Spring Cleaning

Jamesprimosch.com has been in existence for quite a number of years now, and despite the assistance the WordPress design options afford, I was feeling a need for outside help in cleaning up the site and organizing it more clearly. I tended to just add more stuff on top of the stuff already there, and the result looked cluttered with redundant elements and inelegant formatting. Thanks to Willa Rohrer, who brought strong coding chops, an excellent eye for design, and marvelous photography skills to the project (along with great patience in dealing with her not-so-tech-savvy client), the site you are visiting is much improved visually and more tidily structured.

I will be adding additional content in future weeks – more audio and score excerpts, plus more frequent blog posts – so come back often, and let me know what you think of this new version of the site.

Sticky post: Recent Recordings

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Vocalisms includes 10 of my songs for soprano and piano, performed by Mary Mackenzie and Heidi Louise Williams. The album also features songs by John Harbison, Ned Rorem, and Daniel Crozier. You can find it at the Albany Records website, or Amazon. 

CD cover

Sacred Songs is devoted to my music for voice and ensemble, and was released by Bridge Records. Susan Narucki and William Sharp are the soloists; Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort. It’s available at Amazon and at Arkiv Music.  A review by Christian B. Carey on the Musical America website is here; another is at Audiophile Audition, by Steven Ritter. Composer Daniel Asia discusses the album at the Huffington Post here.

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.

Primosch, not Primrosch

Hey, I’m in the New York Times!

Or at least some guy with a very similar name is.

Back in 1993, Alex Ross gave me a favorable review in the Times – and spelled my name Primrosch.

Today, Steve Smith gave me a positive review in the Times – and spelled my name Primrosch. (Update: the Steve Smith review has been corrected – thank you for arranging this, Steve. I’ve also inquired about the 1993 error.)

Over the years, I have cashed checks made out to Primrosch, Primrose, and Primosh, among others. I am told the name was probably originally Hungarian, and would have been spelled Primocz, Primosch being a Germanization. I have also been told more than once that the “primocz” is the first violinist in a gypsy band, though you can’t find evidence of that on Google. I once had a driver’s license with the name Prbdsch. It did not go well when I explained to a traffic cop “oh, that’s not really my name”.

In case it is too much effort to click the link above, here is the relevant portion of today’s review:

The Prism Quartet — the saxophonists Timothy McAllister, Zachary Shemon, Matthew Levy and Taimur Sullivan — focused on music from a newly released Innova CD, “Dedication.” Initially envisioned as a collection of 20 one-minute pieces to mark the group’s 20th anniversary in 2004, the project overflowed its boundaries: the CD offers 25 pieces by 23 composers. The concert, around an hour long, included 24 works, mostly complete.

Given the intended format, most of the pieces were clever bagatelles based on a single notion: rhythmic intricacy, smooth blend, extended vocabulary and so on. Still, you were repeatedly surprised by just how much personality could be expressed in a few deft strokes, through the lush harmonies of Greg Osby’s “Prism #1 (Refraction)”; the 24-tone giddiness of Frank J. Oteri’s “Fair and Balanced”; the crabby grandeur of Tim Berne’s “Brokelyn”; and the jazzy swagger of James Primrosch’s “Straight Up,” to name just four examples from a consistently engaging program.

Prism Quartet performs again Friday at Leonard Nimoy Thalia, Symphony Space, 2537 Broadway, at 95th Street; (212) 864-5400, symphonyspace.org.

Prism plays Straight Up

In 2004 I was one of 23 composers invited to write short pieces for a concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Prism Saxophone Quartet. I reached into my files and took the basic musical material from a chart I had written for my undergrad school’s jazz ensemble, enriched the harmony a bit, added some dissonant counterpoint and a little cadenza, and produced Straight Up. The title came from a frequent conversational interjection by a trumpet player I knew back then, roughly equivalent to “no kidding?”, or “are you talking to me straight?” – a  possible reaction to hearing the piece.

Prism has recorded those 23 pieces for Innova, and to celebrate the release of the CD, they will play them in concerts in Philly and NYC. The Philadelphia concert is at the World Cafe this Saturday, May 29 at 7; the New York edition is at The Stone, March 31 at 10.

The list of composers is nicely diverse with respect to style, age, and so forth – here’s the list:

Tim Berne
William Bolcom
Zack Browning
Robert Capanna
Donnacha Dennehy
Dennis DeSantis
Nick Didkovsky
Jason Eckardt
Roshanne Etezady
Reneé Favand-See
Perry Goldstein
Jennifer Higdon
Libby Larsen
Matthew Levy
Keith Moore
Greg Osby
Frank J. Oteri
James Primosch
Tim Ries
Adam Silverman
Ken Ueno
Gregory Wanamaker
Chen Yi

(Hey, I went to a lot of trouble to get all those links, so start clicking.)

Video on Innova here.