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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I’m sad to learn of the passing of Ursula Mamlok, a persuasive composer of elegant post-tonal works. Like Ralph Shapey and Stefan Wolpe, her compositions referred to serialism while also retaining pitch centricity as a unifying principle.One can hear a particularly compelling example, her Concerto for Oboe and Chamber Orchestra, below.
I met Ms. Mamlok twice, once at a concert and once at a grad school audition at MSM. I was struck by her keen intellect and insightful comments.
The brilliant Argentinian composer Osvald Golijov returns to Charleston, SC this year as composer-in-residence of SpoletoUSA’s wildly popular chamber music series. Golijov has been part of the festival’s chamber music series for 20 years through numerous performances of his compositions, including well-loved pieces and world premieres, and through several residencies, most recently in 2011. The 2016 series will feature world premieres of two of his new works–Anniversary Bagatelles (June 3) and Agamemnon’s Aria (June 5), as well as three of his well-known older works, Tenebrae (May 30 and 31), Lullaby and Doina (June 1 and 2), and Last Round (June 2 and 3).
Golijov’s seductive and haunting compositions defy easy categorization. The first couple of sentences in his online biography best describe their roots: “Osvaldo Golijov grew up in an Eastern European Jewish household in La Plata, Argentina. Born to a piano teacher mother and physician father, Golijov was raised surrounded by classical chamber music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and the new tango of Astor Piazzolla.” Imagine a mixture of all those influences and styles in a single superbly-crafted work and you’ll get the gist.
Or better yet, listen to this prelude to The Dreams and Prayers of Issac the Blind, one of his early masterpieces. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
The St. Lawrence String Quartet, whose violinist Greg Nuttall, is the program director of the annual chamber music series, has had a rewarding musical partnership with Golijiv since 1992. The quartet (Nuttall, Owen Dalby, Lesley Robertson, and Christopher Costanza) has performed and recorded many of Golijov‘s compositions, including Lullaby and Doina for its celebrated recording Yiddishbbuk in 2002. (My favorite recording of contemporary chamber music, for whatever that’s worth.)
Nuttall, whose official title is the not at all cumbersome “The Charles E. and Andrea L. Volpe Director for Chamber Music for the Bank of America Chamber Music series,” is a perfect program director and host–knowledgeable, entertaining, funny, sartorially splendid–for the series. All told, 11 programs for the 33 concerts will be performed at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA from Friday, May 27 through Sunday, June 12.
Each of the 11 chamber programs in the 2016 series features Nuttall’s signature eclectic taste with compositions spanning more than 300 years, and his skill in assembling distinguished musicians from around the world. Returning artists include pianist Inon Barnatan, violinist Benjamin Beilman, baritone Tyler Duncan, bassoonist Peter Kolkay, double bassist Anthony Manzo, pianist Pedja Muzijevic, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, clarinetist Todd Palmer, violinist/violist Daniel Phillips, pianist Stephen Prutsman, oboist James Austin Smith, violinist Livia Sohn, the St. Lawrence String Quartet (Nuttall, Dalby, Robertson, and Costanza), and cellist Alisa Weilerstein.In celebration of Spoleto Festival USA’s 40th season, the St. Lawrence String Quartet —the Arthur and Holly Magill Quartet in Residence—will be part of the Bank of America Chamber Music series for the entirety of the Festival.
Each of the 11 programs will be performed three times with two performances daily at 11:00am and 1:00pm in the 463-seat Dock Street Theatre at 135 Church Street. The series is also recorded and broadcast by South Carolina ETV Radio and syndicated nationally and internationally by the WFMT Radio Network. Check out the schedule, order some tickets, and get on down here.
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Sequenza 21: The latest CD of your compositions, Liminal on Divine Art, features three works, a short orchestra piece, Shoreline Rune, Liminal, your Fourth Symphony, and Prism, an older work for organ. How did you decide on this grouping?
