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(Los Angeles)

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Love and Cow Bells
Sorceress of the New Piano
Well, That Was Fun
Naxos Dreaming
Reich@70: Let the Celebrations Begin
The Bi-Coastal Jefferson Friedman
Violins Invade Indianapolis
John Cage (born Los Angeles, 5 September 1912; died New York, 12 August 1992).
The People United Will Never Be Divided
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Record companies, artists and publicists are invited to submit CDs to be considered for review. Send to: Jerry Bowles, Editor, Sequenza 21, 340 W. 57th Street, 12B, New York, NY 10019

Saturday, November 12, 2005
Issue Project Room Dispatch

Just got back from a svelte program of Silvestrov and P�rt courtesy of Jenny Lin and the Issue Project Room. Located in Brooklyn, the IPR holds all kinds of crazy programs in a small room atop a concrete tower overlooking the Gowanus Canal. To get there requires braving threatening looking streets, finding a virtually invisible door (so well is it integrated into a large iron gate along the street), crunching your way through a barren dirt-and-gravel lot, then walking up what must have once been a fire escape to get to the performance space. But, hey: when you get there, they�re playing Ligeti over the loudspeakers � so you know you�re among friends.

The first half was all Silvestrov. Jenny opened with the Piano Sonata No. 1, a smooth, polyphonic work that sits oddly between Bach, Debussy, and Shostakovich. The effect is novel, though, and sections of more dense material are woven nicely through the generally two-part texture. Next up was Silvestrov�s third �Postludium� for cello and piano. An overtly tonal composition whose harmonies allude to the Well-Tempered Clavier, the music is calm and simple with poignant dissonances propelling it gently along. (Loren Dempster played the cello.) The final Silvestrov piece, the �Post Scriptum� Sonata for violin and piano, however, crosses the line so far tonal indulgence goes. Its wistful tchunes aren�t too far from Alan Silvestri, and the ending, which reaches for infinity, just gets lost. (Cornelius Dufallo played the violin.)

Part two contained three warhorses by Arvo P�rt: �F�r Alina,� �Spiegel im Spiegel,� and �Fratres.� So long as P�rt doesn�t change sections, I think he�s a lovely composer. Jenny did her best with the upright piano to achieve the vast sonic spaces that are P�rt�s trademark. Things were going against though as a key got stuck during �Spiegel im Spiegel.� �Fratres� doesn�t work for me, but, as with the first half, the compositions benefitted from being rendered by terrific musicians who are friends and who were playing in a congenial, intimate environment. Jenny also showed her gift for great programming: Silvestrov and P�rt complement one another nicely without providing too much of the same thing.

P.S. A treat for P�rt groupies in �comments.� (B = B-flat.)
Rockin' in the Free World

Man, we are so happening today. You'd almost think people were getting paid. In addition, to all the action here on page one, Alan Theisen is planning his first visit to New York and wondering how he can avoid looking like a rube. Perhaps a few of us could get together and mug him to give him the full flavor...Beau Bothwell--now there's a name out of Henry James--has a review of Terry Riley's Assassin Reverie...and Anthony Cornicello has put together a post called "Electro-acoustic classics, part one." Next week, "Topsy, part two." If you get that one, you're old.
Kronos Quartet: San Diego Nov. 9

In case you haven't heard, the Kronos Quartet has a new cellist: Jeffrey Zeigler. On the basis of his performance Wed. evening, he's a worthy successor to Jennifer Culp and Joan Jeanrenaud.

The Kronos Quartet hadn't been in San Diego County in 11 years; they last appeared the inaugural year of the California Center for the Arts for the world premiere of John Adams' John's Book of Alleged Dances, which the Center had commissioned.

The program Wed. night was the typical (at least for San Diego) Kronos mix of brief pop/ethnic/classical fusion pieces, and a couple of longer, "serious" works: Schnittke's 3rd Quartet and Reich's Triple Quartet, and I was there to review it for

Of note was that most of the audience consisted of twenty-somethings, maybe even late teens. I suspect this had something to do with their appearance on the UC San Diego campus (the University Events group, which books entertainment of all kinds, brought them here: not a UCSD academic dept.) I don't know how many kids were exposed to contemporary classical music, or ANY classical music for that matter, for the first time that evening, but I saw no walk-outs, and they all dug the Sigur Ros and Hendrix and world music arrangements.

