Jay Reise: Memory Refrains

TROY1004Jay Reise‘s Memory Refrains will close this Friday’s “Voice of the Wail!” concert at Penn (details here). This 2002 work, written for and premiered by the Cassatt Quartet, will be played by the Daedalus Quartet at Friday’s concert. Here is Jay’s program note on the piece:

Memory Refrains is in one movement and runs about 25 minutes. The work is structured around three “inner” pieces of contrasting moods – Capriccio, Barcarolle, and Elegy. Each is played three times (the ‘refrains’ of the title) interspersed with interludes and transitions. The work opens with the fanciful and whimsical capriccio; after almost a complete stop, the barcarole begins with its lilting rhythms. The elegy begins immediately after the close of the barcarole and is characterized by a quietly insistent accented accompaniment. The interludes and transitions develop ideas derived from these three central pieces.

Memory Refrains is dedicated to Anna Cholakian, the extraordinary founding cellist of the Cassatt Quartet, who was tragically lost to cancer in 1996. The musical letters of Anna’s name (A-A-C-B [= German H]-A-A) make up the note content of the cello solo before the final refrain of the elegy. Memory Refrains was premiered and recorded by the Cassatt Quartet in 2002 (Albany Records).

Wail of the Voice: Weesner

I suppose “unique” is an extremely tired word, but I really don’t know another composer whose music sounds like that of my Penn colleague, Anna Weesner. She subscribes to no “-ism”, and there is no ready label for her music. The elements that make up her language – some of which include hints of pop, or Stravinsky, or Lutoslawski, for example – are thoroughly digested. When she engages aspects of popular idioms, with a reliance on motoric pulsation or ostinato technique, she does so in a thoughtful way – the ostinati are balanced with carefully crafted harmonic motion; the rhythmic “hooks” are subtly varied and integrated.

Anna’s sense of timing and pacing is exquisite – she can effect gradual changes, or make jump cuts that startle before revealing their logic a moment later. Anna does not use tonal elements in a neo-classical manner, nor for the sake of nostalgia or for surrealist effects. Rather, these elements, as straightforward as a major chord, are activated by an unexpected context, freshened by a foreign element or revealed as a secret underpinning for a more complex surface. Hers is a direct yet subtle art – the surface is full of vivid gestures, wonderfully wide-ranging and imaginative but placed with pinpoint timing, and cunningly varied. A figure may repeat in what seems like will be an obvious manner, but the repetition is quickly subverted, or, under pressure, expands to ecstatic layering of varied iterations. Her pieces are generally not long in clock time, yet are understood by the listener as eventful – satisfyingly “long” in experiential time. Formal patterning in Anna’s work is uniquely fresh. There are rarely straightforward recapitulations, and ready-made formal schemes do not interest her. The music has its own mind as to how to unfold, varying both from piece to piece, and within individual pieces with respect to rate of change, in method of making transitions, in dramatic arc. She manages to achieve that difficult balance of the unexpected and the inevitable.

The piece of Anna’s that we will hear at Friday’s Voice of the Wail concert (Friday, January 11, at 8:00 pm in Rose Recital Hall at Fisher-Bennett Hall on the Penn campus) is a string quartet to be played by the Daedalus Quartet. Here is her program note:

The Space Between has traveled a long and unusual compositional path.  It began with a commission from the San Francisco-based Cypress Quartet in 2001.  Excited about this project and wanting to take full advantage of the chance to write for a terrific group, and for multiple performances, I wrote a piece that was compositionally ambitious, which is to say, awfully long and awfully challenging to play.  The Cypress did a bang-up job with the piece, though I’m not sure any of us were entirely sure we wanted to promote its continued existence.  Some years went by and I found that I didn’t want to let the piece go as a lost, youthful effort, but that I also didn’t want to keep it as it was.  So I tried revising it.  Several times.  Does too much labor mean a piece that sounds labored?  In the first instance, with the original quartet I wrote for the dear Cypress, I think the answer was yes.  With The Space Between I hope that the answer is no.  (I think wishfully of the drafts of sentences by E.B. White, where the eventual version—the one born of many attempts and apparently requiring no small amount of labor—is the one with expressive elegance and lightness and spontaneity.)

The Space Between is made largely of material salvaged from the first movement of what was originally a two-movement piece.  Not much of it is precisely as it was before, though some material is certainly recognizable.  There is also new material.  Overall, it is different enough to warrant a new title.

Musically, the piece is preoccupied with texture, that is, with the business of how many voices, or parts, are in play at a given time and with whether what those parts are doing is primary or supportive, melody or accompaniment, or neither.  It may have something to do with wanting to explore the sound of the one and the many (and the space between them), or with what it means to write a melodic line and to let it stand alone, on the one hand, and then also give it musical context.  It is easy in music to think about loud and soft as “players” in an unfolding score.  I would like to think that in addition to loud and soft, one might hear near and far, the solitary and the group, and also private and public, as additional, complicit forces at work.

Working with string quartets is incredibly gratifying and fun, especially when the players are highly skilled, deeply thoughtful and good-humored.  In this vein, I’d like to affectionately dedicate this piece to three quartets who’ve helped my music along in ways too numerous to mention: the Cypress Quartet, the Cassatt Quartet, and the Daedalus Quartet.

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.


Wail of the Voice: Schreibeis

The first Wail concert last season was entirely comprised of music by Penn faculty, present and past, but we decided to open up the agenda this time by including music from a Penn alumnus. There is certainly a strong roster from which to select – a few random names from the not-so-recent past include Higdon, Golijov, Jalbert, M. Wagner, Jaffe, Carl, Leef – I could name many other superb composer-alums – but for this time we wanted someone who had been at Penn more recently and settled on Matthew Schreibeis. I had the privilege of working with Matt during his time at Penn and I quickly saw how he sets tough challenges for himself compositionally – and saw as well that he has what it takes to meet those challenges. I also enjoyed the fact that his high seriousness as an artist is leavened with a goodly dollop of humor.  Matt is a fine violinist so his composing is grounded in the physical realities of music-making. Lately he has done some very interesting research work on early recordings of Korean music dating back to the wax cylinder era, and a recent piece of his for drummer and electronics makes use of sounds from those recordings.

Here is a program note for the work by Matt that will be heard on the January 11 concert at Penn.

In Search of Planet X
for clarinet, violin, and piano (2009)

My trio’s title takes its name from Percival Lowell’s 1906 search for a planet beyond Neptune.  Lowell used the term “Planet X” to represent this unknown force, a massive celestial body hidden deep in space and believed to counterbalance the sun’s gravitational pull.  While such a planet was never discovered, Lowell’s work did lead to the discovery of Pluto in 1930, fourteen years after his death.  While composing I was inspired not only by the remarkable quest upon which Lowell hinged his reputation, but also by the sense of possibility and discovery and wonder and mystery that such a search represented.  I tried to capture these feelings in the music, as well as the sense of searching for something which turns out not to be or, put another way, discovering something you least expected. I composed In Search of Planet X for musicians at the Music09 Festival at the Hindemith Foundation in Switzerland: violinist Aida Boiesan, pianist Johanna Ballou, and eighth blackbird’s amazing clarinetist, Michael Maccaferri.