Four Composers, Three Books

Recent reading:

Thomas Adès: Full of Noises. In this book of conversations with Tom Service, Adès offers plenty of iconoclastic opinions. Britten, Mahler, Brahms, Wagner, Verdi, and more all come in for some pungent criticism. The finale of the Brahms 4th is “a terrible waste of space.” On Simon Boccanegra: “Artistically it’s disastrous, but for some reason this music won’t lie down and die.” But there are interesting insights into his own creative process: “I was looking and looking at a particular C sharp, and as I put it under the microscope I saw or heard a writhing that turned into the piece” – that’s a marvelous image. He is given to aphorism, even of a Wildean sort: “Ethics are a distraction an artist cannot afford.” Snarky though some of this sounds, I came to understand Adès’s side of the conversation in a more playful light after seeing this video in which he gently offers terrific insights on Ravel’s La Valse in a piano master class, as well as displaying some impressive piano playing.


Eagle Minds: Selected Correspondence of Istvan Anhalt and George Rochberg (1961-2005).
Allan M. Gilmor, editor. I picked up this hoping to glean some biographical info about Rochberg, with whom I took two classes at Penn, and whose music I have performed on several occasions. I was not familiar with the music of Canadian composer Anhalt – you can hear Glenn Gould play his striking Fantasy here – and I must admit to focusing more on Rochberg’s side of the correspondence. However, there are only bits of biography here that provide a very modest supplement to Rochberg’s memoir Five Lines, Four Spaces, with a few letters mentioning such events as the ordeal of his son’s death, his rejoicing at being finished with administrative duties at Penn, and performances of new pieces, including the premiere of The Confidence Man at the Santa Fe Opera. Many of the letters are given over to bemoaning the state of culture, and railing against organized religion, musical modernism, and the murderous 20th century in general, with the tone becoming increasingly dark over time.

Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer and Teacher, by Robert Riggs. Leon Kirchner (1919-2009) is yet another under-appreciated American composer (though perhaps the recent program of all four of his string quartets, given by the Orion Quartet, might signal a shift in his prominence). He was an considered an important name during my undergrad days, but I don’t think I ever heard his music live until I attended one of the first performances of his Music for Cello and Orchestra with Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1992. The book is respectful and thorough, tracing Kirchner’s studies with Schoenberg and Sessions, his activities as pianist and conductor, (including a number of years at the Marlboro Festival) and as a teacher, most notably his extended stint at Harvard. I like what I have heard of his music, written in a dissonant idiom in which influences from modernist masters like Schoenberg, Bartok and Stravinsky are put at the service of a passionate, vivid, and personal idiom. Here is the opening of Kirchner’s early Piano Sonata No. 1, in a performance by Leon Fleisher:

 

Mid-October Miscellany

There has been a lack of posting here due to a deadline for my Philadelphia Chamber Music Society commission. But this week I sent the last movement of my new violin and piano to my brilliant editor/computer notation wizard, and I am now catching up on various neglected tasks. I’ll write about the PCMS piece in another post, for now I’ll just say it is called Five Poems – it was originally going to be a Violin Sonata, but the movements feel more like character pieces than something “symphonic” in conception.


The soprano soloist for the New Juilliard Ensemble performance of my From a Book of Hours has been named: Alexandra Razskazoff. There is a brief bio of her here (scroll down) from a press release on a Juilliard performance of Le nozze di Figaro this past spring.


So many events worth your attention this weekend in Philly:

Guthrie Ramsey’s Musiqology at Annenberg
Network for New Music has a panel and a concert for the Persichetti centennial
Bowerbird explores Julius Eastman
The Crossing is at Chestnut Hill Presbyterian with encore performances of several pieces
Kile Smith has a premiere on the first Mendelssohn Club concert under new artistic director Paul Rardin


And if you are in New York City this weekend, Mimi Stillman and Bart Feller will be doing my Badinerie Squared at a New York Flute Club program this coming Sunday.


Recent reading:

Bluets – Maggie Nelson
A Dance of Polar Opposites – George Rochberg


Music is undervalued in more ways than just through insufficient royalty payments for streaming audio – read this essay by Craig Havighurst.

