When I visited Florida State University this past February, I was happy to meet a gifted pianist named Iris Cheng, a student of the marvelous Heidi Louise Williams in the graduate program there. I had a fine coaching session with Iris on my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, and am pleased to report she has programmed two movements from the piece – “Nocturnal Obsessions” and “Contraption” – for an upcoming recital. The concert will take place on Tuesday, April 18, in Longmire Recital Hall at FSU at 7:30 pm. Thanks to Iris and to Heidi for calling her student’s attention to the piece!
The deeply frightening election nightmare that has descended leaves little room to talk about artistic matters. And yet, I feel I would be remiss if I did not express my thanks for the recent performances of my music in the past several days.
Cantori New York and the French ensemble Musicatreize gave two vivid performances of my Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus in New York City this past weekend. The combined choirs mastered the intricate layering of the piece, with its settings of both the Latin Ordinary of the Mass and Denise Levertov poems that reflect on the liturgical texts. I felt the singers had internalized the gestures of the piece and projected them to the listeners with authority and nuance.
Overlapping with the Cantori concerts were performances of my Dark the Star with Baritone Tom Meglioranza and the New York New Music Ensemble This was an astonishing performance; Tom had memorized the piece, a 20-minute work that sets Rilke, Susan Stewart, and a verse from the psalms. Beauty of sound, precision, powerful affect – Tom’s singing had it all. The instrumentalists – Jean Kopperud, clarinet; Stephen Gosling, piano; Chris Finckel, cello; and Daniel Druckman, percussion, with conductor Eduardo Leandro – were no less eloquent.
Although I was in New York and could not attend, I was happy to learn that mezzo Kristin Gornstein performed one of my Three Folk Hymns this past Sunday as part of her recital at St. Thomas Church in Whitemarsh, not far outside Philadelphia. Her pianist was Derrick Goff. Kristin was very impressive when I heard her give the premiere of Steve Mackey’s Madrigal for voice and percussion at Tanglewood in 2015, and I am delighted she has taken up my music.
In addition to these performances, I want to report that pianist Youmee Kim has recorded my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift for Centaur Records as part of an album of American piano music. Youmee was a member of the consortium that commissioned the piece, and it is wonderful to have this elegantly performed document of that project. I am not yet finding the album online; Centaur advises checking Arkiv Music or HB Direct for its products, and I expect the disc will be available soon.
Geoffrey Burleson will be playing my complete Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift at Bargemusic this coming Friday, April 8 at 8 pm – it’s the first performance of the whole set in NYC. But if you can’t make it to that concert, a movement from Contraption called “Nocturnal Obsessions” is part of Geoff’s contribution to a Music & More concert at Good Shepherd Church in NYC this coming Tuesday, April 5, at 7:30 pm. More info here.
I will have two works performed at the Moscow Conservatory this coming December 3, and recently learned who the performers will be. Pianist Natalia Cherkassova will play Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift. This is the set of five short movements that came out of the consortium commission I have written about in earlier posts, including this one. Ms. Cherkassova will also accompany soprano Ekaterina Kichigina in two songs from the cycle Holy the Firm. On the basis of what I have seen on YouTube, I anticipate these will be excellent performances. Heartfelt thanks to scholar Svetlana Sigida who has arranged this program.
Here is Ms. Kichigina singing music of Schnittke:
and Ms. Cherkassova performing with Ivan Bushuev in the Jolivet Flute Sonata:
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:
Smith’s music department is housed in a handsome building
with a lovely recital hall:
(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:
and the two of us later in the day, after the session we did for Don Wheelock’s composition class:
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.
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.
The piano consortium commission is finished. I sent out the remaining two movements this past week, completing a set of five that will run about 13 minutes.
The first movement is quite bleak – here’s an excerpt:
A nice cheerful way to start a piece, don’t you think? The movement stays in the bass clef for most of its duration, tries to ascend, crescendos as it goes, the rapid figures get more and more wild, the music reaches the middle of the keyboard – but then collapses back to the depths. The title for this movement is from a Stephen Crane poem:
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter–bitter, ” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
(Those closing lines also serve as the title of a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, a fact unknown to me until I googled the Crane.) This first movement is followed by a moderato that is mostly in the treble clef. (There is an excerpt here.) The contrast of registers is a strategy I learned from playing sets of piano pieces by Crumb and Martino. In Crumb’s Makrokosmos, Volume I, the first piece is similarly focused on the lowest register – the figure at the top of the keyboard at the end of that movement is startlingly fresh, as is the next movement – which is all in the treble clef. (Once, in the Netherlands, I had to play Mak. I on an old piano with fewer than 88 keys, which required a quick adjustment to the end of the first movement!) Crumb’s use of short, sharp gestures in a higher register for the second movement serves not only to contrast with the opening movement, but also takes advantage of the resonance created by the low cluster held over from the first movement with the sostenuto pedal. The high staccato sounds excite sympathetic vibrations in those freely sounding bass strings. In the third movement, Crumb keeps the low cluster and mostly stays in the upper register again, though adding a few long-ringing bass notes. The Martino piece I am thinking of is another big set of relatively short movements, the Fantasies and Impromptus. Here the first movement is registrally quite wide-ranging; even the very first phrase spans the keyboard. The second movement resides in the upper half of the keyboard – the restriction of register and the resulting airborne texture provides welcome contrast with the previous movement. It is like chamber music after the full orchestra of the first movement. We worry so much about fine distinctions in composition, trying to find exactly the right pitch – as well we should; but the grosser distinctions – whether a passage or an entire movement is mostly high notes or mostly low notes – can be more important than one might think.
I haven’t blogged yet about the slow movement that follows. Here’s an excerpt:
Instead of just “Nocturne”, I’m now going to call the movement “Nocturnal Obsessions”; the tritones of the steady eighth note ostinato continue almost throughout, with short motivic cells floating above. This type of night music is indebted to Crumb – who got it from Bartok. To see what I mean, check out the slow movement of Bartok’s Out of Doors.
The last movement is called “Contraption” (the program note below will explain the title). This is a light-hearted piece, opening with a sort of fanfare:
where the steady eighth notes are at odds with the assymmetrical melody. When this is revisited later, the left hand eighth notes speed up and there are hints of Nancarrow and of stride:
Here are the movement listing and program note for the whole set:
Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift
Five preludes for piano
1) Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart
2) A Gracious Dance
4) Nocturnal Obsessions
This work was commissioned with the generous support of:
Ryan MacEvoy McCullough
Auden’s poem The Composer speaks of how painters and poets must “translate” from images of the real world or experienced feeling while the work of composers is something different:
Only your notes are pure contraption,
Only your song is absolute gift.
Now, there are abstract paintings that “aspire to the state of music” in Walter Pater’s phrase, and the conjunction of music and purity is questionable. But there is still something to the notion that music is about the play of forms that exist in the domain of music, and nowhere else. In this work, rather than setting a text or reflecting on some external image, I wanted to write a piece that would live in that musical realm.
Therefore, the individual titles for this set sprang from the music, rather than the other way around. The first movement’s title comes from a Stephen Crane poem, while the last’s reflects Auden’s sense of music as a self-contained construction, but also the dictionary definition of a contraption: “a machine or device that appears strange or unnecessarily complicated, and often badly made or unsafe.”
The plan is for each of the fourteen pianists to play the piece at least once in the next few years – I’ll be letting you know the details when the performances get scheduled.
My next tasks will be to continue work on some orchestral songs with texts by Susan Stewart, as well as a new motet for Emmanuel Church. There will also be a few things happening that I have been neglecting, like calling the plumber and raking leaves…