Author Archive

A bit of nice news —

My recent 2011 Navona CD “Eternal Evolution” is on FANFARE magazine’s Want List for 2011 ( Nov./Dec. issue). The expanded CD includes 4 of my chamber pieces in wonderful performances by the Harlem Quartet and Awadagin Pratt.

(The magazine’s current Sept./Oct. issue carries an interview with me, plus two reviews of this disc and of my Naxos orchestra disc of 2010.)

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Hearing Fast = Shallow Content [?]
first of two posts

A week ago Friday I attended a concert at Arizona State University. (The program closed with a super-hot performance of my sax quartet, Parallel Play – I couldn’t ask for a better delivery!)

What stuck out from the program at large, though, was that the music by the younger composers programmed seemed built according to pretty different expectations of just what audience members were meant to get from their listening experience:

Acceptance that this hearing would in all likelihood be their one-and-only encounter with this piece – and therefore the music’s goals / contents / ambitions needed to abide by reduced dimensionality so that everything possible to glean would be doable in one pass through the piece.

Because I operate from a very different premise, I was struck by the thinness of content – by and large – in the works built accordingly. And their markedly slow harmonic rhythm. And their relatively shorter length.

Don’t get me wrong: There were striking sonorities and hooks aplenty – but they were primarily found in the very opening bars where they serve to capture the ear, and set up the listening presumption that some variation on the first material might occur – but also that that’s all there would be /could be. It makes for a tidy presentation, but (for me) is a curiously lifeless way to sustain originality in any artistic statement.

– Sure, we want the basic materials of a piece actively refreshed to our ear from time to time; that’s what Recaps (and Developments) are for. (Not to mention the essence of fugue.) Affirmation and confirmation are for sure important signals in crafting comprehensible forms.

But, by the same token, shouldn’t there be the delight of un-expected discoveries, un-anticipated adventuring in the music? If not these, then how can a piece be memorable? — something savored so much in retrospect that – like a good book – you just have to seek it out for repeated encounters.

Six years back I participated in a panel discussion with 2 other composers of wind ensemble music, and the youngest guy there confided to the room that he builds his movements by the following formula:
Present three distinguishable bits, then toss them about for the movement’s length. Is this today’s industry standard??

~~

Shana tovah ! to everyone.

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Returning now to the world (after being sidelined for three weeks by an ailment that persisted), I’ve begun to get my piano chops back, practicing 1-2 hours per day. What’s striking to reconsider is how some composers write every time out with the understanding of how a piece feels to play (as well as sounds).

I pulled up as exemplars 3 pieces I’d enjoyed playing in recital in years past: Bach Italian Concerto, Chopin Ballade in F minor, Ravel Tombeau de Couperin. While all three were still ‘in the fingers’, the Bach was relatively swiftly recovered, and the Ravel just purled out straight from my artistic center.

The Ballade was another story, though: It was a feat of will to keep the passage-work clean as both hands lifted, directly repeating the same pattern over (and over) – but one octave higher each time.
Your weight then shifts with each iteration; the positioning of the hands relative one to another also alters; and even the spot at which you strike the key changes, moving front to back. There’s a ‘choreography’ to delivering the music easily, and that was the last thing to be recovered.

It led me to mull again why certain pieces just feel right from the get-go. Bach is sublime this way: Your hands balance beautifully; much of the time you need to assume a very slight ‘grasping’ position to let the notes fall under the fingers perfectly – but when you do, the music feels as natural as sunshine. (For a treat from time to time, I’ll read all the way through the Toccatas, or English Suites – they just flow without knots.)

But the Ravel is in a class by itself. Not only does it fit the hand perfectly, but the balance of activity levels from moment to moment by each hand in turn, or cooperatively, lets you remain oriented by feel alone to the precise weight balance + positioning of the trunk of the body in relationship to the keyboard. Once you do this, playing these passage is as close to effortless as piano music is possible to get.
– And the movements of Tombeau de Couprin have plenty of places where the choreography of the inter-relation of the hands is delicious: Try untangling the inner pages of the Fugue, the chordal melody crossing its lacey accompaniment in the trio of the Menuet, or positioning all those piston-attacks in the Toccata (both soft and plenty loud). It’s an intricate dance whose steps are fascinating and absorbing for each player to work out!

As a composer who has written a fair bit for my instrument — but who waited to open this chapter in my catalog until I felt I had something particular to contribute — I tip my hat to the masters of the past who write with skill and imagination, and yet feeling within themselves what really works for the instrument!

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MusicMaker (JLZ) #32

When I’m deep into a piece everything changes – what I read, what I eat and when I eat, how I experience time. Breakfast often at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon (very sparse) and dinner if I remember.

The music at hand is all-consuming – it becomes my world, and everything else falls away. (Gary’s wonderful: he keeps his own counsel, immerses himself in his current artwork and knows not to try to chat in the morning.)

At night, however, I do keep up with the world – long talks, phone, news and other TV, reading. But even the recreation is geared to problem solving: cop shows, crossword puzzles, and mystery writers who know how to engineer good plots, like Michael Connelly, Jonathan Kellerman, James Lee Burke. Dorothy Sayers too.
And all my reading at these times is  fiction: I like to visit around in other people’s imaginations.

       What do you read when you’re composing?

       Read the rest of this entry »

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String-forward folks in the New York area might like to know that my String Quartet ‘The Figure’ is programmed next Sunday at the Summergarden concert at The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. The exciting program will also include the New York premieres of Louis Andriessen’s Facing Death and Carson Cooman’s Four Aphoristic Inventions, Tombeau-Aria and Estampie,and the Western Hemisphere premiere of Jiří Kadeřábek’s Barefoot Boy! Performers will be members of The New Juilliard Ensemble – David Fulmer, violin, Rebekah Durham, violin, Jennifer Chang, viola and Avery Waite, cello.The July 24th 8:00 PM program is free and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis.

My two-movement String Quartet ‘The Figure’ was written in 2007 and has since been recorded for a Navona CD of my more recent chamber music for strings and piano by the Harlem Quartet (the premiering ensemble), with pianist Awadagin Pratt.

I consider the Quartet to be a very representative piece, so I’ll be in New York for a quick weekend visit .
            — If you get to the concert, let’s say hello in person!

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July 4th and JLZ

Yesterday the Milken Archive posted and Tweeted about the connection between my Sacred Service and our nation’s birthday.
MilkenArchive
#4thofJuly means reexamining Judith Lang Zaimont’s ‘Sacred Service for the Sabbath Evening.’ Here’s why: http://bit.ly/lS5LvT #musicmonday

= The 70-minute work for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra is an American Service setting – largely in English — and was a bicentennial commission.

Click forward to a longer interview discussing all of the music on the Naxos CD that, along with a large excerpt from the Service, includes the dramatic cantata Parable – A Tale of Isaac and Abram, and two smaller texted pieces, A Woman of Valor for mezzo and string quartet and the choral Meditations at the Time of the New Year .
(Full interview at http://www.milkenarchive.org/articles/view/a-woman-of-valor )

We touched a bit on the activity of composing itself:

MA: What aspects of composing have been especially gratifying to you?
JLZ: Funny, the first answer that pops out is the fact that what I do takes place in time, out of time. That is, I can spend as much time on a measure, on a figure, on a moment in the music as I need to, to get it absolutely right. What am I comparing this to? Through my teens, and into the first part of my 20s, my sister Doris and I were a duo piano team [as The Lang Sisters]. We toured around the country, we constantly made recordings, we were on radio and television. The Lang Sisters were getting a pretty fair reputation, with lots of experience. But what I found was that the performing almost never was satisfying for me.
MA: Why is that?
JLZ: Things come and go. The passages are there and then they’re gone. You can’t call them back and fix and correct them. And in composing, you can do that. You can live with the moment for as long as you need to make it right.