Three Generations of Penn

Rochberg taught Reise; Reise taught Gill. So when pianist Jeremy Gill plays a concert with violist Peter Minkler at Penn this Wednesday, October 1, at 8 pm in Rose Recital Hall, and the program includes works by Rochberg, Reise, current Penn faculty member Anna Weesner, and Gill, well, that’s what the post title is about. Rose Recital Hall is in the Fisher-Bennett building at 34th and Walnut in Philadelphia – the concert is free.

Here are some comments by Jeremy:

“I met George Rochberg in 1995 at a summer composition program in Madison, Wisconsin. I was then an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music, and Rochberg had already retired from a long teaching career at the University of Pennsylvania, where he built one of the finest composition programs in the country along with his colleagues George Crumb and Richard Wernick. I only had one private lesson with Rochberg that summer, but it was the single best lesson of my life, and I knew that he would remain a major figure in my development.

“When I came to Penn in 1996 to do a PhD in composition, I had the opportunity to continue our relationship, which soon blossomed into a true friendship (he and his wife, Gene, who is still alive and well at 94, were living in Newtown Square, a Main Line suburb of Philadelphia). Rochberg, though nearly 60 years my senior, always treated me like a colleague, introducing me to his acquaintances as his “young friend.” He continued to be a great mentor to me until his death in 2005, whereupon Gene asked me to edit a book he left unfinished for publication. A Dance of Polar Opposites came out in 2012, published by University of Rochester Press.

“The Viola Sonata that Baltimore Symphony violist Peter Minkler and I will perform on October 1 is one of the first pieces of Rochbergs that I came to love. It is full of fire, pathos, and is formidably crafted: the work of a true master and one of the most important works in the viola/piano repertoire. Peter and I gave our first performance of the work at the Mansion at Strathmore in New Bethesda, MD last spring (after a private performance for Gene) and Ive been dying to play it again since. Peter has been playing the sonata for about 30 years, and has made, in my opinion, the best commercial recording of the piece available (on the Centaur Records label, with pianist Lura Johnson). It is an honor to play this great work with him.”

Penn’s Voice

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)

IMG_3548

___________________________

* 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.

Mary Mackenzie at Penn

PCM poster 10.23.13Here’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)

(b. 1929)
I. Night
II. Let It Be Forgotten
III. Wind Elegy

GEORGE ROCHBERG         Eleven Songs (1969)

(1918-2005)
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)

(b. 1938)
I. Japan
II. Simple Daylight
III. Somewhere a Seed
IV. Your Name
V. The Wild Irises
VI. Odor

– intermission –

RICHARD WERNICK          Moonsongs from the Japanese (1969)

(b. 1934)
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)

(b. 1956)
I. ‘…that passeth all understanding’
II. Every Day is a God
III. The Ladder of Divine Ascent
IV. Cinder
V. Deathbeds

 

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.

-Mary Mackenzie

 

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.

Stephen Hough and the piano quintet

Stephen Hough writes here about some interesting programs he has devised for a Wigmore Hall series – the pattern of piano solo, string quartet, piano quintet is simple and brilliant, and I was pleased to see the diversity of the American program he has planned – Feldman, Carter, Lieberman. I tried and failed to comment on the post, but couldn’t get it to work, despite registering a Telegraph account. So I will say here what I planned to say there – that Americans have served the genre of the piano quintet well, with significant pieces by Wuorinen, Rochberg and Harbison, in addition to pieces by two of the composers already on Hough’s program – Carter and Feldman. (It’s a crime that the recording of the Rochberg by the Concord and Alan Marks is out of print.) It’s a genre dear to my heart, having had a wonderful time playing the Brahms with the Cassatt Quartet a few years ago, as well as playing and recording my own quintet with the Cavani and later, at Alice Tully, with the Miami.

Composers and their fees

Maybe Surely I am naive about this, but I was astounded by the fees that Glass and Reich are said to command in this post. Ned Rorem used to be considered outrageous for insisting on a fee to attend performances of his music, but the scale of the fees quoted is quite a different matter.

George Rochberg used to tell us that, “If money corrupts, you [composers] are incorruptible.” I am not saying Glass and Reich are corrupt! Nor am I saying that their fees are undeserved. But there does seem to be less of a distance between them and $$ than is the case for many composers, including some pretty famous ones.

Upcoming in Philly and NYC

– March 18 – soprano Mary MacKenzie (of SongFusion) performs with Shuffle Concert this Friday, March 18 at Baruch College. It’s a nice idea – the audience picks the program on the spot!

