A reminder of the muscular, haunting style of Peter Schulthorpe, who passed away a couple of days ago.
Archive for the “Contemporary Classical” Category
A reminder of the muscular, haunting style of Peter Schulthorpe, who passed away a couple of days ago.
Jul 30 2014
I’m happy to be returning to posting here at Sequenza21. It has been a while.
Recently, a quote from David Byrne was brought to my attention by Joe Benzola in a Facebook post. (The original Byrne post may be found here.) Although the quote is from 2008, it’s new to me; besides, Byrne was responding to “modern music” written in 1957 as if it was new, so I feel okay with my discussion here.
Essentially, Byrne’s comments amount to “why don’t these composers act normal?” I’ve heard comments like this from my undergraduates, usually non-music majors in my electronic music class. When we get to Cage and Stockhausen, there’s always one kid who thinks he’s either being funny or brilliant by asking either of the following questions: “Is he on drugs?” or “Did he make any money from this?”
Both my students and Byrne share a similar misconception about ‘classical’ music; really, about music genres outside the larger umbrella of mass-marketed pop music. That is, the very odd idea that one can create a piece of music, indeed a whole body of works, not for hopes of financial gain. Sure, many of us receive commissions to compose works, but for the most part, the money generated is meager in comparison to even a modest success in the pop world. One can also point to the few highly-paid artists like Glass or Adams, but they are a rarity. Many of us are creating works out of our own artistic desires, whatever they may be.
This brings us to the next point – the often-repeated idea that contemporary composers deliberately try to alienate their audiences. First of all, I’ve never heard any composer say that. And I knew Cage, and Babbitt, neither of whom created ‘audience-friendly’ music. More accurately, they knew that what they wrote would appeal to a limited audience, nothing compared to the vast crowds listening to pop genres. You could say the same thing about, say, Thelonious Monk. This is akin to ‘narrowcasting': targeting a message to a specific audience, like when a college radio station has a hour-long show all in Italian. In all cases, the messenger knows and indeed revels in the fact that he or she is not going to reach a huge percentage of the audience at large.
On a side note, I am reminded of a quote from Cecil Taylor, which I heard in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary. (Okay, I have a LOT of issues with the tone of the post-1945 portion of the documentary, but still…) When asked why his music was so difficult to follow, Taylor responded (I’m paraphrasing here) “I spend many hours practicing before a concert. Why can’t the audience do the same?” Okay, that’s harsh. One can say that he’s not exactly accommodating. Yet, he’s asking his audience to prepare for the experience. How, I’m not sure. Perhaps by learning how to be open-minded, allowing the music to flow rather than trying to control it or pigeon-hole it into a pre-conceived notion. Don’t expect to hear tunes based on “What is this Thing Called Love?” or the blues (at least not past the mid-60s, from what I know). That’s where audience members, including Mr. Byrne, get lost. They’re expecting an experience similar to what they already know, and it is simply not there in this case. I will agree, however, that some artists take this to an extreme, leaving the audience little to grasp on to. I don’t find this with the composers mentioned in the Byrne article. Schoenberg is quite traditional in many ways, especially when it comes to motive and structure. In many ways, he is a Neo-Classical composer, with a twist!
One last point: opera is about spectacle. Whether you’re talking about bringing in half the zoo for a production of Aida, massive sets for Wagner, or the staging in the Zimmerman, it’s all about the wow factor. It’s a huge multi-media event, so it’s no wonder that more recent operas have made use of technology. And that operas continue to be written. And, yes, Mr. Byrne, sometimes there is a long gap between the creation of a work and its first performance. It takes a long time for a work to be produced in general; when larger forces are involved there is more preparation needed. Sets have to be built, costumes designed, and musicians rehearsed; even for a commissioned work, it is not uncommon for a few years to elapse between the composer putting down the pen and the conductor holding up the baton.
Yes, composers are not always the most practical in a business (or pop-music) sense. We create music that makes our performers work a little (some more than others), and we expect our smallish audience to engage in active listening. Is that truly a horrible thing?
Vijay Iyer and the Brentano Quartet in a live performance of sections from Mutations at Greene Space
Over the past two decades, Vijay Iyer has recorded some 18 albums of bold, genre-defying and original music that navigates the fine line between composition and improvisation, between jazz and New Music. Although his restless musical imagination roams easily through both Carter and Monk territory, unearthing insights that evolve and morph over time, the gestures have largely been identifiable as jazz. His new and first ECM recording—Mutations—unveils more of the composer side of the 42-year-old New Yorker’s prolific bag. The title composition–for string quartet, piano and electronics—was written nearly 10 years ago but is recorded here for the first time, with considerable care, by Iyer and top chamber players Miranda Cuckson, Michi Wiancko, Kyle Armbrust and Kivie Cahn-Lipman, under the magic ear of Manford Eicher.