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I try to keep my hand in as a pianist, and have been fortunate to help start a local music group that rehearses almost every week. Our Maricopa Music Circle is made up of performers who studied on either East or West Coast in the US or in Russia, and who are active professional performers, retired music teachers, and dedicated amateurs who love classical music.

Our sessions are marathons, often lasting more than four hours, and encompass a wide, wide variety of music – in addition to composer ‘regulars’, our rep. is a moveable feast, including everything from A. Scarlatti through Cui, Bonis, Reinecke, Howard Hanson, Cole Porter, Jobim, etc. You name it, we’ve played it.

Our instrumentation is eclectic – high and low strings, flutes, baritone horn, sometime clarinet and guitar, and piano — so we do a fair number of tailored arrangements. We gather in 2 different rooms, rehearsing smaller-forces pieces, then come together for up to 2 hours of ensemble music. Last Friday’s rehearsal was a good cross-section:

6 of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives arranged for vln and pno
Adagio from Korngold’s Violin Sonata
Bach E major violin Concerto, mvt. 1
Brandenburg No. 4
Poulenc Sonate (pno. 4 hands)
Debussy Petite Suite, two mvts.
Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream arr. for 2 flutes
Dvorak Slavonic Dance Op. 46 no. 2 (from orch. version + 4 hands original)
Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118 n. 2 original arrangement
Fauré Sicilienne (from orch.version + pno. solo)
Lerner and Loewe “Almost Like being in Love” org. arrangement
Free improv
Messiaen “Le merle noir”

We are faithful visitors to the web’s IMSLP/Petrucci Library and neat discoveries there include works like the Niels Gade Piano Trio, Mel Bonis Serenade, Ippolitov-Ivanov violin Sonata. A terrific side benefit has been to play and discuss what could be considered potential pairs of pieces, like Felix’ and Fanny’s Piano Trios in d minor.

We’re passionate about all music, fearless in what we attempt — and have a good time!

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Between mid-October 2010 and late March 2011 three CDs of my music in various genres have been recorded and a fourth disc is planned for late June. These will come out in separate issues, each on a distinct label: Naxos, Navona, and MSR (the June and March sessions together forming a 2-disc survey).

The Navona disc is first to be out (formal release on April 26th). It features the Harlem Quartet and Awadagin Pratt performing chamber music for strings and piano, titled “Eternal Evolution”. It was recorded in December — in bitter cold, between snow storms — at the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase. (A great space, this is the fourth CD of my music captured in that hall.) Adam Abeshouse is producer/engineer.

The recording sessions were terrific and the performances are exemplary – I wanted to let loose quite amazing musicians within my sound-world, and see what resulted. Plus the disc is for me a first: an expanded CD, which when played through a computer will also scroll the scores for two of the pieces, show additional photos, and display program notes and bios more detailed than the norm while including large score extracts within the discussion.

“Eternal Evolution” was designed with two goals in mind:
- as a showcase for the performers (featuring the energetic and lyric Harlem Quartet both as ensemble and as individual players, and Awadagin in repertoire not normally associated with his very expressive, visceral playing) ;
- as a platform primarily for more recent music, notably String Quartet “The Figure”.

This is my first string quartet, written in mid-2007, at age 61. (I waited until I had something particular to say in that medium — just as with my first piano concerto, Concerto for Piano and Wind Orchestra ‘Solar Traveller’, written at age 65.) When a medium has been so completely and imaginatively explored by composers who came before, the composer now should be sure that the music in her head is distinct and urgent enough to be a warranted addition to rep.