-March 19 and 20 – Orchestra 2001 plays Hindemith, Berio and Roberto Sierra. Julianne Baird, soprano; Marcantonio Barone, piano, Lori Barnett, cello are featured. The performance on the 19th is at the Trinity Center in Center City, Philadelphia, on the 20th at Swarthmore College.

– March 22 – the Philadelphia chapter of the American Composers Forum presents a webcast interview with George Crumb at 7 PM. Audio trailer here.

– March 29 – Penn Contemporary Music presents violinist Maria Bachman and pianist Jon Klibonoff at Penn’s Amado Recital Hall in Irvine Auditorium, 34th and Spruce Street. Program includes Glass: Sonata No. 1; Paul Moravec: Three Pieces; George Rochberg: Sonata; and the first performance of a new work by Penn faculty composer Jay Reise, The Flight of the Red Sea Swallow. The Glass and Moravec works are Philadelphia premieres. The late George Rochberg was, of course, a long-time Penn faculty member, and he wrote his sonata for Bachman.

– April 12 – looking a little ahead, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra will perform Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony at the Kimmel Center, Christoph Eschenbach conducting, with Di Wu, piano and Thomas Bloch, ondes Martenot.

Penn Troika

Go here for Kyle Gann’s post on Rochberg’s Serenata d’Estate. He talks about the similarity between certain moments in the Serenata and the work of George Crumb – so I had to post a lengthy comment there about the whole Penn Troika phenomenon. Kyle makes an intriguing connection between Rochberg and Feldman, of all people – funny to think of their work intersecting. Maybe the stasis of Varese is a common thread, with Varesian dynamics turned upside down in Feldman, of course. Earlier I wrote about Rochberg here, and here.

Boulez/Coke vs. Cage/Pepsi

I am pretty sure I can taste the difference between Coke and Pepsi, but I have to admit I have never tested this experimentally, blindfold and all.  And I am pretty sure I can hear the difference between the Boulez Third Sonata, and Cage’s Music of Changes. But, again, I have never actually confirmed this.

This post by Kyle Gann makes me think about the Coke/Pepsi problem. Gann notes some of the wackier ways of generating notes that can be found in Boulez’s Marteau, then comments: “What I can’t see is why this method of generating pitches has any significant advantage over Cage’s chance processes, which Boulez so vehemently rejected.” Now, please note that Gann isn’t saying you can’t hear the difference between Cage and Boulez. But his wondering about the advantages of the different techniques led me to think about the difference in the listening experience. Usually the dichotomy is laid out as Babbitt vs. Cage, the idea being that maximally and minimally intentional pieces end up sounding pretty similar. I have never found that convincing; the persistent density of a Babbitt piece is unlike the more variegated textures of Cage. But pitting those Boulez and Cage piano pieces against each other might prove tougher to discern. I think I can hear a certain degree of intentionality in Boulez, but am I just being fooled by the names on the CD boxes?

Of course, hearing something as admittedly vague as “intentionality” is a lot different from truly getting something meaningful out of the pitch games the composer is playing. And what does “getting something meaningful” mean anyway? What is it that I get out of Don Martino’s music that I don’t feel I get out of Babbitt? It probably has to do with the vivid gestures in Martino that are absent in Babbitt, but I still feel the pitches make sense to the ear in Fantasies and Impromptus in a way that they don’t in Partitions.  The latter piece is simply over my head. In Cage’s chance music, you aren’t supposed to “get” the pitches anyway – the music goes around my head. The Boulez Third Piano Sonata tries to be both Cage and Babbitt – irrational and hyper-rational – and ends up being neither. To me, Boulez is something of a naked emperor until Rituel, and even then I think he is overrated.

I am not saying twelve-tone music in general doesn’t make sense. There are too many ways of writing a twelve-tone piece to make generalizations of that sort. Joseph Straus’s excellent recent book, Twelve-Tone Music in America, amply demonstrates this. (More about that book in the Martino/Shapey post I still hope to finish at some point.)

I am in total sympathy with Gann’s esteem for Rochberg’s Second Symphony, and his Serenata d’Estate. That symphony truly deserves a revival, at least as much as – or more – than those of the “American symphonists” – Schuman, Piston, Diamond, etc.

Update: Kyle Gann stresses here that Coke definitely does not taste like Pepsi.