Pianist Lucy Mauro and tenor Donald George had to do much research about composer Margaret Lang in order to accurately perform her art songs on their new Delos recording Love is Everywhere. They shared their stories in an exclusive interview on Portara, the Naxos of America Blog.
In that research, Lang’s great nephew Fletcher DuBois shared some memories and anecdotes about his “Aunt Blossy,” the first female composer to ever have her works performed by a major American orchestra (Boston) in April 1893, with Mauro and George. We hope you enjoy the stories as much as we did.
What, Fletcher, do you remember about Blossy, which was the nickname you used to call your aunt? I heard she wrote many cards and letters.
When I was a young teenager Blossy wrote to me, and not just for birthdays. I remember how deeply I was taken by the beauty of her words, and the beauty of how she wrote. Her handwriting was very strong and had a great rhythm to it, and the curves were not overly pretty but elegantly sweeping. I remember the difference between how the letters looked when she wrote in fountain pen and when she used a ballpoint. Remember these were the years when she was well into her nineties. Her mind was alive and she could turn a wonderful phrase
You and your sister had also visited Blossy in her Boston apartment?
I spoke with my sister Amy Porter DuBois who also would always visit Blossy when she was in Boston as did I. What Amy and I both clearly remembered was how Blossy would sit in the alcove of her little apartment on 2 Brimmer Street. Her father B.J. Lang and my grandmother i.e Frances Burrage Lang whom she took care of till she died at the age of 95- lived as did her sister Rosamond and her brother Malcolm- our grandfather just a few doors down for many years.
Blossy would sit on one side of a little table with books on it, and we would sit on the other facing the windows – she was on the left and whoever was visiting was on the right. She would lean forward and ever so intently ask and listen to what we had been doing. She wanted to know about the now of our lives and also she was intensely interested in what was to come. In those advanced years, she still had a voluminous correspondence using three languages, English, French and German. She was not oriented to the past, but as far as I could tell, to the present and the future, but also had utmost respect for her parents, especially her father, at least from what I have read and remember.
What memories do you have of visiting her in Boston?
She was always concerned that the door might be too heavy for me, so that she went to open it for me when I left. She was a tiny woman and small of physical stature- and just amazing in the other kind of stature. She would go over (I have imitated this often) and frailly open the heavy door and make sure it stayed open.
Did she talk about her compositional career?
She never to my memory spoke of her career or her former fame. I was never really aware of it until I started to do my own research in the Boston Public Library Rare Book Room with its Lang papers collection. Of course I did know that she had written songs because our Aunt Margaret Lang Spence would play the Edward Lear nonsense rhymes for us when we were children.
Did she ever talk about her compositions or how she set the words to her songs?
I do know how she emphasized the importance of the text in songs. She said this quite dramatically – if I remember rightly -by saying something like the music is the servant of the text. She was definitely of that school of thought.
I do remember thinking about the piano right near where we sat in her room and the fact that I never heard her play (as opposed to my grandfather, her brother, whom I heard play a number of times, but then he was 14 years younger than Blossy). Arthritis was well advanced, I presume.
She was an aunt, I believe you told me, who showed many little favors?
Yes indeed, she sent this letter once and I quote:
“I think I will send you a little Calendar sent to me each year by a Science Teacher in a N.E. College-because its quotations each month are inspiring words from different minds such as Dag Hammarskjold. of the United Nations. They glow with the spirit of courage and understanding.
But who am I, at 98, to try to share my trust in Providence with you the father of two!!!
It is just a word of fellowship and sympathy -for you are in my prayers and thoughts and sympathy-ever as Angela the heroic is in me.
With love to you all
Do you know what she read?
I remember seeing Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice on her table next to a text of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, but she also read the Bible.
This is from a letter I have of hers to me:
“To-day, in the day’s lessons, I was in Ecclesiastes- which 100 years ago was my Grandmother Lang’s favorite Book in the Bible. I like, every day, to lay hold upon one message, to hang on to – for each day. And here, within these verses if I find one, it must always be short and definite, to be held and followed.”
Have you visited the places where your family lived?
I’ve been to 209 Bay State Rd where my grandparents lived and my mother grew up from the time she was a little girl (before that they were in another house on Bay State Rd.) After my grandfather’s death the house was sold to Boston University and it became a residence for students- German House – where a number of the students were expected to be studying German or know German. It is connected through renovations with 207 which is the residence for students of music (this was done fairly recently). I have visited 209 and told students about the Langs (though that was now quite some time ago) when last in Boston several years ago. I also might add for example my visiting 2 and 8 Brimmer last August as well as around the corner 112 Pinkney where I visited Blossy when I was a little boy. The old-fashioned iron elevator can still be seen in the building. In this apartment is where I remember she would get down on the floor and play fishing with me (with magnetic fish).
Well, this shows that the Lang family is still connected with music in some way even today! Thank you for the interview!
This week the Naxos blog will include postings by artists from two of our most exciting distributed labels: New Amsterdam Records and Innova.
This posting is by electric guitarist Grey McMurray, part of the ensemble itsnotyouitsme (along with composer/violinist and Caleb Burhans). Their new CD fallen monuments comes out tomorrow (January 26). itsnotyouitsme’s debut album, walled gardens, also is available onNew Amsterdam Records (NWAM 006).
At the end of this month, itsnotyouitsme releases fallen monuments. Our second album on New Amsterdam Records, this collection captures a different aspect of our musical identity than its predecessor, walled gardens. The first album contained material that we’d been playing for a year. The tracks therein helped us figure out how to play together and show us what our sound would be. This record represents the improvisational core of our interaction and a more fluent real-time command of our looping devices. The songs are culled from performances and scoring sessions over the past two years.
“Kid Icarus (little jam)” finds us in the holiday spirit. Recorded on the eve of Christmas’s eve, this track was performed in Caleb’s apartment. Our holiday, however, is filled with a falling tragedy; hope burned out of the sky, but not fully extinguished. All of our music tries to convey the bleak muted drama of the everyday, with a healthy dose of an undying hope for tomorrow. A longer version will appear on our next studio album, hence, “little jam.”
“Music for a blue whale documentary” is not music for a blue whale documentary. Recorded in St. Peter’s church in midtown manhattan, this song/improvisation finds us reveling in a vast physical space. The sound quality of the recording gives the song its title, but the vastness of the environment – our first church performance as this band – gave us the musical direction. The only recording device is a mic placed 3 stories above our amps. The hazy actual reverb/room sound is the vastness we felt, as well as the reason for the “lo-fi” character of the recording.
“Dead men make good heroes” also finds us in a church in midtown manhattan. However, this time there are more than two mics overhead. This song/improvisation was taken from a performance opening for the post-rock, ambient music luminaries, Stars Of The Lid. This song moves through a series of sonic snapshots – melodic and textural cells – with limited layers/loops so as to keep the fabric spare and again, utilize the physical space we were playing in. The last minute and a half of this song is a gentle ascent – very literally a scalar ascent – that layers a number of loops, but never gets too dense and never quite arrives. This want of memory – literally, to reinstate loops that had been moving in and out of the fabric into a dense melodic climax – is what defines this song. Seeking and being inspired by what or who is gone. Though their mental or aural stamp remains on our motives, their influence will not be wholly present to world around us.
The next three songs were recorded for a documentary about Artemesia Genteleschi called A Woman Like That. “Vanity stays my hand” is a progression of Caleb’s that we build layers on, arriving at a melodically dense place before returning to the original theme, now sonically in a distant room. The slow neighboring motion of the arpeggiated progression masks the loop’s repetition, and allows the mostly diatonic layers to surprise the listener.
“Lost nation municipal airport” contains recorded distortion at one point in slowly ascending guitar loop. That spare, crunchy repetition gives the title image its aural mirror. This song was actually the end of the improvisation that was, “vanity stays my hand.” Listening back, these two songs felt like two very distinct ideas that might better serve a listener as separate children.
“Season’s greetings” is the shortest track on this set. This song benefits from the most studio produced sound on the album, allowing the simple character of the guitar and violin haze to be clearly defined.
“We are the sons of our fathers” finishes the album. The longest song we’ve recorded, and one of the more uneventful on the surface, is also one of the most meaningful to us. This track was recorded in Caleb’s apartment on a slow bright summer afternoon and has the same character as a hot day in the city, homebound, without electricity; movement occurs with only absolute necessity. This song moves through two melodic areas over its near 20 minute length. Caleb’s casio drones are present throughout, an aspect of our ever-present memory. We fiercely guard this nostalgia – in this case, that of our dead fathers – as if it may disappear; the drones/ambience never really leave. This music happens, these melodies happen, with us or without us. We move through these two melodic areas with such deliberation, as if we’re trying, delicately, to physically hold them. The result is that these melodies become the drone, become the ambience of this music. It is heartening to think that our memory needn’t be so protected, that the memory isn’t so frail, that our nostalgia is here with us or without us. This music is our therapeutic reminder – or hope – that these memories breath in some the way, just as their fallen counterpart did.