Is Mutations jazz or is it contemporary classical or some sort of Third Stream, as envisioned by Gunther Schuller? Does it matter?
“I find myself at the intersection of several music communities where people have different understandings and assumptions about what music is,” he says. “When you talk about genres you’re really talking about different communities of people each of which has people who have a shared understanding of music. But, those assumptions shift as we are exposed to different approaches and sounds so we are constantly redefining what music is. ”
In other words, he isn’t much interested in labels or categories.
“As you can imagine, from the perspective of an artist who makes music and has lived pretty intimately in both the jazz and classical worlds it is not useful think about labels or categories. It’s more useful to think about what can I do with these particular people. Because when you talk about genres you’re really talking about communities and people who have a shared understanding about what is music. When you’re exposed to something new, that can expand or alter your perceptions.”
Lately, Iyer has become the Pharrell Williams of the New Music community—a musician who has worked over 20 years to become an overnight success. Although Iyer’s music is unlikely to dominate the planet in the same resistance-is-futile way that Williams has, he has plenty to be “happy” about, too. In the last two years, he’s won a MacArthur Genius Award, gotten a tenured teaching position at Harvard, landed a big commission and retrospective at BAM this coming December and released an extraordinary new album on ECM.
Jul 20 2014
On Monday, July 21st at 8 PM, the last concert of Tanglewood’s 2014 Festival of Contemporary Music is a well-stocked program of orchestral works. The centerpiece is Roger Sessions’s Concerto for Orchestra, a work commissioned by the BSO thirty years ago. Steven Mackey’s violin concerto Beautiful Passing will feature as soloist Sarah Silver, one of Tanglewood’s New Fromm Players. Music by John Adams has not in recent memory frequently been featured on FCM programs, but this year his Slonimsky’s Earbox makes an appearance. The sole work by a younger composer, The Sound of Stillness by Charlotte Bray, piqued my interest – it is an impressive piece. (Check out a video about it here.) Thus, this year’s FCM ends the way that many of its seasons are curated: with nods to tradition as well as explorations of new, unfamiliar, and underrepresented corners of contemporary repertoire.
Jun 15 2014
The 2014 Ojai Music Festival opened on Thursday June 12 to begin 4 days packed with informative talks, movie screenings, parties and concerts. The Festival’s Music Director this year is Jeremy Denk and the resident musical groups included The Knights orchestral collective and the Brooklyn Rider string quartet. Friday night’s concert was built around an examination of the Classical period and featured a Haydn string quartet as well as the world premiere of a new opera – “The Classical Style” – by Jeremy Denk and Steven Stucky that was commissioned by the festival for the occasion.
The concert began with Haydn’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74, No.3 (1793), performed by Brooklyn Rider. Right from the opening passages of the 1st movement the light, bouncy rhythms combine with the classical harmonies and familiar Haydn wit to produce a lively and optimistic feel. As the instruments took turns developing the theme there was a sense of increasing fussiness that added to the fun. The playing was light and precise, setting just the right mood for the evening.
The second movement was more stately and slower – almost hymn-like – but easy and flowing. This turned a bit darker towards the middle, but soon returned to the lighter feel of the opening, giving a sense of resolution. The ensemble playing was impressive here and the ornamentation in the upper parts nicely done.
The third movement, in the traditional triple meter, was faster and featured close harmony. The balance and dynamic control were outstanding and the bright feel reinforced the sense that this was music that does not take itself too seriously. The final movement was faster still and had a dramatic feel that turned brighter with a series of bouncing rhythms that suggested a sort of gallop, hence the nickname of this Haydn string quartet as the “Rider”. This work is typical Haydn – bright, optimistic and not too serious. The precise and agile playing by Brooklyn Rider caught the essence of this piece exactly and it was an ideal prelude to the opera that followed.
Not being able to make it to Ojai, I listened to the concert as it was streamed on the Internet. The quality, both audio and visual, was excellent and there were no drop-outs or interruptions of consequence. The seeing and hearing are much like being in one of the back rows of the Libbey Bowl and was actually an improvement over my usual seating out on the lawn.
