If you are an artist the problem is to make a picture work whether you are happy or not.

-Willem de Kooning, from Modern Artists in America, edited by Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt; quoted in de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan.

Unknown-3I’ve greatly enjoyed reading this splendid biography over the past few weeks. The book is more than a highly detailed picture of a life that stretched from Rotterdam to Manhattan to eastern Long Island; it offers a history of American Art in the mid-20th century. de Kooning’s life rotated around painting, women (you may need a sizable scorecard to keep track), and alcohol. Like all good scholarship about the arts, the book makes you want to re-engage with the artist’s work. The book includes some color reproductions, as well as good commentary about a number of individual pieces.

I remember fondly a de Kooning show at the Whitney in the mid ’80s, but was saddened to read it described in the book as “poorly selected… packed tightly into claustrophobic rooms…” It was an overwhelming show, and not necessarily in a good sense. But you do want to remember the big artistic experiences of your student days as being uniformly splendid – yet another way of fooling yourself, I guess.

UnknownThe book got me  thinking about what it would mean to write music that speaks, as de Kooning’s work does, in the languages of both cubism and expressionism, both figuration and abstraction. How to write music that somehow manages to be exquisitely crafted, yet always askew?  As Stevens and Swan write:

…that unstable quality was also one sought by de Kooning. “It all fits real good, don’t you think?” de Kooning once asked his assistant Tom Ferrara, who was with him from 1980 to 1987, as they stood before a painting. “Fantastic,” said Ferrara. “That’s the whole problem,” de Kooning answered. “There’s no contradictions.”

Wolpe comes to mind as an artist comparable to de Kooning, not only in outward circumstances (an immigrant who came to New York City), but in his goals, writing a kind of abstract expressionist music, yet never choosing a purist path, preferring to be inclusive, whether it be the figure and landscape in de Kooning or jazz in Wolpe. Find one of my favorite examples of Wolpe’s work here; the de Kooning Foundation’s home page, with images of his work, is here. One of my favorite de Koonings is Ruth’s Zowie.

Melanie Monios, the assistant director for special programming at the Museum of Modern Art, passed along some pictures from the recent Summergarden performance of my String Quartet Nr. 3. The photographer was Will Ragozzino.

The members of the Cavatina Quartet (left to right): Randall Goosby, Mariella Haubs, Jia Kim (guest artist) and Jameel Martin. Thanks to the splendid players and to Melanie – the concert was a wonderful experience.

summergarden 1


summergarden 2

Though best known for her wonderful non-fiction books such as Dakota and The Cloister Walk, author Kathleen Norris is also a poet. I came upon the poem “Who Do You Say That I Am?” in her collection Journey: New and Selected Poems 1969-1999, and recently completed a setting of it for soprano and piano. I’ve posted the first page of the song on the score excerpts page.

The poem is a catalog of responses to a question Jesus posed to his disciples. But the answers here are different from those in the bible story, instead offering images drawn in part from nature, but not in a naturalistic way (“nova of blossom, star in the apple”). The poem moves toward the ecstatic, ending:

the end of the spectrum,
beginning of light.

Like several other of my other individual songs that are not published by Theodore Presser, I’ll be selling PDFs of the song myself. Take a look at the opening of the piece and if you are intrigued, send me an e-mail to order the score: <jamesprimosch at gmail dot com>. Shadow Memory (audio here), Waltzing the Spheres, and my arrangements of How Can I Keep From Singing? and Be Thou My Vision are also available directly from me. Find sample pages from all of these on the score excerpts page as well.

Cantori New York has announced its 2016-2017 season, and their first program on November 5 and 6 will feature the New York premiere of my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus, a work I wrote on a commission from The Crossing. The piece interweaves a setting of the Latin Mass, sung by a schola or small group of singers, with settings of Denise Levertov poems reflecting on the Mass texts, sung by a larger main choir. For these performances, the French vocal ensemble Musicatreize will serve as the schola and Cantori New York as the main choir. Cantori’s artistic director Mark Shapiro will conduct. The performances will take place at St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, which is on West End Avenue at 87th Street. I don’t have the times yet for the performances – I believe they are both in the evening, will share that info with you when I can.

You can see a video of The Crossing premiering the Mass here.


