Operas With a Future

Several of the pieces listed in the group of short essays in this Sunday’s NY Times about recent operas deserving of further performances were what you would expect, with works by Adams, Saariaho, and Adès featured. Two notable omissions that I would have included are Messiaen’s St. Francis and Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. I was surprised that the Messiaen was left out; sadly, not surprised about the masterful but under-appreciated Harbison. What would you have included?

Hank Jones, Messiaen and the Blues

More brief takes on some CDs:

Unknown-2Hank Jones: Tiptoe Tapdance. Complete Original Trio Recordings. Whether it be solo performances from the 70s (Tiptoe) or trio recordings from the fifties (with colleagues including Kenny Clarke, Elvin Jones and Oscar Pettiford among others), Hank Jones always exudes class. His touch is more mellow than percussive; and he prefers rich, thoughtful harmonizations to flashiness. The repertoire on Tiptoe Tapdance includes some spirituals and hymns, repertoire that Jones would revisit on his superb albums with Charlie Haden, Steal Away and Come Sunday. (I prefer Steal Away, the sequel is sometimes a little too straight in its arrangements for me.)

Unknown-1Messiaen: Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum; Chronochromie; La Ville d’en haut. The Cleveland Orchestra, Pierre Boulez. One of the applied music instructors at my undergraduate school, Cleveland State, worked as an auxiliary player with the Cleveland Orchestra, and was on the Boulez/Cleveland recording of The Rite of Spring done for Columbia. He told me it was the only record he ever made of which he was truly proud, and one can hear why: I wonder how many people at that time (1969) had heard The Rite played with such uncanny clarity, power, and precision. Decades later, those same qualities are present in this disc of Messiaen orchestral works played by the same forces. Chronochromie (the title refers to time and color) is of its time (1959-60) in its dense orchestral effects while remaining unmistakably Messiaen. This book led me to want to go back to the later Messiaen pieces like La Ville d’en haut. This relatively short work is attractive but doesn’t break new ground. Expecto is more direct in its discourse than the other pieces on this disc, and retains its stark, even alarming power.

UnknownThe Best There Ever Was: The Legendary Early Blues Performers. This is a compilation of recordings of rural blues from the ’20s and 30’s. The artists include names that I have heard of, like Skip James, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Son House, but there are some artists previously unknown to me here as well, like Furry Lewis, Garfield Akers, and Memphis Minnie. We have been trained to think of the blues as a 12-bar form, but you will find plenty of examples of other patterns here, including some that are quite irregular, changing phrase lengths from chorus to chorus. I’m afraid my reaction to the album was of more respect than love – some of the recordings are perhaps better appreciated by connoisseurs who are better informed about this music than I. Still, I don’t think you can get a full sense of what the blues means, and what it can be, without experiencing the rough eloquence of performances like these.

Walker, Messiaen, Rosen

I’ve been concentrating on getting the score of Sacred Songs and Meditations ready for the recording sessions and concert in July at the National Cathedral. (The concert isn’t showing up on their schedule of events just yet – it is set for Monday, July 8.) But you can’t copy edit all day, (well, you can, but the deadline isn’t quite here yet) so I have been doing a little reading.

I picked up George Walker’s memoirs, on the advice of Do the Math, and I agree with Ethan Iverson that the book is fascinating. Few artists of any kind are sufficiently valued, and the appreciation gap is especially large for composers. With an African-American composer like Walker you begin with that baseline lack of appreciation, but you have to add on the racism of America in general and that of the world of American classical music in particular. Walker has a right to be a good deal more angry than his courtly, measured prose conveys. The catalog of slights is endless – unsupportive teachers, performers who don’t follow up –  but there is no full-fledged rage here. On the other hand, he is quick to be critical, even dismissive of big names, startlingly so at times – Iverson speaks of the “forest of barbs”.

There are times when the book reminded me of George Rochberg’s memoir, because in neither book is there much discussion of peers or influences, but in the interview on Do the Math, Walker does cite a number of pieces that he finds attractive. There are no surprises here, but also no unqualified enthusiasms. As Walker says in the interview in reference to a list of famous pianists, “I am not a devotee of any of them.”

I had not been aware of Walker’s stature as a pianist, that Serkin took him on as a student, for example. Here are two passages I’ve been quoting to my students:

In my first meeting with Serkin at Curtis, he asked me to prepare for my lesson the following week the Bach Prelude and Fugue in B Minor from book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Les Adieux Sonata of Beethoven, and three Chopin études: C-sharp minor, op. 10, F minor; and D-flat major, op. 25.


