“Icons” in Washington D.C.

consort_home_2012No organization has played my music more than the 21st Century Consort, with its artistic director Christopher Kendall. I am profoundly grateful for this decades-long advocacy, which has encompassed both chamber and vocal works, including the superb performances on my Sacred Songs album on Bridge. That advocacy continues with a performance of my Icons for clarinet, piano, and electronic sound, set for this coming Saturday, March 12, at 5:00 pm in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington. There will be a pre-concert discussion at 4:00 pm.

Icons dates back to my student days at Columbia University, and was first played at Tanglewood in 1984. I made the electronic component in what was then called the Columbia Electronic Music Center, using analog gear and splicing magnetic tape for every single note. If I remember correctly, it took me about a year to make this 14 minute piece. We had a Buchla synthesizer in the studio, but most of my work was done with individual components – a number of oscillators, a couple of Moog envelope generators, an old custom-built mixer, and an equally (or maybe more) ancient Albis filter (the image is from the Radiophonic Workshop Gallery).

A modern photograph of an Albis graphic equaliser, identical to that at the Workshop. The balanced input and output connections are to the right, via screw terminals, above a rotary control for adjusting the amplification. The the 24 frequencies are: 94, 113, 136, 163, 196, 235, 282, 338, 406, 487, 584, 701, 841, 1010, 1210, 1450, 1740, 2090, 2510, 3010, 3620, 4340, 5210 and 6250 Hz. From a picture supplied via Andrew Dunne.

There was also a home-brewed equalizer with an envelope generator attached to each band, permitting elaborately shifting timbral changes. Most of the piece involved a single tape recorder, but the dense layers of the last portion required five stereo tape decks. My strategy for combining the instruments with pre-recorded sound adhered to the Davidovskian model of tight rhythmic integration, creating a hybrid sound world. Use of inside-the-piano playing techniques provided a kind of link between the “natural” sound world of the live instruments when conventionally played and the “extended” world of the tape. While I wouldn’t call the piece spectralist – I don’t think I had even heard the term at that time –  it shares some techniques and concerns with spectralist pieces, including the use in the electronic component of the upper partials of very low fundamental frequencies, an interest in blurring the distinction between timbre and harmony, and the emphasis on long-ringing resonances from the piano, affording an intermingling of layers of sound.

Over the years, I have been blessed with many splendid performances of the piece, including those given by clarinetists Allen Blustine, Benjamin Fingland, and Jean Kopperud, with pianists including Aleck Karis, Stephen Gosling, and Marilyn Nonken. (pianist Bryan Pezzone gave the premiere, and – forgive me, whoever you are – I don’t recall the name of the clarinetist). This coming weekend it will be Paul Cigan, clarinet, and Lisa Emenheiser, piano.

icons_cdJean and Aleck recorded the piece for my New World Records disc, also called Icons.

Here is a portion of my program note for the piece, explaining the source of the work’s title:

The title refers to passages in a book by Madeleine L’Engel entitled Walking on Water. In this book, the author speaks of the calling of artists to form “icons of the true”. The following excerpt from the book appears in the score: “In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.”

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