All Alone

Daniel Felsenfeld had a fine idea on Twitter, inviting composers to list their works for solo performers – an obvious resource for a time of pandemic when we are staying home. I listed my relevant pieces there, but would like to mention there here as well.

There are three solo piano pieces in my catalog. The oldest is Secret Geometry, the same as the name for this blog. This is a piece with pre-recorded electronic sound, what kids these days would call “fixed media” and what I have to stop myself from calling “tape” even though that’s the medium I used at the time to record my MIDI realization of the electronic component. I wrote the piece for the brilliant Aleck Karis, perhaps the pianist I heard most frequently when attending new music concerts during my Columbia days. Aleck is a long time faculty member at UC San Diego. This was the first piece of mine to appear on CD but the label on which it appeared – CRI (Composers Recordings Inc.) no longer exists. However, New World Records has the CRI catalog, and lists a lot of CRI items on its website – not sure how complete the listing is. The album with Secret Geometry is not easy to find on the website; if you search for “primosch” you will only get the all-Primosch cd Icons, which was recorded after Aleck’s album. Despite being an album of pieces for piano and electronic sound, it doesn’t come up when you filter the CRI catalog for electronic music. However, a search for “aleck  karis” will finally yield this page which features sound clips of my piece.

There are two more recent piano pieces. I wrote a big Sonata-Fantasia on a commission from Lambert Orkis who wanted a piece involving both a piano and a Kurzweil synthesizer. Since I knew it was extremely unlikely anyone else would play the piece (for one thing, that model of Kurz was out of production before I finished the piece), I planned on making a portion of the piece work for solo piano. The first movement is a substantial variation set, running about 24 minutes, and it is available from Presser as Piano Variations. The idea of the original version was that ghosts of the piano’s past would be evoked in some of the variations. For example, there is one that refers to Schubert that uses fortepiano samples; a canon with a third free voice – a texture that recalls the Goldberg Variations – uses a harpsichord sample. However, most of the variations employ a more wide-ranging palette of electronic sounds and do not refer to earlier styles. In the piano solo version, earlier keyboard idioms are evoked simply by texture and keyboard layout. You might say the piece becomes variations of the piano as well as variations for piano, though I suppose every substantial variation set does that to some extent. Lambert recorded the entire Sonata for Bridge in its original version, but the piano solo version awaits a first recording. (You should check out the Wernick Sonata #2 on that Bridge album – Dick is a truly under-appreciated master.) Here is a handsomely made video of Anna Kislitsyna’s brilliant performance of the Piano Variations:

While there is presently no CD of the Piano Variations, a second recording of Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift is forthcoming.  This set of five short character pieces or preludes, running about 14 minutes, was recorded for Centaur by the wonderful Youmee Kim; here’s the second movement:

Ryan McCullough has recorded the piece for an Albany disc that I anticipate will be coming out in the next several months. (UPDATE: It comes out May 15!) It includes some songs of mine as well as music of John Harbison. Ryan’s wife Lucy Fitz Gibbon is the soprano on the album, and the performances are fantastic throughout.

I wrote Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift (the title comes from an Auden poem) for a consortium of 12 pianists. Check out a substantial post on the piece here, including score excerpts.

My other solo pieces are early works. There are two pieces with electronic sound: Particles for clarinet, and Aria for oboe. In both cases the electronic component needs some technological attention, so if you are interested, let me know, and I will work on getting together something that is presentable. No electronics are required for my solo violin Variations. Aria is available from what is now called Wise Music Classical. Originally published by Gunther Schuller’s Margun firm, the pieces went to Associated Music (the BMI sibling of G. Schirmer) when Gunther sold the business. Presently, Associated is under the Wise Music Classical umbrella. Wise, unlike Associated, identifies the pieces are being under the Margun imprint, instead of simply being absorbed into Associated. I believe the violin Variations were also in the Margun catalog, but they are not listed on my page at Wise; I will look into that. For the moment be in touch with me if you are interested in a score of the Variations or in Particles.

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.

Secret Geometry in Birmingham

Pianist Jon-Luke Kirton (at left) will play my Secret Geometry for piano and electronic sound this Wednesday in the  Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatory. This is the first performance in the UK.

Secret Geometry was the first piece I made in the Presser Electronic Music Studio at Penn. It dates from 1993, and used the midi technology of the time, including a DX7, a Proteus, a few other synths, and a couple of samples triggered from an Akai sampler, including my favorite – the sound of hitting a metal music stand with a pair of pliers. Sequencing was done with what was then simply called Performer (now Digital Performer) and sounds were edited with Opcode’s Galaxy universal librarian/editor (would that there was a truly functional such program on the market today – I’ve been disappointed in Unisyn and MidiQuest.)

The piece is in three movements, sort of a short sonata. (Jargon Alert. Skipping to the next paragraph is perfectly reasonable.) The opening is a set of variations, and is the first time I tried a procedure that I subsequently used in a couple of other pieces: it’s a twelve-tone piece, with 12 transpositions of a row stated in an essentially monophonic texture. The same music is then counterpointed with a similar succession of derived rows, forming aggregates. This music is repeated one more time, but now with four rows going. From the point of view of the overall form, it is like playing three choruses of the same tune. Rhythm and dynamics are treated freely. All this is rather simple by the standards of  composers more seriously invested in 12-tone possibilities. The point is not that I think a bell goes off in your head when you hear the 12th note of an aggregate – I find that a little silly. Rather, it is a way of saturating the music with a few motivic cells. As George Perle said to us in class one day, Schoenberg’s Op. 33a isn’t about 12-tone rows, it’s about four chords. The second movement is not twelve-tone, but floats a few motifs over  slowly changing clustery chords that gradually expand in register, then contract. It’s back to a simple 12-tone procedure in the last movement, a toccata that is basically a very fast single line, with a few moments where the line coalesces into three-note chords.

My point of departure for the idea of combining piano and tape is the Davidovsky Synchronism model: a tight interweaving of electronic and live sounds.  I was not particularly interested in novelty of timbre for its own sake although I have tried to employ an attractive palette of colors.  The function of the electronic sound varies throughout the piece: sometimes it fuses with the piano; sometimes it provides a subsidiary accompaniment; sometimes it is an equal partner, like a chamber music collaborator or an orchestra accompanying a concerto soloist.   As I was working on the last movement, I felt a need to bump up the tempo, just to kick it along a little more. The new tempo (sixteenths notes at quarter = 180) that sounded pleasingly lively when played by the computer turned out to sound omigod fast when played by a live pianist. Aleck Karis, who premiered the piece, handled this challenge, indeed the whole piece, brilliantly. You can hear this on the CRI recording of the piece. CRI (Composers Recordings Inc.) is out of business, but theoretically New World Records has the catalog, and will burn the CRI cds on demand, though I have to say I haven’t tried this yet.

As for the title, the phrase “secret geometry” is used by art historians 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”.