About their fusion pieces:

Regular readers know my aversion to classical crossover efforts, but ladies and gentlemen, the Kronos Quartet is the real thing, a successful hybridization of classical music with rock, with jazz, and with popular and traditional music from around the world. When they play Jimi Hendrix's interpretation of the Star-Spangled Banner, as they did for an encore, it rethinks and expands what a string quartet can do just as Hendrix did for the electric guitar. This is no cutesy Bond-like pop pabulum, but a visceral, frightening, and exciting arrangement, which, thanks to their wizard of a sound man Mark Grey, screams and overwhelms every bit as much as Hendrix did. This wasn't a wimpy classical music approximation of Hendrix's
power--it was the real undiluted stuff.

One of the keys to the Kronos's success in this area is that they don't think of it as "crossover" music. They seem genuinely concerned with extending the repertory and the techniques of the string quartet, and this concern translates into viable musical hybrids. When they perform music that demands exotic scales, they play those non-European notes. They make a genuine attempt on their instruments to capture the inflection, the sense of time, and, if possible, the timbres associated with popular and indigenous traditional music.

About Schnittke's 3rd quartet:

While the four string quartets of Alfred Schnittke are all worth
programming, it is his Third Quartet which usually appears in concert halls.
(Other string quartets have previously performed it in San Diego). Out of all of
his quartets, the Third has the most conservative melodic and harmonic gestures,
making it a safe programming choice (not that the Kronos Quartet tries to play
it safe!).

However, its form is extremely radical. The composition
begins with a cadence: the first thing we hear is what sounds like an ending!
It's clearly in an unironic Renaissance style (it is, in fact, a literal quote
from a work by Orlando Lassus), with nothing at all to suggest that it was
written in 1983. Then we hear thefirst theme of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, which,
on a concert of new music, still sounds surprisingly modern. This is followed by
the D-E flat-C-B motive that Shostakovich repeatedly used (and which figures in
other Schnittke works as well). The rest of the quartet skillfully develops
these three ideas, using a combination of earlier musical styles (including an
allusion to Wagner) and 20th-century devices. Schnittke called this technique
"polystylism," and the Third Quartet is his most accessible polystylistic
chamber piece.

While many of Schnittke's polystylistic works are cruelly
ironic, or pessimistic in their evocation of the past as something beautiful
which has been lost, the Third Quartet explores the musical correspondences of
the three quotations in the opening measures. This abstract compositional
treatment makes Schnittke's Third Quartet, if not exactly optimistic, then the
least sarcastic or depressing of his polystylistic works. The Kronos Quartet has
performed this work since 1987, and they bring confidence, cohesion, and
profundity to it, no easy task considering how the musical styles within the
Third Quartet jump immediately from one era to another.

About the Triple Quartet by Steve Reich:

While I have nothing against the Third Quartet, my favorite Schnittke quartet is his Second. It would have made an interesting companion to the concluding work on the program, Steve Reich's Triple Quartet. Reich has written that one of the influences on him as he composed his Triple Quartet in 1999 was Schnittke's Second Quartet, a work that spurred him to write denser, more complex music. (Although Reich lives in New York City, the place in America where Schnittke's music was and is most frequently performed, Reich had never encountered one of Schnittke's works until he received the Kronos Quartet's recording of the complete Schnittke string quartets from a friend. This lack of knowledge of one's contemporaries is more prevalent among big-name composers than you'd think; I recall an internationally famous American composer back in 1982 asking my undergraduate composition teacher, So, what do know about Steve Reich's music?")

The Triple Quartet uses three string quartets, two of them recorded (appearing in left and right on-stage speakers). Like Reich's other works incorporating pre-recorded music, a live performance is much more illuminating than the recording. The distinction between the live group and the recorded groups are clear, and the material between the three groups is more sharply delineated, clarifying some of the textures that blur together on the recording.

