Penn’s Voice

Mary Mackenzie’s recital at Penn last week featured several pieces by Penn faculty, both current and retired. She opened with the Three Early Songs of George Crumb, and I mean early – these were written when George was still a teen, intended for his wife Liz to sing. (Come to think of it, I don’t know if they were married at the time, or still just high school sweethearts.) Although George denies it, there are hints of his mature idiom here, and not just in the nocturnal cast of the texts and settings. There is a moment in the second song where the piano pedal is held down while a repeated figure is played softer and softer. That use of resonance, a resounding, echoing effect, is an essential thumbprint of Crumb’s music, part of the acoustic of his native West Virginia landscape, with sounds reverberating amid the hills and valleys.  Mary offered more Crumb in the second half of the concert, his little Poe setting, The Sleeper, which was written for a Jan DeGaetani Carnegie Hall recital (I was there!)*

There was more music by Penn emeriti as well, both pieces from the late 60s. George Rochberg’s Eleven Songs sets short texts by his son Paul. It was Paul’s early death that led George to reconsider his aesthetic outlook and reject serial technique, while embracing a broad range of musical possibilities, including 19th century tonal practice. While he never engaged serialism again, George still did write atonal music, such as this set of songs. This was fiercely expressionist music, full of vivid gestures and often anguished in tone. To me the piece sounded somewhat dated; some of the gestures may have carried a certain amount of shock value fifty years ago, but piano clusters and sprechstimme vocal effects don’t in themselves mean a great deal. They can’t make up for a piece’s lack of substance. The set dragged, and although they are short songs – and were well-performed – they felt long.  In contrast, Richard Wernick’s Moonsongs from the Japanese, did seem to me to hold up. The piece is written for soprano and two pre-recorded sopranos (though it could, I suppose, be performed by three sopranos.) These settings of short haiku-like poems were concise in a way that the Rochberg songs were not, and although they too were of their time in the use of non-synchronized passages and non-pitched phonemes, these devices felt integrated and did not call attention to themselves in the way that the special effects in the Rochberg did. The use of pre-recorded female voice, the exploration of phonemes and the wide-ranging melodic gestures brought Babbitt’s Philomel to mind, though the pitches made sense in Wernick’s piece in a way that, for me, Babbitt’s pitches do not. Moonsongs was written for Neva Pilgrim, and when I heard a dub of the tapes Neva had made for the piece decades ago, I knew the sound quality would not be acceptable, so Mary and I made a fresh version of the tape. Her astonishing virtuosity meant this was not a lengthy job; only a few takes were needed for a given section. I would like to go back to the materials and polish my editing of the piece a bit, but we managed to get something together that was quite effective.

The one non-Penn composer on the program was John Harbison. Mary’s performance of his Simple Daylight, six songs on texts of Michael Fried, was harrowing. It was an interesting contrast with the Rochberg – there is anguish in both pieces, but there is much greater musical substance in John’s piece. The emotional power of the piece springs directly from it’s detailed craft. It’s one of John’s darkest pieces, and one of my favorites.

Mary closed the program with a complete performance of my cycle Holy the Firm. Singing from memory, she vividly conveyed the ecstatic and contemplative aspects of the piece, with full command of the mad scene that is the final song. H the F will be on the upcoming Bridge CD, in its chamber ensemble version, as performed by Susan Narucki. I’ve been very lucky with performers of this piece, and Mary Mackenzie’s performance continues that lucky streak.

Eric Sedgwick was Mary’s unflappable pianist. As someone remarked to me, “he’s one of those Zen guys”, meaning Eric is the kind of pianist who works wonders while appearing to barely move. The piano part for Holy the Firm is very notey, and Simple Daylight is intricately worked, but no problems were posed for Eric. He is the kind of player whose trills – fast and wonderfully smooth – are played purely with the fingers; no helpful forearm rotation required. He partnered Mary impeccably.

I am writing this after my return from Cornell where Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift was performed – more about that in my next post.

Here’s a picture from Mary’s concert. (l to r: George Crumb, Mary Mackenzie, Richard Wernick, and Eric Sedgwick)



* Not only was I there, but this was the occasion for one of those only-in-NYC moments: I got in the elevator to go find Jan and the composers whose songs she had premiered that night. In the elevator with me were Teresa Sterne (the force behind Nonesuch records in those days, including Jan’s unsurpassed recording of Ancient Voices) and Issac Stern. Ms. Sterne asked Mr. Stern the following question: “Is it true that you once received a review that said, ‘He left no tone un-Sterned’?” The answer was yes.