I had memorized all of the assigned work for my first lesson.

Now, it is unlikely that this music was totally new to Walker, but still, that’s a pretty good week’s work.

I need to get to know Walker’s music better. My sense in reading through the piano sonatas is, unsurprisingly, that this is the work of someone who really knows his way around the piano. I was struck, in the 4th Sonata, at how Walker carefully deploys contrasting registers of the piano, sometimes using octave doublings, sometimes what you might call “inexact doublings”, a term associated with the sevenths and ninths that dominate some of Messiaen’s birdsong textures, though in Walker’s piece the dissonances are part of a more orchestral type of piano texture.

Speaking of Messiaen, also on my current reading list is Messiaen’s Final Works by Christopher Dingle. I certainly know a good bit more about Messiaen’s harmony than I did before opening this book. Previously, my superficial understanding was simply that it was in some undefined way derived from the composer’s “modes of limited transposition”, but there are specific chords that recur much more than I realized. Much of the book is devoted to an analysis of Messiaen’s last completed work, Éclairs sur l’Au-Dela. It is odd to read about the premiere of this piece as an historical event, given that I was present for the premiere in November, 1992 with the New York Philharmonic. But I guess I have become an historical event myself…

I have also been recently re-reading parts of The Classical Style in honor of its recently deceased author, Charles Rosen. Could such a book be published in this way today, packed with specially prepared and nicely engraved musical examples throughout? That is the case with the Dingle book, but consider from several years ago the ineptly engraved examples for the second edition of David Schiff’s book on Carter*, or compare Joseph Kerman’s Concerto Conversations, where the musical examples have been hidden in the back of the book, along with the notes – I shouldn’t have to use three bookmarks to get around a book. Supposedly the score excerpts are off-putting to the non-scholarly reader, though why you can’t just skip over them is inexplicable to me. I also wonder, with so much technical discussion, could The Classical Style win a National Book Award today?

Okay, enough, I better get back to work, especially since I plan to go to NYC for the Albany Symphony this coming Tuesday. Will report on that later this week.

* This is an odd case – Schiff’s actual writing is a tremendous contribution, but not only are some of the musical examples badly engraved, there are in some copies photographs mentioned on the dust jacket as being included in the book that are missing, and the headings over the descriptions of individual works are inconsistently edited. Was the book rushed into print for Carter’s 90th birthday?

Organic Questions Answered

Jonathan Rudy, a graduate student in organ at Indiana University, was in touch recently, asking some questions about my compositions for organ. He agreed to let me reprint his questions and my answers here.

1. In general, how would you describe your musical and extra-musical approaches to composition, and furthermore, how would you describe the musical style that results from this approach?

My approach is eclectic, varying widely depending on the expressive goals of the project at hand. I have written atonal pieces, pieces with key signatures and pieces that occupy many points in between on the technical spectrum. Sometimes a composition will be focused on a relatively small range of expressive means, but other pieces include a wider range of materials. For example, my work for sextet and electronic sound, Sacra Conversazione, alternates between tonal and twelve-tone movements.
2. Did you have to make any adjustments to your traditional approach to compose for the organ?

 No, I did not adjust my approach – it seemed like a natural medium, probably because of my experience as an organist – see below.

3. How did you become interested in composing for the organ, and have you had any prior experience with the instrument?

My principal instrument is the piano. However, my interest in the organ extends back to my childhood, probably because I was raised Catholic and heard the instrument at Mass. My own direct contact with the instrument began in high school when a spinet electronic organ, a Baldwin, was given to my family by a relative. Using the skills I had acquired through earlier music study as a basis, I taught myself to play the instrument and I began accompanying church services at St. Paschal Baylon church (see photo at left) in Highland Heights, OH. (I want to say that I do play the pedals, unlike many pianists who try to play the organ!)

Books and recordings at the local library were a big help. I also made it a point to seek out live performances of organ music such as the regular performances at the Cleveland Museum of Art (I recall a Messiaen festival there when I was a student) or the lunchtime programs at Trinity Cathedral, the Episcopal cathedral across the street from Cleveland State University, where I studied (A new Flentrop was installed at the Cathedral during my undergraduate days.) Radio broadcasts also nourished my interest in the instrument. I recall the regular series offered by John Obetz on the Auditorium Organ broadcasts heard weekly on WCLV-FM in Cleveland.

