a day or two, during the course of which I would show him what I was writing and get feed back. We also talked a lot, obviously. I can’t imagine the amount of foolishness Max had to listen to, which he treated seriously and with a lot of patience. I also went to lots of rehearsals of his–I remember particularly one where he was conducting St. Thomas Wake with one of the London orchestras at the Cecil Sharp House, very shortly after I was first in London, and a Fires of London rehearsal at the Craxtons’ which was prior to their recording The Hymn to St. Magnus. I also went to lots of performances of Max and the Fires. I went to hear them do The Hymn to St. Magnus at the Aldeburgh festival, not being able to sleep the night before due to excitement. A performance that Colin Davies conducted of Worldes Blisse in the Festival Hall also stands out in my memory.
At the end of the two years I was in England I was a student in Max’s composition class at Dartington Summer School. The course was two weeks; the first week was devoted to analysis. We looked at the Sibelius Seventh Symphony (I was amazed that we were looking at the music of composer who, in my training at NEC, was either ignored or despised) and Max’s Second Taverner Fantasia. Everybody in the class also presented their music, and Max’s comments, which usually included some kind of on the spot compositional exercise that had been prompted by some issue with the piece being presented, were deeply insightful and exciting. The second week of the course The Fires was in residence and each of us wrote a piece that week in which we conducted the Fires. Every night there was a concert, and that year these included the Lindsay Quartet playing Tippett quartets, and the Composers Quartet playing the absolutely brand new Carter Third Quartet, with Carter himself being there. There was also a lot of time in the pub with the other members of the class, including Philip Grange, now one of my best friends, who had just finished high school and who, like me, was there for the first time. The whole experience was thrilling. I was back at Dartington for a number of summers–I can’t remember exactly how many. When William Glock stepped down as director of Dartington, Max became director. He continued teaching, but in a more limited way. One summer there was joint course with Tony Payne, whose wife Jane Manning was also on hand teaching voice classes. That summer Max taught, with Hans Keller, an absolutely thrilling and never to be forgotten analysis class. The first week was on the Mozart G major String Quartet K. 387, the second the Schoenberg Second Quartet. At their concert at end of the first week the Endellion Quartet played the Mozart, and at the end of the second Jane and the Chillingirian Quartet played the Schoenberg. The sense of excitement that built over a week of serious analysis and discussion, mostly by Max and Keller, leading to actually hearing the piece, in each case brilliantly performed, at the end was something that I will never forget. I also still remember vividly insights from both Max and Keller, and moments from the class. One particularly when Hans Keller said that every composer’s first quartet has too many notes, “including yours,” he said to Max, who agreed. One summer there was a joint composers and conductors class with Max and John Carewe, who at the time was conducting the Fires.
I obviously kept in touch with Max aside from Dartington. On election day in 1976, I drove to Poughkeepsie to hear a concert by the Fires on tour. When I saw Max there he told me that he’d just finished an hour long piece called Symphony, a startling development at the time. I went to New York to hear a rehearsal of Stone Litany (for some reason I don’t remember I couldn’t stay for the performance) as part of the New York Philharmonic’s New Romanticism festival, whenever it was. I went to two of the Magnus Festivals in Orkney, (among several visits to Orkney) and heard first performances there of Into the Labyrinth and the Violin Concerto –now the first Violin Concerto–(with Isaac Stern as soloist and Andre Previn conductor–which had the feel of being about the most important thing that had happened in Orkney since the murder of St. Magnus), and a wonderful and hair raising performance by Max and the Royal Philharmonic, I think, of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony, which they had apparently rehearsed for fifteen minutes. Max was also in Boston several times. In 1983 he came for a concert of his music and mine (done several times) on which Mary Sego and I did the first American performances of The Yellow Cake Review, staged by Peter Sellers (Richard Dyer, probably accurately, described my playing as ‘wan,’ and pointed out how gracious Max was to agree to have his music played with mine and that it was to my music’s disadvantage). Max was also the Fromm composer at Harvard one term (I don’t remember the year, but I do remember that he came almost immediately after the first performance of the Third Symphony), and he was also in Boston several years later to conduct the Boston Symphony in his Second Strathcylde Concerto and works of Mozart. The last time he was in Boston was for the NEC Preparatory School Contemporary Music Festival in which he was the featured composer. On one of the concerts he conducted students in his Renaissance Scottish Dances. He told me after that concert that he decided he wouldn’t do any conducting at all after that. Whether or not that was actually the last time he conducted I can’t be sure.
The last time I saw Max was at a concert in a church in Yorkshire, part of the North York Moors Chamber Music Festival in August of 2014. The concert, which was quite long, included Max’s Sixth Naxos Quartet. It was Max’s 80th birthday year, and I had seen him several time in London around Proms concerts which had pieces of his. Max had been very seriously ill with leukemia not too long before that, but he seemed quite healthy and, at that concert, very rested and very happy with the performance of his quartet. That happy memory is commemorated by a photo of Max, Philip Grange, and me taken after the concert.
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