The branch of geology concerned with the order and relative position of strata and their relationship to the geological time scale.

That’s the definition offered by the dictionary on my Mac’s dashboard. Despite a somewhat scientific aura that recalls titles of modernist pieces (such titles go back to Varese, I guess, and seem a little old-fashioned these days), I like the term “stratigraphy” as the title for my current project, a work for the Prism Saxophone Quartet and pianist Marilyn Nonken. The premiere will be at Penn on Saturday, March 19. I came across the word in Marilyn’s book, The Spectral Piano, where she uses it to describe the layering strategies employed in works by spectralist composers like Murail and Dufourt. While I don’t think of my piece as spectralist, I am concerned in this new piece with creating contrapuntal structures where the component parts are a little more differentiated than usual, either by rhythmic texture or harmonic process or both. Of course there are also places in the piece where the five instruments function as a single unit, but several spots emphasize contrasting elements. Here’s a fragment from the first movement as an example – just a draft, mind you (notation sounds as written):

stratig excerpt

The “rock layers” here are more juxtaposed than layered (though there is obviously a registral layering going on), but later in the movement things will start happening simultaneously.

The plan is to have a number of short movements exploring a variety of strategies. The players want their parts soon; better get back to work.

88l8telyI was assigned a graduate composition seminar this fall at my day job, and decided to make composing for piano the focus. I further decided to plan a few recitals and talks relating to the course, under the title “Eighty-Eight Lately”, and with the support of a generous grant from Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, the following roster of events has taken shape, all on the Penn campus:
September 29, 2015: “The Spectral Piano” – a colloquium with Dr. Marilyn Nonken of New York University – read more below.
October 28, 2015: piano recital by Gregory DeTurck and myself. Greg will play works by Crumb, Perle, and Dutilleux, and I will offer the Berio Sequenza IV. UPDATE: this program has been postponed until February 17, 2016.
January 27, 2016: Marilyn Nonken will return to campus for a recital including pieces she mentioned in her talk this past week. The list of composers may bet tweaked a little, but the plan is for her to play Rakowski, Murail, Carrick, Dufourt, and Kuehn. The Carrick and Kuehn works will be premieres.
February 24, 2016: Matthew Bengtson and I will share a program. I’ll play one or two movements from the Martino Fantasies and Impromptus, and Matt will play Carter, Ligeti, Nancarrow, Bolcom, and Melinda Wagner. Mindy will give a talk on her music earlier that day.
The class so far has only met a few times. In these first meetings we have been spending time with some early 20th century classic, but the main focus of the class will be post-WWII. So far we have looked at:
– Debussy: various Preludes
– Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit
– Copland: Piano Variations
– Ives: “Concord” Sonata
– Barber: Sonata
– Bartok: Sonata
– Schoenberg, Six Little Piano Pieces
We will look at the Webern Variations next, with Messiaen to follow.
Marilyn Nonken’s talk this past Tuesday drew upon her elegant and thoughtful book The Spectral Piano, and she talked about the spectralist attitude, with sound itself, – its overtone content and its characteristic attacks and decays – as the stuff of a composition rather than pitches or motives. She discussed the music of Murail, Grisey, Dufourt, and Edmund Campion, as well as playing for us a short work by Joshua Fineberg. You can see a video of the lecture here.

recently completed:
Lila – Marilynne Robinson. Like its companions in Robinson’s “Iowa” trilogy (Gilead and Home), Lila offers writing that is beautiful in an intense but quiet way, full of a sober wisdom, rich in empathy.

in progress and upcoming:
Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life – Dana Greene
Harvard Composers – Howard Pollack
The Spectral Piano – Marilyn Nonken
Composition in the Digital World – Robert Raines
A Dance of Polar Opposites – George Rochberg
Stomping the Blues – Albert Murray

Having enjoyed Pollack’s book on Copland, I sought out his Harvard Composers at the Penn library. On an nearby shelf was the Raines, a recent book I had not heard about, offering a collection of interviews with contemporary composers. Would any algorithm have suggested the Raines if I searched online for the Pollack? (Amazon does not.) I haven’t seen anything online yet that can replace the peculiar serendipities of libraries.

Classes have ended at my day job, just an exam to give and much grading. I will have more time for the project on the front burner, a big piece for violin and piano for Tai Murray and Anton Nel,  commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society for a premiere in Philly next February. Here’s Tai playing Copland:

And here Anton plays Mozart:

– Speaking of first-class pianism, Marilyn Nonken will be coming to Penn twice next season, for a colloquium in September, and a recital in January. Go here for a fascinating interview with Marilyn.