I don’t know if you can get a sense of this from the iPhone panorama shot above, but last Sunday’s Summergarden concert in the outdoor sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art was attended by a crowd much larger than that associated with a typical new music concert – I was told that probably about 900 people were in attendance.

Barnett Newman


and Alexander Calder


were also there.

The crowd was there to hear the Cavatina String Quartet (Randall Goosby and Mariella Haubs, violins; Jameel Martin, viola; and guest artist Jia Kim, cello) perform works by Akira Mishimura, Justyna Kowalska-Lason, and my own String Quartet Nr. 3. I was delighted by the performance of my piece, full of character and passion. Much of the work comes from a dark expressive region – not the easiest thing to pull off on a hot summer night. But the players projected both the shadowed and the more playful moods of the piece brilliantly.

Summergarden is not your typical venue for a string quartet concert – outdoors, with amplification, in the middle of Manhattan with its birds, thrumming traffic and air conditioners, and hundreds of people playing Pokémon Go right outside the museum. But the crowd was remarkably quiet and attentive, the wind and heat didn’t keep the quartet from playing superbly, and it just felt right for new music to be at MOMA – for a moment, music and the visual arts were on at least somewhat equal terms as cultural players. The physical environment of the space was also unique. The stage was set up in front of a glass wall that reflected the surrounding architecture, including a famous Philip Johnson building with its broken pediment in this shot:

IMG_1489 (1)

The flower at the left is a sculpture by Isa Genzken:


Here I am with the quartet after the show, standing in front of a Sol LeWitt (L to R: Jia Kim, Randall Goosby, Mariella Haub, the composer, Jameel Martin.)


Thanks to Melanie Monios of MOMA for taking the picture, for her great work on producing the concert, and for her kind hospitality. And thanks to Joel Sachs, curator of these concerts, for letting me be a part of a wonderful event.

alice_lgAlice Shields and Eric Chasalow have written a series of posts on electronic music, including one in honor of Milton Babbitt, at New Music Box.

Here are links to Alice’s posts:

Structural and Playback Issues in Current Electroacoustic Music

Timbre, Envelope and Variation in Electroacoustic Music

Electroacoustic Music with Video: Comparison with Sound for Film

And to Eric’s posts:

The Opportunity of Electroacoustic Musicology

Cultivating a Sense of Belonging: Our Debate of Electroacoustic Music Terminology

Electroacoustic Music is not About Sound

Memories of Milton


Joel Sachs, who curates the classical offerings at the Museum of Modern Art’s Summergarden concerts, has programmed my String Quartet Nr. 3 for a concert on Sunday, July 24 at 8 pm. The Cavatina Quartet will perform – Randall Goosby and Mariella Haubs, violin; Jameel Martin, viola, and guest cellist Jia Kim. The players are students at The Juilliard School, except Jia Kim, who is a recent alumna.

I wrote the quartet on a commission from the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society back in 1999; it was premiered by the Ying Quartet and most recently played by the Daedalus Quartet. You can find some sample pages from the score on this site’s score excerpts page. Here’s more about the piece:

program listing
String Quartet No. 3 (1999)
I. Theme and Variations
Theme: Largo
Var. 1: Andante Moderato
Var. 2: Allegretto Grazioso
Var. 3: Vivace
Var. 4: Prestissimo
II. Fantasia: Allegro Ansioso
Var. 5 : Adagio
III. Finale: Vivace, Poco Scherzando
Coda: Largo

program note
After writing a series of pieces that either set texts or relied on pre-existing melodies (old sacred tunes) as compositional resources, I set out to create a more autonomous, abstract world in my Third Quartet. My efforts yielded a somewhat unusual formal scheme: a theme and variations is first interrupted by an anxious (“ansioso”) and expressionistic Fantasia; then resumes for a single variation, infiltrated by gestures from the Fantasia. A viola cadenza follows, introducing a rondo-like finale. This attempt to cap the piece in a playful spirit is surprised by a final reprise of the slow variation theme, this time in a simple unison statement. The entire sequence plays without pauses and runs about 20 minutes.

In connection with its celebration of the Vincent Persichetti centennial, Network for New Music held a panel discussion with several former Persichetti students plus composer Daniel Dorff who worked alongside him at the Theodore Presser Co. Find videos of the discussion here. The last of the set also includes a fine performance of the Serenade for flute and harp. My own experience with performing Persichetti was as a member of the Cleveland State University Wind Ensemble where we played the well-known Symphony for Band and a work for chorus and wind ensemble on texts of Walt Whitman called CelebrationsI remember greatly enjoying playing both pieces.

Three quotes from pieces recently appearing online that are very much worth reading:

“Some quick research shows that Harris, Mennin, Piston, Schuman and Elliott Carter (who together wrote more than 100 concert symphonic works) had, in the past five years, a total of just 20 performances by US orchestras. Meanwhile, a look at the 2015-16 season shows that UK audiences hear as many as 19 major works by British composers – Tippett, Walton, Britten, Vaughan Williams – performed by each leading orchestra in each season.”

– Alan Fletcher, President and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, in a blog post at The Guardian

“The cases of Tim Souster and Bill Hopkins are relevant to this, because once a composer is no longer with us—both these two were born in 1943, the year also of Brian Ferneyhough; Hopkins died at thirty-seven, Souster at fifty-one—and therefore no longer a present personality, the music fades. Neither do you have to die young for this to happen, nor do you have to be British. I could mention many U.S. composers who have become posthumously inaudible: Jacob Druckman, Donald Martino, Mel Powell, Ralph Shapey. And the same fate overtakes individual works all the time, the première being a kind of death. Even widespread esteem is no protection. Harrison Birtwistle’s Exody has had eleven performances in over seventeen years; compare that with the fifty performances enjoyed by Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta in one season (that of 1937-8) when it was new. Of course, the Bartók is for smaller resources, but it was hardly less irregular by the standards of the orchestral habits of its time, and we’re talking here about an almost hundredfold difference in exposure.”

– Paul Griffiths, critic, author of numerous books on music, librettist for Carter’s What’s Next? in a conversation with Matt Mendez at Music and Literature

“At least 95% of all composers get better with age. A very small minority get worse, but this is usually because of illness: Schumann and Stockhausen spring to mind – and there are a few, like Mendelssohn, who sprang forth fully fledged, and didn’t really develop. But they are also a small minority. Yet there is more and more emphasis on and support for so-called ’emerging composers’ – most of whom, I am sad to say, are left on the scrap heap when they turn 40. I am now old enough to have seen this happen over and over again. In one or two of my curatorial positions, like juror for Schloss Solitude in Germany, I have had desperate letters from composers just over 40, who have won international competitions, and whose careers have suddenly come to a halt. Because they are no longer emerging, they are of no interest. The composers are bewildered and bereft. I think this is morally wrong.

“There is no such thing, in my opinion, as an emerging composer. There are gifted composers and there are not-so-gifted composers. Age is irrelevant. Emerging, who cares? Publicists.”

– composer Kevin Volans in his keynote speech at an international conference held by the Contemporary Music Centre of Ireland

There are plenty of reasons here for astonishment and fury. A single piece by Birtwistle has had 11 performances in 17 years while all the orchestral music of Harris, Mennin, Piston, Schuman and Carter has received 20 performances in the past five years in the U.S. This reminds me of the remark of Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times that Boulez’s Répons has been “rarely performed, just a few dozen times.” My point here is the wildly differing numbers of performances of music by American and European composers.

Griffiths quite rightly observes that the music of Druckman, Martino, Powell, and Shapey has been little played after the death of those composers. Certainly, it does not get played with a frequency anywhere nearly commensurate with their formidable musical contributions. But you don’t have to be dead for that to be the case, as Kevin Volans points out. There is a middle generation of composers that is getting overlooked. Speaking as an American composer, it seems the generation of (to use rough figures) ’38 and the generation of ’78 have received, or are receiving, a goodly number of performances while at least a portion of my own generation – that of ’58 – not so much, though practitioners of some styles have made further headway than others, and there are a very few composers who have achieved remarkable prominence in certain genres like opera or art song. I think one issue is the desire of classical music institutions to attract younger audiences by programming music by younger composers. Since composers my age are unlikely to be able to DJ the party after the concert, what good are we? In a healthier musical environment, there would be a different sort of balance in programming among composers living and recently deceased, among composers of various ages, among composers of differing nationalities. And repeat performances would mean that no longer would the premiere be “a kind of death”.