Extreme Measures

I have a piece on Jean Kopperud’s new CD, Extreme Measures, which has just hit the streets. Working with pianist Stephen Gosling, Jean commissioned seven new pieces for clarinet and piano, toured with them, and recorded them for Albany. The original intent was for the seven relatively short pieces to fit on a single CD, but Harvey Sollberger was unexpectedly generous with the length of his piece, and the music is now issued as a two CD set. Besides myself and Harvey, the other composers represented are Paolo Cavallone, Jason EckardtDavid Felder, Eric Moe,  and Steven Ricks. David’s piece includes electronic sound, and is interesting formally in that the four parts of the piece are interspersed among the other works, serving to frame the program. My own contribution is called Times Like These. You can hear a short excerpt of the piece at my website. I was interested in writing a piece with a lot of short but linked movements, having tried that with the nine songs that make up my cycle for baritone and chamber ensemble, Dark the Star. I had intended for Jean’s piece to include more than the five movements I ended up with, but  given the amount of time the material needed to unfold, no more than five sections would fit in the seven-minute length Jean had requested.

The piece starts with soft, slowly moving clarinet lines, microtonally inflected, and laid over clustery piano chords. Things gradually expand in register and activity, until exploding into more disjunct, percussive gestures that die away and lead to the 2nd part. Here, a paper clip attached to a piano string, combined with some muted high notes, creates a gentle gamelan like effect, the piano alternately with liquid low register clarinet phrases. There are debts to Messiaen and Crumb in this section. Part three is a perpetual motion piece, with scalar licks articulating pulse units that quickly vary in length. The fourth section returns to a strategy I have employed in some earlier pieces, going back to Secret Geometry for piano and tape, and Sacra Conversazione for chamber ensemble and tape. The idea is to gradually increase the density over the course of the movement by adding additional layers of counterpoint over previously heard music. In this case, there is a section for piano alone, for clarinet alone, and then those same  two get fitted together. It’s an old strategy by no means confined to classical music – here’s a very clear example by Irving Berlin – the layers combine at about 2:30. (classical treatments of this device – opera ensembles, for example – are infrequently so straightforward). The texture of this fourth section is disjunct, even pointillistic, with piano writing that is indebted to the Martino of the Fantasies and Impromptus. The fifth section begins with the percussive chords and jagged clarinet licks that ended the first part, returns to the more sustained music of the very opening, and the piece ends with a reprise of the gamelan music.

That’s a lot of description – my formal program note for the piece forgoes this for something more distanced:

These five brief studies, played without pause, embody challenging times in their mercurial rhythms. I wrote these with confidence in the extraordinary virtuosity of Jean Kopperud and Stephen Gosling, the players who would bring the piece to life.  But any piece involves multiple contexts, more than just the framework created by its performers. How much the work is about the times of the music and how much about the music of the times I leave for the listener to decide.

The reference here is to the last portion of the George W. era, and the horrors of that period are surely reflected in the character of some of the music.

Jean and Steve offer dazzling performances throughout the album, and there are excellent contributions from  a variety of composers. My favorites were Eric Moe’s Grand Prismatic and Jason Eckhardt’s Rendition (a double-meaning title that also refers to the “music of the times”), but there is much worth hearing in every piece. The incomparable Judith Sherman produced and engineered the disc. I am proud to be a part of this project. Jean has set up a second round of commissions, this time for clarinet and percussion – will let you know when I hear more about this.

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