Carson Cooman: A number of recordings of my music have been released, and the music on them has been grouped and organized in different ways, depending on the repertoire at hand. For this release, I wanted to try a “mini-album” (shorter length than a full CD and priced accordingly). So the symphony was the main affair, and then I chose two other pieces that would serve as a sort of prelude and postlude. I remember Lutoslawski said that he settled on his characteristic large scale form (short introductory movement followed by a main movement) because he felt there was too much information to digest for a typical listener in a traditional four movement symphonic structure. In a somewhat related way, I wanted to do an album where instead of lots of pieces competing to fill up the 80 minutes of time there was just one main piece and then two shorter pieces to take the listener in and out of it. I was grateful that Divine Art was open to doing this. Shoreline Rune was written as a birthday gift for Judith Weir, and then Prism was an organ piece from more than 10 years earlier, which I chose simply because I felt its mood worked as a postlude to the symphony.
S21: Judith Weir is the dedicatee for Shoreline Rune. How do you know Weir and which of her pieces would you recommend to listeners to get to know her work?
CC: I studied with Judith Weir for a year in college, and it was a remarkable and inspiring experience. While I had quite positive interactions in different ways with other teachers, I’ve often felt that I gained more in that short time with her than I did in all the other years of formal study combined. For my taste, you can’t really go wrong with digging into her output. And like so many British composers, she has pieces for all purposes: from major concert works for the world’s best orchestras to easy pieces for amateur congregational singers. This versatility of purpose is something I greatly admire and strive for myself, and for various reasons, it’s been far more common in the 20th/21st century in UK composers than in other countries.
But in terms of a few specific Weir pieces that are personal favorites: Her first big opera, A Night at the Chinese Opera, is a masterwork. The orchestra piece The Welcome Arrival of Rain is quite moving. And there are so many exceptional chamber works: I Broke Off a Golden Branch and the Piano Concerto being two personal favorites. Chamber music is a particularly good fit for her sensitive, transparently luminous musical aesthetic.
S21: Your Fourth Symphony is about climate change. What made you decide to respond to this global issue in symphonic form? Are you feeling either Adams breathing over your shoulder?
CC: I use the term symphony simply to imply that a piece is inspired by a “big subject.” Thus, the five pieces (four for orchestra and one for organ solo) that I’ve given that title all have different big topic inspirations. However, I really don’t see these pieces as “grand statements” that try and sum anything up—and certainly not in any truly cosmic way. They are much more akin to writing a personal essay (or a long Facebook post!), just reflecting and expressing in some way my own thoughts. And, in some ways, writing the pieces on those subjects (whether or not one believes music can express anything concrete) is just a way to help me organize and work out what I think. I get itchy around “grand statements,” which in the right hands can be remarkable experiences, but the arrogance of which they often smack personally doesn’t sit well with me.
My decision to use climate change as the inspiration for the symphony came simply after several years of thinking, reading, and personal processing about the issue. Certainly when writing any environmentally connected piece of music today, John Luther Adams’s presence is inevitable. I think it’s wonderful that in spite of its “experimental” roots, his work has in the last few years really entered the classical mainstream. I think what my pieces do and how they are put together are rather different from JLA, and while my piece does also have a climate/environmental inspiration, it’s a different work than Become Ocean is, for example.
As for the other Adams (John Coolidge), I’ve also heard everything he’s written, and there are many pieces that I greatly enjoy as a listener, but I don’t think much from his style has had an audibly direct impact on what I write. I think partially it’s because his most characteristic devices are now so instantly recognizable as his. I hear those influences very audibly in a number of composers today, and that’s totally fine—in a sense they are working in their own way in a new post-John Adams tradition. But just as a personal choice, I don’t want to use his devices so directly.
S21: Organist Erik Simmons has been one of your staunchest advocates. How did you come to work with Erik and what is it like writing for another organist?
CC: I’ve been very fortunate that my organ music has been well-received and played by many fine organists, but Erik has taken to it to a degree that goes above and beyond. He’s recorded four full CDs of my organ pieces so far, with several more in the works, including a double disc set of all my organ pieces inspired by pre-baroque genres. It’s not officially a “complete organ works” project, though in the end it will probably be close to that.
In my own organ performing, from time to time I’ve had this experience myself where I almost compulsively want to play and record as much as possible by a particular composer. Erik’s work with my organ music has been a bit like that, and I’m just experiencing it now from the other direction, which is very flattering. Our work together has also generated a number of new compositions, all of which he has recorded beautifully.
In terms of “writing for another organist,” that is always what I’ve done. None of my organ music is written for myself. I never play my own pieces, unless somebody specifically asks me to do it. The main reason is that, as a player, I enjoy most the sense of discovery and exploration of repertoire, and I already “know too much” about my own music, having spent lots of time writing it in the first place. Composition and performance are two different impulses for me, and I get different kinds of satisfaction out of them.
S21: Your own activities as an organist have included a considerable amount of commissioning, performing, and recording. Tell us about your most recent recording projects as a performer.
CC: Relating to what I said above about a kind of compulsive obsession, much of my recording activity the last few years has been devoted to the work of several composers: Thomas Åberg (Sweden), Carlotta Ferrari (Italy), and Lothar Graap (Germany). In all three cases, I’ve recorded CDs and also a large number of additional works for online/YouTube.
Lothar Graap has been the focus in 2015. Born in 1933, Graap spent most of his life in the former East Germany (DDR), and because of that, his work was not widely known outside until the 1990s. Several pieces were published internationally by the state publisher in those decades, including his Meditationen (Meditations) (1968), which I think is one of the true organ masterworks from those years of East Germany. Since 1990, Graap has published old and new pieces with many publishers in Germany, and his work is now widely used within that country. However, it is still little known in the USA, and my recording project was conceived partially to address that.
I really like his music; its very German aesthetic is appealing to me, since a French influence has become all-consuming and pervasive in 20th/21st century new organ music (in all countries, including the USA). There isn’t a French moment in Graap’s music, and I thus enjoy working with something that is different from so much of what one usually hears today in new organ literature. As a fine organist himself, Graap writes music that is beautifully conceived for the instrument; much of it is very well suited to the small and medium size organs that are my personal favorite kinds of instruments. Much as I enjoy hearing the whole spectrum of organ music in the hands of other players, my own personal tastes tend to gravitate towards organ music with a strong neo-baroque aesthetic, but re-imagined through the lens of the present era.
Much of my recording activity in 2015 has been devoted to Graap’s work. This summer, I released two CDs of his music and have also recorded some 75 additional works online. There are a still a number more that I want to do before I’m done with this project. Since we’ve begun this project, he’s also written a few new pieces for me which I’ll premiere in 2016.
In addition to those three composers, I’ve also (in smaller quantities) continued to perform and record works by many other contemporary composers as well. At last count, I’ve recorded organ works of more than 225 different contemporary composers since 2012.
As the organ editor for Lorenz Publishing Company, I am also simultaneously developing and commissioning new organ publications from many composers, covering the entire spectrum of organ literature: from pieces for part-time church organists to recital literature.
S21: You are an uncommonly prolific composer. My composition students often ask me how forebears such as Bach or Handel wrote so much music. While writing in many genres and styles, how does a composer in the Twenty-first century find their voice?
CC: Since the late 19th century, a romantic/post-romantic paradigm seems to have become the norm in terms of how one conceptualizes an output and body of work. This even true for people whose music has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with romanticism as an aesthetic or style. But the notion that one writes primarily big pieces (and fairly few of them) is something that has stuck with us in contemporary concert music circles. I think it’s this inheritance that makes it hard for many composers to think about the kind of productivity that was the norm in earlier eras (and not unheard-of from certain composers in the early 20th century either).
My own thinking is in many ways more like that of pre-romantic eras. I’m a professional composer, and so I write music to the best of my ability when I’m asked to do so: whether that be for professional orchestra or amateur chorus. The “great artist” ego has little appeal to me. I’ve always been relatively prolific, and I’ve found in my own experience (and with many of my friends and colleagues) that we all have different paces at which we work, and trying to change that pace is not going to be effective. You simply have to find your own musical metabolism and learn to produce the best work you can that way. No actual teacher of mine tried to make me write less, but when I was a student other people advised it, based on their own (slower) pace. There was nothing to be gained by that, however, as it simply wasn’t the way that I worked. It ultimately made no more sense than it would make for me to try and force somebody who writes really slowly to produce a lot more just for the sake of doing so.