– I’ll be in NYC for the BMI Student Awards on May 18, and after the ceremony, will head over to Merkin Hall to hear the New York New Music Ensemble play Lee Hyla and Matthew Rosenblum. Info here.

– don’t forget to check the upcoming performances listing at the very bottom of this page or via the performances link at the top of the page. My music will be heard in LA; NYC; Easton, MD; Philadelphia; and Tanglewood in the next few months.

A seriously important festival of Morton Feldman’s late music here in Philly, June 4 through the 12. Curated by Bowerbird and called “American Sublime” (quite elegant website), the programs include pieces like Triadic Memories. Crippled Symmetry, and the six-hour-long String Quartet #2. Performers include heavy-hitters like Marilyn Nonken, the Jack Quartet, Joan LaBarbara, and more. This is an uncommon series of events, presenting important music that is new to the area. Read the article that inspired the title of the festival here.

-The Pew Fellowships in the Arts, a program of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, has begun a blog. Check out the “100 Fellows” video here.

Mario Davidovsky gets the Composer Portrait treatment – a full evening of his music – at Miller Theater on the Columbia University campus in New York this Friday. I’ll be there, will be blogging about it.

Marilyn Nonken plays the music of Tristan Murail at Delaware County Community College in suburban Philadelphia this Sunday, March 6.

(at left: Mario Davidovsky)

– PennSound (which sounds like it should be a music site at Penn, but is actually mostly a spoken word archive) has links to Robert Ashley’s big interview project Music with Roots in the Aether. Included are interviews with and music by Glass, Lucier, Riley, Oliveros, Mumma, Behrman, and Ashley himself.

– Marilyn Nonken’s program from Poisson Rouge last November is available for streaming here. It includes “The People United…” with a cadenza written by Ethan Iverson.

David Laganella has released a disc on the New Focus label entitled The Calls of Gravity. The composer writes that the title “is a reference to a technique that is prevalent in many of my works in which musical objects are attracted towards each other, some objects with greater mass than others.” This plays out in music that is more interested in fierce gestures and active textures than melody or harmonic progression. In Leafless Trees, The Prism Saxophone Quartet creates molten sound images, with bent pitches, carefully shaped vibrato and alternately frantic and static gestures. The deformations of sound that make sax piece so striking are less accessible on the piano, and The Hidden River is less successful for it. I found The Persistence of Light, the second of the two piano pieces on the disc, to be more effective because of the clarity of the dichotomy between aggressive and lyrical modes of expression. Sundarananda, a trio inspired by woodworker George Nakashima, is the exception to the aggressive tone that predominates on the disc, being gentler and more lyrical, with hints of folk melody. Laganella has enlisted some superb performers here, including Ensemble CMN, but especially Prism and pianist Marilyn Nonken who bring plenty of fire to their performances.

The Poisson Rouge calendar for November looks like a festival of new music piano superstars:

November 9: Marilyn Nonken plays music by Chilean-American composer Miguel Chuaqui, and Frederic Rzewski’s monumental set of variations on a Chilean song of resistance, The People United Will Never Be Defeated! According to the listing on the club’s website, the piece is by “Rzewski/Iverson”. I assume this means that Marilyn has asked Ethan Iverson to create something for her to play at the moment in the score where Rzewski invites the pianist to play an improvisation. If this is what she has done, it is a very smart idea: a non-improvising pianist asking an improvising pianist for input on a piece that is almost entirely notated, except for one spot near the end of the piece. It will very interesting to see what Iverson comes up with.

November 14: Aki Takahashi plays Feldman, Xenakis, and Peter Garland, with the JACK Quartet. I met Aki in 1977 when I was playing in the Gaudeamus Competition for Interpreters of Contemporary Music. I think she was there as an accompanist, I no longer recall. I do remember sitting with her and looking over her copy of Xenakis’s Everyali, (see an interesting essay about that piece here). I still have her three LP set of 20th century piano music (on the CP2 label – out-of-print – and with program notes by Paul Zukofsky – much interesting material at what I take to be Mr. Zukofsky’s site.) – Webern, Berio, Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis, etc., and a lot of contemporary Japanese composers. More recently she is known as a champion of Feldman and Xenakis – certainly a nicely contrasting pair.

November 17: Gloria Cheng plays a mostly French-oriented program: Messiaen (the early 8 Preludes), Boulez, Saariaho, Adès, Vivier, and Dan Godfrey. I earlier wrote about Cheng here. Except for the Messiaen, all  the pieces listed are new to me, and, indeed, there are several New York premieres.

November 30: Anthony de Mare does a program of music for speaking pianist, in connection with a CD release. Music by  Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk, Jerome Kitzke, Derek Bermel, and, again, Frederic Rzewski, which brings us full circle.