Blog: Secret Geometry

Sticky post: “Sacred Songs” CD

CD coverThis CD is devoted to my music for voice and ensemble, and has been released by Bridge Records. Susan Narucki and William Sharp are the soloists; Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort. It’s available at Amazon and at Arkiv Music. Scroll down for several more posts about the album. A review by Christian B. Carey on the Musical America website is here; another is at Audiophile Audition, by Steven Ritter. Composer Daniel Asia discusses the album at the Huffington Post here.

Recording in Ithaca

It’s been a week now since I drove up to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY to assist in the recording of several of my pieces being made by soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough. This involved the set of piano preludes called Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift (go here to find out about that title, and more about the piece.) Lucy joined Ryan for piano versions of two songs from A Sibyl, a set of songs for soprano and sextet that was premiered last fall by Collage New Music and Mary Mackenzie. I’m calling the pair I’ve arranged for piano Descent/Return. Lucy also introduced two recent individual songs: The Old Astronomer, on a text by Sarah Williams, and The Pitcher, with a poem by Robert Francis. Who Do You Say That I Am?, with words by Kathleen Norris – a song premiered last year by Susan Narucki and Donald Berman – completed my portion of the repertoire being recorded. I say portion because by the time I got to Ithaca, Lucy and Ryan had set down two major pieces by John Harbison: the song cycle on Michael Fried poems, Simple Daylight, and the big Piano Sonata No. 2. All this music will be issued on a CD from Albany Records. Hard to say what the release date might be; laying down the tracks is only the beginning of a process that includes editing, mastering, taking care of the CD booklet, etc. My guess is that it will come out some time in the 18-19 season.

Pianist Andrew Zhou produced the sessions: keeping track of the takes, making sure every note got covered; confirming details of the score; encouraging, critiquing, nitpicking. The sessions could not have gone so smoothly without him, and I am very grateful for his work.

Lucy and Ryan had already performed this program earlier in the week at Bard College and Cornell; I think it is always good to have some experience performing a piece before heading into the studio, and they were extremely well-prepared. Both artists were happy to accept last-minute input on interpretation – not that I needed to ask for tweaks of anything other than the most minute details. I was thrilled with their passionate and elegant performances, hair-raisingly intense at the music’s biggest moments. Their command of this repertoire was complete. It’s going to be a fabulous CD.

Here are some pictures from the sessions, including several taken by Qiushi Xu, a doctoral candidate at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. She is a visiting student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell, studying (in her words) the “intersection between piano sound, technology, culture and art convention.” Recording took place in a re-purposed chapel at Cornell:

Ryan at work:

In the recording booth:




checking the score of Pure Contraption:


Ryan and Lucy consulting and at work:


there was a little time during the weekend to check out the local rugged terrain:


and a gorgeous organ in a chapel on campus:


one last shot, this from after the recital with the same repertoire given at Penn this past week:

Fitz Gibbon and McCullough at Bard, Cornell, and Penn

Soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough just gave a recital yesterday at Bard College featuring my music and that of John Harbison. The program will be repeated at Cornell on Thursday, Feb. 15 and at University of Pennsylvania on Wednesday, February 21 at 8 pm in Rose Recital Hall, found in Fisher-Bennett Hall at 34th and Walnut in Philadelphia.

It’s a nice program in that it brings together a mix of voice and piano songs plus piano solo pieces by myself and by an important mentor of mine, John Harbison. Here is the repertoire for the concert:

Descent/Return (texts by Susan Stewart; these are piano arrangements of  two songs from my recent work for soprano and chamber ensemble, A Sibyl)
The Old Astronomer (Sarah Williams)
Who Do You Say That I Am? (Kathleen Norris)
The Pitcher (Robert Francis)
Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift (set of piano preludes commissioned by a consortium of twelve pianists, including Ryan McCullough. Read more about the piece here. The score is published by the Theodore Presser Company.)

Simple Daylight (this is a cycle of six songs on texts by Michael Fried)
Piano Sonata No. 2

The songs of mine will be new to Philadelphia; in fact, the performance at Bard yesterday was the first time out for the Francis, Williams, and Stewart settings. Ryan and Lucy will be recording all this material for eventual CD release.



Robert Capanna In Memoriam

I join with the rest of the Philadelphia musical community in mourning the passing of Robert Capanna. The Philadelphia Inquirer obituary is here. Certainly Bob’s astonishingly successful work in leading and expanding the Settlement Music School is his major legacy, but I want to recall a particular way in which he nurtured our community: for a time, he led a new music ensemble at Settlement.  As if he didn’t have enough to do as executive director! Settlement faculty performed, and Bob conducted. I recall the programming as widely varied, and it included works that you would not otherwise hear, including music by local composers. Making music himself – as both a composer and performer – was one of the reasons Bob was such an important presence in Philadelphia. We should all be grateful for that presence in our lives.

From the Reading Journal, #30

“The poem carries love and terror, or it carries nothing.”

– from the poem “Like an Ant Carrying Her Bits of Leaf and Sand” in the volume Given Sugar, Given Salt by Jane Hirshfield.

