Showing Up

Do the Math affirms the old principal that a goodly portion of life is about showing up. Here are a few things at which you may show up:

– I’ll be introducing a talk by George Lewis at my day job tomorrow, Sept. 12, 5:15 in the Music Building on the Penn campus. It feels a little like I am introducing a panel discussion – we will be hearing from a trombonist of historic important with a huge discography; a pioneer of electronic music, particularly in live and improvised contexts; and a musicologist who wrote an important history of the AACM.

Here is George Lewis speaking prior to a program of his music at Columbia’s Miller Theatre in 2012:

– the first of two all-Harbison Songfusion programs is this Friday in NYC. My friend Mary Mackenzie will be doing Simple Daylight, John’s emotionally devastating and impeccably crafted song cycle on Michael Fried texts, written for and recorded by Dawn Upshaw. The program includes instrumental works as well as vocal; the players include Ben Fingland, who gave that fine performance of my clarinet concerto last season.

– Judith Gordon, who premiered my piano consortium commission last spring, will take the piece out for another spin later this month. She will include Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift on a Sage Chamber Music Society concert, Sunday, September 29 at 4. The program is free, and will take place at Sweeney Concert Hall on the Smith College campus. More soon on performances of my music this coming season – for now click on the “performances” tab above.

Thanks for the “Gift”

My new set of piano preludes, Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, had its first road test today up at Smith College in Northampton MA. Judith Gordon was at the Steinway, and it was an exceptional, passionate, deeply considered performance. As I wrote below, intensity and intelligence are the words I associate with Judy. I can’t remember the last time I had a chance to work with such a fine artist in such detail on a piece. Her appetite for input and her ability to digest it and make fruitful use of it is amazing. Every performance is a collaboration between composer and performer, but this one felt more acutely so. I also learned a few things about piano playing – for example, I was interested to find out that some tricky rapid disjunct passages in my piece are actually best served by a fingering that does not seek a perfect legato – note to note connections are one thing, but a legato gesture is another, and that may call for a fingering that prioritizes the overall shape and character.

I can hardly wait for the additional performances that will be coming from other pianists in the next couple of years. It will be fascinating to see how different artists handle the piece, whether they find the same passages to be challenging, what they choose to emphasize, and what I will learn about the piece I made. I am already planning to adjust the score to reflect some articulations at the beginning of phrases that Judy plays in the third movement – her joy in the pattern created by those accents bouncing from hand to hand was contagious, and I need to explicitly request that those be brought out as she did.

Here are a some pictures from my trip. A few snowflakes are visible in a shot of the pond on the Smith campus:

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Smith’s music department is housed in a handsome building

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with a lovely recital hall:

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(The hall is pretty, but the sound is a bit boomy, with details getting a little lost in fast passages.)

Here’s Judy in action:

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and the two of us later in the day, after the session we did for Don Wheelock’s composition class:

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the prop, of course, being the score to the new piece.

So, thank you Judy, thank you Don, thank you to all who offered nice comments on the performance today.

Sunspots

sunspots_full_diskThese things just happen once in a while – I don’t know why – sunspots? –  but I seem to have six performances coming up next month. To save you from having to click on the “upcoming performances” link above, (although you should feel no inhibitions about doing so), here’s the news for April:

April 2, 2013: Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift (premiere)

Judith Gordon, piano
Sage Hall
Smith College
Northhampton, MA

April 5, 2013: Chamber Concerto

Benjamin Fingland, Clarinet
Network for New Music
Rose Recital Hall
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA

April 13, 2013: Times Like These

Lisa Oberlander, clarinet
Yien Wang, piano
Cheryl G. & Joseph C. Jensen Grand Concert Hall
of the Stephens Performing Arts Center
Idaho State University, Pocatello, ID

April 16, 2013: “Cinder” from Holy the Firm

Kameryn Lueng, soprano
Szilvia Mikó, piano
Longy School of Music
Boston, MA

April 18, 2013: String Quartet #3

Daedalus Quartet
Philadelphia Chamber Music Society
Settlement Music School, Queen Street Branch
Philadelphia, PA
Concert will honor composer Richard Wernick with performances of works by his students.
Program includes music by Melinda Wagner, Yinam Leef, and Philip Maneval.

April 27: “Cinder” from Holy the Firm; How Can I Keep From Singin’? (arranged by Primosch)

Kameryn Lueng, soprano
Szilvia Mikó, piano
Bito Performance Space
Bard College Conservatory of Music
Annandale on Hudson, NY

Would that this kind of thing happened more often. Hope to see you at one or another of these – I’ll be at Smith, in Philly for both concerts, and possibly at Bard.

Snowy Miscellany

It seems Easter is early and spring is late. It may be Monday in Holy Week, but yes, it is snowing in Philadelphia. Here are a few items of interest amid the large wet flakes:

– I had a a fine Skype session with Judith Gordon last night in which she played for me the five pieces that make up Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, the new piano piece of mine that she will premiere next week. A video call is a less than ideal way to assess subtle points of musical nuance, but if you can hear through the mesh that Skype places between your ears and the music, there is a lot that gets conveyed. Judy is doing a great job, and, to my surprise, there were hardly any places that needed adjustment in terms of composing – one spot where I was vague about dynamics, but not much else. We talked more about expressive character, some adjustments of timing, and about a few spots being pretty tricky to play, though Judy had them under control. It’s going to be a great performance – Tuesday, April 2, Smith College, 12:30 pm, Sage Hall.

– two of my Columbia mentors currently on the web: an interview with Chou Wen-Chung on New Music Box, and a chat with Mario Davidovsky at the Yellow Barn site.

– two links, the first serious, the other absurd – piano pieces by Dutilleux, and a remarkable excerpt from Pierrot (yes, that is Glenn Gould conducting.)

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.