Richard Faria, clarinet
Ellen Jewett, violin
Xak Bjerken, piano
Los Angeles Piano Quintet


This program of piano and chamber music by American composer Stephen Hartke (b.1952) was my first acquaintance with this composer. Though he titles one of these works “Post-Modern Images,” Hartke strikes me more as a modern-day Dadaist. In any typical piece, he takes one element of music – say irregular rhythms or severe dissonances – and playfully, maniacally, runs it into the ground. Now, there’s nothing wrong with irregular rhythm or dissonance, either. They’ve been part of the language of the composer for ages – the former since the notes inégales of the 17th century French Clavecinistes, the latter at least since the Agincourt Hymn and the Coventry Carol, way back in the 15th century. It’s just that it takes more than one element to make a satisfying work of art or a distinctive style in music.

I find Hartke’s music is just too eclectic for words (although I am perfectly aware that some listeners may respond very positively to this very trait of the composer that I find fault with). The title piece, Horse with the Lavender Eye (the significance of which is never explained; I suspect it is as meaningful, or meaningless, as “Un Chien andalou”) claims a play by Carlo Goldoni, ancient Japanese court music, the cartoons of Robert Crumb, 19th century Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis, and Looney Tunes among its bewildering array of influences. Perhaps the third piece, Waltzing at the Abyss, marked ” Gingerly but always moving along,” may serve as a metaphor for the composer’s art as he continually juggles heterogeneous elements and asks us to trust him that he won’t stumble and fall.

The selections from Post-Modern Images (1984-1992) are another odd assortment, the most successful of which I found to be “Gymnopédie No. 4″, a study in seventh chords that pays homage to Erik Satie, that grand-daddy of all musical eccentrics, in its lilting 3/4 metre and “the simultaneously fluid yet static harmony” (annotation by Xak Bjerken, who plays all the piano pieces with precision and style). “Template” (1985) audaciously transforms a zestful Estudio-Scherzo (1902) by Brazilian composer Henrique Oswald (which is played immediately after for comparison). Hartke takes the Oswald piece at its requisite rapid tempo but sounds only a handful of the notes, resulting in a piece of entirely different character. “Interesting, but why?” was my reaction. Sonata for Piano, Hartke’s other major work for the instrument, is in three movements. Bjerken describes the outer movements as “sometimes massive, sometimes light and birdlike.” The first description fits the Prelude. The second, “light and birdlike” presumably applies to the Postlude, although Hartke’s birds seem to have leaden wings from their hesitant movement. The most interesting movement is the middle one, a scherzo entitled “Epicycles” after its engaging use of rhythmic wheels within wheels (I was reminded of a Buster Keaton two-reeler I’d watched recently, in which the comedian is caught within the paddle-wheel of a ferry boat and valiantly tries to keep his balance by racing madly in the opposite direction to the wheel, finally giving up and accepting the inevitable dunking in typically stoic Keaton fashion).

The King of the Sun is the most ambitious work on the program, a suite in five movements plus Interlude that was commissioned in 1988 by the LA Piano Quartet, who perform it here. It derives a measure of cyclic unity from a medieval canon, heard most prominently in the second movement, “Dutch Interior” which was inspired by Spanish artist Joan Mirí³’s take on a 17th century Dutch genre painting by Jan Steen, and echoed elsewhere throughout the work. It appears in IV, “The Flames of the sun make the desert flower hysterical,” in which the violent chords and coruscating harmony vividly convey the essence of pain. Elsewhere, however, it’s probably unwise to take Hartke’s clever subtitles too seriously, as in 1, “Personages in the night guided by the phosphorescent tracks of snails,” where he is doubtless tongue-in-cheek.   (Snails, because of the dirty trick nature has played on them, are obliged to glide slowly through life; they positively do not jitterbug.)

I think I’ve given my personal impression here of Stephen Hartke as a composer who doesn’t always play with a full deck of cards. On the other hand, I’ve provided enough clues so that those who are into this sort of thing will find much to intrigue them.

2 Responses to “Stephen Hartke: The Horse with the Lavender Eye”
  1. I know that it is considered impolitic for an artist to respond to a critic — although I have a suspicion that critics were the first ones who created that notion.

    I respond here to Mr. Phil Muse in part because I think that he has crossed a line of civility in his final paragraph by saying that I don’t “play with a full deck of cards.” We all recognize this sort of language as insulting and I take it as nothing less. But beyond his calumny, his review contains lapses of logic (and, as I see it, judgment) that make me wonder what possible good he thinks he is serving the world at large with his blathering.

