Sadly, thanks to the failure of a car service that was supposed to pick him up, Dick Wernick was not at the concert we had at Penn featuring his music and that of George Crumb. However, George did get there, and here are a few pictures to prove it.
First, George and his wife Liz after the concert (in the background, Penn emeritus Tom Connolly with his wife):
Min-Young Kim, first violin of the Daedalus Quartet, which had just played George’s Black Angels, chatting with George:
Here’s a close-up of George:
And a picture of many, many Penn composers:
standing from left: Andrew Davis, Kai Young Chan, Michael McMillan, Gerald Levinson, myself, Luke Carlson, Jay Reise, Ke-Chia Chen, Marc LeMay, with George and Liz Crumb seated.
Here is a program note I wrote for the work by George Crumb I will be playing in a few hours at a Crumb & Wernick program to be held at Penn. I first wrote this note when I gave what I believe was the NYC premiere of the piece in the early 80’s. This was at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, at the time a fairly commonly used venue for new music events.
A Little Suite for Christmas, A. D. 1979 was written for Lambert Orkis, who premiered the work at The Smithsonian Institution in December of 1980.
The idea of a set of piano pieces reflecting on different aspects of the Christmas event may remind the reader of the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (1944) of Olivier Messiaen, and one can point to certain general stylistic traits shared by Messiaen and Crumb. But Crumb’s work is on a much more modest scale than the French composer’s massive pianistic compendium. In fact, it is a “little” suite by comparison with several earlier piano works by Crumb. It does not call for the piano to be amplified to create the “larger-than-life” sound quality desired in the four volumes of Makrokosmos (1972, 1973, 1974, 1979). Nor does the piece involve “symbolic” notations (where the staves are arranged in the shape of a cross or circle), vocal effects from the performer, or the use of additional objects to modify the piano sound, all of which appear in the Makrokosmos series. However, in the Little Suite, Crumb does continue in his refined use of harmonics, muted tones, and pizzicato, using these in combination with material performed on the keyboard in the conventional fashion.
The music created with these means is sometimes contemplative in mood, as in the hushed reverence of the second movement, or the surreal setting of the 16th century “Coventry Carol” in the sixth; sometimes visionary, as in the solemn repeated chords and melodic patterns of the first movement or the exuberant cosmic dance of the fifth.
Crumb uses a curious example of self-reference in the fourth piece, “Adoration of the Magi”. In this movement, there appears twice, in pizzicato, a melodic fragment from the “Wanderer-Fantasy” movement of Music for a Summer Evening, the third piece in the Makrokosmos series. A connection is thus made with the Magi who have “wandered” from afar to Bethlehem. Although this is a particularly private example of musical symbolism, it is consistent with Crumb’s use of quotation to add an additional level of musical expressiveness.
Some concerts of interest in various places, including 2 anniversary events:
– Dolce Suono‘s 10th anniversary concert, Sunday, October 12, 3:00 pm, Field Concert Hall, Curtis Institute, Philadelphia.
– Lee Hyla Memorial Concert, Thursday, October 16, 7:30 pm, Lutkin Hall, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. The late composer of uncommonly intelligent and gutsy works, is honored with a concert of his chamber music. Read about him here.
– Network for New Music celebrates its 30th anniversary, Sunday, October 26, 4:00 pm, Settlement Music School, Queen Street branch in Philadelphia. The special event here is the first performance of an “exquisite corpse” – a new work created by 30 composers (myself included), each of whom contributed 6 measures, with only a tempo marking and the last measure of the preceding composer’s segment as guidance.
– Richard Wernick and George Crumb will be honored in their 80th and 85th birthday years respectively in a Penn Contemporary Music concert in Rose Recital Hall on the Penn campus, Wednesday, November 5 at 8:00 pm. I’ll be playing Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979. A piano trio by Wernick, and Crumb’s Black Angels will also be heard.
Mary Mackenzie’s recital at Penn last week featured several pieces by Penn faculty, both current and retired. She opened with the Three Early Songs of George Crumb, and I mean early – these were written when George was still a teen, intended for his wife Liz to sing. (Come to think of it, I don’t know if they were married at the time, or still just high school sweethearts.) Although George denies it, there are hints of his mature idiom here, and not just in the nocturnal cast of the texts and settings. There is a moment in the second song where the piano pedal is held down while a repeated figure is played softer and softer. That use of resonance, a resounding, echoing effect, is an essential thumbprint of Crumb’s music, part of the acoustic of his native West Virginia landscape, with sounds reverberating amid the hills and valleys. Mary offered more Crumb in the second half of the concert, his little Poe setting, The Sleeper, which was written for a Jan DeGaetani Carnegie Hall recital (I was there!)*
There was more music by Penn emeriti as well, both pieces from the late 60s. George Rochberg’s Eleven Songs sets short texts by his son Paul. It was Paul’s early death that led George to reconsider his aesthetic outlook and reject serial technique, while embracing a broad range of musical possibilities, including 19th century tonal practice. While he never engaged serialism again, George still did write atonal music, such as this set of songs. This was fiercely expressionist music, full of vivid gestures and often anguished in tone. To me the piece sounded somewhat dated; some of the gestures may have carried a certain amount of shock value fifty years ago, but piano clusters and sprechstimme vocal effects don’t in themselves mean a great deal. They can’t make up for a piece’s lack of substance. The set dragged, and although they are short songs – and were well-performed – they felt long. In contrast, Richard Wernick’s Moonsongs from the Japanese, did seem to me to hold up. The piece is written for soprano and two pre-recorded sopranos (though it could, I suppose, be performed by three sopranos.) These settings of short haiku-like poems were concise in a way that the Rochberg songs were not, and although they too were of their time in the use of non-synchronized passages and non-pitched phonemes, these devices felt integrated and did not call attention to themselves in the way that the special effects in the Rochberg did. The use of pre-recorded female voice, the exploration of phonemes and the wide-ranging melodic gestures brought Babbitt’s Philomel to mind, though the pitches made sense in Wernick’s piece in a way that, for me, Babbitt’s pitches do not. Moonsongs was written for Neva Pilgrim, and when I heard a dub of the tapes Neva had made for the piece decades ago, I knew the sound quality would not be acceptable, so Mary and I made a fresh version of the tape. Her astonishing virtuosity meant this was not a lengthy job; only a few takes were needed for a given section. I would like to go back to the materials and polish my editing of the piece a bit, but we managed to get something together that was quite effective.
The one non-Penn composer on the program was John Harbison. Mary’s performance of his Simple Daylight, six songs on texts of Michael Fried, was harrowing. It was an interesting contrast with the Rochberg – there is anguish in both pieces, but there is much greater musical substance in John’s piece. The emotional power of the piece springs directly from it’s detailed craft. It’s one of John’s darkest pieces, and one of my favorites.
Mary closed the program with a complete performance of my cycle Holy the Firm. Singing from memory, she vividly conveyed the ecstatic and contemplative aspects of the piece, with full command of the mad scene that is the final song. H the F will be on the upcoming Bridge CD, in its chamber ensemble version, as performed by Susan Narucki. I’ve been very lucky with performers of this piece, and Mary Mackenzie’s performance continues that lucky streak.
Eric Sedgwick was Mary’s unflappable pianist. As someone remarked to me, “he’s one of those Zen guys”, meaning Eric is the kind of pianist who works wonders while appearing to barely move. The piano part for Holy the Firm is very notey, and Simple Daylight is intricately worked, but no problems were posed for Eric. He is the kind of player whose trills – fast and wonderfully smooth – are played purely with the fingers; no helpful forearm rotation required. He partnered Mary impeccably.
I am writing this after my return from Cornell where Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift was performed – more about that in my next post.
