Ways of Listening

You may have noticed the link at the end of the recent NY Times review of the Tanglewood performance of my Dark the Star – it takes you to a YouTube posting of a track from the Bridge recording of the piece. The recording is by William Sharp, baritone, the 21st Century Consort, and Christopher Kendall, conductor. You really should pick up a copy of the disc (there are links to do that at the Bridge website), but if you disdain physical media (and paying artists for their work!) and want to hear the piece from the beginning, go here. Dark the Star consists of nine movements played without pause, which means the separate videos for each track of the piece interrupt the flow in disconcerting ways, sometimes in mid-phrase – another reason to spring for the physical disc. The pieces from the Sacred Songs cd featuring soprano Susan Narucki are also on YouTube – here’s the first track from the cycle Holy the Firm.

Another way of listening to my work is to visit the audio excerpts link above. I’ve just posted two items:

– under solo voice, you can find the recent premiere of Shadow Memory, with soprano Lisa Williamson and pianist Rami Sarieddine, recorded at SongFest this past June. The piece is on a text by Susan Orlean.

– under instrumental, you’ll find the Oboe Quartet I wrote for Peggy Pearson and the Apple Hill Quartet, this taken from their performance at St. Paul’s in Brookline, MA this past spring.

And, yes, I was thinking of this title when I titled this post, though not of the book’s content.

Opera News on “Sacred Songs”

A review by Joshua Rosenblum of my Sacred Songs album has appeared on the Opera News website. It’s only available for subscribers, so I’ll just offer a few quotes here:

“Primosch’s text-setting instincts are seemingly unerring: his vocal lines always convey the words authentically and honestly, while the instrumental accompaniment provides added depth and drama…”

“Soprano Susan Narucki, who sings three out of the four cycles, has musical intelligence to spare, as well as a clear, ingratiating delivery and sure intonation…”

“Baritone William Sharp uses his resonant, authoritative voice to provide a gripping, inexorable build…” [in the song cycle Dark the Star]

Corde Natus Ex Parentis” from the cycle Four Sacred Songs, has a straightforward, attractively contoured, plainchant-style melody, but the composer adorns it with imaginatively layered instrumental counterpoint in subsequent verses. “Christus Factus Est” has another clearly tonal melody, but the subtly dissonant leanings of the accompaniment form a painfully apt depiction of Christ on the cross.  Narucki’s performance of this quietly devastating number is a delicate marvel.”

“These songs are unfailingly compelling, whether the musical language is complex or seemingly simple… Christopher Kendall skillfully and sensitively leads the 21st Century Consort, which provides superb accompaniment.”

Sticky post: “Sacred Songs” CD

CD coverThis CD is devoted to my music for voice and ensemble, and has been released by Bridge Records. Susan Narucki and William Sharp are the soloists; Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort. It’s available at Amazon and at Arkiv Music. Scroll down for several more posts about the album. A review by Christian B. Carey on the Musical America website is here; another is at Audiophile Audition, by Steven Ritter. Composer Daniel Asia discusses the album at the Huffington Post here.

Sacred Songs: program notes, part II

Here are the program notes for the other two pieces on my new CD on Bridge. (The first installment is here). The pictures below are of the Grammy winning soloists on the disc, Bill Sharp and Susan Narucki.

Dark the Star

Unknown-3Composing this cycle of songs began with my discovery of three poems in Susan Stewart’s collection Columbarium that I knew I must set to music. The deep, dreamlike wisdom of these poems haunted me, just as I had experienced with Susan’s poem “Cinder” that had served as the fulcrum of my song cycle Holy the Firm. Eventually, texts by Rilke and an earlier setting I had done of a psalm verse were drawn into the gravitational orbit of Susan’s poems. I ordered the texts in a nearly symmetrical pattern, with two poems set a second time in versions that shadow their first readings. This is partly for the sake of the formal design, but, more importantly, to re-examine the poems in the penumbra of what comes before. Rounding the cycle in this way reflects not only the circles and repetitions in Susan Stewart’s texts, but also the way in which, as Rilke writes, the things we have let go yet encircle us.