But of course, I can’t escape that post-romantic aesthetic inheritance entirely. For example, I do make a conscious effort not to repeat myself and not to accept commissions/projects where I think the result might be just be a lesser version of something I’ve already done. Because I was born in 1982, I worry about things like that. If I had been born in 1682, such thoughts would not have crossed my mind! When people criticize Vivaldi (not really true, of course) for writing the “same concerto over and over again,” the notion that doing something like that would have been somehow “wrong” would have been rather foreign to him. But because I live when I do, I can’t escape entirely the milieu and aesthetic in which I came of age musically.
In the end, I just try and do the best work that I possibly can in the manner that has come to be my way of doing things. Each person needs to find for themselves what that method and pace is.
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On Saturday, April 2, 2016 the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena was the venue for Rainforest IV, the landmark sound installation by David Tudor. Presented by People Inside Electronics and the Southland Ensemble, Rainforest IV filled the ample sanctuary and attracted a sizable crowd to witness the unique interaction between acoustic instruments, electronics and found objects. The world premiere of Other Forests, by Carolyn Chen was also heard, a work written especially for performance in conjunction with Rainforest IV.
The Rainforest IV (1976) installation consists of several stations, each with a series of found objects suspended from a framework made from small pipes, much like a tall coat rack. The objects varied in size, shape and materials – there was a piece of sheet metal about two foot square, metal bowls, plastic objects, a tambourine and a number of unstrung string instruments. Each object was fitted with a transducer that imparted vibrations from various recorded pitches and other sounds. Additionally, there was a pickup attached to each object and this transmitted the individual sonic response downstream to amplifiers and speakers – the idea being that each object was voicing an interpretation of the applied input as a function of its mechanical properties. The input signals to each found item could be rerouted – or several summed electronically – as needed during the performance. All of this was accomplished with a bewildering array of cables, connectors, analog amplifiers and speakers as based on David Tudor’s early circuits, specifications and schematic diagrams. Computers could also be seen as part of the installation – a more contemporary way to record and direct the signals.
In a 1988 interview, David Tudor explained the intent of Rainforest IV: “The idea is that if you send sound through materials, the resonant nodes of the materials are released and those can be picked up by contact microphones or phono cartridges and those have a different kind of sound than the object does when you listen to it very close where it’s hanging. It becomes like a reflection and it makes, I thought, quite a harmonious and beautiful atmosphere, because wherever you move in the room, you have reminiscences of something you have heard at some other point in the space.”
On Friday, March 18, 2016 at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, gnarwhallaby presented an evening German contemporary music in a concert titled DEUTSCHwhallaby. Four pieces were heard including a US premiere and the world premiere of Plainsound Lullaby by Wolfgang von Schweinitz.
The first piece was Stau (1999) by Steffen Schleiermacher and this begins with a sharp tutti opening followed by sustained tones and a second sforzando chord ending the phrase. The piano was then heard in its very highest notes with a rapid clicking sound. This sequence repeats several times, producing a feeling of mild vexation in the halting character of the piece as it inches forward. Stau is the favorite German term for traffic jam and anyone who has traveled the autobahn through a large city will have undoubtedly experienced this. As the piece continues some forward movement is heard – a solo from the clarinet and then in the trombone – but these are inevitably followed by a sudden piano crash – and we have come once again to a complete halt. The playing by gnarwhallaby was characteristically precise and powerful, and aptly reinforced the stop-and-go character of this piece. At one point the music moves ahead with an intense, driving beat and a bright, active feel – as if we have finally broken free of the stau – but this comes to an unexpected end, replaced by a sustained tone in the cello and soon we are back to the slower sequences. Stau is the perfect musical metaphor for that most infuriating of modern inconveniences: stop-and-go traffic on a freeway. The robust and accurate playing perfectly complimented the character and intentions of a piece that is fully attuned to the quintessential Los Angeles traffic experience.
D’avance (1996/97) by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf followed, and this was the US premiere. Starting with a sharp piano chord, this gave way to a series of light, rapid passages in the clarinet that were airily quiet, but soon gaining in volume. The piece then unfolded into an extended clarinet solo, ably negotiated by Brian Walsh, covering all possible combinations of changing dynamics as well as jumps in pitches and tempo. A complex tutti passage followed that was free of any unifying melody or beat, but effectively enhanced the mysterious and ephemeral flavor. A cello solo followed, as varied and disparate as that heard from the clarinet; and then more tutti passages, at times spiky with complex interweaving or smoother and more sustained.