The harmonies are crunchier than one typically associates with Reich; one of the other influences on this work is the savage String Quartet no. 4 by Bartok. Also unusual for Reich is his use of a 19th-century formal device in the first and third movements: the keys traversed outline a diminished seventh chord.

The second movement consists of a slow, long melody, repeated and delayed by all 12 instruments, forming a thick, fluctuating, and harmonically static web. The outer movements are driven by short, crisply interlocking chords in the left and right groups, treating the 8 recorded string instruments as if they were marimba or piano parts from one of Reich's 1970s masterpieces.

The Kronos Quartet commissioned the Triple Quartet, and they must surely be the work's best interpreters. Mark Grey expertly manned the soundboard all evening, but it was particularly crucial in Reich's work.

My complete review here.

Silent protest

'If the world of hip-hop is still a little too exclusive, most popular music suffers from the opposite problem of being too corporate. By the early 1970s protest culture had been absorbed by capitalist enterprise. Rock became big business. Small record labels were bought up. Big labels became part of media conglomerates. Rock songs are used to promote anything from Coca-Cola to the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel (The Stones' Angie was her campaign song.) The Sheraton hotel group, targeting the baby-boomer generation, looked for "a 1960s rock anthem" that could be remixed to "symbolise the Sheraton chain". The final choice was Let's Spend the Night Together by the Stones, a song once banned on the radio for being too lewd. So what's a poor boy to do now?

He can start a blog, perhaps. As the mainstream media, especially in the US, have become part of the same corporate entertainment empires that own most popular music, there is little or no room for a new Edward Murrow to stick his knife into the powers that be. But the blogosphere is buzzing with life. Subversion of all kinds, much of it mad and malicious, has been privatised, as it were. If hip-hop and rap fill large niche markets, internet journalism fills millions of niches, some of them no bigger than the author him or herself. Quite how this will translate into the words and music of a new culture of protest no one really knows.'

From Silent Protest - why we are still turning to Dylan for the soundtrack of our demonstrations, excellent essay by Ian Burma in today's Guardian.

Picture credit - Bob Gruen
Report broken links, missingimages and other eroors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Music-like-water
Did Berio have help?

In the, um, lively comments about Julius Eastman, this sentence by Lawrence Dillon triggered a memory of something I haven't thought about for some time:

But in the end, Berio's work made a direct, immediate impact on a multitude of composers.

To which I cynically replied to myself, "Yeah, he had an immediate impact on all the composers who helped him fufill his commissions."

Maybe this is common knowledge on this board and I'm out of the loop, but years ago I heard rumors that Berio had bitten off more than he could chew in accepting commissions, and that he recruited other composers to help him write his pieces.

When I was an undergrad at U of Michigan back in the early '80's, a German ethnomusicologist/composer visited our composition seminar, played some of his works, and spent a few minutes talking about how he helped Berio orchestrate one of his pieces. No, I don't remember the name of the German composer (he wasn't anyone well-known in the U.S. at the time, or I would have remembered), and I don't recall him specifying which of Berio's works he had worked on.

Then, when I got to UC San Diego in 1985, former students of Bernard Rands told me that Rands had helped Berio write some pieces.

Berio is dead. No one can jeopardize their careers by gossiping about him. I wouldn't have any less respect for him if he had help orchestrating his music, or even composing it; Debussy definitely farmed out his orchestration (parts of Images, Khamma), and I've heard that Prokofiev did likewise.

I'd just like to know. I've never seen anything written on the subject of Berio's assistants. So, can anyone else here confirm or debunk this? If it's true, who helped him?
New music .....

'New music has degenerated to mere noise, bludgeoning our ears rather than than caressing them. Noble song is lost ....'
Frederick the Great writing in 1777.

'His failures will be better than most people's successes'
Alexander Goehr about Pierre Boulez in 2005.

BBC4 TV broadcasts Pierre Boulez conducting his 80th birthday concert, including his cantata Le soleil des eaux, tonight (12th Nov), 19.00H GMT
Picture credit -
Report broken links, missing images, and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to Classic misunderstandings - Hildegard


Saw a giant billboard in Tokyo once showing a huge nose and a nasal spray applicator with the English words underneath "For stuffed nose and snot." That's about where I am this morning. The uncommonly warm weather has left with me a bad case of the sniffles which means I have a couple of tickets to the American Composers Orchestra tonight at 7:30 at Zankel Hall that I won't be using. Who wants to go and write a review for S21? I live nearby and you can pick up the tickets from my doorman on the way.

