“Wail of the Voice” (the phrase is a play is on Penn emeritus professor George Crumb’s chamber work Voice of the Whale), the annual concert of music by Penn faculty and alums, is coming right up, Friday, January 23 at 8 pm in Rose Recital Hall, which is located on the fourth floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall on the Penn campus at 34th and Walnut in Philadelphia. Admission is free. Maureen Francis, soprano, and Matthew Bengston, piano, will be doing two songs from my cycle Holy the Firm, as well as my Susan Scott Thompson setting, Waltzing the Spheres. There also will be a piano trio by Jay Reise, and three pieces by Penn alumnus Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon.
Penn alum Michael Fiday has been invited to participate in this year’s “Wail of the Voice!” concert at U Penn – this Friday, January 24 at 8 pm in Rose Recital Hall in Fisher-Bennett Hall, 34th and Walnut on the Penn campus. Check out Mike’s website here; a nice interview here. We’ll be hearing his 9 Haiku for flute and piano. Here is his program note:
9 Haiku is a set of varied musical reflections on texts by Basho. Haiku pose a paradox in terms of scope, their concise forms revealing an entire world within. In keeping with this, some of the reflections are as long as 3 minutes, others barely 30 seconds. I chose the texts, then arranged them in a specific order based on subject (birds, moon, bells), framing them by two outer texts suggesting the beginning and end of a life journey. The first setting does make use of an actual rice planting song (Ta-ue-uta), which recurs from time to time. The last haiku is significant in that it is Basho’s “death poem” – the last haiku he ever wrote. 9 Haiku was originally composed for Eleonore Pameijier and Marcel Worms as part of their ‘6 Continents Project’.
The beginning of art –
a rice-planting song
in the backcountry.
attached to nothing,
the skylark singing.
Harvest moon –
walking around the pond
all night long.
As the sound fades,
the scent of the flowers comes up –
the evening bell.
and in the dark
the screech of
a night heron.
Where’s the moon?
As the temple bell is –
sunk in the sea.
Clouds come from
time to time –
and bring to men
a chance to rest
from looking at the moon.
My eyes following
until the bird was
lost at sea
found a small island.
Sick on a journey,
my dreams wander
the withered fields.
Translations: Robert Hass
What gathers, what lingers was composed while I was a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome during the spring of 2003; revisions were made in 2009. It was premiered in Rome by Veronica Kadlubkiewicz and Richard Trythall on May 26, 2003. The piece was helped along through conversations with my friend, composer/violinist Andy Waggoner. The piece dwells in a variety of places, moving, perhaps, through many different rooms of a single house. The world contains a multiplicity of musics, all of which surround and influence me, sometimes whether I know it or not. What happens, I wonder, when music that feels like a private memory of a classical piano sonata follows on the heels of something raucous and pounding? What happens when a thick and complex harmony finds itself as neighbor to a straightforward melody with a simple accompaniment? This piece occupies a sound-world in which many stylistic impulses gather, a world, I think, in which memory may be portrayed alongside the current moment. This piece has distinct sections, whose respective personalities are meant to stand in vivid, even stark, contrast. Played without pause, these sections occupy a single, overarching movement, gathering—I hope—connections and momentum, and leaving what lingers as they bounce off of each other and go.
I’m taking a break from working on my piece for this to let you know about some upcoming events. It will be a very busy few days at the end of this week. On Friday, January 24, Penn will offer its annual “Wail of the Voice!” program, featuring faculty and alumni composers. There will be music by current faculty Jay Reise, Anna Weesner, and myself, as well as alum Mike Fiday, performed by the Daedalus Quartet, flutist Michele Kelly and pianists Greg DeTurck, Matthew Bengtson, and myself. The concert will be in Rose Recital Hall, on the 4th floor of Fisher-Bennett Hall, found at 34th and Walnut on the Penn campus here in Philadelphia. The 8:00 pm concert will be preceded by a 7:00 pm pre-concert discussion, with Penn grad student Neil Crimes as moderator.
It will be my first time playing piano in a concert performance in quite a while (playing at church or in the classroom is a different matter). The Daedalus and I will offer the slow movement from my 1996 Piano Quintet, a set of variations on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. As I remarked at rehearsal with the Daedalus, “you guys sound great, and my part is easy”, so this bodes well for a fine performance.