The streaming provided another benefit – a televised interview of Steven Stucky during intermission by Fred Child of American Public Media. The subject of the interview was the music for The Classical Style: An Opera (of Sorts). This is a comedy based loosely on The Classical Style by the late Charles Rosen, a textbook first published in the early 1970s and widely influential in the field of musicology. The libretto, by Jeremy Denk, was taken in part from the Rosen book but the opera also includes the personalities of Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Robert Schuman, Charles Rosen, and characters like the Tonic Chord, Dominant Chord, Sub Dominant Chord and the Tristan Chord as well as a host of supporting characters. The plot revolves around Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven returning to earth to reclaim their musical relevance and to rescue the classical style from academic over-analysis by appealing to musicologist Rosen. There are also scenes involving the several musical chords in a bar, and other assorted comic vignettes and sketches derived from musical theory and history.
Apart from the varied collection of characters, one of the challenges Mr. Stucky pointed out was the need to write music in the classical style, using the sonata form where appropriate, or in the romantic style during the Tristan Chord scenes. Another challenge was that much of the comedy was based on knowing something about music theory, and this needed to be put across in a way that all audiences could enjoy. The character of Charles Rosen, a close personal friend of Jeremy Denk, was portrayed as something of a hero, bringing order to the comedic chaos around him, and this necessitated a more serious musical sensibility when he was on stage. Steven Stucky, while confident and articulate, nevertheless betrayed the look of a man who had spent the last two years of his life on a large-scale work to be premiered on Friday the 13th. He needn’t have worried.
Jun 13 2014
The annual Dogstar Orchestra concert series of experimental music has been going in various locations in and around Los Angeles since May 30. The venue on June 10 was the Wulf, a converted industrial loft space on Santa Fe street downtown, and a good-sized crowd settled in for an evening of spoken and electronic works. The concert was curated by Sara Roberts and Clay Chaplin.
The concert opened with Black & White Oratorio by Robert Lax. A chorus of 15 voices and three soloists performed this piece which consists of groups of words for color that are spoken in various patterns and sequences. A soloist starts the piece with a series of phrases such as “Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, Black, White.” At length the chorus joined in with a series of similar phrases, but with variations in the Black/White sequence. The speaking has a pulse that allows the chorus to speak in unison, in divisi, or to pause for several beats together. The written score runs to 54 pages and the words are grouped in a series of columns on the page that represent the pulses, with each row of words forming the spoken phrase. This performance of Black & White Oratorio extended for almost 40 minutes but never lost the attention of those listening.
At times the words were spoken in unison, at other times the soloists would speak – always with the same chant-like pulse – but often introducing new colors into the sequences. The combinations would repeat often enough to establish a pattern, and this would be broken by the soloists or with a new sequence of words in the chorus. The pronunciation of the various color words in different combinations often accentuated the sense of rhythm. Repeating “Black White” in the chorus, for example, produced a march-like cadence. When a color word had a single syllable, like Red, there was a strong sound. A word like Orange, with two syllables and a softer sound at the end, added a sort of counterpoint to the pattern of pulses. When the soloists were speaking in sequences of “Red, Blue” with the chorus speaking “Black, White”, a definite sense of tension developed. Some sequences felt light and almost melodic while others resembled more the pattern of a steady drumming. At one point there was even a grand pause that lasted for several silent pulses.
The patterns and motifs that emerge as this piece progresses are always engaging and reveal how musical a work can sound without resorting to pitch or harmony. As the program notes explain: “Rehearsing these color poems has been an incantatory and abstractly hallucinogenic experience.” There were just two full rehearsals for this performance and the recitation went very well with only a few inevitable miscues, but these did not affect the flow of the piece.
Robert Lax (1915 – 2000) has been described as an abstract minimalist poet, and Black & White Oratorio certainly fits into that category. Lax was born in Olean, NY and attended Columbia University. He wrote for several magazines, including the New Yorker, and he was a friend of Thomas Merton. Lax lived on the Isle of Patmos in Greece for the last 35 years of his life and this is where Black & White Oratorio was written. This piece seems to exist in that space between music and poetry and even without tone or pitch, the words, the sequences and the rhythms seem to be transmitting musical content within its private vocabulary. The soloists for this performance were Jen Hutton, Heather Lockie and Morgan Gerstmar and the director was Sara Roberts.
Like everybody else, I was stunned to hear that Lee Hyla had died. I first met Lee in the spring of 1973; I was a senior at New England Conservatory and he was a freshman, I think. That year he was studying with my teacher, Malcolm Peyton, but the previous year he had been a special student and studied with John Heiss. During that earlier year he was taking piano lessons with Irma Wolpe, who I also studied with. My recollections of her are that she was the second most unpleasant person I ever met in my life, but Lee got along well with her. She had a way of stopping you just as soon as you touched the piano and telling you what you’d done wrong, which I found completely maddening and disabling–the one thing I learned from her–through negative example–was to let people play through things before starting to talk to them about what they did. Lee didn’t have that problem with her. He said that the first piece he played in his first lesson was the Webern Variations. He had play the first dyad when she stopped him, but he just turned around to her and said “Wait. There’s More.” She let him play through the whole piece then and never stopped him before he’d finished playing through a piece after that. Mike (aka Conrad) Pope and I ran a concert series of new music at the Museum of Fine Arts, and we included a piece of Lee’s, White Man on Snow Shoes, on one of our concerts. Over that year I got to know Lee, and he introduced me to Monty Python (via their first record, Another Monty Python Record–which was responsible for making a connection in my mind between “Mary, Queen of Scots” and the first movement break in the Carter first quartet), Cecil Taylor, Duke Ellington, and Captain Beefheart, so he was a major contributor to my education. I saw Lee all the time before he moved to New York, but after that saw less of him. When he moved back to Boston, to teach at NEC, he was on a higher level than me, and the relationship became more complicated.
In Virgil Thomson’s autobiography, he wrote about his encounter with the Copland Organ Symphony: “Nadia Boulanger came to American that year for giving organ recitals and some lectures. In New York and in Boston she played the solo organ part in Aaron Copland’s First Symphony, a work composed especially for her. When she asked me how I liked it, I replied that I had wept. ‘But the important thing,’ she said, ‘is why you wept.’ ‘Because I had not written it myself,’ I answered.
I have only felt that way when first hearing a piece by somebody who was more or less my age twice. One of those times was when I first heard Lee’s Third Quartet.
Jun 01 2014
On Sunday, May 25, 2014 the Los Angeles Composers Collective presented New Strings a concert that featured new works by nine different composers and performed by the Fiato Quartet. The venue was Human Resources, a converted movie theater in historic Chinatown and although the performance space is a work in progress, the audience was seated comfortably. The acoustics in this new space were adequate – a dryer environment might have been better to bring out the finer details – but this did not affect the performance.
The concert began with String Quartet 1 by Jon Brenner and this commenced with a series of fast, precisely played eighth notes that immediately assumed a familiar minimalist texture. This developed a nice groove with effective harmonies and solid counterpoint. As the piece progressed, a section with lower dynamics – dominated by the cello – produced a more introspective feel despite the busyness. Those sequences where there was dynamic contrast and sustained tones in one or more parts were particularly effective. Towards the end of the piece the tempo slowed a bit and a pleasing theme emerged that was passed around among the players. This is music that is always going somewhere; at times it is strident but never out of control and the groove was always carefully maintained. Informed by Jon Brenner’s background in early music, String Quartet 1 is a strongly minimalist piece with a lot of moving parts that work admirably together.
Thoughts on Spring followed, by Alicia Byer. This begins with a series of long, slow notes in the violins, followed by the viola and cello. Trills appear, and with a sustained tone continuing in the viola there is the unmistakable feeling of an awakening. A slow melody is heard for a time and then – after a beat or two of silence – fast trills in the viola mark the start of a stronger, more animated section. As the volume and tempo increase there is a feeling of incipient undeniability, especially strong in the lower strings, like the emergence of the first flower shoots of spring. Thoughts on Spring is just that, and this music artfully describes the yearly process of natural renewal.
At the Warren by Carlos Carlos was next and this is a piece that is unashamedly about rabbits. Full of variously bouncing pizzicato or tremolo sounds – and often with a dance-like feel – At the Warren nicely captures the energy and movement of rabbits in the wild. At times this piece turns smoothly pastoral and was reminiscent of early 20th century English music. There was a section that quietly conveyed stealth and careful movement and other passages that expressed a more lighthearted feeling or a sense of purposeful journey. The book Watership Down came to mind. At the Warren is not abstract or difficult music, but it clearly and convincingly sketches out its subject matter.
Miniature for String Quartet No. 6 by Gregory Lenczycki followed. This began with a series of strong quarter notes that gave off an edgy feel that only increased as the rhythms became syncopated. As the piece proceeded the texture turned smoothly melodic, providing a good contrast with the opening passages. Further along there was a return to the strident rhythms of the opening and a disconnected melody emerged that enhanced the building sense of tension. The barely cohesive structure at the conclusion completes the feeling of uncertainty that characterizes this piece and makes it an interesting sojourn.