[ = I also chuckle at the thought I “out-Brahms”ed Johannes. His first symphony was written at age 40; mine didn’t appear until I was 50. Between teaching and serving the needs of hordes of students along with family, I’m a prime instance of “late bloomer”. ]

Other pieces on “Eternal Evolution” are ZONES – Piano Trio No. 2, Serenade (for piano trio), and the virtuosic viola solo, Astral … a mirror life on the astral plane …


ETERNAL EVOLUTION. front panelsJudith Zaimont's Newest CD

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Awhile back, I heard a well-regarded poet read her words so woefully on the PBS ‘News Hour’ that I truly could not follow the thread of meaning — the delivery was wooden, and so very artifical.   In response, I wrote this:

The Music in Language
           by Judith Lang Zaimont
           [ (c) copyright 2009 ]

He squawks, he shrieks,
he pounds the tonic accents with such force
      that I, as listener,
      shiver from the assault of passion.

She, a renowned poet,
delivers in so mundane a monotone
       that meaning is lost in waves
       of falling intonation, arbitrarily
       marking the end of every line
               — her delivery, so leached of contrast
                   that all I, a listener,
                   can glean
                  is what she telegraphs:
       This writer’s great detachment from the stuff of words.

Why, over and over
                do we, as listeners,
                suffer a newscaster’s dreary delivery
                in one of just two modes,
                         polar opposites
                        “perky” or “solemn” ? –
No shades of variant meaning
no middle ground.

Why do we, as passengers,
                puzzle through flight attendants’
                irksome unreasoned stress on all
                the small, connective, throwaway words?
Why not stress “life jacket”, “seat belts” ?
They’re important phrases
                whose high freight of meaning
                demands stress at highest pitch.

Actors know.
Actors know the secret of the music in language.

Pacing – let’s have a sliver of silence
               before the keyword –
               a half-beat of nothing.
Color — from shout to whispered syllable
              (perhaps a whisper delayed).
Tempo — a stutter, a torrent, a mechanistic drone.
Add in Pitch to shed needle spots
              right where meaning demands it .
These devices grant message to our delivery.

Music is in all these – and through music
              thus
              meaning.

Yes, we compose our thoughts.
Why not, then ,
              like great maestros channeling a tonal army,
              why not compose our saying of them?

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Composers In Mysteries

Step past those tormented, fictional Wagner aspirants in bible-length novels — and for today let’s also set aside Thomas Mann. I’m a mystery nut, and I relish the present-day novels of Sara Paretsky, a mystery master who threads music into almost everything she writes. And in more than one of her books, the composers themselves show up.

Paretsky’s protagonist is V. I. Warshawski (Victoria Iphigenia – Vic for short), a Chicago PI who’s obstinate, cunning, intuitive, a quick thinker, and a general pain in the neck to many of her associates but who sticks with it, thinking through every case even as she hares around the state until the mystery in solved, no matter the bruises or bullet wounds that come her way. The daughter of a singer (mom) and a police detective, Vic keeps a piano in her apartment and often breaks into snatches of aria. (She’s also an expert basketball player and very accurate with a handgun.) Two of Vic’s close friends, both doctors, are Holocaust survivors who support Chicago’s symphony and chamber music scene, so Vic gets to a concert from time to time.

In one Paretsky short story, a composer of the distant past turns out to be an ancestor of Vic’s. And in the layered novel I’m now reading, Body Work, one character is a bassist in both jazz and early music groups, so lyrics by the trobairitz Maria de Ventadorn turn up.

But the most memorable composer appearance is in an earlier Paretsky book where one of the doctor’s sons (a cellist) comes to town with his girlfriend, Israeli composer and piano prodigy Or Nevitzky, whose new chamber piece is premiered and described in detail. — I have to believe Nevitzky stands in for Shulamit Ran, whose bio is virtually the same as the fictional character’s, and who has long been associated with music in Chicago.

It means a lot to come across a composer – someone who does what I do: who worries away at the problem at hand, never letting go until the solution is clear – in a genre book where the genre connotes “action”. Composers often don’t move when we do our thing; we can sit quiet and in place for hour after hour. And we might never be as tormented, as picturesque, as Holmes with his cocaine and dolorous violin, when we’re thinking things out. But we do hang in there until the solution is clear — just like Vic.

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