Musical Memoirs

Sometimes I carefully select the books I read; other times a book appears by happenstance. I came upon the text for my song Shadow Memory because my eye lit upon Susan Orlean’s book My Kind of Place while I was waiting in the check-out line at my neighborhood library and near the end of that book there was a paragraph that had to become a song. I came upon something quite important to me simply by luck.

I won’t derive any song texts from my recent reading, but quite by coincidence, I happen to have come across several musical memoirs lately:

I Sang the Unsingable – Bethany Beardslee. With world and U.S. premieres of music by Babbitt, Berg, Boulez, Dallapiccola, Maxwell Davies, Krenek, Nono, Perle, Ruggles, Shapey, Stravinsky, Webern, and many others to her credit, Bethany Beardslee made an enormous contribution to the musical life of the 1950’s into the 80’s. I ate up this book because my own time in NYC put me in touch with the traditions in which she worked. While a student at Columbia, I saw her sing Babbitt’s Philomel – in its original 4-track version; I set up music stands for a Schoenberg rehearsal led by her first husband, Jacques-Louis Monod (with whom she gave pioneering Webern performances 30 years earlier); and composers she writes about were having their pieces played at concerts I attended, or were simply present in the audience. I found the book fascinating, not least for its insights into the author’s craft. I liked her observation that singers need to sing intervals, not pitches.

Building Bridges with Music – Samuel Adler. Reading these “stories from a composer’s life”, as the subtitle puts it, I was struck by how prolific Adler has been, while maintaining an extraordinarily busy and lengthy teaching career. I had not realized the considerable extent of his work as a liturgical musician, both as a composer and a choral conductor, nor his contributions to the field of educational music. At the moment, anybody writing a grant proposal connected with new music is expected to include a “social impact” component to a project (as though excellent music excellently performed does not already have a social impact), but Adler found ways to put his skills at the service of his community – in the synagogue and the school –  long before grant givers started insisting on it.

“The Broadway Sound”: The Autobiography and Selected Essays of Robert Russell Bennett. The arranger/orchestrator of most of the greatest Broadway musicals from before Show Boat through Camelot, Bennett was much more active as a composer of original works than I realized, with multiple performances by major orchestras. In fact, the book is a glimpse into a sort of alternative history of 20th century American music; as a footnote by editor George Ferencz points out, on a radio series that Bennett programmed, in which he featured pieces by many living composers, “…several native composers receiving frequent symphonic performances at the time (including Copland, Barber, Piston, Hanson, and Harris) went unperformed” while those who were performed include a number of Bennett’s colleagues in commercial music, as well as people like Oscar Levant and, unexpectedly, William Grant Still. The book is fascinating, with amusing anecdotes throughout, though the prose is a bit disjunct. Some short essays round out the book, offering technical insights into how Bennett and his colleagues got their job done.

“The Pitcher”

I am nearly finished with a soprano-and-piano setting of “The Pitcher”, a poem by Robert Francis. This will be premiered at Cornell University next February 15 by Lucy Fitz Gibbon and Ryan MacEvoy McCollough, and subsequently recorded by them for Albany Records. The program will also be heard at Bard College on February 19, and at Penn on February 21. Like the poem, my setting is rather whimsical, though on the dissonant side. In working on it, I’ve made a row chart for the first time in a while – a sort of box score for pitches, I guess.


It’s the first Sunday of Advent, so here is a beloved cantata for the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of the next:

“Holy the Firm” at soirée

This coming Sunday, pianist Jason Wirth will be holding a soirée at his home studio. It’s a program of contemporary song and will include soprano Lily Arbisser  (pictured) doing four of the five songs from my Holy the Firm. This takes place Sunday, Nov. 26 at 6 pm. The address is 101 W. 143rd St. Apt. 20, in Manhattan. A nice coincidence: Lily was a student of Susan Stewart at Princeton, and Susan is the author of “Cinder”, one of the poems I set in Holy the Firm.

Go here for the live stream of the event.

(photo credit: Arielle Doneson)

Print Media Dämmerung

Three recent events involving newspaper writing about classical music:

  • November 12, 2017: New York Times devotes its Sunday classical page to an upcoming album of pop songs sung by a former opera singer.
  • November 12, 2017: Philadelphia Inquirer devotes its classical page to a preview of upcoming new music events in Philadelphia.
  • November 16, 2017: David Patrick Stearns announced on his blog that he is accepting a buyout from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

I’m not saying there is an causal relationship among these events. But the juxtaposition of the two Nov. 12 articles was striking – by wasting the limited space available for classical music that day, the Times seemed parochial compared with the Philadelphia paper.

I am sad to see David Patrick Stearns go. His writing annoyed me, it pleased me, it offered me fresh insights – sometimes all in the same article. But it was always solid and thoughtful writing and never boring. He will be greatly missed.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

“A couple of years later I was in California near Mills College where he [Milhaud] taught, and Madame Milhaud asked me to come for lunch. I gladly accepted and had a lovely time at their home. What I was surprised about was that he never stopped orchestrating while we were all having lunch.”

– from Building Bridges With Music: Stories from a Composer’s Life by Samuel Adler. I hope to write more about this recently published memoir by the remarkably productive composer, teacher, and conductor.

On Davidovsky’s String Trio

Network for New Music played Mario Davidovsky’s String Trio here in Philadelphia yesterday. I wrote a program note for the performance:

The very first sound we hear in Mario Davidovsky’s String Trio – a short sharp attack in the viola combined with the same notes sustained in the violin –  reflects the composer’s pioneering work in the medium of electronic music. In that opening sound he creates a composite gesture just as he constructed such gestures by splicing together bits of magnetic recording tape in the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center beginning in the early 1960’s. Building up a musical discourse from elemental particles became Davidovsky’s practice when writing purely instrumental music as well. The lightning speed of articulation, the rapidly shifting dynamic levels, the sense of a musical space in constant flux, all of which we hear in the String Trio, can be traced to Davidovsky’s work in the electronic medium.

But there is more to this music than an acoustic replication of electronic idioms. The hard-edged intensities of this music also reflect an urban sensibility, a response to the experience of living in New York City as Davidovsky has for most of his life. This aspect of his music requires a super-charged playing style with exaggerated dynamics, and razor sharp rhythms. In contrast, amid the stinging attacks, flurries of activity, and sudden swells, there are moments in this music of the utmost delicacy, singing lines that intersect in what composer Ross Bauer has characterized as an “almost Renaissance purity”.

The pleasure of Davidovsky’s Trio springs from attending to the play of forms, the way fragmentary elements are deployed over time, how they are juxtaposed, layered, and transformed into one another. In its fiery vehemence, its scintillating exuberance, and its extreme tenderness, Davidovsky’s Trio offers us an uncommonly eloquent musical narrative.

Davidovsky’s String Trio was commissioned by the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation and premiered in Venice in 1982 by members of the Arditti Quartet.

Here’s a recording of the Trio from a Bridge Records album. (Note that the image shown in the video is from some other album!)

Upcoming in Philly

I’m looking forward to tonight’s Philadelphia premiere of George Crumb’s Metamorphoses, a recent work for piano, played by Margaret Leng Tan. This takes place at the Barnes Foundation at 8 pm. Other events of interest coming up in Philly are the Network for New Music concert at the Print Center this coming Sunday, Nov. 12, with music by Cynthia Folio, Robert Maggio, Jeffrey Mumford, Roberto Pace, and Mario Davidovsky; and Orchestra 2001’s presentation of Steve Mackey’s Slide, Thursday, Nov. 16 (additional performances in Princeton on the 14th and at National Sawdust on the 17th.)

Music After the Fall

I recently finished reading Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s excellent Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989. (The “fall” in question is that of the Berlin Wall.) Instead of being organized around styles or “-isms”, the book’s chapters are thematically organized around, as Rutherford-Johnson puts it:

 

a series of quasi-psychological states… There are five of these: permission, fluidity, mobility, excess, and loss.

One benefit of this intriguing organization is that it lets Rutherford-Johnson bring into close proximity works that might not otherwise be discussed together in a stylistically organized book. A book that has insights about Ferneyhough and David Lang in the same paragraph (in the chapter on excess) offers a fresh perspective. Rutherford-Johnson is a virtuoso at weaving together a coherent narrative from diverse strands.

The number and range of pieces discussed is astonishing, with a great many artists mentioned whose work was new to me. This was partly because of the experimentalist bent of the book. That emphasis is not unreasonable; there is more music discussed here in which, so to speak, man bites dog instead of the other way around since the former is news in a way that the latter is not. However, much of the music described here strikes me as more interesting to read about than to hear, and a lot of music that is of interest to hear is left out. This is inevitable, given a book of finite length, and Rutherford-Johnson acknowledges the book’s limitations. Still, there must be a theoretical framework for a book on recent musical history in which conceptual art would be a bit less prominent while music of composers from my own generation like Augusta Read Thomas, Melinda Wagner, or Eric Chasalow, as well as that of senior figures like Mario Davidovsky, Richard Wernick, or John Harbison would also find a place.

There is much to learn from Music After the Fall, and the book is gracefully written. I hope at some point someone writes a book of music history that encompasses even more of the new music I admire and love.

Reviews from Boston

Nothing from the Globe so far, but the Boston Musical Intelligencer had reviewers at both the Collage and Winsor concerts from last Sunday. From Mark DeVoto’s review of the A Sibyl premiere:

Rich expressiveness that cries out for more performances infused all of these intense but not expansive poems. Other groups should take note of this gratifying premiere.

“A Sibyl” and “Quintet” in Boston

At the moment I am on the Amtrak coming home from a busy and marvelous trip to Boston for performances of two works. Collage New Music, with soprano Mary Mackenzie and conductor David Hoose premiered my new song cycle on text by Susan Stewart, called A Sibyl. It’s a demanding and varied challenge for the soloist, and Mary brought terrific intensity and subtle nuance to the piece. The instrumentalists were no less fine, partly on their individual merits, partly because of the ESP that develops among long-term colleagues. I had been impressed in rehearsals by the detail David Hoose gave to expressive details, and it paid off beautifully.

There was a similar sense of commitment from Winsor Music when they played my Quintet for oboe, violin, viola, cello, and piano yesterday evening. The piece is highly varied in expressive character, and many of the comments I received focussed on the third movement, an instrumental version of my song Who Do You Say That I Am. The movement is warmly lyrical and quite tonal (you could probably make a lead sheet of it), standing in strong contrast to the preceding severely dissonant movement. I was worried as to whether the contrasting voices heard in the piece would hang together, but the fiercely committed performance overcame any doubts.

I’m deeply grateful to both ensembles for their passionate advocacy of my music.

Here are a few pictures from the trip. I wish I had a shot with Mary Mackenzie from the Collage concert, but I had to get going to the Winsor event, so I only got the one picture, this with conductor David Hoose:

Here’s a shot from after the Winsor concert. L to R: Kendra Colton, Peggy Pearson, Rafael Popper-Keizer, JP, Gabriela Díaz, John Harbison, Rane Moore: