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.

“Quiet, Andres, it was the Freemasons” – Wozzeck, Act 1

WordPress gives you all kinds of neat stats to let you know how your blog is faring in the world. (By the way, Secret Geometry recently passed 16,000 views!!) This includes what search terms people are using to get to your blog. Here is a screen grab of the search engine terms stats for today:

So, the first item, I assume, means somebody is trying to rip off Chinary and get some free sheet music – nothing novel about that, sad to say. But note the second item. Pierre Boulez, a Mason? Doesn’t that at least give you a moment’s pause? Might that not explain something about the history of high modernism and the post-war avant-garde? Didn’t you always suspect there were connections between and among Boulez, the CIA, Die Zauberflöte, the Trilateral Commission, integral serialism, Mary Magdalene, and the pyramid on the dollar bill? And if you didn’t have these suspicions, well, why not? Because they don’t want you to, right? Now, go back and re-read Ligeti’s analysis of the first book of Structures with all this in mind…

Voices from the Heartland

George Crumb says he has now finished his American Songbook project, with the final installment premiered last night in Philadelphia by Orchestra 2001 with James Freeman conducting. This has been a huge undertaking: seven big cycles of folk song settings, all for solo voice or two singers, accompanied by percussion quartet plus amplified piano. This last set, called Voices from the Heartland, includes settings of “Softly and Tenderly” “Lord, Let Me Fly!”, and “Beulah Land”, among others, as well as a couple of American Indian chants. There is a delightfully Ivesian treatment of “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens” combined with “On Top Of Old Smokey” – the two songs are sung simultaneously in different keys. In a sense, the pieces break no new ground for Crumb – he has his language  – but within that language they are unfailingly imaginative, varied, and beautiful. The performance was very fine, with George’s daughter Ann and baritone Patrick Mason as soloists. These singers, along with the instrumentalists of Orchestra 2001, are so experienced in performing Crumb’s music that the special demands he places on them – whispered vocal effects, or myriad non-Western percussion instruments – pose no problems. It is uncommon to hear players, for example, consistently command the extremely soft dynamics that George often requests.

I do wish the voices had been amplified more subtly – not just more softly, but not as closely miked. I feel there must be a way to use the amplification to support the voices and help them compete with the loudest percussion passages while still making it feel like the voices and the percussion are in the same acoustical space. In contrast, the amplification of the piano made some of its more delicate effects audible while keeping the instrument integrated with the non-amplified percussion. You were constantly aware of the voices being amplified – it shouldn’t draw attention to itself in this way.

The amplification was also a bit too loud for the Boulez Anthèmes 2 on the first half of the concert, in a virtuosic performance by Gloria Justen, with Peter Price assisting at the laptop.  As for the piece itself, it is a pleasant 8 minute demonstration of how a computer can process live violin sound. Unfortunately, the piece went on for 3 times that length. While the sounds were attractive, Boulez just presents them, never shaping them into a narrative. Not that every piece has to have a linear narrative; a succession (rather than a progression) of contrasting gestures can work, but if you are going to have a piece that long, you would need less repetition of gestures, or at least some genuinely extended phrases, rather than short phrases going on at length. A comparison with the Crumb is instructive: both pieces rely on an unusual sound palette, but the carefully shaped forms and the sensitive attention to timing in George’s music makes for a vastly more successful piece.

The concert began with a short piece by Louis Andriessen, a setting of a letter he received from mezzo Cathy Berberian, the spouse of composer Luciano Berio. In the letter she speaks of how Stravinsky re-shaped what became his Elegy for J. F. K. for her. The piece is straightforward, light in manner, with a hint of elegiaic tone, for it memorializes an artist who died too young. Ann Crumb served the piece well with her charismatic theatrical flair.

Here I am with George after the performance:


More about George and the Songbooks, here, here, and here.