I first came across Hirshfield’s work in the anthology she devised called Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women. Both that anthology and the present book of Hirshfield’s own poems are marvelous. I find myself reading and re-reading her poems, savoring the balance of direct and mysterious discourse. This particular copy of Given Sugar, Given Salt, purchased used, is made more precious by it being signed by the author, with the note:

“For Sara,

The only secret is to write the poem.”

We persist in thinking there is some other secret, and go in search of it, but there is no need to find anything else.

Recent Reading – Two Memoirs

Two very different books with fascinating stories to tell:

Good Things Happen Slowly – Fred Hersch. A leading jazz pianist tells about not only his journey as a musician, but as a gay man and as a survivor of incredibly grave illness. His prose is no less finely shaped than his work at the piano. Like all the best writing about music, it made me want to go back to the music – in this case, both his recorded performances and his published concert music.

Here’s a live Hersch performance of “In Walked Bud”:

George Szell’s Reign – Marcia Hansen Kraus. As a native of Cleveland who just missed the Szell era, I was fascinated by this collection of tales describing the history of the Cleveland Orchestra in the mid-20th century. Szell’s autocratic leadership of the orchestra led to its supreme excellence, and the remembrances of many of the members of the orchestra gathered here shed light on what it was really like to work under the maestro. Kraus, the widow of Felix Kraus, an oboist in the Orchestra during the Szell days, has not written a dry scholarly book (though it is meticulously footnoted), but rather a very human portrait of an organization and its leader, doing us the service of recording the reminiscences of those veterans of the Szell era who are still among us.

Local Crumb Premiere at The Barnes

I didn’t keep up with reporting on my concert going this past fall, but here is a first attempt to catch up with a few thoughts about some performances in the last several months.

– 11/8/17: Margaret Leng Tan at the Barnes Foundation. The big news here was the substantial new set of piano pieces by George Crumb called Metamorphoses. Modeled after Pictures at an Exhibition, the ten movements were suggested by various paintings, including works by Klee, van Gogh, Chagall, Kandinsky, and others. (It’s not the first time Crumb’s music was inspired by visual media as his A Little Suite for Christmas, A. D. 1979 was suggested by frescoes in the Arena Chapel.) While the new work doesn’t break ground stylistically, the piece embodied all the attributes we associate with this master: beautifully integrated extended piano techniques at the service of highly characterized expression; exquisite timbral sensitivity; faultless timing. Crumb returned to the theatrical use of the pianist’s voice in this work, and included a part for toy piano, a specialty of Ms. Tan.

While Margaret Leng Tan is an admirable artist, I can imagine an even more vividly compelling performance of the work with a greater dynamic range. George’s music needs to be larger than life, and that wasn’t always the case here. Perhaps the vast space in which musical performances at The Barnes take place played a role; perhaps the amplification of the piano needed to be more powerful. The magical spell cast by George’s music was impaired by the lengthy pauses between movements. Part of what makes the first two books of George’s Makrokosmos such an intense listening experience is that the dramatic tension is maintained throughout the entire piece. While it may be that George does not request the movements of Metamophoses to be played attacca, as is the case with the Makrokosmos sets, (I have not seen the score) it should still be possible to hold the listener in the aura of the work’s “otherworldly resonances” (to borrow the title of another work by George.) Helpfully, the Barnes briefly projected slides of the relevant paintings before each movement, but inexplicably replaced them with works by another artist that only vaguely related to the moods of George’s piece, leaving those images projected while the piece was being played. The Crumb work was preceded by one of Cage’s more boring prepared piano pieces and a few of Cowell’s pioneering works, with The Banshee standing out for its moody atmosphere.

You Know You Are Getting Old When…

Why is it that a number of the scores I have had for years have reached some sort of tipping point and are quite suddenly – all within the last year – starting to dissolve before my eyes?


That’s the Henle Well-Tempered Vol. I I bought as an undergrad. (Note the carefully applied contact paper to improve durability – Henle covers are not laminated. I don’t see folks using contact paper much anymore for books.) The bindings of some of my PWM Chopin and Kalmus Schumann volumes have completely split. I must say, the Dover editions are fine – the paragraph on the back cover of those editions talking about the binding and saying “this is a permanent book” seems to have been accurate. Of course, the notion of a “book” is itself not permanent – I see more and more iPads on music stands and piano racks.

Maybe my disintegrating scores are a sign of how much I practice? I should be embarrassed then at how long they have lasted.

Christmas Break Reading List

I’m presently quite absorbed by the new Harvey Sachs biography of Toscanini, but also in progress or waiting to be opened are Leonard Slatkin’s Leading Tones (which includes amusing anecdotes and astonishing stats on the premieres that man has given – what a contribution to the field!) and Fred Hersch’s Good Things Happen Slowly. Then there is the reading in prep for the grad course I will be doing next semester: George Perle, Douglas Jarman and Dave Headlam on Berg, and David Schiff’s unique The Ellington Century. I’ve been reading and re-reading Perle since I studied with him decades ago, always with pleasure and profit and not a little awe at his command of the material; but there is also much to learn from Jarman and Headlam.

Let me repost a couple of seasonal links:  a reminder to work on your eartraining at Christmas time, as well as a Christmas cookie recipe in the manner of the Roman Missal.