Mary Mackenzie at Penn

PCM poster 10.23.13Here’s the poster for next week’s concert by Mary Mackenzie and Eric Sedgwick at Penn. New works is a bit of a misnomer; in fact, all of the pieces are from the 20th century, not the 21st. But they are certainly contemporary in that all but one of the composers is still living, and George Rochberg only died a few years ago. Here is the complete program:

GEORGE CRUMB                Three Early Songs (1946)

(b. 1929)
I. Night
II. Let It Be Forgotten
III. Wind Elegy

GEORGE ROCHBERG         Eleven Songs (1969)

I. Sunrise, a morning sound
II. We are like the mayflies
III. I am baffled by this wall
IV. Spectral butterfly
V. All my life
VI. Le Sacre du Printemps
VII. Black tulips
VIII. Nightbird berates
IX. So late!
X. Angel’s wings (Ballad)
XI. How to explain (Ballad)

JOHN HARBISON                Simple Daylight (1988)

(b. 1938)
I. Japan
II. Simple Daylight
III. Somewhere a Seed
IV. Your Name
V. The Wild Irises
VI. Odor

– intermission –

RICHARD WERNICK          Moonsongs from the Japanese (1969)

(b. 1934)
I. Mikazuki wa…
II. Tsuki ni e wo…
III. Tsuki-wo matsumi…
IV. Tsuki ichi-rin…

GEORGE CRUMB                The Sleeper (1984)

JAMES PRIMOSCH             Holy the Firm (1999)

(b. 1956)
I. ‘…that passeth all understanding’
II. Every Day is a God
III. The Ladder of Divine Ascent
IV. Cinder
V. Deathbeds


While the compositions are not brand new, there is one completely new element involved. Dick Wernick’s Moonsongs from the Japanese is written for either three sopranos or a solo soprano with two pre-recorded sopranos. Since the sound quality of the tape from 45 years ago, prepared with Neva Pilgrim, the singer for whom the work was written, had deteriorated, Mary and I decided to re-make the recorded component. I am used to working with electronically generated sound, not a live recording of a human, so I have had to stretch my technique a bit in editing the material. Mary’s remarkable virtuosity made the recording sessions fairly straightforward. With Dick in attendance to guide us, we were able to do the job in relatively few takes. It will be a great pleasure to hear the piece for the first time in a new realization on this concert.

Here are some notes on the program:

When James Primosch invited me to present a solo recital at University of Pennsylvania, I immediately knew I wanted to create a program of all modern vocal music featuring some of the former and current composition faculty. It was very rewarding to explore each composer’s catalogue of work – there was so much to choose from and more than I could possibly program!

I connect equally with both music and words, and oftentimes, I feel a connection simply by looking at the score without knowing exactly what it sounds like.What I enjoy most about many of the pieces on this program is that they make powerful statements with very few words. As you listen tonight, I think you will discover that the music in each piece “illustrates” the poetry in a unique way. I prefer the word illustrate to painting – word painting is heard more often – because it brings to mind an artist making very small and detailed strokes, and the art grows out of the words.

I want to thank University of Pennsylvania for having me, and James Primosch and Richard Wernick for assisting with recording the soprano parts for Moonsongs From the Japanese.

-Mary Mackenzie


The Three Early Songs are jewels written in 1947 when the composer was 17 years old, and represent his first vocal writing. There were seven songs composed during this period, just after George graduated from high school, and he feels that these were “probably the best of them.” George didn’t really know the vocal idiom at this time, so they are not operatic but folk, in essence. As early works, they pay homage to Rachmaninoff, and although they are not representative of Crumb’ more mature style, they are “of some interest.”

– Barbara Ann Martin


When he died in November 1964 at the age of twenty, my son Paul left about 150 poems, most of them written in the years between the time he was fourteen and nineteen. Even while he was still writing I often thought of setting his work, but it was not until the late summer of 1968 when I wrote the Tableaux, based on fragments and images from his story “The Silver Talons of Piero Kostrov”,” that I was able to find a way to approach his uniquely individual language. From the very beginning Paul’s poems and stories had a surface sparseness which belied the richness and density of his images and emotional range. For me there is only one other poet in the English language whose early work has the same general characteristic: William Blake. But it was more likely Japanese and Chinese poetry and Eastern thought in which Paul was deeply immersed rather than Blake which influenced his attitude toward language, its texture and its capacity to imply more that it actually said. The surreal, fantasist worlds of Rimbaud and Redon also worked their special magic in his inner life.

