“Dark the Star” in Philadelphia and New York

6a00d83453ebeb69e201a511c84960970c-320wiPoetry of Rilke and Susan Stewart, plus a verse from Psalm 116 – these are the texts I set in Dark the Star, a 2008 work for baritone, clarinet, cello, piano and percussion. The New York New Music Ensemble with soloist Thomas Meglioranza (at left) will perform the piece twice in early November. Here are the details: the first performance is in Philadelphia on Sunday, November 6 at 2 pm. The free concert will be in Rose Recital Hall, on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, located on the southeast corner of 34th and Walnut on the University of Pennsylvania campus. (Make sure your clock is set correctly, as Eastern Standard Time returns that weekend!) NYNME will repeat the program in New York the next day, November 7. The New York performance is at 8:30 pm, at the Tenri Cultural Center, 43a West 13th Street. Music by Melinda Wagner, Mario Davidovsky, and Augusta Read Thomas will round out the program.

I’ve been fortunate to work with the extraordinary musicians of NYNME for over 20 years. The rapport among these players is near telepathic, and their performances are electrifying.

Here is my program note on Dark the Star:

Composing this cycle of songs began with my discovery of three poems in Susan Stewart’s collection Columbarium that I knew I must set to music. The deep, dreamlike wisdom of these poems haunted me, just as I had experienced with Susan’s poem “Cinder” that had served as the fulcrum of my song cycle Holy the Firm. Eventually, texts by Rilke and an earlier setting I had done of a psalm verse were drawn into the gravitational orbit of Susan’s poems. I ordered the texts in a nearly symmetrical pattern, with two texts set a second time in versions that shadow their first readings. This is partly for the sake of the formal design, but, more importantly, to re-examine the poems in the penumbra of what comes before. Rounding the cycle in this way reflects not only the circles and repetitions in Susan Stewart’s texts, but also the way in which, as Rilke writes, the things we have let go of yet encircle us. The work was composed for William Sharp and the 21st Century Consort, who gave the premiere, with Christopher Kendall conducting.

Sample the Bridge recording of the piece on YouTube, with the forces for whom the piece was written:

Made By All, Not By One

You can hear the “exquisite corpse” composition made by 30 Philadelphia composers to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Network for New Music by going here. Strictly speaking, it’s 30 Philly composers plus one from Chicago; there are a few bars from Augusta Read Thomas‘s Passion Prayers (commissioned and premiered by Network) to get the corpse rolling. Each composer contributed 6 measures, having been given only the last measure of the preceding segment.

Répons response

Michael Kimmelman’s piece on Boulez in the NY Times today is mostly about Boulez the persona, then about Boulez the conductor, while Boulez the composer is a distant third. But what got my attention in the article was related to the composer angle. According to Kimmelman, Boulez’s Répons has been “rarely performed, just a few dozen times”.

On what planet is a piece that has been played “a few dozen times” accurately characterized as rarely performed?

In the real world, most composers – including those who are doing work at least as interesting as Répons, maybe more so – consider themselves very lucky if a piece receives a second or third performance. A tiny handful of American composers might have some pieces that are performed “a few dozen times”, but those pieces would never be thought of as “rarely performed”.

The premise behind Kimmelman’s remark about Répons is that the piece should be more widely played – after all, it is by Pierre Boulez; after all, it is “the first major work he wrote using the electronic-music institute in Paris, Ircam.”  This premise overestimates Boulez’s importance as a composer. If I had to pick a favorite member of the post-war European avant-garde, it would be Berio or Ligeti, not Boulez. If I had to pick an atonal piano sonata from the post-war era, it would be George Rochberg’s Sonata-Fantasia, not the Boulez 2nd. Try to imagine Boulez’s standing in the field if he wasn’t a leading conductor. Wouldn’t he be on about par with Dutilleux?

Répons is certainly impressive to see (I saw the piece done in NYC in the 1980s). There are six soloists, ensemble, surround sound, enough electronic gear to launch the space shuttle – but the musical payoff is not commensurate with the apparatus at hand.  (Mario Davidovsky used to joke about pieces that metaphorically use the space shuttle to drive down the Jersey Turnpike.) The moment when the electronics kick in is admittedly dazzling, but after that first entrance, the thrill soon wears off.  I remember two things from the piece in the versions I have heard: a quirky mixed meter allegro section, and mostly a whole lotta’ trills – not enough to carry a piece of that length. (The DG recording runs about 40 minutes, I understand later revisions have yielded a longer piece. Maybe there is more going on in those longer versions.) The recent Boulez piece I rather prefer is Sur Incises, which is scored for a mere nine players, without electronics, yet is more varied in its gestural repertoire. I get a more satisfying sense of narrative (fractured though it may be) from Sur Incises than from Répons.

However, my main concern is not Boulez, but the problem of the 2nd performance. In the orchestral world, there is a certain amount of prestige when an ensemble does a premiere, but the glamour quotient for subsequent performances falls off fast. (The exception is when there is a fad for a particular composer’s work, and then being on the bandwagon has its own kind of chic.) Too many first-rate pieces languish. To pick three such pieces at random: Melinda Wagner’s Trombone Concerto; Stephen Hartke’s Symphony #3, Augusta Read Thomas’s Orbital Beacons – these are all pieces well deserving of a “couple dozen” performances, but I don’t think those performances will be forthcoming; I hope I am mistaken.

Of course, there are exceptions, and of course, I and my colleagues are profoundly grateful for the opportunities that orchestras do give us. In my own recent experience, I am extraordinarily grateful to the Chicago Symphony for arranging a tryout of my Songs for Adam with the Chicago Civic Orchestra last spring. Composers for orchestra don’t get the out-of-town tryout that a composer for the musical theatre does. The second or third performance of an orchestral work affords a chance to test the myriad corrections and adjustments that a first performance suggests.

While orchestras are right to look to new music as a way of invigorating concert life, the seedlings of interest planted by such efforts will have shallow roots unless compositions are given an ongoing life and composers a more than sporadic presence in our concert halls.

Out on the Frontier

Frontiers, an online magazine about research, scholarship, and other forms of creative work being done in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, has posted a very nice article by Peter Nichols about the premiere of Songs for Adam. Thanks to Susan Stewart and Augusta Read Thomas for their kind contributions to the piece.