Although I am self-taught as an organist – and a real organist would justifiably laugh at my technique – I have long functioned on a paid professional basis as a church organist, in my hometown of Cleveland, OH and in New York City. (I have been less active since my move to Philadelphia in 1988, although I continue to play the piano at services.) This probably bespeaks the low level of competence among Catholic church musicians these days more than any talent on my part. But it also reflects the fact that I am a composer, for as a composer I have a vivid imaginative sense of how a piece of music should sound. Having in mind an intense sound image can overcome a lack of technique, for the body will follow where the ear leads. I also think my composer’s ear serves me well in choosing registrations. I have a sense of whether, for example, adding a mixture for the final verse of the hymn will either encourage or overwhelm the congregation’s singing, something that some organists with a bit of training seem unable to calculate.

4. In terms of your output for organ, did you have any inspiration or guidance, such as the works of other composers (past and present) or performers? 

The most important organ composers – Bach and Messiaen – are, of course, primary inspirations. But I am interested in a wide range of organ compositions from Frescobaldi and Buxtehude to the present day. The Messiaen influence is readily seen in certain treatments of texture and layout of musical material. For example, in my “Meditation on ‘What Wondrous Love is This?’”, the use of the 4’ pedal for the melody and the dissonant figures over sustained slow moving chords come right out of Messiaen.

I owe a great deal to Karel Paukert, organist and long-time Curator of Musical Arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art (now retired), who, through his playing, programming, and support of my compositional work, was a tremendous inspiration and resource.

5. I’ve read in your biography that sacred music plays a deep role in your compositional work. Especially considering the organ’s origins and usage today as a “church” instrument, how do you feel sacred music plays into your works for organ? Furthermore, how do feel these works would function as practical pieces in a sacred setting?

Ever since my “Three Sacred Songs” for voice and piano, I have made use of pre-existing sacred melodies in some of my compositions. That set began in response to a friend’s request for folk song arrangements to perform at an upcoming recital. I was not especially interested in folk music, but chose to arrange melodies that I had learned in my work as a church musician. The use of older melodies worked well with my eclectic compositional approach in which tonal and post-tonal materials are integrated. All three of my published organ compositions make use of pre-existing tunes. Although the program note for my “Little Suite” speaks of the three movements as possible prelude, interlude, and postlude at a service, in reality I don’t suppose that my organ music would actually find a place in the vast majority of churches today, at least in my own denomination.

6. Finally, what did you enjoy most, or perhaps find most inspiring, about writing organ literature? How is it similar and/or contrasting from writing for other instruments? First of all, I simply enjoy the instrument with its vast range of expression and technical possibilities. I enjoy working with an instrument with which I have had hands-on experience. And I like the idea of working in a somewhat esoteric niche, of being in on the trade secrets of a special guild, so to speak. Most composers wouldn’t know a bourdon from a salicional, but it is fun to be someone who does know the difference. There is also the somewhat childish thrill of simply being able to make a big noise!

Technically, the chief issue in writing for the organ compared with other instruments – besides knowledge of the instrument’s capabilities – is keeping in mind the highly resonant spaces in which the instrument is typically found. The organ is a public instrument, and although you can write intimate music for it, that music is always perceived at a certain psychological distance compared with, say, a solo piano or string quartet. A Bach trio sonata is like chamber music, but it is not heard in a “chamber” – literally, or metaphorically, in the mind’s ear.


If I am completely honest, I think seeing this film at an early age influenced my interest in the organ, especially the second portion of the clip.

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.

Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum

Yvonne Loriod has died. A collection of obituaries here.  Alex Ross posted this video, which says a lot about her extraordinary pianism.

I met her at Swarthmore College in 1978, at a complete performance of the piece one of my piano teachers always called “Give My Regards to Jesus”. (Why Swarthmore, you ask? Gerald Levinson, composer on the Swarthmore faculty, was one of Messiaen’s few American pupils.) Of the pianists I have heard do the piece, only Peter Serkin and Pierre-Laurent Aimard could get the variety of color that she achieved.

Did you know she premiered the Boulex 2nd Sonata? Or played a cycle of 22 Mozart concerti? Or ran the tape recorder on joint ornithological expeditions with her husband?