Eleanor Cory on Naxos

unknownIt’s not a brand new release, but it’s worth your attention, nonetheless: an album of chamber music by Eleanor Cory, issued by Naxos in 2015. It features a bevy of first-class New York musicians offering superb performances of half a dozen pieces by this New York-based composer who studied with Charles Wuorinen, Chou Wen-chung, Bulent Arel, and Meyer Kupferman. The music combines thoughtful rigor with playful fantasy, and the results are consistently appealing.

Eleanor asked me to contribute program notes for the album, and I reprint them below. The short poems are the composer’s own comments on the pieces. You can find a New Music Box interview with Eleanor here.


“Modal, tonal, atonal mix – their moves have added a new jazz.”

With that line from her poetic program note on her Violin Sonata No.1, Eleanor Cory sums up the shifting musical languages that give her music its unique vibrancy. The works on this disc reflect no narrow-minded compositional ideology; rather, the expressive impetus of each piece calls forth whatever will best serve that energy. It’s a pragmatic approach that is practical because Cory’s craft has not only breadth of expressive means, but the depth necessary to integrate that variety into coherent utterances.

Things Are

An example of this craft is the care with which registers are deployed. Cory’s memorial for composer Milton Babbitt, Things Are, opens with a Babbitt-esque series of brief gestures, dispersed through the high and low registers of the flute and piano. But the flute never exceeds its top E for the first eighteen measures, and when it finally does burst that boundary, the high F is a fresh-sounding arrival. Cory’s craft is further demonstrated by the fact that she doesn’t just employ a variety of expressive means, but rather finds intersections among her languages. For example, Cory’s early experiences listening to jazz in New York City have reverberated throughout her compositions. She writes in a note for Things Are that she “began to realize that the chords of bebop jazz were often re-voicings of Schoenberg and Stravinsky chords with different spacings and rhythms”, a realization she came to in part during discussions with Milton Babbitt, who, like Cory, was thoroughly familiar with the classic American songbook.  Several of the pieces on this disc make that realization explicit, with jazz elements emerging organically from materials that turn out to be not such distant relatives. In Things Are, the Jerome Kern standard All the Things You Are is the underlying basis for this emergence. After the succinct shapes of the opening, there is a gathering of energy with repeated note gestures. A floridly virtuosic piano solo follows, along with detached piano notes that offer a hint of tango. Eventually, the flavor of Kern’s harmonies underpins what the composer characterizes as a “soaring” flute line. The work was commissioned by the journal Perspectives of New Music for its Babbitt memorial issue, and was written for Jayn Rosenfeld and Stephen Gosling.

String Quartet No. 3

Four stretch, rotate, chase in fugues,
run, take solos, shake
and pluck as one, while flying
to negotiate the sweet
melancholy, swing
the jazz that takes atonal
angles for a ride on the
edge through angled cliffs

There is a hint of the elegiac in this music, the “sweet melancholy” of which the composer speaks, especially in the passionate lyricism of the first two movements. The quiet tremolos of the slow movement recall the delicate moments in Webern’s string quartet writing. The last movement yields to the pleasure of the pulse, with the repeated chords of the first movement and the slow moving harmonies of the second’s quiet passages now rhythmically simplified, serving as a grid supporting playful dialogues from the violin and cello. The texture lightens, indeed, sparkles, as the score suggests, with a contrasting pizzicato passage. But the repeated bowed chords return, and eventually the short melodic bursts are absorbed into the chords. What was background becomes foreground; as in the final cadences of a classical piece, simplification confirms closure.


An Epithalamium is a song or poem celebrating a marriage, and this one was composed for Cory’s own, to Joel Gressel. Flutist Patricia Spencer gave the premiere on that occasion. Contemporary composers have long loved the flute for its ability to instantly jump from register to register, creating not just a single line but a kind of three-dimensional musical space as multiple lines are implied. Cory’s piece contrasts sustained lyrical playing with playful detached gestures and more sustained flurries. A world of possibilities is unfolded by the elegantly shaped gestures of the piece, delineating musical space with fluid juxtapositions.

Violin Sonata No. 1

Dialogues in space spread like open playgrounds,
introduce new note games and meditations.
Slides and dances follow in hidden cycles,
secret, then lonely.
Lines give boosts to hurry the stream of growing
as the players work to cover the danger.
Modal, tonal, atonal mix – their moves have
added a new jazz.

A lyrical violin solo opens the piece, with the piano quickly joining in when the violin shifts to virtuoso flourishes. These elements – lyrical lines, dramatic flourishes – are then developed, and joined by sturdy repeated chords from the piano. A calmer, section follows, then rapid lyrical violin, supported by piano harmonies that are now sustained, bringing the movement to a close.

The second movement, in a loose theme and variations form, is shaped by increasingly dense textures, with an unexpected shift to very soft tremolo piano chords supporting lyrical violin lines. After this quietly exalted passage, sustained piano chords support the violin for an ending not unlike that of the first movement.

The third movement begins with a brilliant single line divided between the instruments, followed by strong piano block chords to support singing violin lines. There is a questioning interruption, then the singing resumes, now with broken chords from the piano. These elements – single line, block chord, broken chords, questioning – are playfully intercut, with the single line having the last unanimous word.

Fantasy for flute, guitar and percussion

The instrumentation of this one-movement work affords airy textures and the spirit of the piece is mostly light in mood and sound. The improvisatory character suggested by the title is reflected in the form, built of a series of connected short sections which become elongated as the music develops. A short percussion solo, punctuated by the other instruments, leads to a contrasting lyrical section in which the guitar and flute dominate. This music builds to a faster section with flute and guitar doubling against vibraphone chords, then dissolving into a mysterious passage colored by tremolos. The stasis turns into vigorous repeated notes for the closing section. As in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, the drums have the final say. Fantasy, commissioned by the Cygnus Ensemble, was first performed by Tara Helen O’Connor, flute; William Anderson, guitar; and Peter Jarvis, percussion.

Celebration for piano

Composed for Christopher Oldfather, who gave the premiere, these four movements – Balance, Innocence, Reverie, and Standards – are first of all a celebration of pianistic virtuosity. The music gleams with the insouciance of its fantastical textures, evoking an improviser in full flight. The first three movements suggest arch-like forms, where denser inner sections contrast with the sparser outer portions. The shape of the last movement is freer, as befits a movement where Cory’s affection for jazz tunes is made most clear, with a series of sly references to various standards.

Melinda Wagner on New Music Box

My good friend and admired colleague Melinda Wagner is featured in the latest New Music Box, with a substantial interview and video. Mindy is the real thing, with a body of orchestral and chamber music that speaks powerfully to heart and to mind. I wrote about her trombone concerto here. Paul Dunkel plays her Pulitzer Prize winner flute concerto with the Westchester Philharmonic, Mark Mandarano, conductor, on a Bridge CD that you can sample in this video:

Gunther Schuller online

I’ve been re-reading the relevant sections of Gunther’s book The Swing Era prior to working on a possible post on Woody Herman, and was inspired to go roaming around looking for some Gunther links and videos – here are a few:

Gunther on recording The Birth of the Cool:

The first movement of his String Quartet Nr. 2 (I believe this is an early Emerson Quartet recording):

The Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra playing the first performance of Gunther’s Dreamscape in summer, 2012 is here. (The embed code at that page and WordPress seemed unable to cooperate.)

New Music Box and Do the Math interviews with Gunther.

Rifftides post on Gunther and Leonard Bernstein, including video of Gunther’s composition Journey Into Jazz.

It’s Academic

463px-It's_Academic_WMAQ_TV_1967No, I’m not writing about this. While visiting New Music Box for its Robert Carl postings, I read Daniel Felsenfeld’s essay on the use of the word “academic” in reference to composers. The comment section is extensive. I want to point out a few things that you would think are painfully obvious, but don’t seem to be obvious to some of the commenters:

– there are people writing interesting music and people writing lousy music; some of each kind get academic paychecks, some of each kind do not. You cannot reliably predict what a composer’s music is like in terms of style or quality on the basis of that composer’s W-2.

– considerable power and privilege accrues to many composers with academic positions. Many composers outside academia also hold institutional positions of power and privilege.

– there is no one model for being a composer in academia. As Jennifer Higdon notes in the comments section of Felsenfeld’s post, her status as a member of the Curtis faculty plays a relatively modest role in how she earns her living, and some of the privileges you would think of as basic for any faculty member are absent in her case.

– the degree of interaction of the composer who draws an academic paycheck with the musical world outside the university can vary widely. Note Barbara White’s mention of her work with musical amateurs in the New Music Box comments section. I have a day job at a university, but I have also written a good many lead sheet style songs (in what one friend disparagingly calls the “happy-clappy” pop idiom of contemporary Catholic liturgical practice in this country) for church congregations to sing. I don’t think I am necessarily a better or worse composer for having written those – though, in the light of Kyle Gann’s post (see below) perhaps the professionalism I have sought in those pieces has been a good influence on my concert music.

I think the overwhelming presence of the pop music industry makes academic connections a source of anxiety in our field in a way that other arts do not experience. Do you love Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead more or less because she is on the University of Iowa faculty? You maybe didn’t even know she teaches there. Some pretty famous painters, folks whose pieces can at times sell in six figures, will take up an adjunct or visiting artist position when the vagaries of the art market temporarily reduce their gallery income – and nobody worries about them being academics or not.

I like what Felsenfeld has to say here:

We all know what is meant when the accusation of academicism is lobbed: that person (or their line of thinking) is cloistered, out of touch, has little bearing on the real world. But really, there is no “real world” and no “general public.”…

…when we use the idea of “academic composing” to pigeonhole other artists because we either don’t like their work or don’t agree with their methods, it becomes an unfortunate “choose a side” that all the recent important genre-leaping and boundary-crashing (or what have you) is there to eliminate. Maybe I dream, but the day that there are no “sides” but rather just individuals doing what they do (and possibly working alongside like-minded souls) will be a good day for us all.

For further reading, check out this important post by Kyle Gann – I think there is a lot of truth in the academic/professional contrast he describes.

Robert Carl on New Music Box

timthumbComposer Robert Carl (a fellow Penn alum) is a transcendentalist – to me, that visionary quality is the thread running through his diverse educational background (including work with Crumb, Rochberg, Shapey, Xenakis, and more), his varied musical interests, and his deeply moving compositions. An interview with Robert is featured on New Music Box this month; they have also posted his remarks to the Westfield State University New Music Festival. Check out Robert’s website here.

Tony Arnold on Carter

Soprano Tony Arnold has an exceptionally thoughtful piece on Elliott Carter’s vocal music at New Music Box. Her main points – a questioning of the real meaning of “idiomatic” writing; and an invitation to consider the role of timbre in performing this music – are important both for composers and performers.

I couldn’t find anything on YouTube with Tony singing Carter; instead, here she is with Crumb’s first book of Madrigals: