Ralph Shapey: Radical Traditionalism

21 Variations for Piano (1978), String Quartet No. 6 (1963), String Quartet No. 7 (1972), Fromm Variations (31 Variations for Piano) (1966; 1972-73), Three for Six (1979)

Wanda Maximilien, piano; The Lexington Quartet of the Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago; Quartet of the Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago; Robert Black, piano; New York New Music Ensemble: Jayn Rosenfeld, flute; Laura Flax, clarinet; Daniel Druckman, percussion; Alan Feinberg, piano; Cyrus Stevens, violin; Eric Bartlett, cello; Robert Black, conductor New World Records

Ralph Shapey died a few years ago in 2002, and very little of his music gets heard anymore. There was a time, back when he was very active in Chicago, when I heard a lot of his music, such as his choral/orchestral works Praise and The Covenant. However, I suspect some of this had to do with my being a student at the U of Chicago during a period when Shapey was one of the more significant presences in the local music scene; outside the Hyde Park academic enclave, Shapey’s name just didn’t come up very often. These albums, particularly the New World Records release last month, start to re-present Shapey’s output in an important context, even if everything on the New World discs has been previously released.

As a student at Chicago from 1979-1987, I knew Ralph Shapey, mostly from chance meetings at receptions or concerts since I didn’t take any music courses at the University. He didn’t come off as a nice person. If that seems harsh, I should say that it was well known that Shapey was difficult, and as a gnarly, self-absorbed professor, he fit in very well at the University and was therefore hardly unusual. When we spoke, it was clear that we had little to agree upon; he was dismissive of the minimalist music that I advocated, and seemed to prefer the seclusion of the academic music world that was the U of Chicago, one better known for musicology than for composition. Even though I might not have liked him personally (and to be fair, I suspect I didn’t exactly make his day, either), I held a lot of respect for him, and much of his music I found captivating: the early work Evocations for violin and piano, the Fromm Variations for piano, and a few others. I confess I found some of his music too self-absorbed, too angry, and often just went on too long. His scores, most of which were easy to find in the Regenstein Library, were largely messy handwritten reproductions, and his nested tuplets (a staple of his later music) were so complex I couldn’t understand how anyone could accurately perform them.

Shapey was someone I felt was a nonacademic trying to be an academic. I agree with Robert Carl’s detailed liner notes, however, that Shapey wasn’t truly an academic. Indeed, Shapey was hardly accepted by the “uptown” establishment and was something of an exile from the NYC scene. Unlike Feldman, who also had very little formal education (indeed, Shapey had but a high school diploma), there is nothing avant-garde or groundbreaking/innovative in Shapey’s music. True, he was never serial, and like Feldman, studied with Wolpe and was a fellow traveller in terms of some of the abstract expressionist painters of that time in NYC. But unlike Feldman, Shapey’s music often sounds no different to my ears than a lot of the music I used to force myself to listen to as a kid at the usual ISCM or New York New Music Ensemble concerts at the old Carnegie Recital Hall. Yet even with its harshness, a lot of Shapey’s music is compelling.

Shapey considered himself a “radical traditionalist.” The “tradition” is what often reminds me of uptown music. Shapey was rooted in traditional forms and wrote for musicians who were in the mainstream of contemporary music. Yet Shapey’s music is much more impassioned and unique than, say, that of Arthur Berger’s, even if the latter’s String Quartet at times inhabits a sound world that is not that different from that of Shapey’s. Shapey is known for having withdrawn his music from performance and publication for several years (in an old NYT interview, he stated, perhaps with a combination of malaise and self-aggrandizement, ”I was disgusted with the depth of degradation the world had sunk to in Korea and Vietnam and withdrew my music because I didn’t want to give it to humanity.” He had devoted friends and devoted enemies, and I wonder how much his personality had to do both with his being dissed by the Pulitzer Committee and the general neglect of his music since his death.

If this sounds like a negative review, it isn’t, nor is it meant to be. Having heard the premiere of the Fromm Variations sometime in the early 80’s, I have for a long time regretted never having purchased the LP on CRI records, and was even starting to barter for Kyle Gann’s copy when fortunately, this New World release came out re-releasing the 51-minute piano work and several other neglected masterpieces. It is a great overview of much of Shapey’s music, authentically performed by several of the people who championed his difficult, thorny music over the years, such as Robert Black and members of the Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago.

Let’s start with the 31 Variations for Piano (Fromm Variations). This is a long work, with a recurring motif of two pedal points each followed by a dissonant chord. It blew me away when I first heard it, and still does. Like many works by Shapey, there is repetition, but not in the minimalist way. Nor is the repetition akin to what Feldman did in his later works with providing slightly varied “memories.’ Selected motifs come back, sometimes varied just a bit but often not, and these provide landmarks along the way. But there is much variation and new material along the way that doesn’t get repeated, so I never find myself engaged in a timeless new universe the way I do with Feldman’s long works. The Fromm Variations is a masterpiece, and an unfairly neglected one. It’s perhaps not as innovative or cutting edge as Triadic Memories, and certainly whole galaxies removed from The Well-Tuned Piano. I think of the work as an extension of some of Wolpe’s piano music, albeit more dense and lengthy. And that’s no surprise, given that like Feldman, Shapey studied with Wolpe. Parts of the Fromm Variations remind me of Form or Form IV: Broken Sequences, but make no mistake, Shapey had his own unique voice and avoided the serialism of his teacher.