Freegal is Free (well, for listeners)

Are you aware of Freegal? (Their website is mysteriously sparse.) This is a digital music download service for libraries to offer their account holders. You get three downloads a week – and you select from hundreds of thousands of items in the Sony Music holdings. Now, libraries are paying for the content – and it is slightly fishy that they are buying something and giving it to you instead of lending it. I leave you to ponder that one. The upside for listeners is rather amazing. Why Sony is doing this is a headscratcher. Just today, through the Free Library of Philadelphia, I got some of the Monk Town Hall concert. The Ellington listings alone could use up your 3 per week for a couple of years (Realize that Sony holds both the Columbia and RCA catalogs – Ellington’s two principal labels). Now, it isn’t perfect – I downloaded what was supposed to be Pierre Boulez’s Rituel – and it shows up in iTunes as Rituel – but it was actually a different track from the same album. Once again it’s the classical stuff that gets screwed up, just like the pages for classical CDs on Amazon that don’t identify the pieces and composers on an album, or the weird inconsistencies of how classical pieces show up in iTunes (How many classical tracks do you have where the genre comes up as “blues”?). Anyway, you can probably download this song, appropriate for the day.

Coming Attractions – 2011-2012

– Go here for a press release on the upcoming Miller Theater season, including a massive James Dillon 3-night extravaganza and Composer Portraits including John Zorn and George Lewis.

– the Orchestra 2001 website lists three programs for next year, with Boulez, Adams, Pärt, Andriessen, and a Crumb premiere – the seventh book in his remarkable American Songbook series.

CityMusic Cleveland offers 24 free concerts next season.

Network for New Music’s focus is on what they are calling Word Music, with big pieces by Lewis Spratlan and Matthew Greenbaum, and collaborations including one with The Crossing.

Boulez/Coke vs. Cage/Pepsi

I am pretty sure I can taste the difference between Coke and Pepsi, but I have to admit I have never tested this experimentally, blindfold and all.  And I am pretty sure I can hear the difference between the Boulez Third Sonata, and Cage’s Music of Changes. But, again, I have never actually confirmed this.

This post by Kyle Gann makes me think about the Coke/Pepsi problem. Gann notes some of the wackier ways of generating notes that can be found in Boulez’s Marteau, then comments: “What I can’t see is why this method of generating pitches has any significant advantage over Cage’s chance processes, which Boulez so vehemently rejected.” Now, please note that Gann isn’t saying you can’t hear the difference between Cage and Boulez. But his wondering about the advantages of the different techniques led me to think about the difference in the listening experience. Usually the dichotomy is laid out as Babbitt vs. Cage, the idea being that maximally and minimally intentional pieces end up sounding pretty similar. I have never found that convincing; the persistent density of a Babbitt piece is unlike the more variegated textures of Cage. But pitting those Boulez and Cage piano pieces against each other might prove tougher to discern. I think I can hear a certain degree of intentionality in Boulez, but am I just being fooled by the names on the CD boxes?

Of course, hearing something as admittedly vague as “intentionality” is a lot different from truly getting something meaningful out of the pitch games the composer is playing. And what does “getting something meaningful” mean anyway? What is it that I get out of Don Martino’s music that I don’t feel I get out of Babbitt? It probably has to do with the vivid gestures in Martino that are absent in Babbitt, but I still feel the pitches make sense to the ear in Fantasies and Impromptus in a way that they don’t in Partitions.  The latter piece is simply over my head. In Cage’s chance music, you aren’t supposed to “get” the pitches anyway – the music goes around my head. The Boulez Third Piano Sonata tries to be both Cage and Babbitt – irrational and hyper-rational – and ends up being neither. To me, Boulez is something of a naked emperor until Rituel, and even then I think he is overrated.

I am not saying twelve-tone music in general doesn’t make sense. There are too many ways of writing a twelve-tone piece to make generalizations of that sort. Joseph Straus’s excellent recent book, Twelve-Tone Music in America, amply demonstrates this. (More about that book in the Martino/Shapey post I still hope to finish at some point.)

I am in total sympathy with Gann’s esteem for Rochberg’s Second Symphony, and his Serenata d’Estate. That symphony truly deserves a revival, at least as much as – or more – than those of the “American symphonists” – Schuman, Piston, Diamond, etc.

Update: Kyle Gann stresses here that Coke definitely does not taste like Pepsi.

Répons response

Michael Kimmelman’s piece on Boulez in the NY Times today is mostly about Boulez the persona, then about Boulez the conductor, while Boulez the composer is a distant third. But what got my attention in the article was related to the composer angle. According to Kimmelman, Boulez’s Répons has been “rarely performed, just a few dozen times”.

On what planet is a piece that has been played “a few dozen times” accurately characterized as rarely performed?

In the real world, most composers – including those who are doing work at least as interesting as Répons, maybe more so – consider themselves very lucky if a piece receives a second or third performance. A tiny handful of American composers might have some pieces that are performed “a few dozen times”, but those pieces would never be thought of as “rarely performed”.

The premise behind Kimmelman’s remark about Répons is that the piece should be more widely played – after all, it is by Pierre Boulez; after all, it is “the first major work he wrote using the electronic-music institute in Paris, Ircam.”  This premise overestimates Boulez’s importance as a composer. If I had to pick a favorite member of the post-war European avant-garde, it would be Berio or Ligeti, not Boulez. If I had to pick an atonal piano sonata from the post-war era, it would be George Rochberg’s Sonata-Fantasia, not the Boulez 2nd. Try to imagine Boulez’s standing in the field if he wasn’t a leading conductor. Wouldn’t he be on about par with Dutilleux?

Répons is certainly impressive to see (I saw the piece done in NYC in the 1980s). There are six soloists, ensemble, surround sound, enough electronic gear to launch the space shuttle – but the musical payoff is not commensurate with the apparatus at hand.  (Mario Davidovsky used to joke about pieces that metaphorically use the space shuttle to drive down the Jersey Turnpike.) The moment when the electronics kick in is admittedly dazzling, but after that first entrance, the thrill soon wears off.  I remember two things from the piece in the versions I have heard: a quirky mixed meter allegro section, and mostly a whole lotta’ trills – not enough to carry a piece of that length. (The DG recording runs about 40 minutes, I understand later revisions have yielded a longer piece. Maybe there is more going on in those longer versions.) The recent Boulez piece I rather prefer is Sur Incises, which is scored for a mere nine players, without electronics, yet is more varied in its gestural repertoire. I get a more satisfying sense of narrative (fractured though it may be) from Sur Incises than from Répons.

However, my main concern is not Boulez, but the problem of the 2nd performance. In the orchestral world, there is a certain amount of prestige when an ensemble does a premiere, but the glamour quotient for subsequent performances falls off fast. (The exception is when there is a fad for a particular composer’s work, and then being on the bandwagon has its own kind of chic.) Too many first-rate pieces languish. To pick three such pieces at random: Melinda Wagner’s Trombone Concerto; Stephen Hartke’s Symphony #3, Augusta Read Thomas’s Orbital Beacons – these are all pieces well deserving of a “couple dozen” performances, but I don’t think those performances will be forthcoming; I hope I am mistaken.

Of course, there are exceptions, and of course, I and my colleagues are profoundly grateful for the opportunities that orchestras do give us. In my own recent experience, I am extraordinarily grateful to the Chicago Symphony for arranging a tryout of my Songs for Adam with the Chicago Civic Orchestra last spring. Composers for orchestra don’t get the out-of-town tryout that a composer for the musical theatre does. The second or third performance of an orchestral work affords a chance to test the myriad corrections and adjustments that a first performance suggests.

While orchestras are right to look to new music as a way of invigorating concert life, the seedlings of interest planted by such efforts will have shallow roots unless compositions are given an ongoing life and composers a more than sporadic presence in our concert halls.