William Sharp and the 21st Century Consort premiered this cycle in 2008.

Holy the Firm

Unknown-2The little anthology of texts dealing with praise and mystery that I have assembled for this song cycle 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 from 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 a 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.”

Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish gave the first performance of the original piano and voice version of Holy the Firm in 1999. I subsequently made this chamber version for Susan Narucki and the 21st Century Consort; those artists gave the premiere in 2002.

“Songs and Dances” at the Cathedral

I had never expected to hear the piece again in this instrumentation. I am speaking of my work for soprano, baritone and early instruments called Songs and Dances from ‘The Tempest’. It was premiered by the Folger Consort in 1998, with Ellen Hargis and William Sharp as the soloists, and subsequently recorded by them for Bard Records. But the idea of another early music group taking on the piece seemed to me rather unlikely. Nor did I expect the Folger to revive it. Yet there we were this past weekend, in Washington’s National Cathedral, with the Folger, William Sharp, and a different soprano, Rosa Lamoreaux. 

I was very happy with the performances. Bill has lost nothing in the sheer beauty of his voice and his skill at charming characterization. Rosa’s voice was new to me, and proved to be a real find: lovely in timbre, smoothly flexible throughout her range, and finely nuanced. The core members of the Folger – Robert Eisenstein and Christopher Kendall – were joined by several musicians from Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia’s baroque orchestra, the guest ensemble for the program. Gwyn Robert’s lyrical recorder playing – from haunting bass to brilliant sopranino – taught me how much recorder playing involves an essentially voice-like conception. Lisa Terry and and Robert Eisenstein provided the foundation for the ensemble with their viols and Fran Berge enriched the palette of timbres with her kemenje and vielle (the latter two being fiddle-like instruments). Christopher Kendall’s lute filled out the harmonic texture as well as adding touches of delicate melodic tracery. Danny Villanueva’s percussion offered tasty color and rhythmic verve. Anna Marsh helped out with atmospheric psaltery in one movement and served as a third recorder player in another. All the early instrument performers were good sports about dealing with my writing for instruments with which I was not very familiar.

The Folger and Tempesta attracted big audiences, with perhaps 800 on Saturday night and somewhat less on Friday. I was touched to see a big portion of the audience stand when I took my bow Saturday night.

The whole ensemble is shown here, except for Danny, who is in the next picture, and Anna – sorry, didn’t get a shot of you, Anna! L to R: Lisa Terry, Robert Eisenstein, Rosa Lamoureux, Bill Sharp, Christopher Kendall, Gwyn Roberts, and Fran Berge. IMG_3763

IMG_3694

The soloists in action, with Christopher Kendall on lute:

IMG_3698Last minute adjustment of a viol chord – I didn’t know Robert would be playing a seven string viol capable of a low d-flat:

IMG_3726Rosa and I after the show:

IMG_3844The composer ponders the score. With a performance this fine, I really had no reason to look so concerned:

IMG_3758 - Version 2Many thanks to my dear friend Peter Hoyt for coming up from South Carolina for the concerts and for taking these pictures.

More pictures from the National Cathedral here.

Tempest in Washington DC

056320W3I’ll be heading to Washington soon for performances of my Songs and Dances from ‘The Tempest’ this coming Friday and Saturday – details here.