Our new indie blogger, Blackdogred, is playing catchup on contemporary classical and he has a couple of discoveries to ask you about...Three Naxos releases made it onto the the best of 2005 list...Who's got something new and hot for the Composers Forum?
'The classical world is imploding'

'There was a time when the classical world was so strong that they didn't need anybody else - they were more insulated. But now that world is imploding.'

Maria Schneider, 'the toughest woman in jazz', tells it like it is in Just the 18 of us in today's Guardian.

And in the same issue contemporary composer Christopher Fox has some interesting thoughts on getting second performances of new works in Trouble and Strife .......

'Some of the problem comes from the way composers allow publishers to negotiate with a soloist, or an orchestra or conductor, regarding a new piece.'

For the story behind the musical wine label graphic, and information on the other Maria Schneider click On An Overgrown Path.

Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
What's In A Name?

I thought by now everyone would be abuzz with what I think might be the most important new music recording of the year—a three CD set devoted to the music of Julius Eastman (1940-1990), a gay African American composing postminimalism when all the name brand minimalists were still codifying the genre. The music's amazing, the story maybe even more so: drug and alcoholic problems which he overcame; homeless and destitute; scores thrown in the garbage when he was evicted, most presumably lost forever; and on and on.

We rushed Mary Jane Leach's first-hand account of her seven-year quest to track down his music onto NewMusicBox fearing all the while that we'd be trumped by a giant feature in the Sunday Times Arts and Leisure, a spot on NPR, or even a mention on some other website. After all, New World Records' mailing went out late last week and Kyle Gann mentioned writing the notes for the set a while back on his Artsjournal blog saying it was coming out in the Fall...

Silence. Why? Might some of the titles have scared folks away (Gay Guerilla, Evil Nigger)? Seems like they're tailor-made to make people wonder what music given such titles could possibly sound like? (For the record—well, CD actually :)—I think they sound like a weird alternate universe where four pianists are playing John Adams's Phrygian Gates—composed around the same time—as if it were that Morton Feldman piece where everyone is playing from the same score but human nature quickly prevents unisons. Only it goes from being really quiet to being deafeningly loud: try it on headphones and bliss out!)

Might it be that the disc is "classical music" and most folks who cover this stuff still don't think new music is the most important thing out there, especially new music that technically can't be even called new since the composer has been dead for 15 years? Yet, this is exactly the kind of story the classical music world should be embracing since it is ultimately a testimony of classical music's humanity and tells the story of an important compositional role model for several groups under-represented in its ranks.

I knew about this project being in the works a few years ago, being blown away by a recording Mary Jane made for me of Julius's The Holy Presence of Joan of Arc for 10 cellos. But that remarkable and deeply moving composition still didn't prepare me for the sonic onslaught of the three masterpieces for four pianos—Gay Guerrila, Evil Nigger, and Crazy Nigger. As Willy Loman's wife declaimed in Death of a Salesman, attention must be paid! Which is why I've temporarily abandoned my usual anti-critical pose and am gushing here.

It's great that these recordings are now available, but there's plenty more that should be and needs to be done. There should be concerts, articles, symposia, debates, you name it. He's one of the important ones and we should not lose this rare opportunity when something this good from our extremely specialized world, through the uniqueness of the story of the man who made it, has the power to make people outside our world listen. But, of course, we first need to listen ourselves and so far that hasn't seemed to happen yet. So check it out!
Harrison Birtwistle's 'Private Passions'

Who would have thought one of our leading contemporary composers has a 'private passion' for Roy Orbison? Well that is precisely what Harrison Birtwistle revealed in his selection of music for the BBC Radio 3 programme Private Passions.

While studying at the Royal Northern College of Music in England Birtwistle formed the influential New Music Manchester group with Peter Maxwell Davies, Alexander Goehr, John Ogdon and Elgar Howarth, and he then went on to study in the US on a Harkness Fellowship.

He has composed a number of works that are central to the development of late 20th century music, and developed a reputation as the enfante terrible of contemporary composing. His avant garde style made the media headlines in 1995 when his composition Panic for drums, alto saxophone and orchestra disturbed the complacent jingoism of the traditional Last Night of the BBC Promende Concerts season.

But if you think all of Harrison's musical influences are cutting edge you are in for a surprise. One of his choices for Private Passions was Roy Orbison's In Dreams! For more about Birtwistle, full details of his music choices, and a sample of Orbison's lyrics, plus a two minute audio sample from Birtwistle's Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker, composed in 1998 for soprano and cello, take An Overgrown Path to Harrison Birtwistle's cheesy 'Private Passions'.

Programme broadcast on 31st October 2004
Listen to the latest BBC Radio 3 Private Passions programme with this link
Information taken for promotional purposes only from Private Passions by Michael Berkeley published by Faber ISBN 0-571-22884-4
Image credit: Mr. Punch from
Report broken links, missing images, and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
Reflections on Steve Lacy

I've always thought that if there really is a God he--got to be a he with that kind of ego--is a great practical joker. One of his favorite little tricks is to drop a genius into a perfectly ordinary family and sit back and laugh his ass off while the gifted one tries to figure out where he or she is really supposed to be and the rest of the family struggles to learn to live with an alien in their midst. Cracks God up everytime.

For many years, my next door neighbor was a beautiful, silver-haired little old widow lady named Sophie Lackritz. Sophie had arrived in New York from Minsk in 1906, married a man in the schmata trade (the garment business, for those of you who don't speak New York), and had three children--Buddy, who followed his dad into the rag business; Blossom, who got married and mothered a future Pulitizer Prize winner, and Steve. Steve was the strange one. As a teenager he found a soprano saxophone somewhere, brought it home and taught himself to play. Soon he was skipping school and hanging out and studying with black musicians like Cecil Taylor. At 22, he played on Taylor's first album. He was 24 when he recorded his first album called Reflections in 1958. He later played in the Thelonius Monk Big Band. To Sophie, who never owned a record player or sat down and listened to music in her life, this was was all a tragedy. "He was starving...we had to take him groceries...he lived in this awful place...he wouldn't listen to us."

Alas, Steve Lacy (by then he had taken a new name) arrived on the scene just as jazz was about to succumb to the British invasion so he did a reverse migration and moved to Paris, where he lived for the next 40 years, writing and recording, touring widely in Europe with his group, and building a reputation as the premiere composer and performer of the soprano sax. My wife and I got to know him from his visits with Sophie and by attending his New York concerts in the 90s. A nicer man never lived.

Although Sophie frequently told us "he don't make no money," he was clearly her favorite. She saved every postcard he ever sent her (which she gave me for safekeeping before she went into assisted living). She was thrilled when he won the McArthur Genius Award because there was finally a monetary value she could associate with his work but she was dismayed that he split it with his longtime band. She never really got the music thing. I once attended a concert that Steve did at one of the big South Bank theaters in London--a brilliant improvisation with a young percussionist he had never met before they walked out on stage together. I brought Sophie the review from the Times of London and she looked at it sadly. "He was a brilliant boy," she said. "He could have been anything if he hadn't gone into that junky music."

Steve returned to the United States in 2002, where he began teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music. He died of cancer in 2003 at 69--only three or four years after his mother died in a Buffalo retirement home. In Saxovision, he wrote his own epitaph:

Steve Lacy Concert Tonight: Singer Monika Heidemann, joined by reedists Josh Sinton and Oscar Noriega and guitarist Khabu will perform one set of vocal works by Steve Lacy as part of the Gnu Vox vocal series at Cornelia St. Cafe tonight at 10:00 PM. Cover is $10.

They will focus on the texts of writer, painter, and mystic, Brion Gysin, set to the music of Lacy. Lacy and Gysin had a long and fruitful collaboration that spanned several decades. Together they collaborated on nearly 20 original songs ("Somebody Special," "Nowhere Street," "Dreams," and "Gay Paree Bop" among others) and one record (Songs). Lacy was a teacher of both Heidemann and Sinton.
Cheap Music

"Extraordinary how potent cheap music is," remarks Amanda in Noel Coward's Private Lives. The Rough Guide to Classical Music informs me of Shostakovich's Seventh that "the way the composer creates an atmosphere that is both cheap and exhilarating before having it subside into spare and elegiac is highly effective." The Nazis used Kurt Weill's use of cheap music to satirize a decadent society as an excuse to accuse him of writing cheap music.

All of which raises the question: what is cheap music? What does it sound like? How do you recognize it? What are its characteristics?

I'm a sucker for Broadway although I wouldn't be caught dead going without the cover of an out-of-towner who "just had to see it." I, personally, am way too cool. But, I love the formula--the over-the-top boy-girl duet ("The Song That Goes Like This," as they call it in Spamalot), the big rousing all-hands march to the footlights at the end of the first act. I love Patti and Audra and Bernedette and Marin and Betty and I'm not even gay. Is that cheap music?

Or, how about this? I think traditional Italian operas are sappy and silly but listening to Rolando Villazon sing those cheesy old arias gives me goosebumps.

Cheap music? Discuss.

UPDATE: Blackdogred weighs in on the cultural politics of Pere Ubu...the Composers Forum is considering whether there is a bias against writing choral music for women...S21 contributing editor Lanier Sammons has a piece called 2/3 Full being premiered by the Columbia New Music Orchestra Friday night at 8 pm at St. Paul�s Chapel at Columbia University (116th and Broadway, right off the 1/9 trains). They're also doing a piece by Lanier's classmate Paul Burkey and some stuff by a guy named Bach which (I'm taking a guess, here) is not new.
Last Night in L.A. - Music From New York

Last night�s Monday Evening Concert at the County Museum presented the New York New Music Ensemble for what has been its annual visit, not just to Los Angeles but to California. The program was titled "Anti-War & Mildly Violent: Music Mirroring the Moment." I suppose this was intended to be appealing. Personally, however, I would be no more inclined to go to a concert about politics than to see a dance on architecture, or to hear Tom DeLay give a talk on opera or sing some arias. (I imagine the latter example being roughly equivalent to going to a Florence Foster Jenkins concert; I�m not enough of a masochist to want that.) But the subtitle was somewhat contrived.

The program of five works, all contemporary, all in the style of academic modernism, included two world premieres. Morris Rosenzweig premiered Past Light for quartet of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Rosenzweig�s web site provides several sound clips of his music and his range of voice. Steve Ricks composed Mild Violence for the sextet, with flute and percussion added to the four. The title of the work came from the ranking on a videogame: E, with �comic mischief, mild violence�. His web site offers a unique experience; I suggest you listen to the Vice Versa first.

The climactic work was by one of those talented hyphenates, composer-flutist-conductor-professor-advocate Harvey Sollberger, who deserves a better web site. NYNME performed his powerful The Advancing Moment (1993) written for sextet. Sollberg�s notes state that the climax of the work was suggested by CNN�s coverage of attacks in the Middle East, with sirens screaming and forces unleashed. Opening the concert were Flashbacks (1995) for sextet by Mario Davidovsky and Coleccion Nocturna (1982/1983) for clarinets, piano and tape by David Felder. This was a good choice for Los Angeles, since Zita Carno, the Phil�s outstanding pianist for many years, was the first pianist of the work.

NYNME has some really excellent musicians, and Jean Kopperud on clarinets was particularly impressive in last night�s concert. A guest on percussion, Tom Kolor was also a standout.

Sunday�s Phil concert at Disney Hall displayed some clever programming. Prokofiev�s 5th Symphony was the major work but the first half of the concert opened with Alfred Schnittke�s (K)ein Sommernachtstraum (1985). This �(Not) a Midsummernight�s Dream� had a lovely, Mozart-inspired minuet as its spine, but the music kept disintegrating into other feelings, sometimes hostile, sometimes comic, as at a Mad Hatter�s tea party. This overture was followed by Mozart�s Piano Concert No. 20, and the kaleidoscope of the Schnittke piece set the stage perfectly for the minor key in the Mozart, as well as for the emotions of the Prokofiev. I had heard the Prokofiev on LP when growing up, and knew it and some other then-contemporary works much better than the German romantics. But hearing this in Disney Hall was a special experience. The hall is so friendly to bass notes that the performance of the Prokofiev allowed me hear lines I had not been aware of before. It helped that while Salonen is away in Europe, we had a good guest conductor back again, the young and talented Vladimir Jurowski.
Evan Johnson On the Record: Bad Rochberg, Good Rochberg

Symphony #2; Imago Mundi
George Rochberg
Saarbr�cken Radio Symphony Orchestra/Christopher Lyndon-Gee
Naxos 8.559182

Suppose you had a cure for cancer.

Bear with me now.

Suppose you had a cure for cancer, that you were sure would work. Every type of cancer. One of the biggest medical advances in history, up there with penicillin and the polio vaccine.

So you tell your friends, and they all tell you it�s great and you�re a genius, but none of them is a doctor or a multimillionaire and none of their friends are either, so you figure your great idea is going to languish for lack of an appropriate venue in which to proclaim it.

Then, one day, you read in the newspaper that the International Oncology Conference is going to be held in your town, and that the IOC features an open-mike night where members of the public are free to express their opinions and theories to the gathering of cancer specialists. You sign up, you are given thirty-one minutes and twenty-eight seconds to speak, and you save the world.

I don�t like twentieth-century American orchestral music. Well, that�s not quite fair � but I am disinclined to like a piece of said music that I�ve not heard, and it is guilty until proven innocent. Perhaps it is a reflection of our musical culture and economy, or perhaps it�s just my imagination, but the majority of recent American orchestral music reminds me of our cancer-curing friend�s address to the oncologists � there�s an air of desperation, as if the composer knew that orchestral commissions were a rare commodity and he better say what he has to say now because he might not ever get another chance. Everything, as a result, has to scream ORCHESTRA � everything�s loud, everything�s portentous, unison middle and low brass lines, screaming dissonant chords topped with piccolo and anchored by the overabundant (cancerous?) percussion, everything you can�t do with a string quartet or a piano or a Pierrot ensemble. Oh, and try not to have any particularly controversial ideas, or you might not get invited back.

So it is with George Rochberg�s Second Symphony (1955-6). It�s also worth pointing out a side effect of this orchestral syndrome, in connection with the fact that it�s forbidden to mention Rochberg without describing how he dramatically and somewhat didactically abandoned serialism in his Third Quartet, finding it inadequate to express his grief over the death of his son. This symphony, which predates that quartet by twenty years, is serial, but it doesn�t matter. I have a strong sense that the piece is about those brass lines and dissonant chords, that the effect would have been precisely the same had the pitches been framed in some sort of extended post-Bartokian tonality. This does not reflect on the inherent nature of serialism or of any other mode of selecting one�s pitches, and it is not an indictment of Rochberg; it�s just the generalized, directionlessly vague nature of the symphony�s musical rhetoric.

There are some marvelous touches, which suggest that the knee-jerk bluster is suppressing some artistic impulse: from the evidence of this symphony, Rochberg has a masterful touch for atonal two-part counterpoint, which he deploys as a textural motive throughout the piece to beautiful effect. But generally speaking, this is mid-century American bluster, and whether tonal or atonal or serial or anything else it�s also a bore.

The rest of the disc is given over to the first recording of a later orchestral work entitled Imago Mundi (1973), which might as well have been put there as a pre-emptive response to everything I wrote above. It�s American, it�s twentieth-century, and it�s for orchestra, but it�s also brilliantly and strikingly inventive, texturally, harmonically and formally, from the first gesture through the last whisper. Imago Mundi is everything that the Second Symphony is not. It fetishizes repetition in a most disruptive way throughout its twenty-plus minutes (inspired by Japanese ritualistic music, but we�ll forgive that), wrenches powerful effects from unusual orchestrations, and is admirably consistent and focused in its gestural scope. Only a several-minute-long dance episode, probably mandated by the quasi-programmatic backstory of the piece, interferes with the beautifully and robustly fashioned universe that Imago Mundi proposes. Unlike the Second Symphony, this work makes an attempt to delve into the resources of the orchestra with a mindset of discovery, not merely one of more or less faithful replication of a Beethovenian archetype.

