31 December 2010

Counting the old year out

I’ve listened to the second Peter Gabriel solo album (released in 1978, sometimes known as ‘Scratch’) four times in the past 24 hours. Where the last I had listened to it, was on vinyl, perhaps 20 years ago.

Before this revisitation, I had held this album (as an album) in less esteem than any of the three subsequent albums. (Although I always liked “On the Air” and “D.I.Y.” as among his very best solo songs . . . and of course “Exposure” is an old favorite.) Why?

Not sure . . . maybe a generalized impression springing from visceral dissatisfaction with the downer of an album closer (“Home Sweet Home”). To be sure, “Biko” and “Kiss of Life” are much more positive exit statements on the two subsequent albums.

Now at this distance, even if “Home Sweet Home” may be a little too sentimental, a little too Dickensian, you've got to give Gabriel points for a tolerably well written song, and in a direct, personal vein which is entirely ‘out of the zone’ from his Genesis tenure.

The whole album, though, is really marvelously voiced. Mind you, I love the rich texture and the majestic arc one hears in Genesis and King Crimson; but Fripp and Gabriel here have entirely successfully mastered a different musical game.

Scratch’ may be Gabriel’s most underrated album.

With its homey yet tasteful understatement, the Broadcasting from Home album by the Penguin Café Orchestra has been a sentimental favorite since I first chanced upon the LP in the music library at Old Cabell Hall. This year, I’ve finally gotten around to checking out some of their earlier albums. I had known of their cover of “Walk, Don’t Run,” and the curious “The Ecstasy of Dancing Fleas” from an old EG sampler LP; that fact probably made it intuitive that my ‘next’ Penguin Café Orchestra album would be their second, Penguin Café Orchestra, which included those two odd tracks. That album was largely true to form (as I could reckon it), though I had non-fatal quibbles with two of the tracks . . . the telephone’s timbre in “Telephone and Rubber Band” (a found object, and only true to itself) strikes me as a little stridently flat over the course of the song; and the electronic (or, electronified) sound(s) in “Pythagoras’s Trousers” similarly become a bit trying.

Enter (on my personal stage, anyway) Music from the Penguin Café

This is a fascinating first album to listen to, with the established sound of later albums as my long-standing reference point. The disc is a sort of burnt weenie sandwich, a seven-number suite played by a larger ensemble (Zopf), preceded and (more substantially) followed by the Penguin Café Quartet proper. Overall, the numbers which the quartet plays hold true to [what by the time of Broadcasting from Home will be] ‘the Penguin Café Orchestra sound’ . . . though the opening “Penguin Café Single” (which starts with a repeated double-stop in the violin which to my ears, anyway, favorably recalls King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, not that you asked) and the centerpiece “The sound of someone you love who’s going away and it doesn’t matter” both incorporate more ‘experimental’ features — dropping the established ‘groove’, opening a space for sparse, quasi-improvisatory interplay — features which no longer seem to have a place in the band of Broadcasting from Home.

The eleven-minute ‘Zopf suite’ is, right away, is flightier, more fragmented (the only number in the suite to exceed 2½ minutes is the last, “Pigtail,” at 2:44) . . . and there’s singing (which I haven’t at all been accustomed to in their music). The singing is a little homey and plaintive — imagine a Nico with less ego and more (or, rather, something like) taste — and it works all right as an element of contrast on this album. But to lose the singing for the second album was a sound decision.

(Brian Eno was the executive producer for the album, and in its way, Music from the Penguin Café shares something of the instrumental-album-with-some-singing aesthetic of, say, Before and After Science, which was released the year after — or, for the matter of that, like Another Green World, released the year before. To what extent the presence of singing on the album may have been an oblique strategy of Eno’s, were an interesting line of inquiry.)

— yet the Zopf music also has numbers of relatively ‘straight-ahead Penguin Café’: “From the Colonies” and “Giles Farnaby’s Dream.”

Impossible for me to say how I should have reacted to the album, had I heard it back when it was first released. (Oh, whom am I kidding? I was in high school yet, and it would have been one of the strangest sorts of music I had ever heard to that point.) Listening to it retroactively, and with a ‘sonic profile’ established in my ear, Music from the Penguin Café was at first a frankly weird listen — largely a matter of defying expectations — and that initial audition nearly had me repenting it. But, once I got over the hogtied expectations, my ear was beguiled by the variety and subtle playfulness of the album. The sound itself won me over; and subsequently I enjoyed the deeper insight into a composer-bandleader who was still finding his way. Simon Jeffes was taken by cancer a couple of months shy of his 49th birthday, and there is no telling what might have been. Even on the strength of Broadcasting from Home, it seems to me that Jeffes heeded the advice of Gubaidulina’s piano teacher: listen to everyone and obey no one.

This month just passing marks what would have been Zappa’s 70th birthday. In these days of dying-off paper journalism, Mojo gives us a commemorative issue:

“Frank governs with Elmore James on his left and Stravinsky on his right.” —Tom Waits

30 December 2010


Before I compose a piece, I walk around it several times, accompanied by myself.
— Erik Satie

29 December 2010

Listen VS. Obey

. . . one of my piano teachers once told me, “You must listen to everyone and obey no one.”
I’m sure that Ravel, Bartók, and Shostakovich did exactly that
when they were criticized for not being radical enough.

— Sofia Gubaidulina

28 December 2010

Lost in the Hyperbole

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped,
indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered.

— The character known only as № 6

The hyperbole is baked into a series of books . . . I mean to say, 1001 beers anyone must taste before he dies? 1001 foods you must taste before you die, including frogs’ legs, against which they point out there are punitive regulations to protect certain amphibians?

My latest favorite trumps any of these, with an even more absurd sub-title: 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die: And 10,001 You Must Download. When anyone would have time to download all 10,001 — let alone listen to them — were a mystery to me.

Perusing the book was for me more of an exercise of finding out which songs (artists, really) didn’t make the (extremely liberal) cut.

So: not a single song by the Bonzo Dog band. For the sake of argument, let’s call the Bonzos too esoteric for such a book — although, really, I am of the ready opinion that “You Done My Brain In,” “Sport (The Odd Boy),” “Can Blue Men Sing the Whites,” “Tent” & “I’m Going to Bring a Watermelon to My Girl Tonight” are ready substitutes for five of the 1,001 which the book claims are must-hear songs ere we shuffle off this mortal coil.

But two main-streamlier bands entirely absent from the 1,001 are Chicago and Jethro Tull.

And, in the write-up for the one song by Frank Zappa which is included in the 1,001 (“Valley Girl”), the point is made that people weren’t buying a Frank Zappa song, but a novelty with Moon Unit doing a parody. An irony lost on the producers of the book.

1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die is not any book you need read while life and breath endure.

27 December 2010

Candle flame

My composing is not dead, but only hibernating.

There are pieces I plan to write, which (indeed) I wish to write . . . only not just yet.

Perhaps (not a direct consequent of the above) I need to change something about how I think of my music? Of the music I wish to create?

For the most part, what I think I need is to get out of town for a week, or nearly a week. And this is planned. I do not anticipate returning to compositional work until after that physical vacation.

26 December 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Cheesy

First, the good: The Bobs singing “Christmas in Jail”:

As for the rest . . . .

“The kitsch is extremely nasty; we can’t prosecute you for that.”

The self-named “painter of light” — famous for selling lots and lots of shlocky paintings with titles like “Central Park in the Fall” and “Tinker Bell and Peter Pan Fly to Neverland” — will do ten days in jail, nine months of a DUI offender program, and five years of informal court probation, and pay a $1,846 fine. Kinkade’s BAC was at double the legal limit, which, wow.