These are “songs” then in the most traditional sense; and I have attempted to reveal through each setting the particular world of each poem, however brief some on them may be. The piano “accompanies” the voice at times; but it also behaves in other ways – commenting as the need arises or creating an environment in which the singer can project the verbal phrase and its imagery on her own. As always when dealing directly with someone else’s work, one hopes that he has not interfered with or obscured the essence of it, but rather projected it in new and clear light where its integrity remains intact.

– George Rochberg


It has been a source of satisfaction to me that the first performers and listeners for Simple Daylight have been especially struck by the poems, and by the strong musical responses elicited by the poems. I have been grateful for Michael Fried’s work in many ways, most obviously in my previous settings of his texts, in Three Harp Songs (1972) and in The Flower- Fed Buffaloes (1976). My ordering of his poems makes a sequence closer in tone to a Bach Cantata text than to a nineteenth-century song cycle, and evokes a kind of subcutaneous narrative very favorable for musical purposes, but no doubt unintended by the poet.

– John Harbison


Moonsongs from the Japanese was commissioned by Neva Pilgrim, for whom I had written my Haiku of Basho, and composed in late 1968-1969.  Hearing the piece now is much like looking back on a younger cousin. The piece is dedicated to Neva Pilgrim and the Apollo Moon Project, and I recall my wife and I rousting our kids out of bed to watch Neil Armstrong land on the moon. The original pre-recorded tracks were done on 15 ips reel-to-reel tape, pre-Dolby, and over the span of 45 years became totally degraded. I am grateful to Mary Mackenzie for having made the new ones in a digital format that might end up having a longer life.

The piece is made up of four very brief Japanese poems (not quite haiku), set to four equally short musical settings. The periods of the four poets range from the 15th to the 20th centuries. The musical style is far different from the one I use today, although I can detect the roots of what I now do. Unlike many other composers I never made a quantum leap from one style to another, and it pleases me to look back on the gradual change.

I have attached to the score a wise line from a wise playwright, Brendan Behan—“Don’t muck about with the moon”.

– Richard Wernick


For the text of this little song [The Sleeper] I have excerpted only a very few lines from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem. Admittedly the sense is thereby considerably altered (Poe’s poem is somewhat lugubrious in its total effect), but I do feel that there is such a thing as “composer’s license.” Besides, I was specifically asked for a short song!

The sparse, tenuous textures and extremely soft dynamic of The Sleeper will project a kind of “minimalissimo” character. I have used a range of timbral devices in the piano part to suggest that transcendental feeling which Poe’s eerie images of nature invoke  — rustling glissandos on the strings of the instrument, delicate muted effects, and bell-like harmonics (which ring in the midnight hour in the first bars of the song).

The vocal part, which is quite simple in style and based entirely on a few tiny melodic cells, requires great sensitivity to nuances of pitch and timbre. I have endeavored to compress an intense and even expansive expressivity into a very small frame, which is, I suppose, what writing a little song is all about.

– George Crumb



The little anthology of texts dealing with praise and mystery that I have assembled for Holy the Firm draws upon writings of three twentieth-century American women and a monk of the seventh century Sinai desert. It may be helpful to know that the fifth text is excerpted form a found poem based upon phrases culled from the Dictionary of Last Words edited by Edward S. Le Comte. The wide-ranging affects of the texts called forth a similar range of musical languages but there are many recurrences, both musical and textual, that bind the songs together.

The cycle’s title is borrowed from that of a book by Annie Dillard that also provided the words for the second song.  In that book, Dillard writes: “Esoteric Christianity, I read, posits a substance. It is created substance, lower than metals and minerals on a ‘spiritual scale’, and lower than salts and earths, occurring beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets, but never on the surface of planets where men could discern it; and it is in touch with the Absolute at base. In touch with the Absolute! At base. The name of this substance is: Holy the Firm.”

– James Primosch


More about this concert next week.

Richard Wernick and his Students

IMG_0070Here is the mentor and his mentorees: L to R, Philip Maneval, Yinam Leef, Richard Wernick, Melinda Wagner, and myself, taken after the April 18 concert of music by students of Dick Wernick held at the Settlement Music School here in Philadelphia.

Dick told the story of the graffito above the urinal in the men’s room in the Penn Music Department annex, the building where the faculty composers’ offices used to be. The inscription read: “Rochberg is the Father, Crumb is the Holy Ghost, and Wernick is the Son of a Bitch.” Yes, Dick was a challenging teacher, as some of us wrote in the program book for the concert. (Find the program notes here, here, here and here.) But there is more to the man than that, as I know from the kindnesses he showed me decades ago when I was ill with the same disease that took the life of his son. It would have been quite understandable if Dick went running in the other direction when he got word of my diagnosis. Instead, he was on the phone to me with advice, with names of doctors, with generous support. I count myself fortunate to know Dick Wernick.

And you will be fortunate if you check out his music! Try the recordings on Bridge of his concerti, or of his chamber music, or the one with big sonatas written for Lambert Orkis by Dick and myself. These are all splendid performances of Dick’s powerful, beautifully made pieces.

Speaking of performances, the players of the Daedalus Quartet, the Trio Cavatina, Elizabeth Hainen and Burchard Tang were superb in some very challenging music last week. These were high-calorie pieces, densely argued, with wide-ranging expressive demands. The performances were notable for their passion and sharply etched character. I was delighted with the performance of my quartet, and was astonished at how the Daedalus took on not just my piece, but three substantial works, all played with uncommon care.

Melinda Wagner on Richard Wernick

c-wagnerReaders of this blog will know how very strongly I believe in the music of Melinda Wagner – if you haven’t read it, here is my post on her Trombone Concerto. Mindy and I followed a somewhat similar path in that we followed a Penn Master’s degree with a doctorate elsewhere – Columbia for me, U Chicago for Mindy. We were not at Penn at the same time, and only got to know each other later. I consider myself lucky to count her as a friend, and I look forward to every new piece from her.

Here is Mindy’s reflection on Dick Wernick in connection with this Thursday’s concert that will include her Pan Journal:

I have known Dick Wernick since the inaugural year of the Delaware County Youth Orchestra—1971. Dick was a creator and conductor of this orchestra, and I sat somewhere near the back of the cello section for most of my high school years.

It was around this time that I began to drive my mother and all of my teachers to utter desperation: I was constantly at the piano composing (well, it was improvising really), yet I refused to practice traditional keyboard skills and didnʼt know how to read music properly. My schoolwork was mediocre at best. Perhaps as a favor to my poor mother, Dick generously allowed me to perform several of my compositions for him, among them a little blues number entitled, “Iʼm an Unwanted Woman in the Gutter of Love.” Dick took me on as a student regardless, and the experience changed my life completely. I say this without exaggeration.

Years later, as a graduate student at Penn, I had the wonderful opportunity to study with Dick again. We discussed the key elements of great music—clarity, strength of design, dramatic pacing, compelling voice leading, counterpoint, and yes, integrity—elements that ring loud and clear in Dickʼs own music. While it rarely makes my work easier, I carry these discussions into my own studio every single day. Dick always knew what I was trying to say musically, no matter how tangled up I became in my attempts to be a COMPOSER. He was encouraging when praise was warranted, yet had no tolerance for either “fudging” or “schmeer.” Ultimately, I found our lessons to be inspiring, exhilarating; indeed, I always left the building on 34th Street with the determination to do better. Dick still has the uncanny ability to step into a composerʼs shoes, simply by looking at the score. And I show him every new piece to this day.

Dick continues to be one of the most important people in my life—someone who has changed my life. He has been my dear, dear friend for all these years, and I owe him so much. I love you Dick.

