Blog: Secret Geometry

Spotify single, Albany release

Two happy events today: The Crossing has released on Spotify a track from Carthage, their forthcoming Navona album of my choral music. It’s the Gloria from Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, a piece that interweaves a setting of the Latin Ordinary of the Mass with poems by Denise Levertov reflecting on the Latin texts.

The second piece of news is that the album Descent/Return is out on the Albany label. Soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan McCullough offer a program of songs and piano solo pieces by myself and John Harbison. Ryan made a trailer for album, find it here. There’s a nice article about the release from the Cornell Chronicle here.

Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift – the set of piano pieces on Descent/Return – is published by Theodore Presser, find it here. For scores of the other items, contact me directly.

A track list for Descent/Return:

Two New Videos

This afternoon I heard about two new videos posted on YouTube. The first is a trailer for Descent/Return, the new album on Albany with Ryan McCullough, piano, and Lucy Fitz Gibbon, soprano. Ryan put together a score follower video with excerpts from the record. I joked to Ryan that my first score follower video means I have now truly made it as a composer.

The other video was posted by Emmanuel Music as part of a series of postings sharing their performances during the pandemic. There’s a chat with Emmanuel’s artistic director Ryan Turner and myself (enjoy my lockdown beard), followed by three movements from my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. This happens to be the major work on Carthage, the new album by The Crossing that is coming out later this month.

To be clear, the new album is with The Crossing, not Emmanuel. It’s just a nice coincidence that Emmanuel chose to share this video during the same month The Crossing’s cd is coming out.

Latest Recordings (pinned post)

Carthage is a survey of my choral music by two-time Grammy-winners The Crossing, including three pieces written on commission from them, and three more composed for Emmanuel Music. There are settings here of texts by Meister Eckhart, Marilynne Robinson, E. E. Cummings, Thomas Merton, and Wendell Berry. The major work on the disc is the Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, which interweaves a setting of the Latin Mass with poems by Denise Levertov reflecting on the Mass texts. Donald Nally conducts on a Navona disc. Find it online here. Read a review from AllMusic here.

Descent/Return features five of my songs with soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan MacEvoy McCullough as well as the piano preludes that make up the set Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift. The title track is extracted from my cycle for soprano and ensemble, A Sibyl, setting poems written specifically for the project by Susan Stewart.  John Harbison’s song cycle Simple Daylight and his Piano Sonata No. 2 complete the album. (None of the songs on Vocalisms are duplicated on Descent/Return.) Go to the Albany Records website to order.

Vocalisms is a grand two-disc anthology of songs by four composers: Ned Rorem, John Harbison, Daniel Crozier, and myself. Mary Mackenzie sings 10 of my songs, including the Three Folk Hymns and the complete Holy the Firm, originally written for Dawn Upshaw. The pianist is Heidi Williams. Again, find it at Albany Records.

Sacred Songs offers four song cycles for voice and chamber ensemble, with Susan Narucki singing From a Book of Hours, Four Sacred Songs, and an orchestrated version of Holy the Firm while William Sharp sings Dark the Star. Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort on a Bridge Records release.

Descent/Return is coming

Sometimes not much is happening, but suddenly when things do happen they come in clumps. I’ve seen it with performances that cluster together, with empty weeks before and after. And now I have two CDs coming out a week apart.

I wrote previously about Carthage, my album of choral music with The Crossing; here is another record with my vocal music – this time for solo voice and piano, and alongside solo piano music. On the Albany label, the release date is May 15. Order the album at the Albany website here. I am pleased to share the disc with my teacher, mentor, and friend,  John Harbison. I first met John when I studied with him at Tanglewood, back in 1984, and we have been in close contact over the years. It was John who put me in touch with Lucy Fitz Gibbon and Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, the married couple who recorded this program about two years ago in Barnes Hall at Cornell University. Ryan himself edited the record, with the final touches applied by George Blood, with whom I have been fortunate to work on several of my projects.

The title piece is a pair of songs from my cycle A Sibyl, a Fromm commission for Collage New Music, which was premiered by them with Mary Mackenzie, soprano, in 2017. Susan Stewart wrote the poems specifically for this project. The descent and return in the title refers to Aeneas’s visit to the underworld, and the second song speaks of brambles and a sky mirrored in the water. Given those images, a photo that Lucy took some time ago, before this project, turned out to be the perfect cover picture.

We mixed vocal and piano solo pieces in ordering the program. The album opens with John’s cycle on Michael Fried poems, Simple Daylight. Originally written for Dawn Upshaw and recorded by her for a now out-of-print Nonesuch release with Alan Feinberg at the piano, our recording returns the piece to the active catalog. My set of five piano preludes follows, Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift. Ryan was one of the co-commissioners of the piece.*  You can read about this set here, and find it in the Theodore Presser catalog here. After the title work, Ryan plays a major piece by John, his Piano Sonata No. 2, written for the brilliant Robert Levin. The album closes with three independent songs of mine: The Old Astronomer, The Pitcher, and Who Do You Say That I Am? These set texts by Sarah Wiliams, Robert Francis, and Kathleen Norris, respectively.

Lucy and Ryan meet all the varied challenges of this program with passion and precision, with beauty of sound, and with complete unanimity in the vocal works. I am very grateful to them and to all who worked on this project.

*) This is the second recording of the piece, there is also a fine performance by Youmee Kim on a Centaur disc.

All Alone

Daniel Felsenfeld had a fine idea on Twitter, inviting composers to list their works for solo performers – an obvious resource for a time of pandemic when we are staying home. I listed my relevant pieces there, but would like to mention there here as well.

There are three solo piano pieces in my catalog. The oldest is Secret Geometry, the same as the name for this blog. This is a piece with pre-recorded electronic sound, what kids these days would call “fixed media” and what I have to stop myself from calling “tape” even though that’s the medium I used at the time to record my MIDI realization of the electronic component. I wrote the piece for the brilliant Aleck Karis, perhaps the pianist I heard most frequently when attending new music concerts during my Columbia days. Aleck is a long time faculty member at UC San Diego. This was the first piece of mine to appear on CD but the label on which it appeared – CRI (Composers Recordings Inc.) no longer exists. However, New World Records has the CRI catalog, and lists a lot of CRI items on its website – not sure how complete the listing is. The album with Secret Geometry is not easy to find on the website; if you search for “primosch” you will only get the all-Primosch cd Icons, which was recorded after Aleck’s album. Despite being an album of pieces for piano and electronic sound, it doesn’t come up when you filter the CRI catalog for electronic music. However, a search for “aleck  karis” will finally yield this page which features sound clips of my piece.

There are two more recent piano pieces. I wrote a big Sonata-Fantasia on a commission from Lambert Orkis who wanted a piece involving both a piano and a Kurzweil synthesizer. Since I knew it was extremely unlikely anyone else would play the piece (for one thing, that model of Kurz was out of production before I finished the piece), I planned on making a portion of the piece work for solo piano. The first movement is a substantial variation set, running about 24 minutes, and it is available from Presser as Piano Variations. The idea of the original version was that ghosts of the piano’s past would be evoked in some of the variations. For example, there is one that refers to Schubert that uses fortepiano samples; a canon with a third free voice – a texture that recalls the Goldberg Variations – uses a harpsichord sample. However, most of the variations employ a more wide-ranging palette of electronic sounds and do not refer to earlier styles. In the piano solo version, earlier keyboard idioms are evoked simply by texture and keyboard layout. You might say the piece becomes variations of the piano as well as variations for piano, though I suppose every substantial variation set does that to some extent. Lambert recorded the entire Sonata for Bridge in its original version, but the piano solo version awaits a first recording. (You should check out the Wernick Sonata #2 on that Bridge album – Dick is a truly under-appreciated master.) Here is a handsomely made video of Anna Kislitsyna’s brilliant performance of the Piano Variations:

While there is presently no CD of the Piano Variations, a second recording of Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift is forthcoming.  This set of five short character pieces or preludes, running about 14 minutes, was recorded for Centaur by the wonderful Youmee Kim; here’s the second movement:

Ryan McCullough has recorded the piece for an Albany disc that I anticipate will be coming out in the next several months. (UPDATE: It comes out May 15!) It includes some songs of mine as well as music of John Harbison. Ryan’s wife Lucy Fitz Gibbon is the soprano on the album, and the performances are fantastic throughout.

I wrote Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift (the title comes from an Auden poem) for a consortium of 12 pianists. Check out a substantial post on the piece here, including score excerpts.

My other solo pieces are early works. There are two pieces with electronic sound: Particles for clarinet, and Aria for oboe. In both cases the electronic component needs some technological attention, so if you are interested, let me know, and I will work on getting together something that is presentable. No electronics are required for my solo violin Variations. Aria is available from what is now called Wise Music Classical. Originally published by Gunther Schuller’s Margun firm, the pieces went to Associated Music (the BMI sibling of G. Schirmer) when Gunther sold the business. Presently, Associated is under the Wise Music Classical umbrella. Wise, unlike Associated, identifies the pieces as being under the Margun imprint, instead of simply being absorbed into Associated. I believe the violin Variations were also in the Margun catalog, but they are not listed on my page at Wise; I will look into that. For the moment be in touch with me if you are interested in a score of the Variations or in Particles.

Carthage is Coming

That’s the cover art for the upcoming Navona CD of my choral music, to be released May 22. I am so happy and grateful to be able to share this exquisitely performed and engineered album which documents the three pieces I have written for The Crossing and three of the pieces I have done for Emmanuel Music. I don’t think of myself as a choral guy, but out of a catalog of roughly a hundred pieces, I count 16 involving chorus, so that’s not an insignificant number, even though most of the pieces are relatively short. I’ll write some posts about each of the pieces on the record in the weeks leading up to the CD release date.

“I fixed my eyes on something out there firm…”

Many musicians are offering their performances and compositions online during this time of isolation, so I want to make my small contribution.

Here is a setting of a poem by Susan Scott Thompson called “Waltzing the Spheres”. I first encountered it when I heard it read on a PBS broadcast at the time of 9/11. I knew immediately I wanted to set it, but never got around to it until years later when I set it on a commission from Philadelphia’s Lyric Fest. You can read Lyric Fest artistic director Suzanne DuPlantis’s blog post about the piece here, and the entire poem is posted here.

The crisis we are in feels somewhat like 9/11, so it seems like the right piece to offer now.

I’ve been fortunate to have some wonderful singers do the piece. Kiera Duffy (famous for her performance in Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves”) gave the premiere with pianist Laura Ward; Kelly Ann Bixby has performed it; Meredith Lustig sang it on a New York Festival of Song program; and Mary Mackenzie recorded it for her album Vocalisms. Here Mary sings it with pianist Heidi Williams:

It may be at this challenging moment that the best way we can “hold each other closer in the turn” is by keeping our physical distance from one another – at the same time we cling to one another with our hearts.

Viral Cancellations

It will come as no surprise that performances of my music are being affected by the present crisis. My Variations on a Hymn Tune was to have been performed by the Delaware all-state high school orchestra March 14, but the illness of the conductor preparing the work means it will be delayed until next year. The entire Bach Festival of the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Baldwin-Wallace University in Berea, OH has been cancelled. It would have included the April 24 premiere of the work they commissioned from me, a Fantasy-Partita on “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen” for chorus and string quartet. I am told the hope is to reschedule the Festival for this fall. And I think the March 29 performance of my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus at Emmanuel Church is by no means certain, though no decision has yet been made on that. I’ll let you know when I get definite word.

UPDATE: not only has the performance of my Mass at Emmanuel been canceled, but all worship services at the church have been cancelled through April 5 at least.

Good wishes for the safety and health of all my readers.

Vocal Music Highlights

With the announcement that I have received the Virgil Thomson Award for vocal music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, I thought it would be a good idea to post about my music for voice, and point out some highlights.

Work titles given as links will take you to either an online perusal score or to the Theodore Presser Company’s webpage for that piece.

You can find all my vocal music listed here (use the links near the top of the page to get to the vocal section) and there are videos and audio clips here. Click to download PDF listings of my music for solo voice and for chorus.

I think two of my very best pieces in any medium are the two song cycles I wrote for the Chicago Symphony: From a Book of Hours (Rilke texts), and Songs for Adam (Susan Stewart). The Rilke set is for soprano and was premiered by Lisa Saffer, with Antonio Pappano conducting.  The recording on the video/audio page is with Susan Narucki, soprano and Sarah Hicks conducting the Orchestra of the Curtis Institute. Given the near impossibility of any but a very few composers receiving repeat performances of their orchestral music, I made a version of the piece for soprano and chamber ensemble. A recording of that version is on Sacred Songs, a disc of my vocal music on Bridge. Susan Narucki is again featured, with the 21st Century Consort conducted by Christopher Kendall. Here’s a track from the Rilke cycle:

Songs for Adam is for baritone and orchestra, and was premiered by Brian Mulligan, with Sir Andrew Davis leading the CSO. Susan Stewart, whose poetry I’ve set several times, wrote a set of texts specifically for this project. I’ve started sketching a version for piano quintet, since the original has yet to be performed a second time.

The Sacred Songs cd also includes 3 other pieces for voice and chamber ensemble. I want to mention the baritone cycle on that record. Dark the Star sets texts by Rilke, Susan Stewart, and a psalm verse in a set of nine short movements that play continuously. Here’s a sample, with William Sharp, baritone:

A recent cycle with chamber ensemble was commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, and premiered by soprano Mary Mackenzie with Collage New Music in Boston. Called A Sibyl, the texts that Susan Stewart wrote specifically for the project speak of the mysterious prophet-like figure written about in The Aeneid. The ensemble is pierrot ensemble plus percussion.

If I am counting correctly, I have written 29 songs for voice and piano, some grouped into cycles, some independent pieces, and some existing in orchestrated versions with chamber ensemble. I think my most widely performed piece is “Cinder” from the cycle Holy the Firm. This was my first Susan Stewart setting. Mary Mackenzie sings it on Vocalisms, an Albany release, with Heidi Williams, piano:

Vocalisms also includes the complete Holy the Firm, the Three Folk Hymns, and some independent songs. Holy the Firm was written for Dawn Upshaw, and she toured with the cycle and subsequently with “Cinder” as part of a set of pieces by American composers roughly of her generation. I orchestrated Holy the Firm for soprano and chamber ensemble, and Susan Narucki sings it on the Sacred Songs album:

There are two piano and voice sets based on pre-existing melodies. The Three Sacred Songs use chant melodies plus an early Renaissance carol, with Latin texts; the Three Folk Hymns are in English, and use the popular tunes “How Can I Keep From Singing?”, “Be Thou My Vision”, and “What Wondrous Love is This”. Here’s the first of the Folk Hymns, again with Mary Mackenzie and Heidi Williams:

None of these cycles need be performed complete. Excerpts from Holy the Firm beyond “Cinder” can work well; I’ve played piano for performances of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” paired with “Cinder”.

Turning to choral music, I’ve written a number of motets for Emmanuel Music to perform at the Sunday services of Emmanuel Church, Boston. The first one I composed, Meditation for Candlemas, is a Denise Levertov text. This is the only a cappella piece of mine that is available from the Theodore Presser Company – contact me directly for any of the others. While several of these short a cappella works are virtuosic in their demands, others would be accessible for high school, college, or community choirs. For example, Alleluia on a Ground was written for the Mendelssohn Club here in Philadelphia, and the recently premiered Wind, Carry Me was written for a choir of high school students. Note that among these motets are some two-voice pieces: one for treble voices – One With the Day, One With the Night, on a Wendell Berry text – and one for male voices – Journey, on a Meister Eckhart text.

Fire-Memory/River-Memory for chorus and orchestra was also written for the Mendelssohn Club, and is featured on a Innova disc. Here is the second movement, setting Denise Levertov’s “Of Rivers”:

I have two other pieces for chorus and instruments. Matins sets texts by Hopkins and Mary Oliver, and was written for the Cantata Singers. The piece calls for a small complement of strings and features a concertante oboe part, written for Peggy Pearson. Set for a premiere next month is a piece based on a Bach chorale, a Fantasy-Partita on “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen”. Commissioned by the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Bladwin-Wallace University, the piece is scored for chamber chorus and string quartet.

There will be two CDs featuring my vocal music coming out in the next few months. First, The Crossing, conducted by Donald Nally, has recorded an entire album of my choral music, including the big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus that I wrote for the group. This piece interweaves the Latin Ordinary of the Mass with poems reflecting on the Mass texts, again by one of my favorite poets, Denise Levertov. My Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage, also written for The Crossing, is included and gives its name to the album. Settings of e. e. cummings, Thomas Merton, Meister Eckhart, and Wendell Berry round out the disc. Second, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon and pianist Ryan McCullough perform five of my songs on an Albany Records disc to be called Descent/Return. That’s also the name of the pair of songs from the soprano and ensemble cycle A Sibyl that I arranged for soprano and piano which are included on the album. Three individual songs – The Old Astronomer (Sarah Williams), The Pitcher (Robert Francis), and Who Do You Say That I Am? (Kathleen Norris) complete the disc, which also includes solo piano pieces by myself and John Harbison as well as returning Harbison’s song cycle Simple Daylight to the active catalog.

I’ll end this survey with video from the premiere of the St. Thomas Mass: