Quick CD Comments

Persichetti: Symphony for Strings, Piano Concerto. Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (Symphony), Charles Dutoit (Concerto) New World Records. It’s been a long time since I first encountered the music of Persichetti by playing his wind ensemble music, which is probably the way most American musicians first get to know his work. (The Symphony for Band is one of the great classics of the medium.) Less frequently encountered is Persichetti’s orchestral music. The harmonic idiom is a bit darker than I recall from the band music, but consistently attractive. Like so much mid-20th century American music, this is repertoire that really should be more widely played. The performances are excellent, as one would expect from the Philadelphia, though the last movement of the concerto is ill-served by the overly rapid pace set by Dutoit.

Shelly Manne and His Friends, Vol. 2 (Andre Previn, piano; Leroy Vinnegar, bass; Shelley Manne, drums) Contemporary Records. The centrality of the Broadway musical to the American musical scene in the middle of the last century was such that there developed a fad for jazz interpretations of the scores from the shows – not just individual tunes, but entire albums devoted to the shows. I believe the present 1956 album of songs from “My Fair Lady” is the first of its kind. All the players are brilliant, the arrangements are charming, but there is something a little superficial here; it’s a sort of highly sophisticated piano lounge music.

Now Is the Time for Secret Geometry

wrtiI 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.

Icons in NYC and Philly

Ben Fingland, clarinet, and Steve Gosling, piano, will play my Icons in New York tonight, Feb. 12, at Spectrum NYC, which is at 121 Ludlow Street, on the second floor – show at 7:00 pm. Violist Jessica Meyer will also perform. The program comes to  Philadelphia tomorrow night, Feb. 13, at Rose Recital Hall on the U of Penn campus – 8:00 pm

Icons is a piece for clarinet, piano and electronic sound – originally on tape, but now played back from a CD. Here is a program note for the piece:

Icons was completed in 1984 and premiered later that year at Tanglewood.  The tape part was realized, using analog devices, at the Columbia University Electronic Music Center.  Most of the tape relies on classical studio techniques, affording a tight interweaving of instrumental and electronic parts.  Portions of the piece exploit voltage-controlled synthesizers to provide a diverse palette of colors.

The work was recorded by Jean Kopperud and Aleck Karis for release on New World Records in 1998.

The title refers to passages in a book by Madeleine L’Engel entitled Walking on Water.  In this book, the author speaks of the calling of artists to form “icons of the true”.  The following excerpt from the book appears in the score: “In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars.”

Yes, it’s the same Madeleine L’Engel who wrote this beloved book.

Wail of the Voice: Primosch

1115410I am faced with the performance of some older pieces of mine this spring, the first being my 1991 piano trio, Fantasy-Variations, on this Friday’s Wail of the Voice concert at Penn (see the posts below for more information). I heard a rehearsal of the piece the other day with Min-Young Kim, violin; Tom Kraines, cello; and Gregory DeTurck, piano. They are doing a fabulous job, there is no doubt about that, but what kind of composing job did I do 21 years ago?

It is a curious thing to hear a piece from that long ago. Lutoslawski referred to the experience as being like hearing the work of a younger colleague. I can’t say I feel a similar sense of distance, but I do recognize that I would have treated some ideas differently today than I did 2 decades ago. There are a few spots where the rhythms are unnecessarily tricky, others where the rhythm is too straightforward – it’s curious that there are miscalculations of both kinds. I hasten to say (given that I am trying to get you to come to Friday’s concert) that there are also spots that still sound OK! Perhaps more interesting than my subjective and confused sense of whether the piece is any good is the fact that there are aspects of the piece that are consistent with my later compositional practice, the most obvious being my interest in variation form. My Third Quartet (to be played this spring by the Daedalus Quartet) is built around a big variation form, and the Sonata-Fantasia for piano and synthesizer that I wrote for Lambert Orkis opens with a 25 minute variation set. (I later made that set into an independent piece (search “Primosch” and scroll down) for piano solo.) I think this continuing interest in writing variations partly stems from my experience as a jazz musician – playing choruses constitutes improvising variations.

Here is my program note on the Fantasy-Variations:

The theme that opens my Fantasy-Variations  permeates the harmonic and melodic life of the 24 short episodes and coda that follow.  However, in a few sections the relationships with the theme are more hidden than explicit; the fanciful connections between these portions and the opening theme suggested the work’s hybrid title.  Yet even in these more wide-ranging variations the opening theme is usually still hovering nearby, often as a quiet presence contrasting with more animated gestures.

The piece may be understood as a kind of dream journal: a chain of brief entries that seem to vary greatly, yet rotate about a fixed constellation of types and obsessions, speaking a language of images at once logical and impossible, familiar and mysterious.

I wrote the Fantasy-Variations for the Leonardo Trio* in 1991 with the support of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in composition.

A recording of the piece is available on a disc from New World Records (see image above).

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* I am sorry to say that the Leonardo Trio doesn’t seem to exist any longer, although the members continue to be active in other musical pursuits. A Google search shows a Trio Leonardo and another Leonardo Trio, neither of which is group for which I wrote. The members were Erica Kiesewetter, violin; Jonathan Spitz, cello; and Cameron Grant, piano. Besides my own disc, they can be heard on an album of music by Morris Rosenzweig and a disc of Smetana, Martinu and Shostakovich.

New World and Albany on Freegal

I’ve written before about the free music service Freegal, which I access through the Free Library of Philadelphia – you need a library account (from the FLP or you can try your local library) to use the service. You can download three tracks per week, free of charge, and, as the name suggests, it’s totally legal. The catalog of music is enormous, and I now notice it includes music from New World Records and Albany, two prime sources for new music. My own album on New World, Icons, is there. I don’t know if these labels were represented all along and I just never noticed or if they are new additions, but the point is that you can access them now. Freegal lacks a decent search engine, and lists classical recordings by performer, not composer, but it is still worth looking around the vast list of material. By the way, did you know that New World’s project to make the entire CRI catalog available is complete?