    To begin with paragraph one:

    Let’s leave aside his inability to transcribe correctly the title to my “Post-Modern Homages” and move on to the spot where Mr. “Muse” calls me a “modern day Dadaist.” For my part I don’t have a problem with the existence or the work of the Dadaist movement, but I know that my music and my aesthetic are so far removed from that nearly 100-year old anti-artistic movement, I wonder how anyone professing any sort of music historical awareness could associate what he heard on this CD as being in any way akin to it. Mr. Muse’s clever little aside about dissonance, the Agincourt Hymn and the Clavecinistes does little to mitigate the fatuousness of his observations — and what the hell does the Coventry Carol of all things have to do with the notion of irregular rhythm or dissonance? Where are Mr. Muse’s ears?

    In the second paragraph, Mr. Muse shows himself to be just too in love with his conceit that I am a Dadaist, and so he summons up a reference to “Le chien andalou,” but to what purpose? To frighten us or to show off that he is so clever as to read some Cliff Notes about 20th century arts history, although failing to note that “Le chien andalou” belongs to the Surrealist movement not to the Dada? I nitpick on this because Mr. Muse is merely nitpicking himself — he doesn’t like my music (which is fine by me) but he seems to need an overarching pseudo-logical reason not to and cannot find one but by resorting to unartfully concealed ad hominem attacks.

    The third paragraph plods on with the same sort of “I am the cleverest boy in the class” sort of nonsense, even though he still can’t get the title of my “Post-Modern Homages” quite right. He shows his true aesthetic stripes by finding virtue in the most tonal of the pieces on offer (and I like this piece, too, I must say), but then takes me to task for not living up to a remark made in the CD notes by the exemplary pianist, Xak Bjerken. I have no problem that Xak heard something “light and birdlike” in the finale of my sonata, but the fact that Mr. Muse found “Hartke’s birds … to have leaden wings” has absolutely nothing to do with me, my musical intentions or my music — I’m sorry, Mr. Muse, but you can’t take me to task for not fulfilling an expectation that I myself as the composer of the work never granted you. (And what on earth did you mean by that long aside about Buster Keaton? Are you just showing off the fact that you like to watch silent movies?)

    Most of the words in the fourth paragraph derive from the CD notes but have been recast in a way to suggest that Mr. Muse actually understands what he is talking about. But when he says that “it is probably unwise to take Hartke’s clever subtitles too seriously,” he reveals a number of failings including (1) he didn’t read the part of the program notes that acknowledged quite clearly that these titles were taken directly from paintings by Joan Miro, and (2) that I do not make any claim in the same notes that they need to be taken seriously — indeed I talk about my celebration of their whimsy. But, sadly, I have a sense that Mr. Muse has no appreciation for whimsy, despite his inexplicable aside about the “dirty trick nature has played” on snails, which is nothing short of bizarre in its pointlessness.

    As for the final paragraph, I’ll give credit to the undoubtedly pseudonymous Mr. Muse for admitting that this constituted his “personal impression” of my work. But what value is his opinion if we know nothing about him? My music and other information about me are all out there, available freely and openly, so who is this person hiding behind a pseudonym who presumes to call me a “composer who doesn’t always play with a full deck of card”? What are his qualifications? The famous pseudonymous critics of the past, Debussy as Monsieur Croche, G.B.Shaw as Cornetto di Bassetto, were actually fairly well known to be writing under noms-de-guerre, because the artistic world they knew was actually quite hermetic. But in the broader world of Internet anonymity I believe that there is reason to call into question the role of pseudonymity within moderated forums such as this one.

    There I ask Mr. Muse to reveal his actual identity and to set forth the particulars that make him a qualified music critic.

  2. Phil Muse says:

    Mr. Hartke’s last request is easy enough to answer. I came by the name “Philip Muse” honestly enough because I was born with it. I am 66 years old, and have spent most of my adult life listening to music of greater redeeming value than Mr. Hartke has on display in the present program. Since I was educated as an English scholar, not a musician, I plead guilty to reading program notes and researching web sites to improve my knowledge of music. I want to say something more intelligent about a given work of music than simply “I like it” or “It leaves me cold.” I feel I owe that much to my readers. If I have been more severe in reviewing Mr. Hartke’s music than I have been with other contemporary composers such as David Garner, Edmund Campion, Peter Garland, Bright Sheng or Jennifer Higdon, there is a reason. It really does leave me cold.

    I’ve been actively reviewing classical music (and some jazz) since 1982-1994, when my column appeared weekly in Atlanta’s Creative Loafing. I also reviewed for Peter Koch’s magazine Classical DisCDigest, which I credit with broadening my view of the world of the classics. I’ve been posting reviews on the website since 2003, most recently on a montly basis for the Audio Video Club of Atlanta at http://www.a-vcoa.org. Readers can access that website to get a fuller picture of what I love and admire in music (Don’t leave off the hyphen, or you’ll get the Antelope Valley Council on Aging). A composer doesn’t have to have had a long beard or been dead a hundred years to win my admiration. He (or she) only has to be sincere and have something to say to me on some level.

    As for my other interests, I love to take nature walks and am an avid collector of old Hollywood films on home video. To paraphrase Will Rogers, “I am not a Republican, nor do I have any other conspicuous bad habits.”

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