Here’s a picture from Mary’s concert. (l to r: George Crumb, Mary Mackenzie, Richard Wernick, and Eric Sedgwick)
* Not only was I there, but this was the occasion for one of those only-in-NYC moments: I got in the elevator to go find Jan and the composers whose songs she had premiered that night. In the elevator with me were Teresa Sterne (the force behind Nonesuch records in those days, including Jan’s unsurpassed recording of Ancient Voices) and Issac Stern. Ms. Sterne asked Mr. Stern the following question: “Is it true that you once received a review that said, ‘He left no tone un-Sterned’?” The answer was yes.
Alex Ross titled a post today Gubaidulina birthday miscellany. I would respectfully say that if I was titling that post I would have called it “George Crumb Birthday Miscellany”. George is 84 today. I hold no living composer’s music more dear than that of this quintessential American voice. Go here for George’s epic Star-Child; here for a chat between George Crumb and David Starobin.
Here’s the poster for next week’s concert by Mary Mackenzie and Eric Sedgwick at Penn. New works is a bit of a misnomer; in fact, all of the pieces are from the 20th century, not the 21st. But they are certainly contemporary in that all but one of the composers is still living, and George Rochberg only died a few years ago. Here is the complete program:
GEORGE CRUMB Three Early Songs (1946)
II. Let It Be Forgotten
III. Wind Elegy
GEORGE ROCHBERG Eleven Songs (1969)
I. Sunrise, a morning sound
II. We are like the mayflies
III. I am baffled by this wall
IV. Spectral butterfly
V. All my life
VI. Le Sacre du Printemps
VII. Black tulips
VIII. Nightbird berates
IX. So late!
X. Angel’s wings (Ballad)
XI. How to explain (Ballad)
JOHN HARBISON Simple Daylight (1988)
II. Simple Daylight
III. Somewhere a Seed
IV. Your Name
V. The Wild Irises
– intermission –
RICHARD WERNICK Moonsongs from the Japanese (1969)
I. Mikazuki wa…
II. Tsuki ni e wo…
III. Tsuki-wo matsumi…
IV. Tsuki ichi-rin…
GEORGE CRUMB The Sleeper (1984)
JAMES PRIMOSCH Holy the Firm (1999)
I. ‘…that passeth all understanding’
II. Every Day is a God
III. The Ladder of Divine Ascent
While the compositions are not brand new, there is one completely new element involved. Dick Wernick’s Moonsongs from the Japanese is written for either three sopranos or a solo soprano with two pre-recorded sopranos. Since the sound quality of the tape from 45 years ago, prepared with Neva Pilgrim, the singer for whom the work was written, had deteriorated, Mary and I decided to re-make the recorded component. I am used to working with electronically generated sound, not a live recording of a human, so I have had to stretch my technique a bit in editing the material. Mary’s remarkable virtuosity made the recording sessions fairly straightforward. With Dick in attendance to guide us, we were able to do the job in relatively few takes. It will be a great pleasure to hear the piece for the first time in a new realization on this concert.
Here are some notes on the program:
When James Primosch invited me to present a solo recital at University of Pennsylvania, I immediately knew I wanted to create a program of all modern vocal music featuring some of the former and current composition faculty. It was very rewarding to explore each composer’s catalogue of work – there was so much to choose from and more than I could possibly program!
I connect equally with both music and words, and oftentimes, I feel a connection simply by looking at the score without knowing exactly what it sounds like.What I enjoy most about many of the pieces on this program is that they make powerful statements with very few words. As you listen tonight, I think you will discover that the music in each piece “illustrates” the poetry in a unique way. I prefer the word illustrate to painting – word painting is heard more often – because it brings to mind an artist making very small and detailed strokes, and the art grows out of the words.
I want to thank University of Pennsylvania for having me, and James Primosch and Richard Wernick for assisting with recording the soprano parts for Moonsongs From the Japanese.
