Sacred Songs on Bridge Records

UnknownI’m very happy to report that Bridge Records will be issuing a new CD of my music in early 2014. The disc, to be called Sacred Songs, will bring together four of my pieces for voice and ensemble:

From a Book of Hours sets four poems of Rainer Maria Rilke in German.

– Four Sacred Songs comprises arrangements of old traditional sacred melodies – plainchant as well as metered tunes – with Latin texts.

– Dark the Star brings together texts by Philadelphia-based poet Susan Stewart, Rilke (in German), and a verse from the Psalms (in Latin).

– Holy the Firm sets texts by three American women – Denise Levertov, Annie Dillard, and Susan Stewart – as well as John Climacus, a monk of the 7th century Sinai desert.

The performers are Susan Narucki, soprano, William Sharp, baritone, and the 21st Century Consort, led by Christopher Kendall.

While I am very grateful for every CD of my music, (visit the discography page to get the details on how much I have to be grateful for), this new Bridge project is especially meaningful to me. This is partly because it is the first disc devoted entirely to my vocal music, a medium that has been a major preoccupation of mine in the last two decades. It also documents an especially long-standing relationship with performers who have been among the most consistent advocates of my music. In fact, I think that over a period of more than three decades, Christopher Kendall has conducted and/or programmed my music more than any other musician anywhere!

There is a lot more to say about this album – the pieces, the performers, the process of recording with Curt Wittig and editing with George Blood, the booklet essays by Susan Stewart and John Harbison, and I will be writing about these things in future posts. For now I will leave you with the photo above. This is the interior of St. Henry’s Ecumenical Art Chapel, designed by the firm of Sanaksenaho Architects, and photographed by Jussi Tiainen. This powerful image will be used for the cover of the booklet accompanying Sacred Songs.

Early Heat Wave Miscellany

– First, two links outside the realm of music: I found this very impressive and touching, and this to be right on target.

Prism Quartet concerts are coming up – Thursday, May 31 at Symphony Space in NYC; Saturday, June 2 at First Unitarian in Philadelphia.

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Yesterday I finished a rough draft of the first of the new set of songs I am working on with Susan Stewart – I met Susan this afternoon, played through the draft, and she was pleased with what I’ve done! Now it’s into the studio with George Blood for two editing sessions this week as we attempt to wrestle this 21st Century Consort CD project to the ground – vocal pieces of mine featuring Susan Narucki and William Sharp. Will report on progress later this week.

Narucki sings Biggs

My friend from back in my Columbia U days, Hayes Biggs, has posted video from his Manhattan School of Music faculty recital that took place earlier this season. The superb team of Susan Narucki, soprano, and Christopher Oldfather, piano, premiered Hayes’s Psalms, Hymns & Spiritual Songs, and the very fine Avalon Quartet offered  String Quartet: O Sapientia/Steal Away. Here is a sample of Narucki and Oldfather; find more here and here.

Second day of Spring Miscellany

– One-act operas by Anthony Davis, Barbara White and Princeton undergrad James Chu will be done at the McCarter Center in Princeton on March 30 and 31. Susan Narucki is the lead in a new opera by Davis, Lear on the Second Floor. It’s been years since I saw it, but I did like Davis’s Malcolm X opera. Sarah Davis is the lead for Barbara White’s piece – I first heard Sarah at Songfest, thought she did a wonderful job with a Harbison premiere.

Mary Mackenzie offers a recital with unusually interesting repertoire on March 30 at WMP Concert Hall in New York. Here’s the program:

Satie – Trois Mélodies de 1916
Webern – Fünf Lieder aus Der siebente Ring, op. 3
Hindemith – Das Marienleben (selections)
Lutyens – Lament of Isis on the Death of Osiris
Rameau – Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux
Barber – Mélodies Passagères
Harbison – Simple Daylight

Her pianist is Alan Hamilton.

– I’m about a month late linking to this post by Joy Howie of Emmanuel Church, but it’s still Lent, and, as the scripture says, “Now is the acceptable time”.

– and a bit of belated St. Patrick’s Day humor, fecund in its nuttiness.

Hayes Biggs at Manhattan School

I was in NYC last night for a program at Manhattan school featuring two impressive pieces by my Columbia classmate Hayes Biggs – the premiere of a song cycle called Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, with Susan Narucki, soprano, and Christopher Oldfather, piano, and a string quartet subtitled O Sapientia/Steal Away. I previously wrote about the quartet here, so in this brief post let me just say the cycle was terrific, sustaining interest over six substantial songs that set a wonderful variety of texts. These included a Psalm excerpt as well as a 17th century metrical version of another Psalm and poems by George Herbert, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Jane Kenyon and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hayes has succeeded in doing something many composers of our generation attempt (but don’t always achieve): to truly integrate tonal materials into a broadly based language that can be dissonant or consonant, triadic or not, as the expressive needs of the moment dictate. This doesn’t involve any lack of rigor – Hayes’s contrapuntal instincts ensure that. There may be some traces of Britten or Ives in the musical language, but the songs struck me as very fresh and personal. The performance was superb, with Susan not just offering a lovely, clear, and true sound, but putting that sound at the service of varied expression and strong emotional impact. I hardly had to refer to the printed program, given the fineness of her diction. Christopher dependably does several impossible things on every page he plays – rhythmic subtleties, perfectly balanced chords, wide-ranging colors, sensitive coordination with his soloist – and all with a minimum of fuss. I want to write more about the songs, but for now here is a snapshot from after the concert, with (L to R) the members of the Avalon String Quartet, Susan Narucki, Hayes Biggs, and Christopher Oldfather.

Susan Stewart at the Y

Poet Susan Stewart, my collaborator on Songs for Adam (see David Patrick Stearns on the piece in the column at right) will be reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York on Monday, January 30. She shares the bill with Mark Strand. In addition to Adam, I’ve used texts by Susan in Holy the Firm and Dark the Star, two pieces that will be on the 21st Century Consort cd that is in the editing stage. The disc features Susan Narucki, soprano, and Bill Sharp, baritone. Susan has written another set of texts for me, this time having to do with a Sibyl – I hope to get to work on that setting soon.

Setting Records

Not a lot of posts lately, as I have been occupied with recording related work. I recently met with Alan Harler, director of Philadelphia’s Mendelssohn Club, at the studio of Joe Hannigan to go over a live recording of my Mendelssohn Club commission Fire-Memory/River-Memory (more about the piece here.) A run-through of the piece had been recorded as well, and the idea was to touch up the performance recording with patches from the run-through as need be. However, what we ended up doing was more about adjusting the performance recording rather than splicing in bits from the run-through. Joe was able to work a good deal of digital magic to clean up and improve the live recording. This was no small challenge, given that the recording was made in the cavernous chapel at Girard College, with a long decay that may be desirable for the organ that is based there, but not for choir and orchestra. While Joe couldn’t dry out the sound, he was able to improve the balance of the orchestra. He also adjusted the pitch at a moment when the women of the choir and a horn entry are juxtaposed – I don’t know if the women were low or the horn was high, but it got fixed. Especially impressive was the way Joe could excise bits of noise from the recording. A cough during the soft chime note that ends the first movement of my piece was removed not by splicing, but by filtering. Joe used a piece of software that provided a graphic image of the overtone content of the sound. You could then select a portion of the signal and attenuate or remove it. Joe was able to remove the high frequencies of the cough while leaving the sound of the chime intact. The software served as a sort of pinpoint band reject filter. All of this wizardry is old news, I suppose, but the relative ease with which such things are done remains impressive for those of us old enough to know how to use a splicing block.

Along with F-M/R-M, the Mendelssohn Club disc will include Jennifer Higdon‘s On the Death of the Righteous and Andrea Clearfield‘s The Golem Psalms, so I am in good company. The album will be released later this year.

I have also continued to work on mapping edits for a disc of vocal music with the 21st Century Consort. I must say I find it a challenging task. How to pick between two great takes? What to do when Take A has problem X, but Take B (of the same passage) has problem Y – and you’re not sure where a practical edit point might be? Some of my colleagues say they love to do this kind of thing because of the control it gives them over the final result. Me, I find it paralyzingly difficult to make the necessary decisions.

It helps that the raw material is so good, what with the splendid players in the Consort, Christopher Kendall’s conducting, and singers Susan Narucki and Bill Sharp. And it also helps to be working with some real pros in the studio. George Blood is helping with editing the Consort recordings, while the man who did the recordings themselves, Curt Wittig, will do the mixing, cleanup, and so forth. (Go here to read about Curt as well as the members of the Consort.) Curt and I go back a long ways, including his work on the record I made with Lambert Orkis of George Crumb’s Celestial Mechanics (reissued not so long ago on Innova). I can’t say exactly when this vocal disc will come out, but progress is definitely being made.

The planned disc will include four pieces. Holy the Firm, on texts of Denise Levertov, Susan Stewart, Annie Dillard, and John Climacus was originally written for Dawn Upshaw and Gil Kalish who premiered it back in 1999. I made the chamber ensemble version for the Consort, and did the same with From a Book of Hours, a Rilke cycle. In this case, instead of expanding the instrumentation, it was a matter of reducing it, since the original version was an orchestral commission from the Chicago Symphony, who premiered it with Lisa Saffer in 2002. Four Sacred Songs, arrangements of old Latin hymns, was made for Voices of Change, and was based on a set of Three Sacred Songs originally written for voice and piano in 1989 and premiered by Christine Schadeberg and Christopher Oldfather. (I added a fourth song for the ensemble version since the set of three seemed too short to make it worth getting a group together.) Rounding out the album is Dark the Star, a baritone cycle that sets Rilke and Susan Stewart, plus a verse from the Psalms. This set was written specifically for the Consort and Bill Sharp and dates from 2008.

It’s remarkable that though I have been fortunate enough to have a bunch of CDs out there, only one has any vocal music, even though I have done a good deal of music for voice in recent years. So it will be especially good to have recorded documents of this side of my work, both for chorus and for solo voice.

All this comes on top of the recent release of the Prism CD Dedication, which includes my Straight Up. Read more here.

Ritual Fragments

I’ve been enjoying a disc from a few years back featuring music of Ross Bauer and entitled Ritual Fragments. Released on Albany in 2007, the album includes five pieces from the 1990s, both vocal and instrumental. Performances are exemplary, with top soloists and ensembles: singers Christine Schadeberg and Susan Narucki, the New York New Music Ensemble, the Triple Helix (the Boston-based piano trio) and Ross’s own Empyrian Ensemble, in residence at UC Davis, where he teaches. Ross works in a post-tonal language, and the musical surface can shift rapidly, even kaleidoscopically – either via juxtaposition, or through magical transmutations smoothly shifting from one instrument to the next. But, as David Rakowski comments in his booklet notes, “there’s always a long line unfolding underneath”. I was struck by how Ross integrates motoric and non-pulsed rhythms, and admired the care with which he paces the rate of harmonic change.  The vocal pieces both set texts by indigenous peoples – Eskimos and Native Americans. Ross’s command of a wide range of mood and color lets him find apt frameworks for these varied and evocative texts. I hope more music of Ross Bauer – perhaps including some more recent pieces – finds its way to disc soon.