Although I have posted many times about the difficulty of getting a work performed a second time, this is one piece that I thought would be truly unlikely to be reprised. It is scored for an ensemble of early instruments – medieval and renaissance strings and winds – accompanying soprano and baritone soloists. While it is not unheard of for an early music group to take on a new piece, (consider Kile Smith’s Vespers), it is certainly uncommon, and after the first performances of Songs and Dances in the late 90s I figured I would never hear it in its original scoring again, so I made a version for modern instruments, which has been done a couple of times. But now the Folger has revived the piece, putting it on a program with incidental music for the play by the seventeenth century composer Matthew Locke – this is the same juxtaposition that they offered on their CD that includes my Tempest music. William Sharp and Rosa Lamoreaux are the soloists for this weekend’s performances. (The image at left, with its quote from the play, is taken from the Folger website.)

Here’s a listing of the movements for the piece, and a program note:

 1. A Tempestuous Noise
sopranino recorder, 2 bass viols, lute, very small suspended cymbal

2. Come Unto These Yellow Sands
soprano, treble viol, bass viol, lute, dumbek

3. Solemn Music of Ariel
tenor recorder, 2 bass viols, lute

4. The Master, the Swabber, the Boatswain, and I
baritone, alto recorder, treble viol, bass viol, lute

5. Full Fathom Five
soprano, bass recorder, 2 bass viols, lute, crotales in E and B

6.Flout ‘em and Scout ‘em / Be Not Afeard
baritone, alto recorder, vielle, kamenji, bass viol, citole, harp, psaltery, tambourine

7a. A Solemn and Strange Music
alto recorder, 2 bass viols

7b. Honor, Riches, Marriage Blessing
soprano, lute

7c. Earth’s Increase, Foison Plenty
baritone, alto recorder, 2 bass viols, lute

7d. A Graceful Dance, a Confused Noise
soprano recorder, 2 alto recorders, lute

8. No More Dams
baritone, rebec, vielle, citole, nakara

9. Where the Bee Sucks
soprano, alto recorder, bass viol, lute

10. Our Revels Now Are Ended
soprano, baritone, alto recorder, 2 bass viols, lute, crotales in E and B

Program Note
Songs and Dances from “The Tempest”
came about because Folger Consort member Christopher Kendall, who knew my work as composer and pianist from his “other” consort – the 21st Century Consort – had heard my Four Sacred Songs, a set of arrangements of plainchant melodies for soprano and a sextet of modern instruments. Christopher wondered if an arrangement of those songs could be made for the old instruments of the Folger Consort. I thought about that for a bit but ultimately decided I would rather write a fresh piece for the Folger, eventually realizing that a piece composed for the ensemble in residence at the Folger Library should really be a Shakespeare piece. My first plan was to concoct an anthology of texts from various Shakespeare plays, but I set that aside in favor of focusing on a single play, perhaps the most musical of Shakespeare’s creations, The Tempest. My suite of short pieces includes settings of songs from the play as well as a few speeches. I have also included some instrumental music, as suggested by the evocative stage directions. I hope lovers of the play will forgive me for re-ordering the texts so as to create a satisfying musical sequence that does not in all cases correspond to the sequence of the play itself.

The texts are by turns playful, drunken, evocative, and profound. Throughout they are imbued with a magical atmosphere that is unique in Shakespeare. I hope I have reflected some of this atmosphere in my music.

The challenge for a modern composer to write for the instruments of another time is formidable. You spend your life as a composer building up an image in the inner ear of what, for example, the cello sounds like in various contexts – it is difficult to set these things aside when presented with a cello-like object such as the vielle. But, at least to some extent, set them aside you must. As a pianist I feel especially ill-equipped to write for these instruments since my own instrument’s repertoire begins about a century after the newest music the Folger Consort normally plays! I lack a personal connection with the repertoires of these instruments. Still, I love the sounds of the ancient instruments, and love the repertoires the Folger so beautifully engages. So I have tried to create a sound world that would both suit the instruments and perhaps challenge them a little, all the while serving Shakespeare’s texts.

The endless patience and goodwill of the members of the Consort have played no small role in the creation of this piece. I am grateful for the chance to adventure with them to Prospero’s enchanted realm where we might enjoy the “sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.”

 

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.

—————————————————————–

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.

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.