D’avance proceeds with alternating solos and tutti passages, building in tension and always in a state of revision and transition. This music keeps the listener constantly in the moment, with no expectations raised and none delivered. It is never static but always changing – coherent yet unconnected. It is like walking in a dark forest where the shadows are continuously shifting and mutating into new forms inside your brain. Harmonies, when they occurred, never seemed intentional, but were instead transient and without pattern or repetition. A stark piano solo had a disconnected, jagged feel – full of short, complex phrases that subtly conveyed a sense of alienation. D’avance is a brutally difficult piece of music to perform and gnarwhallaby rose fearlessly to the challenge with a virtuosic display of their collective abilities. Devoid of beat, harmony and formal structure, but full of complex motion and kaleidoscopic textures, D’avance confronts the listener with elemental forces that are masterfully marshaled into a compelling musical perspective.
On Saturday, February 27, 2016 Boston Court in Pasadena hosted the Los Angeles-based composer collective Synchromy and The Argus Quartet who performed no fewer than 9 works of new music including three world premieres. A nice crowd filled the Marjorie Branson space to hear a concert titled walkabout that featured narration, video projections and music from seven different composers inspired by place and surroundings.
The first piece on the program was Sabina, by Andrew Norman from A Companion Guide to Rome, a collection of nine musical portraits based on churches in Rome. As Norman writes in the program notes: “The music is, at different times and in different ways, informed by the proportions of the churches, the qualities of their surfaces, the patterns in their floors, the artwork on their walls, and the lives and legends of the saints whose names they bear. The more I worked on these miniatures, the less they had to do with actual buildings and the more they became character studies of imaginary people, my companions for a year of living in the Eternal City.”
Sabina was performed on this occasion by Clara Kim of the Argus Quartet as a violin solo. This begins with a series of quiet whispers that evoke a light breeze or the wind whistling softly through the stone arches of a church. This builds gradually into some lovely notes and runs of sound that unfold to create a more active, complex texture. The playing becomes more animated through an interweaving of sounds – much like a tapestry of colored threads – but with an overall warmth and wistfulness that is very appealing. All of this was performed with great skill by Ms. Kim who kept everything balanced and moving crisply forward. Towards the conclusion the pace slowed and a series of singularly high, thin notes coalesced into what could have been a simple hymn tune to finish out. For those who are familiar with Norman’s orchestral works – full of power and fury – Sabina reveals a more sensitive compositional touch and is a beautifully sketched likeness of a charming subject.
Cloud Trio, by Kaija Saariaho was next and a brief spoken introduction by narrator Chelsea Fryer was given about the instrumentation prior to the playing of this piece. As quoted from the program notes: “In this piece, the three instruments all have different tasks and functions, they represent very different aspects of string playing. These tasks are sometimes very concrete: the violin tends to behave as an echo or reverberation, the viola creates new clouds next to the existing ones and the cello often has a function of a shadow to the upper instrumental lines.”
Images of clouds moving slowly across a blue sky were projected on the screen above the stage and Cloud Trio began with smooth, sustained lines from each instrument that produced some enchanting harmony. As the piece progressed there was a more active feel in the violin – almost like the falling of rain drops – and a rapid, complex intertwining of the parts. Over the four sections of this work each of the instruments rose to the top of the texture only to be replaced with another, and this produced a fascinating series of combinations. The volume, rhythm or complexity would increase and then subside, and the feeling was variously mysterious, lethargic or dramatic, as if a series of different clouds were drifting by. A captivating violin solo emerged just as the piece finished and the Argus players carefully drew out each of the nuances in this well-played performance. Cloud Trio is imaginative music that invites the listener to conjure up vivid atmospheric images.
The world premiere of funeral song for the people of the ruined cities, by Zaq Kenefick followed and for this piece the full Argus Quartet took the stage. This music is an exploration of what hypothetical folk music might sound like for a people who have lost their cultural memory after some long-ago calamity. A short narration preceded the start of this and an anxious trill in the violin opened the piece with a strong sense of foreboding. Tutti passages followed with a growling sound in the cello and strong strumming of the viola. There is a rough, edgy feel to this – all is unsettled and seemingly in chaos. Despite its short playing time, funeral song for the people of the ruined cities is an expressive and unnerving musical glimpse into the grim future of a people who must exist without a past.
(This is an expansion of an earlier post for a concert ultimately postponed due to snowstorm Jonas in January)
Augustus Arnone performs a double bill of Milton Babbitt’s solo piano works including the complete Time Series, at Spectrum, Sunday March 6, at 12-5 pm (12 and 3:30)
This year marks the centenary of the legendary composer Milton Babbitt (1916-2011). To my ears, his extensive body of piano works especially channels his singular charm as a raconteur. Over the decades a number of pianists have championed some of his major piano works, for instance Robert Helps and Robert Miller performing and recording his Partitions (1957) and Post-Partitions (1966) in early days and much more recently Marilyn Nonken did as much with Allegro Penseroso (1999). Babbitt’s Reflections for piano and synthesized tape (1975) has been performed by the likes of Anthony de Mare, Martin Goldray, Aleck Karis, and Robert Taub, the latter two of whom also recorded it. Robert Taub and Martin Goldray recorded and released full-length CDs. Alan Feinberg too presented stellar renditions of Minute Waltz (1977), Partitions (1957), It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), Playing for Time (1979), and About Time (1982) on a 1988 CRI CD.
Yet only one pianist has earned the distinction of presenting the entire oeuvre of Babbitt’s solo piano works in concert. And that is Augustus Arnone, who performed the entire set, spread over two concerts, in 2008. In honor of the Babbitt centenary, Arnone is performing the entire set again (this time spread over three concerts) at Spectrum on Ludlow in NYC. Due to a postponement caused by storm Jonas in January, Arnone is performing the second and third concerts in one afternoon this weekend!
The largest work on the program is Canonical Form (1983) which I’ve heard several Babbitt aficionados recently describe as their “favorite” and “most beautiful” Babbitt composition. The most recent work is The Old Order Changeth (1998). Arnone’s performance also presents a rare opportunity to hear the entire ‘The Time Series’ (Playing For Time (1977), About Time (1982), Overtime (1987)), the last part of which has never been released on a commercial recording. This much constitutes concert II, the first half of this Sunday’s double bill, which starts at 12 noon.
In the final concert (concert III) which starts at 3:30, Arnone presents a variety of works spanning nearly all of Babbitt’s professional career, from the mid 1940s through the remainder of the 20th century and beyond. Tutte Le Corde (1994) represents Babbitt’s most streamlined and ingratiating late style, which is a nice inclusion for the final recital of the series. On this recital we’ll also be treated to some of Babbitt’s wittiest and pithiest: Minute Waltz (1977) and It Takes Twelve to Tango (1984), which are perhaps the only Babbitt works to clearly project rhythms associated with a familiar genre. It Takes Twelve to Tango leaves us unsure whether to imagine a single 12-legged Argentinian dancing spider or a communal square dance gone dodecahedral! Either way, brilliant sparks fly from these eccentric collisions of tradition and avant garde.
Babbitt’s Three Compositions for Piano (1947), the earliest work in the series, is to my ears the closest Babbitt ever came to neo-classicism, its first movement being a clean perpetuum mobile and its second movement a veiled tribute to Schoenberg’s expressive piano textures. While Duet (1956) is the closest Babbitt ever came to a lullaby, his Semi-Simple Variations, of the same year, is perhaps his jazziest jaunt on the ivories, an adventure amusingly exploited in the Bad Plus and Mark Morris Dancers’ adaptation.
Of course the series wouldn’t be complete without Babbitt’s most uncompromising trailblazing Partitions (1957) and Post-partitions (1966). Nowhere is his engenius originality more startlingly on display than in these works. In Partitions in particular, the activation and deactivation of various high, low, and middle registers of the piano guides the listener through an uncanny but navigable maze of contrapuntal intricacy.
