Blog: Secret Geometry

Matins in Boston, A Sibyl in Tallahassee

Two significant performances of my vocal music are coming up in the next several weeks:

  • The Cantata Singers are reviving my Matins later this month, a piece for oboe, strings and chorus that they co-commissioned along with Winsor Music 15 years ago. (This is just the second performance of the piece; here’s hoping somebody takes up the piece for its third performance sooner than 2033.) The fabulous Peggy Pearson, who has been a wonderful champion of my music, commissioning and performing my Oboe Quartet and Oboe Quintet, will be the soloist. I first got to know Peggy and her playing through her work with Emmanuel Music, with whom she masterfully plays the prominent oboe parts in the Bach cantatas performed at Emmanuel Church. Matins, which sets poems of Hopkins and Mary Oliver, will be heard at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, with David Hoose conducting, January 25 at 8 pm. I will give a pre-concert lecture on the whole program, which includes the Bartók Divertimento and the Pärt Te Deum, at 7 pm.
  • A Sibyl, my song cycle on texts written expressly for the project by Susan Stewart, will be on the first concert of the 2019 Florida State University Festival of New Music on January 31. Among the splendid musicians performing my piece are soprano soloist Marcia Porter, conductor Alexander Jiménez, Deborah Bish, clarinet; Nina Kim, violin; Evan Jones, cello;  Justin Ball, percussion; a flutist whose name I don’t yet know; and pianist Heidi Louise Williams, who is at the keyboard for the recent Albany cd featuring my music, Vocalisms, with Mary Mackenzie, soprano. It was Mary who was soloist in the premiere of A Sibyl, performed by Collage New Music and conducted by David Hoose – funny how threads of connection weave together in this business.

Recent Reading

Though some deadlines kept me working very hard over the holidays,  I still found some time to read. My recent reading has included:

  • David Schiff’s new book on Carter. This is a welcome update to Schiff’s earlier books on the composer, insightful and well-written, but rather different in character from the earlier books, delving less into technical matters. There are no musical examples, save for a curious page with a few signature musical motifs Carter has often employed. Who would read a book about Elliott Carter yet be put off by the presence of score notation?  The book is not the full biography that Carter deserves, something like Howard Pollock’s book on Copland – for that, someone will have to, as Schiff notes, go through the 10,000 letters in the Carter files at the Sacher Foundation, as well as do much more. Sometimes the book reads like a series of uncommonly elegant program notes, but it is hard to fault Schiff for not digging deeper; Carter was unbelievably productive in his late years and there is a huge amount of material to discuss. I suppose a book that went into detail about every single piece would become unreadable, more like an encyclopedia or catalog. I was a bit taken aback by how strongly Schiff dislikes the libretto for Carter’s opera What’s Next? – I need to go back and listen to the piece again with his comments in mind.
  • I finally finished Proust’s À la recherche, over 30 years after purchasing the three volume set at Bookforum on Broadway, near Columbia, during my student days. I know it’s a cliché to say “one is never finished reading Proust”, but I do feel that if I returned to Swann’s Way now, it would be with much greater appreciation and understanding. On the other hand, I could certainly use a break. Derwent May’s short volume on Proust increased my enjoyment of the novel, and I recommend it.
  • I loved Everyone at This Party Has Two Names by Brad Aaron Modlin, a volume of poems that made me wince in recognition, smile at its wry humor, and pause thoughtfully over its poignant insights. There’s a text in this volume I want to set before too long, it’s that kind of book.

Work Before Work

It’s back to the day job this week, but I managed to finish a couple of projects during the Christmas break that is coming to an end. I Heard You, for tenor and piano, is my contribution to Lyric Fest’s Walt Whitman celebration this spring. Whitman calls the poem “Music”, but that seemed an awkward title for a song, so I used the first words of the text. Here is the poem (WordPress is determined to keep me from displaying the proper lineation for the poems – sorry Walt!):

Music

I heard you, solemn-sweet pipes of the organ, as last Sunday morn I passed
the church;
Winds of autumn!—as I walked the woods at dusk, I heard your
long-stretched sighs, up above, so mournful;
I heard the perfect Italian tenor, singing at the opera—I heard the
soprano in the midst of the quartette singing.
—Heart of my love! you too I heard, murmuring low, through one of the
wrists around my head;
Heard the pulse of you, when all was still, ringing little bells last night
under my ear.

I took full advantage of the imagery in the text, using a polytonal harmonization of “O God Our Help In Ages Past” for the organ; rapid figures for the winds of autumn; references to Verdi and Wagner for the opera singers; and the Westminster Chimes motif for the last lines. My plan is to add another short song to this setting, making a pair of two Whitman love songs. Here is the other text:

Sometimes with One I Love

Sometimes with one I love I fill myself with rage for fear I effuse unreturn’d love,
But now I think there is no unreturn’d love, the pay is certain one way or another
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not return’d,
Yet out of that I have written these songs). 

The other project where I reached the double bar was a set of Four Sketches for the Imani Winds. These are brief movements with titles referring to different things music can do:

I. Calling
II. Dancing
III. Remembering
IV. Grooving

I could have called it “Four Ings”, but I figured it better not to lean on the playful title Cowell used for a set of six piano pieces called Six Ings. (Don’t you wish you had written a piece called “Scooting”?)

The Four Sketches will be premiered on a Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert this coming February 15.

Advent Miscellany

Darn it, it’s not Christmas until it’s Christmas. Don’t tell me it’s the “Christmas Season”. It’s Advent, and it’s a shame to lose this beautiful time for quiet contemplation.

There, having gotten my bit of Bah, Humbug out of my system, I can take a break from working on new pieces for the Imani Winds and for Lyric Fest to offer a brief list of miscellaneous items:

  • Thank you to Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward for the intensely touching performances of my “Cinder” and “Bedtime” last month as part of a Lyric Fest program. “Cinder”, to a Susan Stewart text, is the most often excerpted piece from Holy the Firm, while “Bedtime” is an independent item, a Denise Levertov setting. Suzanne is an uncannily charismatic performer who connects strongly with listeners, and Laura has no limitations at the piano.
  • Thanks as well to Kristina Bachrach and Daniel Schlosberg for their powerful performance of my “Every Day is a God” (also from Holy the Firm) earlier this month. This was part of the celebration marking the anthology of art songs for soprano and piano being issued by New Music Shelf. Thanks as well to the curator for the collection, Laura Strickling for including me in the volume. The entire Holy the Firm cycle is available from the Theodore Presser Company.
  • I’ve received word that my work for soprano and six instruments, A Sibyl, also on texts by Susan Stewart, will be performed at the Florida State University New Music Festival which runs January 31 through February 2. Marcia Porter will be the soloist, and Alexander Jiménez will conduct.
  • Recent listening has included:
    • The complete Mozart piano sonatas with Mitsuko Uchida on Phillips. What can I say, I adore her sound, her phrasing, the airborne joy of her playing. More of these sonatas are worth programming than the 4 or 5 that are commonly done.
    • Saxophone Colossus – Sonny Rollins. One of the supreme classics, of course. I do wish Tommy Flanagan was more forward in the mix. “Blue 7” famously elicited a Gunther Schuller analysis, included in this volume.
    • Tiptoe Tapdance – Hank Jones. Oh, for some small fraction of the harmonic wisdom on display in this solo album, the imagination, the fluency. I hear hints of Teddy Wilson at times. Jones’s version of “It’s Me Oh Lord” included here was reprised on his beautiful album with Charlie Haden, Steal Away.
    • Faure – the Nocturnes – Paul Crossley. CRD Records. Superb playing, but I just don’t get these pieces. The harmony is sometimes conventional, but often manages to be strange yet boring. The rhythmic stasis doesn’t help, inducing a state of claustrophobia. Friends tell me this is great stuff; I will give it another try at some point.
  • A blessed Christmas to all – see you in the New Year.

“Please Tell Me Your Story”

“This is why I wanted to write this book, to tell about a place I love that doesn’t belong to me but feels like it is mine, and how that feels marvelous and exceptional. All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen.”

This is from The Library Book, the superb new book from Susan Orlean – very highly recommended.

Kristina Bachrach sings “Every Day is a God”

This Saturday, Dec. 1, at 7 pm, Kristina Bachrach will sing one of the songs that makes up my cycle Holy the Firm as part of a program celebrating the launch of New Music Shelf’s anthology of songs for soprano and piano. My contribution to the anthology of 20 songs by as many composers is “Every Day is a God”, which sets a text by Annie Dillard, an excerpt from the book whose title I borrowed for my cycle. Daniel Schlosberg will be the pianist. It’s a weird coincidence, but Daniel played two other songs from the cycle with soprano Jamie Jordan at the Sacramento State Festival of New American Music earlier this month. Jamie will also be performing on Friday’s concert. New Music Shelf’s website is being worked on at the moment, it appears; I will come back to this post with a link when it is functional. However, you can reserve tickets by writing to:  newmusicshelf@gmail.com.

David Patrick Stearns on “Carthage”

David Patrick Stearns, formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer (his writing still appears there, I assume on a free lance basis) wrote about the recent premiere of my Carthage by The Crossing on his blog, Condemned to Music. Read the whole post here, but here is the relevant portion:

Not having anything close to a comprehensive view of composer James Primosch, I find it hard to characterize how his voice has evolved. But I can say the composer I heard around 2000, when I first started sampling Philadelphia’s local compositional talent, is extremely different from what I heard on Saturday in the piece Carthage, set to an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping.

Previously, I had thought of Primosch as a post-George Rochberg composer, tonal but with some sharp edges and a taste for complexity; maybe writing for the voices of The Crossing has led him into something more essential. This piece (also a world premiere) uses something resembling plainchant as a starting point, taking from that world a sense of a religiously concentrated melodic line. There’s plenty of harmonic sophistication, and some blue notes – some of the bluest notes this side of Coltrane – that tell you this music is very much a product of our time.

The Crossing has big plans for Primosch in future months and seasons. We’ll talk more about him when I have a critical mass of his music to contemplate.

Election Eve Miscellany

  • First things first: I hope you are either planning to go vote tomorrow, or are perhaps reading this while waiting in line to do so.
  • Thank you to The Crossing and their conductor Donald Nally for the beautiful first performance they gave of my Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage. In a ten minute piece, I asked a lot of the group in terms not only of vocal virtuosity, but in variety of expression. They certainly delivered, as they always seem to do. I am very grateful. Unfortunately, no review from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
  • I am struggling hard to make progress on my new piece for the Imani Winds, set for a February premiere in Philly, but to be rehearsed for the first time in December, so there is much to do on the piece this month. At the same time I have been polishing the performance materials for Matins, the work for oboe, strings and chorus that Peggy Pearson and the Cantata Singers will perform in January. Conductor David Hoose has helped me improve the notation – there are a lot more cautionary accidentals in the score than there used to be, for example – and some re-spellings that I am not sure I always agree with. But I have accepted 98% of David’s suggestions and corrections, and am happy to do what I can to make sure the performers can give their best.
  • Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward will perform two of my songs on upcoming Lyric Fest concerts: “Cinder” from Holy the Firm sets a Susan Stewart poem and is my most performed piece; and Bedtime, a Denise Levertov song from nearly 30 years ago, which was later memorably sung by Dawn Upshaw at her Carnegie Hall recital debut. Check the Performances page for more info on all the concerts I am mentioning.
  • Recent and not so recent listening has included:
    • some old George Shearing sides from the 1940s from a Proper box set. I’m afraid this was disappointing, with saccharine ballads and frantic bop solos, though he sometimes hits a sweet spot somewhere in the middle.
    • A 1982 DG disc of Bernstein conducting the Israel Philharmonic in his Divertimento (forgettable), Halil with Rampal (colleagues I respect speak well of this piece, but it didn’t hold me), the Dance Episodes from “On the Town” (delightful) and Rostropovich playing the Three Meditations from “Mass” (it’s not really a cello and orchestra piece. However, like Anne Midgette who wrote about Mass in the Washington Post, I had the piece from which this cello work is extracted memorized before I knew any better, so I find it hard to judge the music now. (I wonder if she was raised Catholic as was I?))
    • A Recital of Intimate Works, which is an album of varied keyboard pieces performed by pianist Andrew Rangell on a 1996 Dorian disc. I am not sure that these pieces all qualify as intimate – not all the movements of Beethoven’s Op. 126 Bagatelles, for example – but it is very freshly programmed. A piano album that includes Froberger, Sweelinck, Messiaen, and Enescu, plus Mozart (the sublime Rondo in A minor) and transcriptions of Bach and Beethoven certainly gets my attention. Beautifully played and recorded.
  • I’ve been greatly enjoying The Library Book by Susan Orlean – it’s great reporting, it’s great writing, it’s great fun, and, perhaps unexpectedly, it’s greatly touching. But this is the writer whose work gave me the text for a moving song, Shadow Memory:

The video is with Mary Mackenzie, soprano and Heidi Louise Williams, piano, who are the fabulous performers on Vocalisms, the new disc from Albany that includes Shadow Memory plus nine more of my songs.

“Carthage” with The Crossing

Coming soon, this Saturday, October 27, will be the premiere of my Marilynne Robinson setting, Carthage, with The Crossing, Donald Nally conductor. The concert will be at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church here in Philadelphia, at 8 pm, with a pre-concert chat at 7. I heard a recording from a rehearsal of the piece, and it is going to be another fabulous Crossing performance. I am very grateful. More on the concert here.

My text comes from Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. Here is my program note and the text:

I first came upon the text for Carthage, from the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, when it was quoted in Christian Wiman’s book My Bright Abyss. Wiman rightly speaks of the text as being “of consummate clarity and beauty”, going on to say how it “so perfectly articulate[s] not only the sense of absence… but also bestow[s] on it an energy and agency, a prayerful but indefinable promise: ‘the world will be made whole’”. It was this combination of absence and promise, lack and fullness, that attracted me and led me to music of sober reflection and wild joy.


Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water — peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweet as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.

Excerpt from HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson. Copyright © 1981 by Marilynne Robinson. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.