That article includes a delicately photographed Slammer of Light . . . .

25 December 2010

Merry Christmas!

24 December 2010

Shuffle into Christmas

From Wednesday the 22nd through today, when I was on my way from here to there, and from there to somewhere else again, this was what I listened to, to keep the musical mind engaged:

1. Shostakovich, String Quartet № 2, Opus 135, iii. Recitativo. (Emerson String Quartet) [1112/1507]
2. Shostakovich, Four Pushkin Romances, Opus 46 № 1, Renaissance. Moderato. (Mikhail Lukonin, bar; Yuri Serov, pf) [360/1507]
3. Beethoven, Symphony № 1, Opus 21, iv. AdagioAllegro molto e vivace (Gewandhausorchester, Masur) [1187/1507]
4. Prokofiev, Four Pieces, Opus 4, № 3 Despair (Eteri Andjaparidze) [357/1507]
5. Genesis, “Please Don’t Ask” (Duke) [832/1507]
6. Jethro Tull, “Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll, Too Young to Die” (Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll, Too Young to Die) [1327/1507]
7. Captain Beefheart, “Dachau Blues” (Trout Mask Replica) [266/1507]
8. Ravel, Rapsodie espagnole, ii. Malagueña (Béroff & Collard) [488/1507]
9. Stravinsky, Requiem Canticles, Interlude (Ollie Knudsen, cond.) [870/1507]
10. Nielsen, Flute Concerto, FS 119, i. Allegro moderato (Gareth Davies, fl; Bournemouth Symphony; Kees Bakels) [348/1507]
11. Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms, i. Psalm 39, vv. 13 & 14 (Rbt Craft, cond) [1214/1507]
12. Beatles, “Got to Get You Into My Life” (Revolver) [388/1507]
13. Jethro Tull, “Cheerio” (The Very Best of) [231/1507]
14. Genesis, “Misunderstanding” (Duke) [725/1507]
15. Frank Zappa, “Alien Orifice” (You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, vol. 6) [151/1507]
16. Beatles, “Good Day Sunshine” (Revolver) [385/1507]
17. Stravinsky, Orpheus, Interlude. Moderato assai (LSO, Craft) [540/1507]
18. Mannheim Steamroller, “Pat a Pan” (25th Anniversary Christmas) [805/1507]
19. Palestrina, Missa Aeterna Christi mundera, Kyrie (Oxford Camerata, Summerly) [601/1507]
20. Messiaen, Quatuor pour la fin du temps, Intermède (Ensemble Incanto) [541/1507]
21. Robt Fripp, “First Inaugural Address to the I.A.C.E. Sherborne House” (Exposure) [344/1507]
22. Vaughan Williams, Dona nobis pacem, from v: O man greatly beloved (Atlanta Symphony Chorus & Orchestra & al., Robt Shaw) [309/1507]
23. Nielsen, Symphony № 6 (Sinfonia semplice), FS 116, ii. Humoreske (Allegretto) (LSO, Ole Schmidt) [1023/1507]
24. Jethro Tull, “Sweet Dream” (The Very Best of) [1148/1507]
25. Ginastera, Variaciones concertantes, Opus 23, Ripresa del tema per contrabasso (Orquesta Ciudad de Granada, Josep Pons) [1359/1507]
26. Ginastera, Concierto para arpa y orquesta, ii. Molto moderato (Magdalena Barrera, hp; Orquesta Ciudad de Granada; Josep Pons) [1359/1507]
27. Berlioz, L’enfance du Christ, Opus 25, Part I « Eh, bien! » (BSO & al., Munch) [427/1507]
28. Robt Fripp, “You Burn Me Up, I’m a Cigarette” (Exposure) [1503/1507]
29. Beethoven, Symphony № 6 in F Major (Pastorale), Opus 68, iv. Allegretto (Gewandhaus Orchestra, Masur) [1170/1507]
30. Prokofiev, Visions fugitives, Opus 22 № 18 Con una dolce lentezza (Béroff) [1400/1507]
31. Prokofiev, Visions fugitives, Opus 22 № 3 Allegretto (Béroff) [1404/1507]
32. Hindemith, Ludus tonalis, № 20 Fuga Decima in D-flat. Moderately fast, grazioso (John McCabe) [678/1507]
33. Shostakovich, Two Pieces from Scarlatti, Opus 17 № 1, Pastorale. Allegro non tanto (Winds of the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, Rozhdestvensky) [1344/1507]
34. Captain Beefheart, “Steal Softly Through Snow” (Trout Mask Replica) [1080/1507]
35. Hindemith, Suite 1922, Opus 26 № 3 Nachtstück (John McCabe) [1143/1507]
36. Shostakovich, Symphony № 8 in c minor, Opus 65, i. AdagioAllegro non troppo (Prague Symphony, Maksim Dmitriyevich) [966/1507]
37. Shostakovich, Symphony № 1 in f minor, Opus 10, iii. Lento (Prague Symphony, Maksim Dmitriyevich) [924/1507]
38. Bartók, String Quartet № 1, Opus 7, Sz. 40, ii. Allegretto (Emerson String Quartet) [1087/1507]
39. Shostakovich, Symphony № 4 in c minor, Opus 43, mvt iii (Prague Symphony, Maksim Dmitriyevich) [952/1507]
40. Prokofiev, Cinderella, Opus 87, Act I, № 5 The Fairy Godmother (Cleveland Orchestra, Ashkenazy) [101/1507]
41. Prokofiev, Romeo & Juliet, Opus 64, Act II, Scene 3. Dance with Mandolins (BSO, Ozawa) [59/1507]
42. Genesis, “Cul-de-sac” (Duke) [263/1507]
43. Bartók, String Quartet № 2, Opus 17, Sz. 67, i. Moderato (Emerson String Quartet) [1089/1507]
44. Prokofiev, Romeo & Juliet, Opus 64, Act III, Scene 8. At Juliet’s Bedside (BSO, Ozawa) [82/1507]
45. Bartók, String Quartet № 4, Sz. 91, iii. Non troppo lento (Emerson String Quartet) [1089/1507]
46. Prokofiev, Sarcasms, Opus 17, № 1 Tempestoso (Eteri Andjaparidze) [898/1507]
47. Penguin Café Orchestra, “Yodel 2” (Penguin Café Orchestra) [1502/1507]
48. Hindemith, Ludus tonalis, № 18 Fuga Nona in B-flat. Moderate, scherzando (John McCabe) [676/1507]
49. Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue in G Major from Opus 87 (Tatiana Nikolayeva) [522/1507]
50. Prokofiev, Cinderella, Opus 87, Act II, № 31 Promenade (Cleveland Orchestra, Ashkenazy) [116/1507]

The Fripp track with the longest title above (№ 21) may likely be the shortest track on the player, at 4 seconds. Not sure which may be the longest track, but the third movement of the Shostakovich Opus 43 (№ 37) must be in the running.

At first when I heard the piece from the Shostakovich Opus 17 (№ 33), I wondered if it might be . . . Mannheim Steamroller. Soon there were just too many wind instruments, though. A curious head-fake.

The immediate juxtaposition of two substantial Shostakovich symphony movements (№ 36 & № 37) was musically interesting, and a statistical curiosity. As was the stretch of five pop songs (№ 12 through № 16) . . . and that both the Beatles tracks are from the same album, as are all the Genesis tracks.

