Wail – 2014 edition and more

I’m taking a break from working on my piece for this to let you know about some upcoming events. It will be a very busy few days at the end of this week. On Friday, January 24, Penn will offer its annual “Wail of the Voice!” program, featuring faculty and alumni composers. There will be music by current faculty Jay Reise, Anna Weesner, and myself, as well as alum Mike Fiday, performed by the Daedalus Quartet, flutist Michele Kelly and pianists Greg DeTurck, Matthew Bengtson, and myself. The concert will be in Rose Recital Hall, on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, found at 34th and Walnut on the Penn campus here in Philadelphia. The 8:00 pm concert will be preceded by a 7:00 pm pre-concert discussion, with Penn grad student Neil Crimes as moderator.

It will be my first time playing piano in a concert performance in quite a while (playing at church or in the classroom is a different matter). The Daedalus and I will offer the slow movement from my 1996 Piano Quintet, a set of variations on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. As I remarked at rehearsal with the Daedalus, “you guys sound great, and my part is easy”, so this bodes well for a fine performance.

I’ll post the program notes for the Wail! concert during the course of this week. For now, let me point out the rest of my own busy weekend. After the concert at Penn I will take an overnight train to Boston, arriving for a Saturday morning rehearsal of my new setting of The Call, with Emmanuel Music and Ryan Turner conducting. That piece will receive its first performance at Emmanuel Church’s Sunday Eucharist, 10:00 am on January 26. On Sunday evening I will attend Christopher Oldfather’s performance of my consortium commission piano piece, Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift on a Collage New Music concert. It’s an 8:00 pm concert, 7:15 pre-concert chat, this at the Longy School in Cambridge. Between my two Sunday performances, I hope to attend Robert Levin’s piano recital at Harvard, featuring piano works by Wyner, Harbison, Türk, and Rands. And on Saturday afternoon (assuming I haven’t collapsed from lack of sleep on the train) I will meet with John Harbison to try out some of his Leonard Stein Anagrams for him, in preparation for my February 26 performance of them here in Philadelphia.

Friday Miscellany

Two sites worth your time, one playful, and one deadly serious:

– Deirdre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson are the curators of the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments. Jules Verne, Jane Fonda, the Bull of Phalaris, and the Les Paulverizer, among many others, all find their place in the collection.

– Pianist Christopher Oldfather, one of the participants in my piano consortium project, has blogged about the aftermath of the mild stroke he suffered late last year. This is real Oliver Sacks territory, with the mysteries of the human body/mind interface being laid all too bare. I was intensely moved as I read about the challenges this admirable artist has been facing.

Many, Many Pianists

A few times on this blog I have made passing mention of a composition project of mine for a group of pianists. I’ve hesitated to write about it in more detail, partly because the list of pianists was still in formation, partly because I was having trouble getting going on the piece. Well, those two things are still the case, but I think it is time to go public with this.

Business has been slow since the 09-10 season when I had two orchestral premieres in quick succession in Chicago and Albany – an orchestral peak followed by a rather quiet trough. Since paying work was scarce, I decided to create an opportunity myself, and contacted most of the pianists I know, plus several I didn’t know. I invited them to each chip in a little money and I would write a solo piece that they would all promise to play at least once, thus addressing the perennial problem of the non-existent second performance. Somewhat to my surprise, I have come up with a substantial list of wonderful artists who have signed on. There are still one or two possible participants, but here is the list so far:

Daniel Barber
Geoffrey Burleson
Eliza Garth
Judith Gordon
Stephen Gosling
Aleck Karis
Catherine Kautsky
Ryan McCollough
Eric Moe
Christopher Oldfather
Linda Reichert
James Winn

(twelve pianists, one for each tone, I suppose)

It is hard to describe the mega-giga-terabytes of talent on that list without falling into a lot of program note bio cliches. What I propose to do instead is let you know a little about how these folks got on my list in a series of future posts. For now, I’ll just say I am extremely lucky to have this group of artists on board.

I should say there are a number of people who wanted to participate, but felt that their schedules were too overloaded already – as well as a few folks who just politely declined. It was kind of everybody to even consider the notion.

So, a piano piece. It can’t be just a bagatelle, people are paying for this. It can’t be a forty minute sonata as such things are pretty tough to program. So I am thinking of something in the 12 minute range. The next question is, a short sonata? a single movement fantasia? or a set of short pieces? I have been striving toward the third of these formal schemes; as I said in my last post, I am intrigued by the idea of building a form from a number of short movements. For one thing, it gets away from the neo-classical “fast-slow-fast” pattern of movements, a sonata strategy which is perfectly plausible, but maybe a little tired. You might suggest that a variation set would be a way to bring order to a group of short pieces, but, while I enjoy writing variations, I did that relatively recently (in a piece derived from the sonata mentioned above). It is still possible that this new work will turn into a single movement with multiple sections, but right now I am thinking of a group of short pieces that are ordered to form an expressive arc. The difference is perhaps subtle, but it has to do with how much the individual elements get rounded off into relatively independent forms; how much, if any, material recurs; how much the material is developed, and how much it is simply presented. You might say I am thinking along the lines of preludes rather than a fantasy or ballade at the moment, but it is still early in the process. I am still making sketches of different kinds of piano music, being a little indiscriminate, just writing it all down. It is starting to become apparent that some of the sketches will be more fruitful than others, but whether they will grow into little pieces or sections of a bigger piece is not clear.

As for a title, I am thinking of borrowing from Auden’s poem about the unique nature of music: Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift.

Narucki sings Biggs

My friend from back in my Columbia U days, Hayes Biggs, has posted video from his Manhattan School of Music faculty recital that took place earlier this season. The superb team of Susan Narucki, soprano, and Christopher Oldfather, piano, premiered Hayes’s Psalms, Hymns & Spiritual Songs, and the very fine Avalon Quartet offered  String Quartet: O Sapientia/Steal Away. Here is a sample of Narucki and Oldfather; find more here and here.

Hayes Biggs at Manhattan School

I was in NYC last night for a program at Manhattan school featuring two impressive pieces by my Columbia classmate Hayes Biggs – the premiere of a song cycle called Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, with Susan Narucki, soprano, and Christopher Oldfather, piano, and a string quartet subtitled O Sapientia/Steal Away. I previously wrote about the quartet here, so in this brief post let me just say the cycle was terrific, sustaining interest over six substantial songs that set a wonderful variety of texts. These included a Psalm excerpt as well as a 17th century metrical version of another Psalm and poems by George Herbert, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Jane Kenyon and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hayes has succeeded in doing something many composers of our generation attempt (but don’t always achieve): to truly integrate tonal materials into a broadly based language that can be dissonant or consonant, triadic or not, as the expressive needs of the moment dictate. This doesn’t involve any lack of rigor – Hayes’s contrapuntal instincts ensure that. There may be some traces of Britten or Ives in the musical language, but the songs struck me as very fresh and personal. The performance was superb, with Susan not just offering a lovely, clear, and true sound, but putting that sound at the service of varied expression and strong emotional impact. I hardly had to refer to the printed program, given the fineness of her diction. Christopher dependably does several impossible things on every page he plays – rhythmic subtleties, perfectly balanced chords, wide-ranging colors, sensitive coordination with his soloist – and all with a minimum of fuss. I want to write more about the songs, but for now here is a snapshot from after the concert, with (L to R) the members of the Avalon String Quartet, Susan Narucki, Hayes Biggs, and Christopher Oldfather.