Click here to preview a track from fallen monuments:
For anyone not familiar with this wonderful composer, you can meet him and hear his music performed by ModernWorks at Le Poisson Rougeon Wednesday, July 8 at 9:30 PM.
Born in 1954, the young Ge Gan-ru studied the violin until the onset of the Cultural Revolution, during which he was sent to a labor camp to plant rice. When the Shanghai Conservatory reopened at the end of the Revolution in 1974, Ge matriculated as a violin student, but, three years later, he shifted his focus to composition, studying with Chen Gang. During this time, he became familiar with scores by 20th-century Western composers including Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Cage, and Crumb, as well as music by the Japanese composer Takemitsu. In 1980, when British composer Alexander Goehr became the first Western composer to visit China after the Revolution, Ge was among the few students to receive lessons from him. Upon his graduation in 1981, Ge was appointed assistant professor of composition at the Conservatory. At that time, Chinese composers were still basing new works on traditional Western styles. The controversial 1983 Shanghai premiere of Ge’s Yi Feng (Lost Style; 1982)-a work for “radically detuned” solo cello-served as the “opening salvo” in what was to become the Chinese musical avant-garde movement.
In 1983, Ge began work on his String Quartet No. 1 – Fu (Prose-Poem), but before he could complete it, he relocated to New York City, recruited by Chou Wen-chung at Columbia University. While supporting himself as a restaurant deliveryman, Ge managed to complete the piece, and the Kronos Quartet-celebrated for its commitment to new music-soon made it part of their repertoire. Fu and Yi Feng are both milestones in Ge’s canon, as they represent the development of his individual style: “They are the first of their kind in China, exploring individualism and the essence of Chinese music characteristics while avoiding sentimental melodies then prevalent in China ”¦ Fu in Chinese refers to descriptive prose interspersed with verse. In this piece, I tried to express some of the most basic aesthetic feelings typical of Chinese classical poetry and calligraphy, such as subtlety, free form, and masterly strokes.”
The interval of the minor second figures prominently in Fu and generates much of its musical content. Unorthodox means of tone production dominate this work (though instruments are conventionally tuned), including snap pizzicato, harmonics, glissandi, tremolos, and various combinations of these techniques. Moreover, throughout the work, unmeasured, rhythmic passages alternate with more regularly-patterned music.
Some of the same sounds from Fu are prominent in the introductory measures of Angel Suite – String Quartet No. 4 (1998). And, interestingly, the minor second also figures significantly in its second, third and fourth movements. The composer writes: “Of all my works, this piece is the closest to the Western classical music tradition, and it offers a contrast to my other music … The title comes from my interest in Christianity ”¦ In this work, I try to express my curiosity in, and observation of, various aspects of Christianity. The titles of the movements (Cherub, Gnomes, Prayer, and Angel’s March) refer to the subjects that I wanted to represent musically. For instance, in the first movement, the harmonic glissando represents a cherub; the second movement focuses on dance rhythm ”¦ In the prayer movement, I use contrasting consonant and dissonant chords to draw out feelings of purity and sincerity in praying. In the middle section, I also use the beginning few notes from Schubert’s Ave Maria. For the last movement I chose to write a march, as I always imagine an angel as young and vibrant.”
Fall of Baghdad – String Quartet No. 5 is at once a tribute to George Crumb’s Black Angels for electric string quartet (1970) and an expression of the composer’s own feelings about the war in Iraq. Like Crumb’s work before it, the music comprises three long sections divided into thirteen shorter ones. “Hair-raising squeals” produced by “applying pressure to the strings behind the bridge to create a scraping sound of indefinite pitch” open the work. In this quartet, Ge uses extended techniques neither as cultural relics, as in Fu, nor as suggestions of ethereal spirits, as in Angel Suite, Instead, he uses his unique musical language to symbolize the devastation and despair associated with war. (For contrast and relief, the middle section, “Music from Heaven,” incorporates light percussion; the “Heaven” to which this movement refers, incidentally, is a different paradise than the one Ge depicts in Angel Suite.) Ge employs microtonal inflections to suggest Middle Eastern music (which shares some of its idioms with the music of his native country) and also makes use of (as he explains): “glissandi and distorted sound to create the ”˜hellish’ effects; playing col legno (striking the strings with the [wooden part of the] bow) both in front of and behind the bridge for the Caliph’s drum and using extreme high notes on low strings for ”˜moaning’ sounds.”
“To have the freedom to decide what kind of repertory to record is a most exhilarating feeling a musician can experience. The establishment of the Idil Biret Archive label with worldwide distribution by Naxos is simply the realization of a wish, a dream coming true for me.”