The other works on this 2-CD set are also noteworthy. The String Quartet #6 is an earlier work in one movement that is striking in its counterpoint. The later String Quartet #7 is even more complex, and pairs the instruments much as Carter did with his String Quartet #3, yet both works are very different in their approaches to counterpoint and rhythm. There are moments in SQ7 that are very quiet and ineffable, and the composer’s shared heritage with Feldman are hinted at. The 21 Variations for Piano I’m still working through. I like it, but I’m trying to get the Fromm Variations out of my head and appraise the 21 Variations on its own merits. In other words, I don’t want to subconsciously compare one work with the other. Finally, Three for Six is a piece for chamber ensemble that was written in 1979, coincidentally when I started my freshman year at the University of Chicago. It’s a piece in three movements (for six players, natch) that at times reminds me of the humor that I detected in Shapey’s Evocations and also has a more introspective, quiet second movement that is a contrast to the outer movements.

Overall, this is an outstanding album, and hopefully will inspire other performances and recordings of Shapey’s neglected music. Robert Carl’s liner notes are thorough and provide important perspective, even with the disclaimer that he was one of Shapey’s students at Chicago.


Music of Ralph Shapey

Mann Soli
Millennium Designs

Miranda Cuckson (violin), Blair McMillen (piano)

Centaur Records

Unlike the New World 2-CD set, this album provides unrecorded music for violin and violin+piano by Ralph Shapey. Shapey was a violinist, and his knowledge of the instrument comes through in this recording. Interestingly, the CD contains an early work from 1945, the Etchings for violin, which remind me in some ways of Feldman’s 1945 Sonata for Violin and Piano, in that both works presage the later, more mature music by their respective composers. Three of the five works on this album are for solo violin, and while these don’t strike me as being as distinctive as some of Shapey’s works for chamber groups or orchestra, they are good listening just the same. The two works for violin and piano, however, are much more “typical” Shapey, and the late Millennium Designs is particularly engaging. The disc is noteworthy as well for including music that ranges from the early Etchings to Millennium Designs that was composed two years before the composer’s death.

The performers are clearly dedicated to Shapey’s music and share a genuine affection for it. This is often not easy music to perform, and Miranda Cuckson and Blair McMillen pull out all the stops in making it seem a lot easier than it really is. This is a first-rate performance of music for solo violin and violin and piano.

5 Responses to “ralph shapey: radical traditionalism—two new releases”
  1. That’s a review to appreciate and salute! Truly soulsearching subjective objectivism that gets me reaching for someones wallet to get the damn record!

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Miranda Cuckson says:

    Thank you, David, for the compliments.

    A couple things to note:
    My name is Miranda, not Miriam (you have it right in the title credits but not in the text)
    The official release date is November 1, so listeners will be able to find it in stores and from online sellers in the weeks following that.

  3. david toub says:

    Sorry about the typo (fixing it now, in fact)—FWIW, people screw up my last name all the time, so I’m particularly sensitive to the issue. Great CD though. Interesting how much less angry Millennium Designs is compared with some of his earlier music, at least to my ears.

  4. Dan says:

    Excellent review. Actually makes me want to by the CD!

  5. David Toub says:

    Thanks! And definitely buy it, if only for the 7th quartet (the first movement in particular) and the Fromm Variations.

    I’ve been thinking about Shapey a lot lately. He really was an academic wannabe—he had all the trappings, such as the awards, grants, the professorship, etc. However, he was irascible enough to write ‘Fuck You!’ on an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was never really part of the George Pearle/Jacob Druckman crowd, so it’s hard to really call him uptown or academic. Parts of his 7th quaret remind me a lot of Feldman, but in the end, I still prefer Feldman.

    Originally I was going to write in my review that Shapey was an asshole, but didn’t want to detract from the stuff about his music. So I’ll write it now—he was an asshole. But an asshole who wrote some pretty good music (along with some stuff that was not so good, even bombastic—I’m thinking of the performance I attended of The Covenant back in Mandel Hall with Shapey conducting the CCP, for example). His scores, at least the ones I used to browse through in Chicago, were really messy, complex, and different from anythign else I had seen. The messiness and complexity was part of his persona, I guess. I would have had even more respect for him had he not been so eager to have the awards and recognition. Looking at his prizes and commissions, one would think he’s like any other mainstream “academic” composer. The fact that his music for the most part was a breed apart is to his credit. But I really think he liked the “genius” label a bit too much for his own good; I remember a CRI LP (it might have been of the seventh quartet) with the caption “A true genius!” or something like that back in the 80’s. I couldn’t imagine most other composers I love having that on their record cover, but I’ll give him the benefit of a doubt and assume it was the evil work of a manager or marketing person.

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