Between the two concerts, at 2:30, will be an interview-discussion between me and Indiana University composer-theorist Andrew Mead, a former student of Babbitt’s at Princeton and author of the acclaimed book An Introduction to the Music of Milton Babbitt (1994, Princeton University Press) and many articles. This will also be an opportunity for questions from the audience. Whether you’ve been merely curious about Milton Babbitt’s music and legacy, or are already a long-time follower, this is an opportunity to spend part of the afternoon in the good company of Babbitt’s music and its admirers.
Augustus Arnone: The Complete Piano Works Of Milton Babbitt, Concerts II & III
Sunday March 6, concert II at 12 pm; pre-concert discussion at 2:30; concert III at 3:30.
$20, $15 (Students/Seniors) for each concert or $30/20 for both concerts.
On February 16, 2016, Tuesdays@Monk Space hosted a concert of Cold Blue Music artists in the lively Koreatown district of Los Angeles. A good crowd came out to hear music by Michael Jon Fink, Jim Fox, Michael Byron and Peter Garland. Three premieres were heard including the world premiere performance of In the Village of Hope by Michael Byron.
The first piece, Vocalise (1979), by Michael Jon Fink, was for piano and performed by the composer. This opened with series of quietly beautiful notes, like the melody from a simple hymn and unfolded with the spare elegance that is the hallmark of Michael Jon Fink’s compositions. The warm acoustics of the cozy Monk Space – with brick walls on three sides – allowed for an extra long duration and decay of the sustained notes, adding to the sense of serenity. Vocalise is not a long piece, but contains all the essential elements of peaceful sensibility that informs this composer’s music.
From a Folio (2013), also by Michael Jon Fink followed, and for this piece of seven movements cellist Derek Stein joined the composer, again on piano. Each of the movements are compact and variously declarative, quietly powerful, unsettling, questioning, solemn or even sorrowful. Sustained cello passages were often set up by a series of simple piano notes or chords, a contrast that proved to be very effective. At other times a soft call and answer pattern between the cello and piano prevailed. The subtle touch on the piano was complimented by the sensitive playing of Derek Stein who discerned the quiet intentions of this work perfectly. The graceful consistency of these seven movements give From a Folio a notable sense of tranquility combined with a satisfying cohesiveness.
The world premiere of In the Village of Hope (2013), by Michael Byron was next, performed by harpist Tasha Smith Godínez, who commissioned the work. This is an ambitious piece, full of constant motion but with an engaging and exotic character. It has a soft, Asian feel and the steady patter of notes fall like raindrops in a warm tropical shower. A light melody in the upper registers is joined in masterful counterpoint below, and the piece glides delicately through several key changes as it continuously unfolds. Listening to the Cold Blue recording of this piece one imagines that the harpist would be a great flurry of motion – but the technique of Tasha Smith Godínez in this performance was superb; her graceful fingers never seemed hurried or her movements labored. The tones from her harp were clear and strong; the lively acoustics of Monk Space made them almost seem amplified. A drier acoustic environment might have served to bring out the intricate texture more clearly. Michael Byron, who was in attendance, admitted to a certain trepidation when he turned in the imposing score, but Ms.Godínez never asked for any changes or modifications and proved more than equal to the task in this performance. In the Village of Hope is a profoundly impressive work, in both its vision and realization.
This week in New York, Austrian Cultural Forum celebrates the music of Georg Friedrich Haas. Haas, currently MacDowell Professor of Music at Columbia, is a thoughtful and innovative composer. The two programs curated by ACFNY, both free (with reservations), are excellent opportunities to hear two different facets of his creativity.
On Wednesday February 24th at 7:30 PM at the ACF, JACK Quartet performs String Quartet No. 3 In iij. Noct., a piece that occurs in total darkness.
On February 26 at 8 PM at Bohemian National Hall (321 East 73rd Street), the Talea Ensemble presents the following program of large ensemble and chamber works: La profondeur (2009), for lower instruments, I can’t breathe (2015), a US Premiere that commemorates Eric Garner, played by trumpeter Gareth Flowers, tria ex uno (2001), and …wie stille brannte das Licht (2009), featuring vocal soloist Tony Arnold. James Baker conducts.