The first half of the concert concluded with Four Impressions by Nicholas White. The first of the four sections was dominated by low trills in the violin, joined by a faster repeating line in the viola. This combination generated a sense of mystery and anxiety while the second section evoked a more introspective feel with lush chords, high sustained pitches and triplets in the viola. This trailed off agreeably leaving a nostalgic afterglow. The third section continued the warm, expressive feelings with a series of slow chords and some lovely harmonies. The final section provided a fine contrast, full of fast passages in the upper strings that gave a strident and declarative feel to the overall texture. This turned slightly discordant at times, increasing the strongly purposeful feel. Some combinations of notes sounded for all the world like a muted trumpet – adding another interesting facet to this nicely balanced work.
May 21 2014
Irving Fine was a Boston boy through and through. Born on December 3, 1914, in East Boston to Latvian Jewish immigrants, he grew up in Winthrop and went to Harvard. The Boston in which Fine grew up was, through the influence of the Boston Symphony and its conductors Pierre Monteux and Serge Koussevitzy and the Harvard Music Department and its composition professors Edward Burlingame Hill and Walter Piston, among other factors, a world center of new music (or at least francophile new music) activity, and the work of Harvard’s choral conductor Archibald T. Davison at Harvard also made it the center and exemplar of serious music education and choral training in the United States. Possibly the high water mark of this importance was when, during the time Fine was a graduate students at Harvard, Igor Stravinsky came to Boston as Harvard’s Charles Elliot Norton Professor of Poetics; Fine was designated as a minder for Stravinsky, and was also assigned to help with the initial translation of his lectures, which became The Poetics of Music. In 1940 Fine joined the faculty of the Harvard Music Department as a teaching fellow; in 1942 he was appointed an instructor, a position he held until 1948.
From the beginning Fine’s association with Harvard was intertwined with Anti-Semitism. He was one of two students at Winthrop High School to apply to Harvard; the grades of the other student, who was not Jewish, were less good, but he and not Fine was accepted. (All of the Ivy-League colleges had quotas of the percentage of Jews they would admit.) After a “post-graduate” fifth year of high school at the Boston Latin School, where he met Leonard Bernstein, who became a life-long friend, Fine applied again to Harvard and was admitted. When as the vice-president of the Harvard Glee Club, Fine applied for membership to the Boston Harvard Club, which, although not directed affiliated with the university, had a policy that all officers of Harvard clubs were entitled to membership, he was informed that “his kind” were not accepted. Later, when he was on the faculty at Harvard, he was nominated for membership in the Harvard Musical Association, a private club unaffiliated with the university, but maintaining a close relationship with the music department; he was blackballed because he was Jewish. When Fine was not accepted for membership in the HMA, all of the members of the Harvard music faculty except the musicologist Tillman Merritt, resigned from the club in protest. In 1948 Fine was denied tenure at Harvard, which ended his teaching career there. Since Merritt and the composer Randall Thompson, two of the most powerful professors in the Harvard Music Department, were openly anti-Semitic, Fine’s being Jewish was almost certainly a factor in the decision, even though there was also a certain amount of friction between Fine and Merritt regarding the proper role of performance in the department, and Merritt apparently distrusted Fine, who he considered an empire-builder.
Fortuitously, just as Fine’s career at Harvard was ending, he was invited to join the faculty of the Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, newly founded in order to provide a university education of the highest quality for Jewish students who were kept out of the Ivy League universities due to quotas. Entrusted with the task of building the university’s music department, he immediately enlisted his life long friends Harold Shapero, Arthur Berger, both of whom he had met at Harvard. He also enlisted the assistance of another Harvard friend, Bernstein, to help with fund raising and to establish the Brandeis Fesitval of the Creative Arts. Between 1952 and 1957, Fine and Bernstein organized and brilliantly executed four festivals, which garnered great acclaim and notoriety. That notoriety and the great distinction of the music department’s faculty quickly made it one of the most important in the United States, especially at the graduate level.
Fine, Berger, and Shapero, and to a lesser extent, Bernstein and Lukas Foss, were allied by common aesthetic aims and influences and by their friendships with Stravinsky and Aaron Copland, and their devotion to their music. They are certainly the most important of the American Neo-Classic composers, and were sometime referred to as the Boston School or the Boston group. The sunniness of their situation about the time of the founding of Brandeis was increasingly clouded by a spectre. It had several names, but using the common short hand, one could call it “twelve tone music”.
In The Dyer’s Hand, W. H. Auden writes about Utopian visions, “our dream pictures of the Happy Place,” of which he says there are two, which he names Eden and The New Jerusalem. “Eden is a place where its inhabitants may do whatever they like to do; the motto over the gate is, ‘Do what you wilt is here the Law.’ New Jerusalem is a place where its inhabitants like to do whatever they ought to do, and its motto is, ‘In His will is our peace.’” For better or for worse, I think this describes the situation of American composers in general, and Fine, Berger, and Shapero in particular, starting sometime after the Second World War and lasting sometime into the late 1970s and early 1980s. It seems that for many composers, especially those in the neoclassic camp, whose music, generally positive and sunny, albeit serious, often consciously intended to sound “American,” informed by the love of certain composers: Haydn, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Copland, existed in a sort of Eden. At a certain point they felt a sort of irresistible moral pressure, undefined and from an undefined source, to write another kind of music, even though they regarded it with a certain amount of distrust if not down right hostility. Writing this different music seems to have represented a sort of submission which they ought to make, and the ensuing effort and struggle was the cause of something between vexation and anguish. Most composers seemed to accept the historical inevitability of twelve tone music; it doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of them that they didn’t need to write it if they didn’t want to do.
Fine, Berger, and Shapero each approached this situation in his own way. Berger, at the age of eighteen, had been overwhelmed by his encounter with Schoenberg’s Die glückliche Hand, which was the companion piece in the concert at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in which Leopold Stokowski and Martha Graham presented the first New York staged performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and for a while attempted to write music in Schoenberg’s manner. Unable to imagine how he could write such music which was free from the German aesthetic, which he found distasteful, and which would satisfy the demands of his radical politics for music which would appeal to the masses, he put composition aside to study musicology with Hugo Leichtentritt and music theory with Walter Piston at Harvard. Eventually the path to composition was reopened to him by the neoclassic music of Stravinsky. But the post-war rise of interest in twelve tone music was for him a return to the preoccupations of his youth. Shapero’s attitude was one of rejection of what he considered anti-music. Shapero’s daughter Hannah told me that after his death she had found in his papers a cartoon imitating Da Vinci’s The Last Supper with pictures of his cohort’s faces pasted in (Lukas Foss was in the position of Jesus); the caption was “One of you will betray me,” the betrayal being a turn to twelve tone music. For a considerable time he was mostly silent as a composer, although like Berger he continued to teach at Brandeis until he retired.
For Fine grappling with twelve tone music was indeed the source of great anguish. The composer Malcolm Peyton was a student of Fine’s at Tanglewood, and remembers a series of lectures Fine gave that summer on neoclassic music. He began by talking about works that he really loved, including the Stravinsky Octet; as the lectures went on they became progressively darker and dispirited. At the end he announced that this was all over, more or less saying “The twelve tone boys have beat us.” Fine continued to produce works in the neoclassic style, alternating with twelve tone works (such as his String Quartet of 1952) but he considered them to be trifles. Feeling unable to write satisfactory large serious works of substance in the stylistic language he felt was required, he developed a writer’s block and he went into analysis, against Shapero’s recommendation, to deal with his problem (his psychiatrist eventually began to tell him that his friendship with Shapero was the problem). But he also discussed twelve tone theory thoroughly with another friend, Milton Babbitt, during the summers that they taught together at Tanglewood.
In 1962 Fine finished his Symphony. Commissioned by the Boston Symphony, it was performed by them, conducted by Charles Munch, at Symphony Hall in Boston. In the following summer they repeated the work at Tanglewood. After suffering an angina attack, Munch withdrew from the concert; Fine conducted his work on August 12. Eleven days later Fine died from at heart attack at the age of 47. The Symphony is an intense, expansive, muscular piece, clearly a major work. Under the circumstances it is hard to think of it as anything other than the culmination of Fine’s career; how that career might have continued and what place the Symphony might have had in that continued career–maybe as a breakthrough into a newly liberated language and manner– is unimaginable.
On May 16 in Jordan Hall, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project joined with the Fine Family, the Irving Fine Society, and Brandeis University to present A Fine Centennial, a celebration not only of Fine, at the centennial of his birth, but of his music and that of his friends Harold Shapero and Arthur Berger, and of their joint aesthetic vision. The program opened with two of Fine’s later trifles, Blue Towers, which was originally intended by Fine as the official Brandeis University fight song, and Diversions for Orchestra, four piano pieces which Fine orchestrated for a children’s program of the Boston Pops. All of these pieces were expertly and elegantly done and pretty forgettable, the one exception being The Red Queen’s Gavotte which has some of the vitality and charm of Fine’s Alice In Wonderland chorus pieces.