Philip Maneval on his “Piano Quartet in C-Sharp”

Philip-ManevalPhilip Maneval’s contribution to next Thursday’s concert of music by students of Richard Wernick is a piano quartet. Like Yinam Leef, Philip was my fellow student at Penn in the graduate composition program more than thirty years ago. In the years since, rather than hold an academic position, Philip has worked for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and the Marlboro Music Festival. This constant contact with the chamber music repertoire over a lengthy period has naturally led to a body of compositions in which chamber music predominates. In fact, the new Quartet is part of a set of chamber pieces, alongside sonatas for piano and each of the string instruments in the quartet. While there is a sense in his music of Philip’s love for that chamber music repertoire, he does not slavishly imitate neoclassical models. He has found a non-doctrinaire, quite personal harmonic language, consistent yet varied, and capable of wide emotional range. The “in C-sharp” portion of his new piece’s title reminds me of how George Perle once spoke of how he considered called his Toccata for piano a Toccata in D, but felt that would be too provocative at the time – 1969. Today such a gesture feels rather less controversial. Still, it will be intriguing to see how Philip’s piece projects his personal approach to “post-tonal tonality.”

Here are Philip’s reflections on Dick Wernick, as well as a program note for the new quartet:

On studying with Richard Wernick:

Often it is the teacher who is the hardest to please who ends up giving us the most.  When I began studying with Dick Wernick in the graduate program at Penn, like many young composers, I had a swagger, a high degree of confidence in my abilities.  It took just a few lessons with Dick to realize how far I was from achieving the goals I had set out for myself.

Dick dissected my works in those early sessions.  In his autopsies, he spoke about those characteristics of composition that seem to exist in successful music in all eras and regardless of style:  clarity and consistency in the use of materials; rhythmic vitality; a strong profile; clear architecture; strong voice leading; meaningful expression; and that elusive yet critical trait, ‘integrity.’  In each piece, he insisted that all of the aspects of craft work together in support of its dramatic and expressive intentions.  Nothing less would satisfy him, and earning his respect became an enduring goal.

Today, decades later, these lessons remain as guideposts in my work.  While I have had the considerable pleasure of knowing Dick as a close friend, a colleague in this city’s musical life, and a composer and lecturer for PCMS, I continue to value greatly his reactions to my music.  His shelves abound with my scores, and I eagerly await his thoughts on each new piece.  His wise counsel and insights never fail to inspire me.

I can only hope that by aspiring to his standards, I have given back to this amazing man and teacher at least a small part of all that he has given to me.

On Piano Quartet in C-Sharp:

This is the final piece in a set of four works that I composed in 2011, the others being duo sonatas with piano for violin, viola and cello.  While this piece employs a variety of classical and contemporary techniques, my intention was for a well-blended and distinctive new language and rhetoric.

As I composed the work, my harmonies began revolving around C-sharp.  I recalled Dick Wernick’s assertion that dissonant harmony and a strong sense of tonality are not mutually exclusive, and I began to cultivate this gravitational pull.  Despite the highly chromatic harmony, C-sharp stubbornly remains as a point of reference, arrival, remembrance and return.

Melody, and the Brahmsian approach of continual motivic variation also play key roles in the organization of this piece.  I have sought to create clearly shaped melodic lines that re-emerge in various ways, such as with different pitches or rhythmic embellishments, to provide places of reference that help to unify the form.

I have always believed that each new piece is but a point on an artistic continuum, both emerging from the past and showing a way forward.

Thank you, Richard Wernick

wernick-richard_2009credit-adamleefNext Thursday, April 18, is the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society‘s concert in honor of Richard Wernick, featuring music by four of his former pupils:

Daedalus Quartet
Trio Cavatina
Burchard Tang, viola
Elizabeth Hainen, harp
Thursday, April 18, 2013, 7:30 pm
Settlement Music School (Queen Street)

Melinda Wagner (Pulitzer Prize, 1999): Pan Journal
James Primosch (current Penn faculty): Quartet No. 3
Yinam Leef (President, Rubin Academy, Jerusalem): Quartet No. 2
Philip Maneval (Executive Director, Philadelphia Chamber Music Society): Quartet in C-sharp, Op. 50

My third quartet was commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and premiered by the Ying Quartet in 1999. Here is a program listing and note on the piece:

String Quartet No. 3 (1999)
I. Theme and Variations
Theme: Largo
Var. 1: Andante Moderato
Var. 2: Allegretto Grazioso
Var. 3: Vivace
Var. 4: Prestissimo
II. Fantasia: Allegro Ansioso
Var. 5: Adagio
III. Finale: Vivace, Poco Scherzando
Coda: Largo

program note

After writing a series of pieces that either set texts or relied on pre-existing melodies (old sacred tunes) as compositional resources, I set out to create a more autonomous, abstract world in my Quartet No. 3. My efforts yielded a somewhat unusual formal scheme: a theme and variations set is first interrupted by an anxious (“ansioso”) and expressionistic Fantasia; then resumes for a single variation, infiltrated by the gestures of the Fantasia. A viola cadenza follows, introducing a rondo-like finale. This attempt to cap the piece in a playful spirit is surprised by another reprise of the slow variation theme, this time in a simple unison statement.  The entire sequence plays without pauses and runs about 20 minutes.