The performances are uniformly excellent in both works: the brass is incisive, powerful, clean and accurate in the Second Symphony (and who really cares about the other instruments in a piece like this?), and the more intricate and subtle demands of Imago Mundi prove that the Saarbr�cken RSO is up to the challenge of unconventional orchestrational environments.

This is a disc worth acquiring, and I won�t tell on you if instead of listening to the Second Symphony you play Imago Mundi twice.

The Year is '42

It is 1942. The Japanese have taken Singapore. The Lufwaffe is bombing Malta, and the RAF L�beck. Paris is occupied (right). The Nazi forces, unable to take Moscow, have switched direction and are advancing towards the Caucasus.

These are the dark days that in Russia spawned Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, the 'Leningrad', and his String Quartet No. 2 in A major. In occupied Czechoslovakia both Jan Hanus and Miloslav Kabelac composed their first symphonies, as did Hungarian Pal Kadosa. Elsewhere in Europe Arthur Honegger completed his second symphony, Karl Schiske his first, and Austrian in exile in the US Ernst Krenek produced his appropriately named symphonic movement 'I wonder as I wander.' In the UK pacifist Michael Tippett composed the second of his five string quartets; the complete cycle being an addition to the 20th century chamber music repertoire equal in stature to the Shostakovich Quartets. In 1942 Benjamin Britten returned from to the UK from the UK, and composed his Hymn to St Cecilia. Meanwhile the US had entered the war following the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and the symphonic repertoire was expanded by Leonard Berstein's first (Jeremiah), Henry Cowell's third, Walter Piston's second, and Roy Harris' fifth.

The Year is '42 is an exquisite new novel from Ukrainian born author Nella Bielski, and is set in one of the most tumultuous years of the 20th century It combines beautifully observed scenes set in France and Russia with heart wrenching insights into a society being torn apart by war. It seems set to take its place among the other classic books and music that chronicle this terrible period.

For more about The Year is '42 click On An Overgrown Path.

The Year is '42 is published in the UK by Bloomsbury ISBN 9780747571032
Picture credits - Le Mus�e de la R�sistance Nationale
Report broken links, missing images, or other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
Autumn in New York

We're having such freakishly good November weather here in the Center of the Universe that us natives are starting to wonder what THEY are up to. We are not a town that accepts good fortune lightly. Adversity is more our thing.

Most of the S21 bloggers are apparently sleeping in this morning. Elodie Lauten reminds us that NPR will broadcast Mark Adamo�s most recent opera, Lysistrata, on November 19 and Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy will debut at the Met on December 2. Not a lot of new opera but I suppose we should be grateful...William Grim has lots of new reviews over on the CD Review page. More later. Or not.

UPDATE: Mark Berry links to a short but sweet review of the new Naxos release of William Schuman's Symphonies Nos. 7 and 10. I've been playing it this morning. Number 10 is a real barnburner...And, Blackdogred wonders if composers are as backbiting to each other as poets are. Nah.
Yale is Free

Due to an anonymous $100 million donation, attending the Yale School of Music will be free beginning next year. The catch is, of course, that you'll be going to Yale, but I imagine that won't drive everyone away.
Une Petite Question?

If, as Jean-Luc Godard once remarked, "the history of cinema is boys photographing girls," what is the history of music?
Marathon Day

We have a new record, I believe. The number of comments in the "CDs vs audio DVDs vs downloads" discussion in the Composers Forum has passed 90. Do I hear 100?

Speaking of hearing, Lawrence Dillon writes about what it's like to be "monophonic," which is probably easier than being "nadaphonic" like Beethoven. Reminds me of a great old Peter Cook-Dudley Moore skit in which Dudley shows up bouncing on one-leg to apply for the role of Superman, to which Peter responds cooly: "I cannot help observing, sir, that you are a uniped."

The American Composers Orchestra is playing a transcription of Conlon Nancarrow's Study No. 7 for Chamber Orchestra (along with prmieres by Jose Sererier, Michal Torke, and Edward Billous) this coming Friday night at Carnegie Hall. Kyle Gann has a splendid short piece on Nancarrow here.


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