I’ll post the program notes for the Wail! concert during the course of this week. For now, let me point out the rest of my own busy weekend. After the concert at Penn I will take an overnight train to Boston, arriving for a Saturday morning rehearsal of my new setting of The Call, with Emmanuel Music and Ryan Turner conducting. That piece will receive its first performance at Emmanuel Church’s Sunday Eucharist, 10:00 am on January 26. On Sunday evening I will attend Christopher Oldfather’s performance of my consortium commission piano piece, Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift on a Collage New Music concert. It’s an 8:00 pm concert, 7:15 pre-concert chat, this at the Longy School in Cambridge. Between my two Sunday performances, I hope to attend Robert Levin’s piano recital at Harvard, featuring piano works by Wyner, Harbison, Türk, and Rands. And on Saturday afternoon (assuming I haven’t collapsed from lack of sleep on the train) I will meet with John Harbison to try out some of his Leonard Stein Anagrams for him, in preparation for my February 26 performance of them here in Philadelphia.
Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences has posted an article and some videos about the past season’s “Wail of the Voice!” concert. An excerpt from my Fantasy-Variations is here; the performers are Greg DeTurck, piano; Min-Young Kim, violin; and Thomas Kraines, cello. The string players are members of the Daedalus Quartet.
I am faced with the performance of some older pieces of mine this spring, the first being my 1991 piano trio, Fantasy-Variations, on this Friday’s Wail of the Voice concert at Penn (see the posts below for more information). I heard a rehearsal of the piece the other day with Min-Young Kim, violin; Tom Kraines, cello; and Gregory DeTurck, piano. They are doing a fabulous job, there is no doubt about that, but what kind of composing job did I do 21 years ago?
It is a curious thing to hear a piece from that long ago. Lutoslawski referred to the experience as being like hearing the work of a younger colleague. I can’t say I feel a similar sense of distance, but I do recognize that I would have treated some ideas differently today than I did 2 decades ago. There are a few spots where the rhythms are unnecessarily tricky, others where the rhythm is too straightforward – it’s curious that there are miscalculations of both kinds. I hasten to say (given that I am trying to get you to come to Friday’s concert) that there are also spots that still sound OK! Perhaps more interesting than my subjective and confused sense of whether the piece is any good is the fact that there are aspects of the piece that are consistent with my later compositional practice, the most obvious being my interest in variation form. My Third Quartet (to be played this spring by the Daedalus Quartet) is built around a big variation form, and the Sonata-Fantasia for piano and synthesizer that I wrote for Lambert Orkis opens with a 25 minute variation set. (I later made that set into an independent piece (search “Primosch” and scroll down) for piano solo.) I think this continuing interest in writing variations partly stems from my experience as a jazz musician – playing choruses constitutes improvising variations.
Here is my program note on the Fantasy-Variations:
The theme that opens my Fantasy-Variations permeates the harmonic and melodic life of the 24 short episodes and coda that follow. However, in a few sections the relationships with the theme are more hidden than explicit; the fanciful connections between these portions and the opening theme suggested the work’s hybrid title. Yet even in these more wide-ranging variations the opening theme is usually still hovering nearby, often as a quiet presence contrasting with more animated gestures.
The piece may be understood as a kind of dream journal: a chain of brief entries that seem to vary greatly, yet rotate about a fixed constellation of types and obsessions, speaking a language of images at once logical and impossible, familiar and mysterious.
I wrote the Fantasy-Variations for the Leonardo Trio* in 1991 with the support of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in composition.
A recording of the piece is available on a disc from New World Records (see image above).
* I am sorry to say that the Leonardo Trio doesn’t seem to exist any longer, although the members continue to be active in other musical pursuits. A Google search shows a Trio Leonardo and another Leonardo Trio, neither of which is group for which I wrote. The members were Erica Kiesewetter, violin; Jonathan Spitz, cello; and Cameron Grant, piano. Besides my own disc, they can be heard on an album of music by Morris Rosenzweig and a disc of Smetana, Martinu and Shostakovich.