Philip Maneval at PCMS requested that each of the composers write a note on their experience working with Dick as a student at Penn. Here is my note:

Some teachers of composition make it easier for the student to compose; some make it harder. Richard Wernick made it harder, and I am grateful that he did. Dick encouraged me to think deeply about fundamental musical issues, to work at making pitches truly matter, to hold myself to the toughest standards, to avoid simplistic solutions. Striving in his own composing for similar goals, he earned the right to be a kind of biblical prophet, issuing a radically uncompromising call to the highest artistic ideals. Thank you, Dick, for continuing to strive, for clinging to your vision of what a composer can be, for enriching us all with music of substance and expressive power.

That’s Dick in the photo above, taken by Yinam Leef’s son, Adam. It could be Dick the magician, conjuring up a new work – or sending it off into the world, in flight.

Wail of the Voice: Wernick

Richard Wernick retired from the Penn composition faculty a number of years ago, but his presence is still felt indirectly, in that two of his students – myself and Jay Reise – presently teach at Penn. At the time of a concert for Dick’s 75th birthday a few years ago I wrote:

Some teachers of composition make it easier for the student to compose; some make it harder. Richard Wernick made it harder, and I am grateful that he did. Dick encouraged me to think deeply about fundamental musical issues, to work at making pitches truly matter, to hold myself to the toughest standards, to avoid simplistic solutions. Striving in his own composing for similar goals, he earned the right to be a kind of biblical prophet, issuing a radically uncompromising call to the highest artistic ideals. Thank you, Dick, for continuing to strive, for clinging to your vision of what a composer can be, for enriching us all with music of substance and expressive power.

It’s Dick’s most recent string quartet that we will hear at Friday’s Voice of the Wail concert, January 11 at 8:00 pm in Fisher-Bennet Hall on the Penn campus, performed by the ensemble for which it was written, the Daedalus Quartet. Here is Dick’s program note on the piece:

In 1962 I began a two year residency with the Bay Shore Public Schools.  This was under a program entitled the Young Composers Project, funded by the Ford Foundation and administered by the Music Educators National Conference.   During this time I had the privilege of meeting and working with Howard Koch, a remarkable string pedagogue with a very special gift of eliciting the very best from students of all ages.  During those years I wrote pieces for chamber orchestra, elementary, junior high school and high school bands and chorus. The highlight of those two years, however, was working with, and composing music for, an extraordinary group of high school string players (the violist was actually a junior high school student who had been conscripted for the group).  In addition to my String Quartet #1 which I wrote for them, Howard and I collaborated with them on a program of the Bartok 2nd Quartet and two movements of the Schubert C Major Quintet.  It was a very special time; having come from the world of music for theater, dance and TV, the String Quartet #1 must be counted as the first piece of serious concert music that I acknowledge.

Skipping ahead to 2009, the Daedalus Quartet were doing a residency in Bay Shore and my name came up in connection with the projected possibility of my composing a new string quartet for them.  To my astonishment there were people in Bay Shore—former students—who actually remembered me from that time nearly a half century ago.  The result of that encounter was the ultimate composition of my Eighth String Quartet, written for the Daedalus Quartet, and commissioned by the Bay Shore Schools Arts Education Fund and the Islip Arts Council. It is dedicated to the memory of Howard Koch.

My Eighth Quartet is the only one (so far) in four movements.  The main body of the piece is found in the two slow movements, numbers two and four, which, while quite different from one another, contain much in common in the way of melody and harmony.  The first and third movements are unrelated either to each other or the slow movements.

The first movement is fast and energetic, much in the manner of a toccata.

The second movement—Arioso Serioso I— is cast in the style of a chaconne, a set of variations above a repeated bass line.  In the case of this movement, however, the bass line and principal motif are exactly the same, but proceed at different speeds, and this brief “motif” is also the principal underpinning of the movement’s harmonic structure.

The third movement is the quirky one.  As the title would suggest, it is not a Menuetto at all; it just sounds like one.  The movement is a variation on a short piano piece I composed for Network for New Music in Philadelphia who, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, invited twenty five composers to each write a variation on the same Diabelli Waltz that Beethoven had used for his monumental Diabelli Variations.  A rather hubristic notion at the very least, but quite a bit of fun.

The fourth movement  — Arioso Serioso II — is, in a sense, a continuation of the second movement but with the inclusion of additional material.  I derived this added material from a sacred service I had composed many years earlier, and, although it is highly transformed from its original version, I found its use in this, a memorial piece, perfectly appropriate.


Vary Pianistic

Theodore Presser Co. has issued my Piano Variations. Thanks to master engraver/editor Ken Godel, the score looks great – see if you agree by going here, scrolling down, and clicking on the link for sample pages.

It has been a long journey to this point. Back in the late 20th Century, pianist Lambert Orkis asked me to write him a piece for piano and synthesizer. This was for a milennium-inspired project he called “From Hammers to Bytes”, a recital program with a big sonata just for piano by Richard Wernick, and a big piece for piano and synth on the second half. Originally Lambert wanted me to write for piano and Clavinova, an instrument that I didn’t find particularly inspiring. We finally agreed on a Kurzweil, which would give me a vastly richer array of sounds to work with, compared with the Clavinova. The result was my Sonata-Fantasia, which Lambert gave a few brilliant performances and subsequently recorded for Bridge Records, along with the new sonata Dick Wernick had written for him. I knew the Kurz, like any other synth, would start to become obsolete the day I drove it off the lot, so to speak, and the more I took advantage of the capabilities of that particular synth, the more I increased the difficulty of playing the piece with some other keyboard. I very much wanted to write the piece for Lambert, but I also wanted to come out of the process with something that other musicians could play. I eventually devised a plan where a portion of the Sonata-Fantasia could, with some adjustments, live again as a solo piano piece. The first movement of the piece is a big set of variations, running about 25 minutes, and that became the now-published Piano Variations.

Lambert wanted me to think about the history of the piano while writing my piece. (You should know that in addition to being an astounding pianist, best known as Anne-Sophie Mutter’s recital partner, Lambert has an interest in historical keyboards, and has played and recorded on various old instruments, or modern reconstructions modeled on old keyboards.)  We talked about the ability of the Kurzweil to emulate the sound of historic keyboards, and Lambert tracked down a set of impressive fortepiano samples. (One curious issue arose – when using the fortepiano samples, should I employ notes that are not actually on the fortepiano keyboard? I wrote in two different versions for that moment, one with bass notes lower than any fortepiano can play, one that sticks to the instrument’s actual range.) The stock harpsichord sample in the Kurz was attractive as well. Most of the Kurzweil patches I used are synth sounds of one kind or another, many percussive, some more atmospheric, and some used to modify the attack and decay characteristics of the acoustic piano. But given those samples of early keyboards, it was a short step from there to writing variations that would invoke earlier keyboard idioms – not earlier harmonic or melodic styles, but more matters of keyboard layout and texture. The harmony and melody in my piece remains rooted in the materials in my theme (see the score samples mentioned above), but, for example, there is a variation using a harpsichord patch that is laid out like one of the Goldberg Variations – two voices in canon and a third free voice. The fortepiano variation invokes one of the Schubert impromptus – this in honor of Lambert’s recording of the Schubert on fortepiano. (I permit myself the only actual quotation from an already existing piece in that movement.) The climactic variation has passages modeled fairly closely on the Chopin C-sharp minor etude from Op. 10, and there are other references throughout the piece to Chopin, Messiaen, stride piano, and even the 19th century pianist/composer Kalkbrenner, with a passage that employs his “three-handed” layout: a melody played by the thumbs surrounded by two-handed arpeggios. Contemporary composers are also in the background of some of the variations, with hints of textures you might associate with the music of three of my mentors: George Crumb, Richard Wernick, and Mario Davidovsky. The piece thus becomes not just variations on a theme, but a collection of varied approaches to the piano itself.