Harold Shapero’s Serenade for String Orchestra, from 1945, is a beautiful and graceful work It is also ferociously difficult–intricate in texture and harmony, complex rhythmically, technically difficult for the instruments, treacherously exposed, and thirty-five minutes long. Just about the only music contemporary to the Serenade of equal difficulty and complexity is that of Milton Babbitt (to whose music Shapero had a great antipathy). Nonetheless, just as Babbitt once wrote that Berger’s ‘Cello Duo could be described as white note Webern, the Serenade might be called diatonic Babbitt. Berger’s Prelude, Aria, and Waltz for String Orchestra was originally Three Pieces for String Quartet, amplified for orchestra at the suggestion of his friend Bernard Hermann; they were further revised in 1982. The performances of both these pieces reflected great understanding and sympathy with the music and were technically sure. The Shapero was cautious, with good reason, but had great grace and clarity and sweetness, even if is was lacking in the ease and élan that more rehearsal time would have afforded.
Fine’s Symphony is a dramatic and noble piece and Rose and the orchestra performed it with enormous drama and passion, making it a moving experience. As soon as the Symphony was over, the person I was sitting with said, “That piece killed him. No wonder he died. It’s full of death.” For Fine coming to terms with the stylistic crisis of the time was a life and death matter. I was struck by how much commonality it had with the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements, particularly in its second movement. So just as with the time the similarities between with the Shapero and Babbitt, which seemed inconceivable when it was written, with time the “serial” aspects of the Fine are less striking than its simple reflection of Fine’s personality in all his music and of the music that he loved.
May 05 2014
The City of Santa Monica was the scene Friday, May 2, 2014 of HEAR NOW Goes Electroacoustic, the first in a series of three consecutive concerts featuring music by contemporary Los Angeles composers. Presented by HEAR NOW and People Inside Electronics the six works in the program all included some kind of electronic accompaniment. The Miles Memorial Playhouse was filled and the cozy, Spanish Colonial style performance space with its wooden ceiling beams and stucco walls provided good acoustics and excellent viewing. This concert was dedicated to William Kraft and the composers offered a few remarks prior to the performance of each piece.
Theremin’s Journey (2010) by Gernot Wolfgang was first, and this began a low rumble of processed sound accompanied by bell-like chimes that was soon joined by the theremin. The distinctive sound of the theremin is invariably linked with 1950s science fiction movies, but in this piece the alien, otherworldly sound connected nicely with the underlying electronics, even when the theremin was dominating the texture. The sound of the theremin was an integral part of this piece and not simply a stylistic effect. Joanne Pearce Martin provided solid control over the pitch and entrances of the theremin and her virtuosity was all the more evident when she switched to the piano as the piece progressed. Theremin’s Journey proceeded in this way, with Ms. Martin alternating between piano and theremin. There was a more familiar feel to this piece when the piano was heard, and a sense of movement and energy was provided by several fast runs and short bursts of phrases. At other times the piano was unaccompanied, or gentle and reflective. By contrast, the sections featuring the theremin typically had a distant and sometimes lonely feel. The balance between the various elements – electronics, piano and theremin – was remarkable and the playing was controlled and consistent. Theremin’s Journey could have easily failed on several levels – technical issues, performance difficulties or by simply sounding cliché, but this high-risk piece came off successfully and convincingly on its own terms.
What Lies Behind the Rain (2011) followed, by David Werfelmann, a piece written for piano and electronics. Interestingly, the electronics were not simply a static presence but were triggered by the tones played by the performer at the piano. According to the program notes “Acoustic and electronic sounds blend and support each other, creating a sound world that could not be achieved by either part alone.” For the most part, this worked. Many of the electronic tracks were processed piano sounds, and when these were added to the live playing of Rafael Liebich the result was a kind of multiplying effect that produced sudden rushes of notes and fast swirls of sound. Trills in the piano could produce an avalanche of similar sounds from the electronics and this effectively evoked a sudden downpour or rain shower. There were also several passages that felt like driving on the freeway at night with cars quickly passing by. At other times the electronics gave out a majestic sound of bell chimes that, when combined with the sensitive touch of Liebich in the quieter stretches was quite lovely. This combination of triggered electronics and live performance deserves further exploration as was evident by this intriguing reading of What Lies Behind the Rain.
The third piece of the evening was Get Rich Quick (2009) by Ian Dicke and this was the Los Angeles premiere. Get Rich Quick was inspired by the financial crash of 2008 and is written for piano with recorded narration and sound effects . Aron Kallay, a co-founder of People Inside Electronics was the pianist. In his remarks just before the performance, Ian Dicke wondered aloud about the relevance of this piece in 2014 because, after all, “Congress passed financial reform laws and the bankers that caused the crash are all now in jail.” This was the perfect introduction to Get Rich Quick which begins with the sound of a coin dropping and the bustling noise of a stock exchange trading floor. A series of sharp, loud chords sound from the piano build tension while the narration smoothly pronounces a series of familiar platitudes: “Debt is a part of American life!”, “Debt has a time and place.” and “Pay those bills on time!” The vapid, infomercial tone of the text contrasted perfectly with the anxiety building in the piano and this provided the wit that propels this piece. The piano gestures are familiar but they make a telling commentary on the get rich quick narration. The program notes state that “Ian Dicke is a composer inspired by social-political culture and interactive technology.” New music these days often seems to arise in a political vacuum, but Get Rich Quick points to another way and the audience was both receptive and appreciative.
After the intermission Jugg(ular)ling (2005) by Vicki Ray was presented. In her pre-performance remarks Ms. Ray explained that the inspiration for this piece was the extreme multitasking required by our contemporary existence – all the things that conspire to keep us too busy. As Jugg(ular)ling began, old film clips of circus jugglers was projected on the stage screen. For each item juggled, the score called for a gesture by the musicians playing piano, violin and MalletKAT percussion. At first the jugglers had one and then a few balls or pins in the air and the music proceeded in an orderly fashion. As the number of items juggled increased, so did the complexity and speed of the musical responses, and this generated a sense of anticipation that added to the comedy on the screen. As the number of items in the air reached their maximum the music slowly unraveled, dissembling into a slow groove. Now the sequence in the film reversed with the number of juggled items decreasing along with the number of musical gestures. This simple formula – worthy of a Tom Johnson – was an inspired choice and the playing by Aron Kallay on piano, Shalini Vijayan on violin and Yuri Inoo on MalletKAT was clean and well-coordinated with the film clips. Jugg(ular)ling was an effective musical realization of the absurdities that fill our too-busy lives as the knowing laughs from the audience made clear.
Swallow (2012) by Scott Cazan followed and this was an experimental piece that combined stringed instruments – violins, violas and a cello – with electronic processing. The string players simply drew their bows across the strings; there was no attempt at melody or any kind of chord. These sounds were processed by a computer operated by the composer and played out through speakers so as to introduce feedback into the aggregate. The sounds coming from the strings were, in a sense, the raw material for the processing with the feedback producing the final result. This required careful and close listening and at times the feeling was that of observing a very subtle and ephemeral phenomena – something like an acoustic version of the northern lights on a far horizon. The process seemed a bit hit and miss at times, depending as it does on the acoustical environment pertaining at the instant of performance. But at its best there is an organic feel and the interplay of the tones, while transient, is often beautiful and invitingly mysterious. At times some zero-beating in the feedback gives a bit of rhythm and forward motion, but the feedback process tends to be on the quiet side and is often intermittent. Perhaps Swallow would be better realized in the recording studio where the more effective manifestations of the process can be captured as they occur.
The final piece of the concert was Pacific Light and Water/Wu Xing-Cycle of Destruction (2005) and this was a collaboration between Barry Schrader who composed and realized the piece electronically, and Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith who played trumpet live during the performance. The trumpet is played as an overlay to the recorded electronics and this allows Mr. Smith to react and respond to the sounds as the piece progresses. From the program notes “The Pacific Light and Water portion of the work is inspired by the penetration of light at different depths of the Pacific Ocean. Building on the water theme, Wu Xing embodies the Chinese concept of the Five Elements, among which are fire and water.” The trumpet player follows a graphical score of the electronic piece and this guides the improvisational component of the playing. The water theme came through very strongly in the recorded electronics and Mr. Smith responded to this with a variety of interesting trumpet calls, trills and sustained tones. The trumpet provides a familiar handhold for this music and made a good contrast to the thunder, rain and watery sounds coming from the speakers. The liquid feel increases and towards the end of the piece a booming surf is heard that increases in volume as the trumpet struggles against it. The surf sounds escalate into sharp canon reports and the piece concludes dramatically with only the trumpet playing. The overlay form of Pacific Light and Water/Wu Xing-Cycle of Destruction is a good example of a collaboration that is completely independent yet intimately linked through the solo performer, and this was nicely accomplished by Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith.
This concert was a good survey of the electroacoustic forms and techniques that are being explored by contemporary Los Angeles composers. HEAR NOW is in its fourth year and judging by the music presented in this concert the future looks very bright.