Blog: Secret Geometry

Recent Reading and Listening

  • I’ve been browsing in the collections of program notes by Michael Steinberg. These are in three books: The Concerto, The Symphony, and Choral Masterworks. Steinberg’s prose is elegant and companionable, but more importantly, his writing makes me want to revisit some older favorites, as well as get to know some pieces unfamiliar to me – the Violin Concertos by Britten and Sessions, and works by Frank Martin and Franz Schmidt, among others. The best writing on music points you toward the music itself.
  • Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories are admirable for their craft, for their humor, for their unique conjunction of the ordinary and the strange. But I am struck most by the incredible range and variety of the pieces – something I wish for in my own work. Go here to read a fine essay on Davis’s stories by Mary Kenagy Mitchell.
  • When I was a grad student at Penn, the audio portion of the Music Library had open stacks. I remember seeing a forbiddingly large box of LPs on the shelf, daring me to take it down and listen.The box contained Julius Katchen’s recordings of the complete Brahms works for solo piano. (Well, he does leave out the pieces based on Chopin and Weber, as well as the left-hand version of the Bach Chaconne.) I never got to the LPs, but I recently made my way through all six discs of the CD reissue. Katchen plays superbly, though perhaps he lacks the last degree of inwardness that Radu Lupu brings to the late collections of short pieces. If, like me, those late collections – Op. 117, 118, and 119 – are the Brahms piano music you know best, then the extroverted virtuosity of works like the early piano sonatas will come as surprising news.

Recent Listening

Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano; Variations on themes from “The Magic Flute”. Pablo Casals, cello; Rudolf Serkin, piano. These are exalted performances, noble, penetrating, with beautifully shaped phrasing and intense characterization. Well, what did you expect, it’s Casals and Serkin. Casal’s tone can be a little scratchy at moments, and he adds a bit of vocalizing, but the recorded sound from the ’50’s is quite fine. In his book on the Beethoven piano sonatas, Charles Rosen points out the unorthodox formal scheme of both the piano sonata, Op. 101 and the cello sonata Op. 102, Nr. 1, both of which have four movements played attacca, and several of the cello sonatas have comparably unusual forms.

The Blues and the Abstract Truth; Oliver Nelson. Of the many performances you have heard of Stolen Moments, the first track on this classic, few have quite the right relaxed, slightly dragging lope of the original. The record features a starry “little big band”, with three saxes, trumpet and rhythm. The arrangements are brilliant – I noticed a brief Gil Evans-esque moment recalling “Miles Ahead” – and the soloists are comparably fine. I especially enjoyed Dolphy’s contributions, sounding very fresh coming in from deep left field.

Eckhart’s “Journey”

Sometimes Twitter is good for something. It was there that I came across an excerpt from Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart by Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows. The book consists of what you might call poetic realizations of excerpts from the writings of the great 14th century mystic. It wasn’t long after I got my hands on the book that I found a text I knew I wanted to set. Sweeney and Burrows title the poem Your Soul’s Delight:

There is a journey
you must take.
It is a journey without destination.
There is no map.
Your soul will lead you.
And you can take nothing with you.

This past Holy Thursday I finished setting the text for men’s chorus: just a two-part texture, very simple, quiet, intimate. Here’s how it starts:

There is no public performance of the piece planned yet, but The Crossing will include the work on its upcoming all-Primosch CD. This short piece for just the men of the choir will balance nicely with a two-part setting of a Wendell Berry text for just the women’s voices that will also be on the album. The remaining music will draw on the full group, and will include the big Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus that I wrote for The Crossing a few years ago. Here’s a video from the premiere of that piece:

“Times Like These” in DC

No ensemble has been a more committed advocate for my work than the 21st Century Consort with its artistic director Christopher Kendall. That advocacy continued with a brilliant performance of my Times Like These this past April 13, with Paul Cigan, clarinet, and Lisa Emenheiser, piano. The piece was written on a commission from clarinetist Jean Kopperud. Jean was looking for pieces that would be “extreme” in one way or another, and my piece is challenging in his shifting rhythms and intricate interplay between the instruments. Paul and Lisa handled the piece capably, not just putting notes in the right places, but making phrases, conversing with one another with meaningful musical shapes. I am very grateful.

Here are a few pictures, taken by H. Paul Moon.

21st Century Consort: April 13, 2019

21st Century Consort: April 13, 2019

21st Century Consort: April 13, 2019

And here is Jean’s recording of the piece, with pianist Stephen Gosling:

Shamefully, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has – at extremely short notice – decided to no longer present the Consort’s programs. After dozens of brilliantly performed and programmed concerts, keyed to the Museum’s exhibits, the group is being dumped at such a late date that it will be a scramble to find a new venue for next season. Here’s hoping the Consort finds a new home quickly and is able to continue its irreplaceable service to audiences and composers.

Recent Concerts in Philly and NYC

I’ve been lucky to be at a number of splendid concerts lately:

  • The March 27 Philadelphia Chamber Music society recital by Carolin Widmann, violin, and Gloria Chien was memorable for elegant Beethoven and Stravinsky, but especially for a hair-raising Prokofiev First Sonata and a spectacular little piece for unaccompanied violin by Widman’s brother, Jorg. It was a kind of fantasy (a “Paraphrase”, as the title put it) on the Wedding March from Midsummer Night’s Dream by Mendelssohn. From the opening triplet – played by tapping on the body of the violin – to the witty harmonic detours and hairpin turns, this was brilliantly composed and played. The piece is not just a virtuoso turn, but also a piece about virtuosity.
  • Jason Wirth and Lily Arbisser did a wonderful job with songs from my cycle Holy the Firm at a program in Manhattan last week. Lily sang with uncommon passion, and the result was a powerfully touching performance. Jason partnered her beautifully, with alert and sensitive pianism.
  • This past Sunday Mimi Stillman’s Dolce Suono Ensemble presented a big program featuring important and neglected American repertoire, ranging from the Piston Flute Sonata (flutists, please program the Piston instead of playing the Poulenc or Prokofiev sonatas yet again!) to Richard Wernick’s piano suite called Pieces of Eight. Violinist Miranda Cuckson dazzled in an unaccompanied work by Ralph Shapey. Indeed, the performances were uniformly excellent. Every one of these composers richly deserves a more prominent place on our concert programs.

Here are Dick Wernick (on the right) and Jim Freeman at the panel discussion:

  • There was more Wernick at last night’s concert by the Daedalus Quartet with James Austin Smith, oboe and Michael Rusinek, clarinet, as well as works by my Penn colleague Anna Weesner, Penn alum Philip Maneval, and myself. James and members of the Daedalus played my Oboe Quartet with a keen grasp of the work’s varied moods, clearly enjoying the jazzy moments in the last movement.

Lucy Shelton at 75

I have fallen behind in my blogging, but here’s a first step toward catching up.

I was at Merkin Hall for Lucy Shelton’s 75th birthday concert in February. All her musicality and a remarkably large fraction of her voice remain intact. I would not have thought her capable of portions of the cycles Carter and Knussen wrote for her, but she certainly was. An array of her students filled out the numbers she did not take on, including Kristina Bachrach, who has done my stuff. As an encore, Gil Kalish accompanied Lucy in Ives’s, “Songs My Mother Taught Me”, one in which Gil used to accompany Jan deGaetani – Lucy’s teacher. Not a dry eye in the house, I think, at least not mine.

Lucy means a lot to me, not just because of her excellent artistry, not just because she did my music on several occasions (Holy the Firm, The Cloud of Unknowing, Songs and Dances from “The Tempest”) but because she was a regular with what was then called the  20th Century Consort, and was accompanied regularly by my piano teacher, Lambert Orkis, who was that group’s pianist. Hearing her repeatedly early on in my compositional life taught me something about what singing could be. I played a four-hand Crumb piece with Lambert several times with the Consort, so heard Lucy a fair bit. I remember sitting in on rehearsals of Dick Wernick’s A Poison Tree at Penn when I was a student – that might be the first time I heard her.

Bravo, Lucy – and thank you.

“Listen to the slow movement”

“What we can say, a saying both exceeding and falling short of responsible knowledge, is that there is music which conveys both the grave constancy, the finality of death and a certain refusal of that very finality. This dual motion, instinctual to humanity but scandalous to reason, is evident, it is made transparent to spiritual, intellectual and physical notice, in Schubert’s C-major Quintet. Listen to the slow movement.”

– George Steiner in the book Real Presences.

Latest Recordings (pinned post)


Vocalisms includes 10 of my songs for soprano and piano, performed by Mary Mackenzie and Heidi Louise Williams. The album also features songs by John Harbison, Ned Rorem, and Daniel Crozier. You can find it at the Albany Records website, or Amazon. 

CD cover

Sacred Songs is devoted to my music for voice and ensemble, and was 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.  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.