Practically speaking, the synth and piano are arranged at right angles to one another, in the manner of a piano/celesta doubling by an orchestral keyboardist. (Lambert is the principal keyboard for the National Symphony.) Lambert preferred this to the stacking of keyboards that pop performers sometimes prefer, since that arrangement puts significant restraints on conventional piano technique. I had Lambert switch back and forth between instruments a good bit, sometimes playing both keyboards at once. Since the synth was at the left of the piano, this meant there are a few passages where Lambert’s left hand was playing in a high register on the Kurz and his right hand in a low register on the Steinway – perfectly plausible, but seemingly impractical when you look in the score, since it appears the left hand is playing five or six octaves above the right! I remember checking with Lambert repeatedly to make sure we were in agreement about which side the synthesizer would be placed.*

I prepared the piano version of the movement in time for a 50th birthday concert of my music a few years ago, and the superb Stephen Gosling gave the first performance. I finally (thanks to Ken) got around to preparing a clean copy of the score more recently, and the result is there on Presser’s website. Thank you, Lambert, for commissioning the original version of the piece, and thanks to the MacDowell Colony, where a big chunk of the first movement was devised.

I will return to writing for piano in an upcoming consortium commission, about which more soon.

*) I didn’t want to run into the problem I once heard conductor Arthur Weisberg describe in connection with a performance of the Carter Double Concerto, where, before the first rehearsal, he carefully prepared the beat patterns he would need for the closing portion of the piece where the two portions of the ensemble are in different meters. He was startled when he arrived at rehearsal to realize the ensembles were on the opposite sides of the stage from what he expected.

The Name of the Game

I was speaking with a composer colleague a number of years ago, and remarked that the music of Richard Wernick is exceptionally under-appreciated. My friend thought for a moment, then replied, with some vehemence, “we’re all under-appreciated!” Well, that’s true, but more than some, Wernick’s music truly does deserve wider recognition and performance.

Not that he has been lacking for first-class advocates. The opening piece on Bridge’s most recent CD of his music is a horn quintet performed by no less than William Purvis and the Juilliard Quartet. The flavor of the harmony and the bustling texture of the work’s opening suggest Schoenberg, although frankly Wernick’s harmony makes more sense to my ear than that of the earlier master. Furthermore, the contrasting quieter sections in Wernick’s music have a stillness and meditative repose (though never static) that is foreign to Schoenberg’s expressive palette. I remember reading a record review years ago about Wernick’s first piano sonata, (recorded by Lambert Orkis for Bridge) in which the reviewer connected Wernick’s music with that of Morton Feldman. That reviewer was way off target, as Wernick is vitally interested in the meaningful pattern making that Feldman seems to studiously avoid. Rather than Feldman, I connect Wernick’s most inward moments with the crystalline slow movements that are sometimes found in the music of Ralph Shapey; I know Wernick admired the older composer’s work tremendously,

The CD also offers the Colorado Quartet playing Wernick’s Sixth Quartet. This is darkly intense music, as befits its impetus: a memorial work for a cousin of Wernick named Henry Levy who worked for forty years as a field executive for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. According to Wernick’s program note, Henry Levy was an extraordinary man, unstinting in his service to Jewish refugees from both Nazi and Communist regimes. Even after his retirement, Levy continued to support Jewish causes financially and eventually left the bulk of his assets to universities in Israel. Wernick honors this remarkable individual with a tightly focussed single movement work, entirely derived from a powerful unison opening.

The last major work on the disc, The Name of the Game, is for guitar and 11 players. David Starobin, creator of Bridge Records, is the featured soloist in this piece, originally written for Philadelphia’s Network for New Music, and here performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), with Cliff Colnot conducting. Starobin is responsible for encouraging hundreds of composers (including Crumb, Carter, Davidovsky, Rouders, Foss, Schuller and Babbitt) to create new works with guitar, and Wernick honors him in a time-hallowed manner by deriving his musical material from the letters of Starobin’s name that correspond to musical pitches: D; A; vi; D; S (German “es”); and so forth. Starobin’s performance is typically virtuosic, full of varied colors, and Wernick draws a similarly kaleidoscopic array of sounds from the ensemble. Two short solo works played by Starobin round out the disc.

Although the charming picture on the cover of this CD shows Wernick tossing sheet music to the wind, he is not interested in randomly scattering notes – rather, what Richard Wernick accomplishes, through painstaking craft and deeply expressive intensity, is to give his music flight.