The Three Early Songs are jewels written in 1947 when the composer was 17 years old, and represent his first vocal writing. There were seven songs composed during this period, just after George graduated from high school, and he feels that these were “probably the best of them.” George didn’t really know the vocal idiom at this time, so they are not operatic but folk, in essence. As early works, they pay homage to Rachmaninoff, and although they are not representative of Crumb’ more mature style, they are “of some interest.”
– Barbara Ann Martin
When he died in November 1964 at the age of twenty, my son Paul left about 150 poems, most of them written in the years between the time he was fourteen and nineteen. Even while he was still writing I often thought of setting his work, but it was not until the late summer of 1968 when I wrote the Tableaux, based on fragments and images from his story “The Silver Talons of Piero Kostrov”,” that I was able to find a way to approach his uniquely individual language. From the very beginning Paul’s poems and stories had a surface sparseness which belied the richness and density of his images and emotional range. For me there is only one other poet in the English language whose early work has the same general characteristic: William Blake. But it was more likely Japanese and Chinese poetry and Eastern thought in which Paul was deeply immersed rather than Blake which influenced his attitude toward language, its texture and its capacity to imply more that it actually said. The surreal, fantasist worlds of Rimbaud and Redon also worked their special magic in his inner life.
These are “songs” then in the most traditional sense; and I have attempted to reveal through each setting the particular world of each poem, however brief some on them may be. The piano “accompanies” the voice at times; but it also behaves in other ways – commenting as the need arises or creating an environment in which the singer can project the verbal phrase and its imagery on her own. As always when dealing directly with someone else’s work, one hopes that he has not interfered with or obscured the essence of it, but rather projected it in new and clear light where its integrity remains intact.
– George Rochberg
It has been a source of satisfaction to me that the first performers and listeners for Simple Daylight have been especially struck by the poems, and by the strong musical responses elicited by the poems. I have been grateful for Michael Fried’s work in many ways, most obviously in my previous settings of his texts, in Three Harp Songs (1972) and in The Flower- Fed Buffaloes (1976). My ordering of his poems makes a sequence closer in tone to a Bach Cantata text than to a nineteenth-century song cycle, and evokes a kind of subcutaneous narrative very favorable for musical purposes, but no doubt unintended by the poet.
– John Harbison
Moonsongs from the Japanese was commissioned by Neva Pilgrim, for whom I had written my Haiku of Basho, and composed in late 1968-1969. Hearing the piece now is much like looking back on a younger cousin. The piece is dedicated to Neva Pilgrim and the Apollo Moon Project, and I recall my wife and I rousting our kids out of bed to watch Neil Armstrong land on the moon. The original pre-recorded tracks were done on 15 ips reel-to-reel tape, pre-Dolby, and over the span of 45 years became totally degraded. I am grateful to Mary Mackenzie for having made the new ones in a digital format that might end up having a longer life.
The piece is made up of four very brief Japanese poems (not quite haiku), set to four equally short musical settings. The periods of the four poets range from the 15th to the 20th centuries. The musical style is far different from the one I use today, although I can detect the roots of what I now do. Unlike many other composers I never made a quantum leap from one style to another, and it pleases me to look back on the gradual change.
I have attached to the score a wise line from a wise playwright, Brendan Behan—“Don’t muck about with the moon”.
– Richard Wernick
For the text of this little song [The Sleeper] I have excerpted only a very few lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem. Admittedly the sense is thereby considerably altered (Poe’s poem is somewhat lugubrious in its total effect), but I do feel that there is such a thing as “composer’s license.” Besides, I was specifically asked for a short song!
The sparse, tenuous textures and extremely soft dynamic of The Sleeper will project a kind of “minimalissimo” character. I have used a range of timbral devices in the piano part to suggest that transcendental feeling which Poe’s eerie images of nature invoke — rustling glissandos on the strings of the instrument, delicate muted effects, and bell-like harmonics (which ring in the midnight hour in the first bars of the song).
The vocal part, which is quite simple in style and based entirely on a few tiny melodic cells, requires great sensitivity to nuances of pitch and timbre. I have endeavored to compress an intense and even expansive expressivity into a very small frame, which is, I suppose, what writing a little song is all about.
– George Crumb
The little anthology of texts dealing with praise and mystery that I have assembled for Holy the Firm draws upon writings of three twentieth-century American women and a monk of the seventh century Sinai desert. It may be helpful to know that the fifth text is excerpted form a found poem based upon phrases culled from the Dictionary of Last Words edited by Edward S. Le Comte. The wide-ranging affects of the texts called forth a similar range of musical languages but there are many recurrences, both musical and textual, that bind the songs together.
The cycle’s title is borrowed from that of a book by Annie Dillard that also provided the words for the second song. In that book, Dillard writes: “Esoteric Christianity, I read, posits a substance. It is created substance, lower than metals and minerals on a ‘spiritual scale’, and lower than salts and earths, occurring beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets, but never on the surface of planets where men could discern it; and it is in touch with the Absolute at base. In touch with the Absolute! At base. The name of this substance is: Holy the Firm.”
– James Primosch
More about this concert next week.
I just got word that Kile Smith‘s WRTI radio show, Now Is the Time, will feature my Secret Geometry for piano and electronic sound on tonight’s show – Sunday, August 25 at 10 pm on the US east coast; go here to listen.
I named my blog after this piece; my program note for the work might help explain why:
Secret Geometry can be heard as a short piano sonata, with the movements forming a typical fast – slow – fast pattern. The electronic sounds on tape are tightly interwoven with the piano, often serving to extend and transform the piano’s sound. The goal is to create a hybrid sound world.
The phrase “secret geometry” is used to describe the play of forms in certain paintings, referring to structural patterns that are employed to organize the pictorial elements. Since the electronic medium permits a composer to focus on the micro-structure of individual sounds, as well as more customary concerns with patterns of pitch and rhythm, it seemed appropriate to choose a title that emphasizes the careful shaping of every compositional element. But this is not to neglect the spiritual impulse of the work. After all, the obscure motion of the Holy Spirit herself describes a secret geometry, what Thomas Merton called “a hidden wholeness”.
Written for the distinguished pianist Aleck Karis, Secret Geometry was composed with the assistance of a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. The tape was realized in the Presser Electronic Music Studio of the University of Pennsylvania.
In line with the George Crumb quote above, I think of my music as being about a “system of proportions” – a secret geometry – “in the service of a spiritual impulse”.
Aleck’s recording of the piece was originally issued on a CRI (Composers Recordings, Inc.) disc. Though CRI no longer exists, their huge and important catalog has been made available once again by New World Records.
Click on the Discography link above for more of my music on disc.
I was surprised to see that there was little if any commentary online on the passing of pianist and composer David Burge earlier this month. He was an extraordinary champion of 20th century music, perhaps most notably that of George Crumb, who wrote his Five Pieces for Piano and the first volume of Makrokosmos for Burge. I saw him play the second book of Makrokosmos in Cleveland in the 1970s, and can report he had a complete mastery of Crumb’s expanded piano techniques. The performance was an experience of electrifying, even terrifying intensity, as in the “Tora! Tora! Tora! (Cadenza Apocalittica)” movement. I strongly recommend his book surveying the 20th century piano repertoire for its insights and for its sheer readability. It also includes a CD of Burge performances. Burge taught at Eastman for a number of years; Marilyn Nonken was among his notable students. I imagine he must have been a great teacher on the basis of an inspiring talk I heard him give, I believe at a festival of music for the keyboard at the Hartt School in about 1980, where he spoke of the pianist as shaman, enacting rituals at the piano for the listening tribe.
There is not a great deal of Burge on YouTube, but here is his recording of Rochberg’s 12 Bagatelles. I would guess the picture above is from the time of the Crumb Five Pieces in the early sixties.