The faux attacca from the Prokofiev Despair into the piano intro to “Please Don’t Ask” was especially tasty.

Disappointed with the clarinetist in this movement from the Messiaen quatuor (№ 20).

Moving from the Humoreske from the Nielsen Sixth to “Sweet Dream” was another lovely moment. In general, many of these random musical shifts, I find wonderfully stimulating.

Not that I am in any danger of becoming John Zorn, for instance . . . .

23 December 2010

Carol of the Bassoon

I am the Bassoon
by Gurn Blanston

I am the bassoon, I stand straight and tall.
My voice is from the greatest deep
The bass line is what I keep
From straying off the chosen beat
Without me they will doubtless fall,
I am the bassoon.

I am the bassoon, I have been here all the while.
When viols and lutes carried the tune
They did it on top of the bassoon.
When oboes were still called shawm
When flutes were made of hollow sticks
When it was chitarra that played hot licks
I was there, I am the bassoon.

I am the bassoon, I can be a clown.
I can bark and fart and belch in time
With all the others on the melody line
I carry the basses, cellos and brass
No one can replace me so kiss my ass.
I am the bassoon. Blow me.

Gurn Blanston is a pseudonym.

No, the poet is not Steve Martin.

22 December 2010

Expanding . . .

From yesterday, with more loaded:

1. Shostakovich, Symphony № 14, Opus 135, vii. Adagio. “À la Santé” (Mikhail Ryssov, bass; Prague Symphony; Maksim Dmitriyevich) [841/1377]
2. Bonzo Dog Doo/Dah Band, “Are You Having Any Fun?” (Keynsham with bonus tracks) [163/1377]
3. Captain Beefheart, “Hobo Chang Ba” (Trout Mask Replica) [373/1377]
4. Prokofiev, Romeo & Juliet, Opus 64, Act II Scene v, The People Continue to Make Merry (BSO, Ozawa) [68/1377]
5. Prokofiev, Cinderella, Opus 87, Act I, № 6 The Sisters’ New Clothes (Cleveland Orchestra, Ashkenazy) [100/1377]
6. Frank Zappa & The Mothers, “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” (We’re Only in It for the Money) [1331/1377]
7. Shostakovich, String Quartet № 11, Opus 122, vi. Elegy. Adagio (Emerson String Quartet) [1011/1377]
8. Robt Fripp, “Water Music II” (Exposure) [1321/1377]
9. Ginastera, Variaciones concertantes, Opus 23, Variazione in modo perpetuo (Orquesta Ciudad de Granada, Josep Pons) [1249/1377]
10. Shostakovich, Symphony № 15, Opus 141, iv. Adagio - Allegretto (Prague Symphony, Maksim Dmitriyevich) [848/1377]
11. Prokofiev, Piano Concerto № 3 in C, Opus 26, ii. Tema con variazioni (Béroff, pf; Gewandhausorchester; Masur) [728/1377]
12. Prokofiev, Visions fugitives, Opus 22 № 13 Allegretto (Béroff) [1279/1377]
13. Hindemith, Konzertmusik Opus 50 for strings & brass, Part I (NY Phil, Lenny) [535/1377]
14. Berlioz, L’enfance du Christ, Opus 25, Part III « Sur vos traits fatigués » (BSO & al., Munch) [450/1377]
15. Bartók, A csodálatos mandarin, The curtain rises on a shabby room in the slums (LSO, Doráti) [1181/1377]
16. Prokofiev, Cinderella, Opus 87, Act I, № 7 The Dancing Lesson (Cleveland Orchestra, Ashkenazy) [101/1377]
17. Penguin Café Orchestra, “Telephone and Rubber Band” (Penguin Café Orchestra) [1227/1507]
18. Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue in g minor from Opus 87 (Tatiana Nikolayeva) [1491/1507]
19. Prokofiev, Visions fugitives, Opus 22 № 12 Assai moderato (Andjaparidze) [1422/1507]
20. Beethoven, Symphony № 6 (Pastoral), Opus 68, ii. Andante molto mosso (Gewandhausorchester, Masur) [1167/1507]

The Frippertronics hard on the heels of the penultimate movement of the Shostakovich Eleventh Quartet was perticularly felicitous.

20 December 2010

Where have you gone, Vince Guaraldi?

Berlioz does not try to be pleasing and elegant; what he hates, he grasps fiercely by the hair; what he loves, he almost crushes in his fervor.
— Robt Schumann

On fb, Our Man in Sicily posts a link from La filosofia dei Peanuts. Which strikes me as rather grammatically fussy, in observing that the English noun Peanuts is plural. Mentally, I have always thought the title of the legendary strip in the singular; I mean, I have never thought of the characters (Charlie Brown, Lucy or Linus Van Peldt, Peppermint Patty, Snoopie, Schroeder) as one Peanut each.

— I still remember watching Jeopardy as a boy, and seeing one of the challenging answers to be replied to in the form of a question . . . well, the gist of it was the Charles Schultz considered Peanuts to be the worst name for a comic strip ever. I don’t know the story of how the name came to be used . . . I have an idea that Sparky’s own title for the strip was Little People. [A friend in Ohio corrects me: Li’l Folk.]

Anyway, I have thought forever of Peanuts as being a collective noun amd functioning in the singular. Yes, I should have preferred La filosofia de Peanuts. Probably impossibly eccentric of me.

Our favorite expatriate Texan discovers The Graduate:

The Graduate is billed as a comedy. Really, though, it is deeply unsettling.

Hard to think how the song would sound as “Mrs Roosevelt.”

And because the game is just too much fun:

1. Bartók, String Quartet № 5, Sz. 114, iii. Scherzo. Alla bulgarese (Emerson String Quartet) [938/1308]
2. Martinů, Frescoes of Piero della Francesca H.352, i. Andante poco moderato (Cz Phil, Ančerl) [578/1308]
3. Shostakovich, String Quartet № 9 in E-flat Major, Opus 117, i. Allegro (Emerson String Quartet) [969/1308]
4. Stravinsky, De elegia prima from Threni (Robt Craft conducting) [244/1308]
5. Sibelius, Symphony № 7 in C Major, Opus 105, [iv]. Presto, poco a poco ritardando (Helsinki Phil, Berglund) [857/1308]
6. Beethoven, Symphony № 6 in F Major (Pastorale), Opus 68, iii. Allegro (Gewandhaus Orchestra, Masur) [1002/1308]
7. Bonzo Dog Doo/Dah Band, “Rusty (Champion Thrust)” from Let’s Make Up and Be Friendly (reissued w/ bonus tracks) [738/1308]
8. Ravel, Pavane pour une infant défunte (Detroit Symphony, Paray) [713/1308]
9. Shostakovich, Prelude & fugue in G Major from the Opus 87 (Tatiana Nikolayeva) [440/1308] 10. Prokofiev, Cinderella, Opus 87, Act III, № 43 Oriental Dance (Cleveland Orchestra, Ashkenazy) [123/1308]
11. Berlioz, L’enfance du Christ, Scene i, Une rue de Jérusalem (BSO & al., Munch) [360/1308]
12. Piazzolla, “Mumuki” (Tango: Hora Cero) [617/1308]
13. Prokofiev, Romeo & Juliet, Opus 64, Act III, scene viii, № 50 At Juliet’s bedside, Andante. Adagio (BSO, Ozawa) [79/1308]
14. Prokofiev, Four Pieces, Opus 4, № 2 Ardour (Eteri Andjaparidze) [305/1308]
15. Prokofiev, Piano Concerto № 5 in G Major, Opus 55, iv. Larghetto (Béroff, Gewandhausorchester, Masur) [688/1308]
16. Prokofiev, Cinderella, Opus 87, Act I, № 11 Second appearance of the Fairy Godmother (Cleveland Orchestra, Ashkenazy) [87/1308]
17. Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms, mvt II (Robt Craft conducting) [702/1308]
18. Stravinsky, Abraham & Isaac, [ii.] And Abraham took the wood (Ollie Knussen conducting) [32/1308]
19. Prokofiev, Visions fugitives, Opus 29, № 7 Pittoresco (Béroff) [1226/1308]
20. Shostakovich, Symphony № 9, Opus 70, iv. Largo (Prague Symphony, Maksim Dmitriyevich) [816/1308]

19 December 2010

In the ring

How exciting for Judith!

Tower of the Eight Winds, Judith Shatin’s Innova Records CD of chamber music performed by the Borup-Ernst Duo, has been nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award.

And, of course, nice that we got some Beethoven in, in honor of the anniversary of his baptism.

Spin here, spin there

Me and my posting to the blog days after the fact: Shuffle from 13 December:

1. Frank Zappa, “Montana (Whipping Floss)” from You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. II (The Helsinki Concert) [553/1172]
2. Vaughan Williams, Symphony № 6, i. Allegro (London Phil, Haitink) [944/1172]
3. Shostakovich, Symphony № 14, Opus 135, ii. Malagueña (Marina Shaguch, soprano; Prague Symphony; Maksim Dmitriyevich) [715/1172]
4. Shostakovich, Concerto № 1 for Cello & Orchestra in E-flat Major, Opus 107, iv. Allegro con moto (Jiří Bárta, Prague Symphony, Maksim Dmitriyevich) [443/1172]
5. Prokofiev, Romeo & Juliet, Opus 64, Act III, № 43 Interlude, Adagio (BSO, Ozawa) [71/1172] 6. Captain Beefheart, “Old Fart at Play” from Trout Mask Replica [585/1172]
7. Prokofiev, Romeo & Juliet, Opus 64, Act I, Scene 1 № 2 Romeo, Andante (BSO, Ozawa) [37/1172]
8. Mannheim Steamroller, “Deck the Halls” from Celebration [248/1172]
9. Ginastera, Variaciones concertantes, Opus 23, Variazione pastorale per corno (Orquesta Ciudad de Granada, Josep Pons) [1078/1172]
10. Jethro Tull, “Rupi’s Dance” from The Best of Acoustic Jethro Tull [674/1172]
11. Prokofiev, Cinderella, Opus 87, Act I, № 17 The Interrupted Departure (Cleveland Orchestra, Ashkenazy) [93/1172]
12. Stravinsky, Sensus spei from Threni (Robt Craft conducting) [698/1172]
13. Shostakovich, String Quartet № 9 in E-flat Major, Opus 117, i. Allegro (Emerson String Quartet) [874/1172]
14. Bartók, Sonata for two pianos & percussion, Sz. 110, ii. Andante (Zoltán Kocsis, Dezső Ránki, Gusztáv Cser & Zoltán Rácz) [381/1172]
15. Captain Beefheart, “Hobo Chang Ba” from Trout Mask Replica [342/1172]

Two appearances in that shuffle of Captain Beefheart, and days before his passing. Coincidence? . . .

And just last night, spilling into this morning (honest):

1. Beethoven, Symphony № 9 in d minor, Opus 125, from iv – Seid umschlungen (Gewandhaus Orchestra & al., Masur) [22/1308]
2. Prokofiev, Romeo & Juliet, Opus 64, Act II, scene iii, № 23 Romeo & Mercutio, Andante teneroso (BSO, Ozawa) [71/1308]
3. Vaughan Williams, Symphony № 9, i. Moderato maestoso (London Phil, Haitink) [633/1308]
4. Genesis, “Cinema Show” from Selling England by the Pound [209/1308]
5. Monteverdi, Vespro della Beata Vergine, VII. Motet, “Duo Seraphim” (Boston Baroque, Pearlman) [1197/1308]
6. Bartók, Táncszvit, Sz. 77, Molto tranquillo (LSO, Doráti) [239/1308]
7. Stravinsky, De elegia prima from Threni (Robt Craft conducting) [243/1308]
8. Bonzo Dog Doo/Dah Band, “Are You Having Any Fun?” from Keynsham (reissued w/ bonus tracks) [160/1308]
9. Prokofiev, Piano Concerto № 4 in B-flat, Opus 53, ii. Andante (Béroff, Gewandhausorchester, Masur) [682/1308]
10. Prokofiev, Romeo & Juliet, Opus 64, Act I, scene i, № 6 The Fight, Presto (BSO, Ozawa) [38/1308]
11. Prokofiev, Cinderella, Opus 87, Act II, № 23 Skinny’s Variation (Cleveland Orchestra, Ashkenazy) [105/1308]
12. Bartók, String Quartet № 4, Sz. 91, iii. Non troppo lento (Emerson String Quartet) [933/1308]
13. Shostakovich, Symphony № 5 in d minor, Opus 47, i. Moderato (CSO, Previn) [1039/1308]
14. Stravinsky, Sensus spei from Threni (Robt Craft conducting) [762/1308]
15. Hindemith, Part I from Konzertmusik Opus 50 for strings & brass (NY Phil, Bernstein) [502/1308]
16. Webern, Variationen, Opus 30 (Berlin Phil, Boulez) [1187/1308]
17. Jethro Tull, “Roots to Branches” from The Very Best of Jethro Tull [736/1308]
18. Prokofiev, Cinderella, Opus 87, Act II, № 25 Dance of the Courtiers (repeat) (Cleveland Orchestra, Ashkenazy) [107/1308]
19. Talking Heads, “The Listening Wind” from Remain in Light [542/1308]
20. Bartók, a 15-second bit from The Miraculous Mandarin (LSO, Doráti) [1118/1308]

Consistently, a lot of tracks appearing from the Prokofiev ballets. I like them, and they hold up.

And, quite reliably, appearances from Threni. Which is always good, too.

We did get just one track from the new uploads, the Boston Baroque Monteverdi Vespers of 1610.

“Cinema Show” sneaking in there in between the Vaughan Williams Ninth and the Monteverdi . . . that's one of those shuffle juxtapositions which one would never think deliberately to program, yet it’s agreeably startling.

The Hindemith right after the Sensus spei, actually . . . was more startling. The twelve-string opening of “Cinema Show” actually was quite a subtle shift from the close of the Moderato maestoso. Well, and the Bonzos will be a disruption after almost anything, I suppose. God, I love them so.

18 December 2010

Trout Mask Requiem

Observing the passing of Don van Vliet by at last loading some ‘new’ music onto the Sansa Fuze:

Sibelius, Symphonies nos. 1-7, The Oceanides & Tapiola / Helsinki Phil, Paavo Berglund
Hindemith, Ludus tonalis, Suite ‘1922’ / John McCabe
Monteverdi, Vespro della Beata Vergine / Boston Baroque, Martin Pearlman
Berlioz, L’enfance du Christ, Opus 25 / BSO, NEC Chorus, &al., Chas Munch
Penguin Café Orchestra, Penguin Café Orchestra (second album, 1981)
Peter Gabriel, So
Shostakovich, Two Pieces After Scarlatti, Opus 17 / Winds of the USSR State Symphony Orchestra, Gennady Rozhdestvensky

Hair Pie, Bake III

Art should be independent of all clap-trap.
— Jas Abbott McNeill Whistler

Don Vliet (later Don van Vliet, later Captain Beefheart) is no more:

Mr. Van Vliet’s life story is caked with half-believable tales, some of which he himself spread in Dadaist, elliptical interviews. He claimed he had never read a book and had never been to school, and answered questions with riddles. “We see the moon, don’t we?” he asked in a 1969 interview. “So it’s our eye. Animals see us, don’t they? So we’re their animals.”

Quite possibly I’ve said this before, but one of the things about The Rock Press &c. which tickles me, has been that Trout Mask Replica is routinely listed among (for abstract example) The World’s Greatest 100 Albums; yet it is nearly the only album in that list to which the majority response is apt to be, I tried it out, and it’s unlistenable.

Personally, I think that the term avant-garde is (largely) misused in reference to Beefheart (and the frequently-slung adjective atonal, almost always misapplied). Practically every musical element in his work comes from blues and related offshoots (not that there’s anything wrong with that); his inventiveness was organizational. Something with which this composer can sympathize, Beefheart found a lot of the patterns and repetition boring.

Of course, that ties in neatly with Stravinsky, and his genius for destroying symmetries and tidy repetition (together with a genius for noodly varied repetition), who was an idol unto Frank Zappa, Don Vliet’s boyhood friend. Zappa gave Don complete liberty for Trout Mask Replicado whatever you please, I’ll just capture it on tape — though of course there are also some stories about Beefheart responding even to this with some paranoid contrarianism.

But certainly, in a way which is strikingly analogous to new music written in the ‘classical’ tradition, Trout Mask Replica demands your full attention, and requires that you listen to it on its own terms. So many people buying the compact disc there in the Pop Music aisle have brought (and will bring) to the disc, to greater or lesser degree and in all likelihood unconsciously — or at any rate, with tough roots down in the subconscious — an expectation that it can be listened to in much the same way as this or that pop artist (or ‘artist’).

And given such an exercise, compared to Neil Diamond, Trout Mask Replica is, admittedly, ‘unlistenable’. The music is brash, febrile, hardly establishes any rhythmic pattern without freely leaving that pattern to flap on the sidewalk while the music rapidly moves elsewhere. Van Vliet’s voice is all over the map, he growls, shouts, plumbs velvety depths, squinches up to a timbral pinch, half-sings, hoots, or simply declaims. And that is apart from either the at-times-surreal play of the words themselves, or the occasional snippets of audio-verité dialogue in which Zappa particularly exulted (in the everything around us to be heard, is music spirit of John Cage).

On the whole, I should be surprised (though I admit it could not be impossible) if anyone simply liked the album on an initial hearing. Although (a) there is a lot to like, which there is no reason not to like directly, and (b) of course I may just be generalizing from my own experience, which perhaps everyone has done one time or another.

14 December 2010

Don't read this

Unless you have already seen “Where Is Everybody?” from season 1 and “King Nine Will Not Return” from season 2 of The Twilight Zone. There will be spoilers. And these episodes are worth seeing unspoilt.

This one bit, though, do please read — Houston’s year of many premières:

[ link → A lovely premiere! ]

In all, six new works got airings this year — a record for me.

And there’s more to come in 2011!

Congratulations, Houston! Bring on more of the music!

Below this, though, do not read per instructions above. Go watch the two episodes, and then come back.

This post will still be here.

In discussing the pitching of “Where Is Everybody?” to CBS, Rod Serling mentions a small fantastical element in the source teleplay which was dropped from the actual episode (the very first to be vroadcast in the first season of The Twilight Zone).

— And remember, you’re not reading this unless you’ve already watched both episodes referenced above —

The airman who is trying not only to figure out where he is, but even simply to remember his own name, runs into a cinema at one point. Originally, Serling had him grab a ticket at the door, stick it in his pocket, and then — at the end of the episode when we at last understand what was going on, and that it was all in the airman’s mind — we find that ticket stub in his uniform pocket.
So — was it really all in his mind?

Serling said that it was decided to drop this, because that element was too irrational for television at the time; that the studio insisted that there be a perfectly rational explanation for everything. That Ticket Stub of the Irrational, had to be sacrificed.

Curiously, the actor playing the airman, Earl Holliman, in his recorded commentary to the DVD recalls suggesting to Serling that, when the airman is in the phone booth, he should tear out a page of the phone book — and that it was this page of the phone book which would defy the pat, rational explanation at the end.

Perhaps Holliman’s phone-book page and Serling’s ticket stub are somehow conflated. Or it may be that, inspired by the screenplay, Holliman came up with the idea of that errant page all on his own. Serling may not have mentioned the priority of the ticket stub. Or may have, and at this remove, Holliman may have forgotten.

In the first episode of the second season, “King Nine Will Not Return,” Serling manages to work in the lost notion of the super-rational ticket stub. Without merely copying himself, Serling constructs another story of an airman who finds himself inexplicably alone, in the desert miles away from any other being, and with nothing but the ruined hulk of his B-25 for company. (Apart from the odd hallucination; an element which is entirely absent from “Where Is Everybody?”)

At the end of “King Nine,” however, when we are made aware of the rational explanation for the airman’s peculiar adventures, and someone brings him his clothes back — there is inexplicable sand in his shoes.

Call this one example of the playful reworking of ideas which manages to create an overall unity, without devolving into repetition, in The Twilight Zone.

11 December 2010

Rod Serling Reflects

You write a line which you think is adequate,
and years later you realize you gave birth to a turd.

09 December 2010

Third of Three

On Tango in Boston (Dances with Shades),
third movement of the Sonata for Viola and Piano, Opus 102:

For the Tango in Boston, the subtitle Dances with Shades is perhaps instructive: one can assume the reference is not to guys in sunglasses, but to ghosts and the pirouettes they might be making. (Of course, maybe the ghosts are wearing sunglasses!) In either case, one hears a rather mysterious and ghostly opening with our melodic and harmonic friends from earlier: the assorted seconds/sevenths/ninths and assorted fourths and fifths. In the very first bar, an Ab in the bass of the piano is answered by a C/F# and then a D/C#, and soon a G in the Viola joins that bass Ab. This opening section reminds one of an earlier sequence in Fair Warning (cf. bars 82-90). And the melodic motif at 24-27 in the piano’s treble evokes the spirit of Erwartung. After dancing up a quasi E major scale, the Viola sings on C# and D# while the piano provides a tango beat with a chord of B/C/F leading to A#/D/F#. Of interest is the bass rocking back and forth on the fourth-fifth pattern of A-E-E-A, providing a temporary “E” background and a yearning in the Viola line with that C#-D# theme.

At bar 33, the piano begins a bass ground in C-Db-Ab (or A)-F, while the Viola again struggles up that quasi E major scale, finally arriving at the theme from bars 19-22 now played in octaves. Deliciously evocative is the end of the section (bar 47) where the Db octave on the Viola fades away with a chord of Db/G/C in the piano. This continues the minor-second element (Db/C) heard in the first two movements. Also, as part of a final movement’s summation of previous material, the Viola’s music here might be heard as a variational reminiscence of bars 55-62 from the second movement.

And speaking of bass grounds, in the next section (bars 49-69) listen to the “Scott Joplin Channels Schoenberg c. 1915” in the piano’s left hand, where our 5:4 figure dances “with intensity” with (or against) the Viola’s dance played mainly in thirds, and using 5 8th notes tangoing on top of the piano’s 5:4 notes, thereby creating a giddy contrast for the ear. There is also an occasional 7:8 figure with 16ths in the piano: it begins on a low G# and rumbles upward to F (bar 54), then on D to B (bars 58 and 66) before reaching G# again at the end of bar 69. (See Karl’s previous comment on the multi-octave scale in the opening comments about Suspension Bridge.) Our destination is not G#, but (of course) the A, a minor ninth higher (bar 70). But the Viola has been busy during all this too! The 5-patterning is also heard in the descending figure in the Viola (beginning at the treble clef bars 66-67) and later in its ascending figures (bars 68-69). And the 7-pattern is heard in a 7-note descending motif (bars 62-63, 65, 67-68).

The unison on A (bars 70-71) is quickly disturbed by a Bb and G#, which is right in character! We then return nearly to the beginning of Fair Warning with a startling variation on the Viola theme from that movement (cf. bars 71-80 with Fair Warning’s bars 7-18). The piano continues its 5:4 motif interspersed with groups of 7 notes (e.g. the bass in bars 73-74, 77, 79 vs. the treble in bar 80). Suddenly at bar 81 we enter an A minor/major area, with a simple pizzicato theme, which strikes my ear as evocative of an ancient Greek melody. Then after the piano intones a mysterious 9th chord (A/F/B), we hear a transposition of some of the opening bars (24-30) with some variations: rather than the rising pizzicato of bars 33-41, we now have a very lugubrious theme (from the last beat of bar 89 to 104): if it is not quite a danse macabre, it is Herrmannesque, where octaves are just as disconcerting as 2nds, 7ths, or 9ths. This leads to a Largamente where the Viola returns to its cadenza chords of Suspension Bridge, but this time the piano adds its voice (cf. bars 137-142 of Suspension Bridge with bars 105-114).

The Adagietto (bars 115-132) takes us back to Fair Warning’s Meno mosso (bars 45-58) section: if it is not quite a variation, it is certainly a reconfiguration of that earlier section. Two massive hexachords conclude the section, leading to a Vivo finale which the piano insists must be in C, while the Viola plays rhythmic elements heard earlier which emphasize a strident B minor (e.g. the D/B in bars 133-135 along with the C#-B/F# figures throughout the finale). A purely personal and no doubt idiosyncratic reaction to the final page: I was reminded of the thunderous finale to Rachmaninov’s First Symphony. Perhaps it was the repetition of the motifs in the bass of the piano, but the connection was immediate. If the essay has helped to illuminate some things for a listener, then its purpose has been fulfilled. Ultimately, Karl Henning’s Sonata for Viola and Piano Opus 102 sings for itself and will illuminate the listener with its tour through an unknown soulscape.

— Leo Schulte

Here reproduced with the author’s permission.

07 December 2010

Now playing

1. de Victoria, Agnus Dei from Misa O quam gloriosum (Oxford Camerata, Jeremy Summerly) [540/1172]
2. Ravel, Piano Trio in a minor, ii. Pantoum (Members of the Nash Ensemble) [374/1172]
3. Piazzolla, Adiós, nonino (Pablo Mainetti, Orchestra of Lliure Theatre, Josep Pons) [838/1172]
4. Elgar, Cello Concerto in e minor, Opus 85, ii. LentoAllegro molto (André Navarra, Hallé Orchestra, John Barbirolli) [198/1172]
5. Robt Fripp, “You Burn Me Up, I’m a Cigarette” from Exposure [1170/1172]
6. Bartók, String Quartet № 5, Sz. 102, v. Finale. Allegro vivace (Emerson String Quartet) [845/1029]
7. The Police, “Deathwish” from Regatta de blanc [247/1172]
8. Genesis, “Duchess” from Duke [267/1172]
9. Stravinsky, Requiem Canticles, vi. Rex tremendae (London Sinfonietta & al., Knussen) [665/1029]
10. Beethoven, Symphony № 6 in F Major (Pastorale), Opus 68, i1. Andante (Gewandhausorchester, Masur) [902/1029]
11. Stravinsky, Les noces, scene iii (Robt Craft conducting) [1038/1172]
12. Bartók, Sonata for two pianos & percussion, Sz. 110, iii. Allegro non troppo (Zoltán Kocsis, Dezső Ránki, Gusztáv Cser & Zoltán Rácz) [805/1029]
13. Ginastera, Variaciones concertantes, Opus 23, Variazione ritmica per trombe (Orquesta Ciudad de Granada, Josep Pons) [1079/1172]
14. Stravinsky, Requiem Canticles, V. Interlude (London Sinfonietta, Knussen) [663/1172]
15. Prokofiev, Romeo & Juliet, Opus 64, Act I Scene ii, № 9 Preparations for the Ball (BSO, Ozawa) [50/1172]

06 December 2010

The John Williams You Don't Know Yet

On An Overgrown Path remarks on a multiple Grammy nominee:

Congratulations go to John McLaughlin Williams whose album of Quincy Porter's Viola Works with Eliesha Nelson has received three Grammy nominations.

Text prepared for a radio show

Just got a very nice message from Lance G. Hill, who says there has been good response to the radio show featuring my music on WPEL-FM. He may possibly repeat the show next year.

I had sent him a passel of music to choose from, and I had also promised him some text for background. Thus the track listings in the following refer to those four CDs (which my colleague Luke jokingly called the Henning Box).

When my family and I moved to Massachusetts, we knew hardly anyone in Boston. It happened that many of the musicians whose acquaintance I first made, were organists and choir directors. They were generally interested (at least politely) on learning that I am a composer, and more than one made me welcome to float by them any music which I thought might be suitable for use at their parish. Often, the choir of such a church might be of fairly modest musicianship.

The Alleluia in Ab (Disc 1, track 10), while not posing great demands, I did write as a piece not for any choir I then knew, but as a ‘stretch’, a piece for some choir, somewhere, capable of music of more technical difficulty than some of the occasional pieces I had written before. It was the first piece of mine to be published (by Lux Nova Press, in Atlanta), and in quite a short period of time, came to be sung by choirs on three continents (North America, Europe & Australia).

It was one of the first pieces of mine which Mark Engelhardt, then music director at the Episcopal cathedral in Boston, had his choir sing.

In early 2003, Mark approached me with the idea of an Evensong which the cathedral choir would sing, featuring my music. The canticle, the Song of Mary (Disc 1, track 8) pre-dated this proposal (I had composed the piece at St Vincent’s Arch-Abbey in Latrobe, PA) but its use in the Evensong was the first thing Mark & I settled. It also provided musical material for the companion Song of Simeon (Disc 1, track 9).

Now, I am a performer myself, a clarinetist and often a chorister. In my composition time and again, I seem to show a knack for making technical demands of the performers which call forth their full attention (and which require ample rehearsal), but the character of the music itself wins them over (we might say), so that they are very gracious even while they find that they have to rehearse a piece a great deal. One such piece in particular, is Nuhro (Disc 1, track 7), an original setting of an ancient Maronite hymn which I first heard in a monastery near the Quabbin reservoir in central Massachusetts. I decided to set this hymn to serve as part of the November 2003 Evensong. Mark’s choir at the cathedral, all paid singers at that time, were all highly capable; yet it was a small-ish choir, three or four singers to a part. I had been working with them some little time by then, so I knew their capabilities. I composed Nuhro for seven-part choir, which probably pressed Mark’s choir to their utmost, in terms of their handling long-breathed parts with divided sections. Even as I was writing it, I felt that it was the finest music I had composed to that point. I must have completed the score in July, and when I had reached the final double-bar, my family & I went to the beach. All the time when I was playing in the surf at Rockport, the strains of my new piece were echoing in my inner ear, and I was filled with this wonderful feeling that I had accomplished something in which I could always take great artistic pride.

In fact, Mark’s choir did such a beautiful job with the November 2003 Evensong, that I quickly wrote a piece in gratitude, a setting of the Christmas text Hodie Christus natus est (Disc 1, track 11) for choir in five parts and clarinet. Mark and the choir did indeed first sing it the following month, on Christmas Eve (although the recording we have is of a later performance).

The season at the cathedral following Mark’s departure in August 2005, I found that members of the choir had pressed the Dean of the cathedral to engage me as an Interim Choir Director. One of the things I wished (and which it actually proved practical) to do was, to keep the choir’s morale up by maintaining the tradition of singing a special Evensong; and as a composer, I was eager to write new music for the whole service. We scheduled the service to take place in Lent (March 2006), and so the idea of the new setting was that the organ would remain silent, and the instrumental compliment I selected was a pair of trombones, with a suitably austere sound to reflect the season of penitence (Disc 1, tracks 1-5).

That Easter I directed the choir in a purely unaccompanied adaptation of my setting of Pascha nostrum (Disc 1, track 6), which originally I had composed for organist Bill Goodwin in Woburn, Massachusetts, for choir accompanied by brass quintet and organ.

All this may give the false impression that I am primarily (or even, heaven forfend, solely) a composer of sacred choral music. Although I am certainly pleased, musically, at the artistic contribution I have made to that sector of the musical world, I think of myself much more broadly as a composer.

I am often asked if I have written a symphony. The short answer is, no, but I am keen to. In fact, I should like to write about 12 symphonies. In general, though, I have an abhorrence of writing “for the shelf”; and no orchestra has yet made itself available for such a collaboration. How should they, when no one has heard of me? Composers who already have established names (you don’t even need me to name them, you know them) are those whose symphonies are played by the orchestras.

Another reason why I tend not to write “for the shelf,” is – well it’s two related reasons, really. I like to have music which I have written performed, so most of the music I write is for musicians I know, and for an occasion where there is a fair prospect of actual performance. Where that is of particular importance is, in trying to overcome my anonymity as bemoaned above. I have worked hard to write music, which could then be performed, so that (hopefully) there should be a fair document of the piece, which people can hear. So that (hopefully) more people out there know that there’s a chap named Karl Henning who writes music, and quite fine music it is, too.

In this I see at least a chance of eventually becoming known. The idea of writing my twelve symphonies as a complete unknown, to be discovered only after my death, is a prospect I do not find at all attractive.

Not surprisingly, then – as I am a clarinetist – I have written quite a bit of music including the clarinet, including one piece for clarinet quartet: Square Dance (Disc 4, track 5).

I’ve also made a special exploration of music for unaccompanied clarinet. This is a genre which Nancy Garlick, my wonderful clarinet teacher at both the College of Wooster and the University of Virginia, taught me to know and love. At Wooster, she had me prepare for various recitals a clarinet transcription of one of the Bach Suites for solo cello, Igor Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for clarinet solo, and a hauntingly beautiful Sonatina for unaccompanied clarinet by Miklós Rózsa. I began with a very short (three-minute) piece which I had largely composed when I was in St Petersburg, Russia: Blue Shamrock of 2002. I became progressively entranced by the idea of scale for unaccompanied wind instrument, ultimately resulting in 2005’s Studies in Impermanence, which runs some 20 minutes, and becomes something of a marathon. In our selection here, we have the “mid-range” Irreplaceable Doodles (Disc 4, track 4).

My penchant for writing technically challenging music has meant that more than one piece has depended absolutely on the good graces of a fellow musician. Violist Peter Lekx responded very favorably to The Mousetrap (Disc 3, track 1) . . . whose origin was something of a compositional dare to myself. Having already written the 20-minute Studies in Impermanence for clarinet solo (and, honestly, feeling that I had filled the 20-minute time-span creditably) I thought, “If I have carved out a reasonable 20-minute space for clarinet alone, it must only be easier to compose a piece of that scale for two instruments.” The Mousetrap includes some enigmatic – you know it’s a sign when the composer himself is no more definite than the adjective enigmatic – citations of music in the repertory. Which ties in with the title, itself an allusion to the play-within-the-play of Hamlet. A friend of mine in Germany has an idea of staging a ballet of The Mousetrap, and I should ask him where that stands these days.

Another great sport among the very fine musicians I am privileged to know is Paul Cienniwa, with whom I’ve played Lunar Glare (Disc 2, track 4). My favorite story about Lunar Glare actually ties in with de Falla. There are many irregular groups of notes in my piece (quintuplets, especially), and Paul worked hard to master them. As a professional harpsichordist, of course Paul has known de Falla’s famous Concerto for the instrument; but he had never played it, as he felt rather intimidated by some of the modernity of the idiom. As a result of working on my Lunar Glare, I was very gratified to hear Paul tell me, the de Falla concerto held no more terror for him. He played the de Falla in a concert up in Maine this past summer.

A colleague whose generosity to my work stands out even above the generous souls already mentioned, is Boston flutist Peter H. Bloom. I had met Peter some years ago, and he gave me his card . . . he mentioned that he had a bass flute, and particularly made me welcome to send him a piece for bass flute and harp. Now, it was a little while before I got around to that piece. I think the first music of mine I showed him was actually a piece I originally wrote for trumpet. I had finished composition of The Angel Who Bears a Flaming Sword, and was laying it out, when the happy thought occurred to me that it would transpose nicely for flute. As soon as I finished laying out the original trumpet score, then, I hustled to lay out a parallel flute version, which I e-mailed to Peter with polite inquiries for his thoughts. To my great gratification, not only did Peter like the piece, but he proposed a further transposition, because he felt that the piece would work particularly well for alto flute (Disc 3, track 7).

That transposition done, I felt it was time I wrote for Peter and his friend Mary Jane Rupert the long-promised piece for bass flute and harp, stars & guitars (Disc 3, track 6). I started the piece with a very different working title, which I do not now remember, no doubt because even at the time I was not mad about it. But I went to a lunchtime recital at King’s Chapel in Boston one Tuesday, and the performer was a guitarist – and bingo, I knew what the bass-flute-&-harp piece needed to be called.

Harpist Mary Jane Rupert also gave the long-awaited première of music I had written back in St Petersburg, Lost Waters (Disc 3, tracks 2-5), a suite of four short pieces each inspired by a favorite American author whose work I was considering (and reading) with especial pleasure while I was in Russia and Estonia.

The three flute-&-clarinet duets of my Opus 97 were sort of a game of tag started by my collaboration with Peter. I wrote Heedless Watermelon (Disc 2, track 1) for the two of us to play together and at the time I was writing it just as a stand-alone piece. When we got together to read it, we both enjoyed the piece so well, I promptly decided to make it the first of a set of three pieces. As it turned out, though, when I wrote All the Birds in Mondrian’s Cage (Disc 2, track 2), the first performance was with Nicole Chamberlain when I went to play a concert in Atlanta. That concert in turn gave me the musical germ for Swivels & Bops (Disc 2, track 3), which I first played together with Peter; though just a month or so later, Nicole came up to Boston for a pair of concerts– and so I played the complete set of three pieces with both flutists within a few months.

I Sang to the Sky, and Day Broke (Disc 1, track 12) I wrote for the orchestra at Clemson University. The music director, Andrew Levin, had particularly strong wind players, and he wanted a piece to show them off, if possible a new piece written for the occasion. At the time, Andrew knew me only as another participant in an Internet music forum, so it was quite brave of him to permit me to write the piece for his group.

That piece also hinges on a fun story. I had known New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble director Charles Peltz some years before, when we were both in Buffalo (where I did my doctoral work). When I learnt that Charles was at NEC, I called, and we got together to talk, and I brought the score for I Sang to the Sky, and Day Broke. The Boston Chapter of the American Composer’s Forum (I think it’s now the New England Chapter) together with the NEC Wind Ensemble had an annual call for scores for a reading. They would select the best pieces from among those submitted, and the composers would come to Jordan Hall, and the ensemble (who had all been given parts to look at ahead of time) would read through the pieces. Charles suggested to me that I submit the piece for that reading. Which I did, and the piece was selected, and the reading was very nice.

Now, although Charles was not the only judge of the scores submitted for the call, and even though the other judge agreed that my piece was worth selecting for the event, in the interests of preserving impartiality, starting the following year, the call for scores stipulated that the submissions be anonymous. Obviously, the desire was to avoid any possible suggestion that Charles had only selected my score, because we already knew one another. (I mean, of course, that this change was of value as a general principle; there was nothing personal at all in the new policy.) During the next four years, I submitted three pieces anonymously, and pieces of entirely different character; so that in a five-year period, music of mine was selected four times – three of them anonymously, which I found sufficient vindication of that initial submission which bore my name.

The last time I submitted a score to this call, I had the trunk of a piece I had begun a few years earlier, five minutes of the start of a piece for six saxophones and four low brass. It was a chunk of music I liked a great deal, and which I had not meant to leave unfinished so long. But one of the reasons I don’t like writing music “for the shelf” is, I don’t have a performance to motivate me to finish it, and then, if there is demand for another piece which will be performed – I find that instantly more attractive. That was why Out in the Sun lay unfinished so long: there were other pieces which wanted writing.

And so, when in 2005 (probably) I saw the latest annual call for scores co-sponsored by the American Composers Forum and NEC, I felt that perhaps this was the occasion to dust off Out in the Sun. I was not yet setting myself to finish it; I thought I would just submit that (self-contained) opening of the piece, which was in essence already composed. All that needed doing at the time was, I had to change the scoring to suit the call: six saxophones were too many. I reacquainted myself with this old sketch, and found that I could recast some of the writing, so that I could substitute clarinets for two of the saxophones, which would bring my score into compliance with the specs of the call.

So: yet again (I am pleased to say) my piece was among those selected; and this time the piece made such an impression on Charles, that he spoke to me about a performance. The piece was unfinished as it was, but I could readily complete it. That trunk of the piece was about five minutes long, and I was planning on about a 15-minute piece (Disc 1, track 13).

A great friend of mine in San Diego (who may wish to remain anonymous for this program) has commissioned a few pieces from me over the years. One was a set of three duets for clarinet and horn for the children of friends of his family, who in school were studying those two instruments. The idea really was that they should be able to play the duets together, but I am afraid that I composed the pieces too difficult: the Three Things that Begin with ‘C’ (Disc 4, track 2). Another piece he commissioned was for a more somber occasion, the De profundis for choir and organ (Disc 4, track 3).

The piano solo pieces Lutosławski's Lullaby (Disc 2, track 5) and Gaze Transfixt (Disc 2, track 6) I wrote when I was in St Petersburg, and really ought to have been working on my doctoral dissertation for the University at Buffalo.

I wrote Castelo dos anjos (Disc 4, track 1) for the wonderful virtuoso singers of Tapestry, as a result of being introduced to them (this will sound crazy, since they are here in the Boston area) by an expatriate English composer in Portugal, Ivan Moody. If it were not for the Internet, perhaps the ladies of Tapestry and I would still be strangers.

While I was earning my Master’s in composition at the University of Virginia, Scott DeVeaux asked me to take part in an African Drumming seminar. Scott had studied for two years in Ghana. Knowing me for an instrumentalist with a strong sense of rhythm, Scott had me play one of the drums in the ensemble of his seminar. The lessons in rhythm which I soaked in on those occasions, have stayed with me, and I have put them to a great variety of uses in many different pieces. Those lessons are quite close to the surface in a piece for percussion ensemble, such as Murmur of Many Waters (Disc 4, track 6).

05 December 2010

Second of Three

On Suspension Bridge (In Dave’s Shed),
second movement of the Sonata for Viola and Piano, Opus 102:

Karl has pointed out two of the building blocks of this bridge movement. The first is a scale (see e.g. bar 85 in the piano) spanning two octaves, allowing both dissonance and a pentatonic warmth. The second block is a “periodic rhythmic pattern which needs 73 measures of 3/2 to play out.” The listener certainly does not need to recognize either of these, but the composer sets such limits for himself as guideposts toward continual inspiration.

Ever since hearing the opening to Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (on the violas!), and the long chant-like phrases in the Tenth of Shostakovich, I am a sucker for long, lonely, unaccompanied themes! So you can predict that the unadorned 20-bar Viola theme at the start of Suspension Bridge, the Second Movement of the Viola Sonata, is something which would appeal to me. The theme almost has a hymn-like character, and is in G with only a few, but very delicious, chromatic wanderings (e.g. the Ab-Abb in bar 5, carrying forward the minor-second motif from the previous movement).

The piano offers an ascent from a “G” abyss in bar 20, with notes often rising in 6ths (e.g. bars 20-33) until the end of the section, where some leaps of a 7th occur. The 6ths can be heard as inversions of the 3rds in the Viola theme (e.g. from the half-note in bar 32 to 38), providing thematic-harmonic unity in a section where the long, Adagio-Largo line needs stabilizing. The section ends with an open fifth D-A to which A an octave lower and then a deep B octave are added. We then hear our 5:4 friend (in assorted guises) from the First Movement, while the piano revisits (again beneath various masks) the 7th and 9th chords (e.g. bars 50-54). The piano’s music recalls bars 83-94 from the First Movement. Of interest are the insistent duplets and triplets in the Viola, which link the music rhythmically to similar insistent figures found throughout the First Movement (bars 42-43, 56, 72, and the final bar).

Of course, these figures are also presaging similar things in the last movement, which makes one wonder if the first two movements are not elaborately inventive variations on elements from the Tango in Boston. As befits a middle movement named Suspension Bridge the music connects itself most impressively to both of the outer movements.

To return: the piano attempts to raise the bridge with the help of the 5:4 figure going up eccentric scales, but things fall apart by bar 64, where the piano reminds us that the minor-second motif has not disappeared! And speaking of insistent figures, there is a nearly constant F/E 7th in the bass between bars 64 and 78, while our friends (the major and minor seconds in 66-67 and 75-76, the 5:4 figure) frolic back and forth, ending with the return of a variation in Eb minor of the Viola’s opening statement.

Then in bar 80, starting on G in the bass (the key of the Viola’s opening), the piano starts charging upward, while the Viola also rises up a D major-minor scale played in octaves. The section leads to a Maestoso with a series of (mostly) hexachords in the piano, wherein one picks up open and diminished fifths, 7ths, and 9ths, (e.g. bar 95 C/G/B/A#/C#/G#). These point backward (e.g. bars 83-94 in Fair Warning) and forward (e.g. bars 105-113 in the Finale).

Bars 101-120 present an enigmatic dialogue with the Viola speaking pizzicatoly and the piano playing 5 8th notes against 4 (cf. the 5:4 motif), with an emphasis on our motivic intervals of 2nds, 5ths, 7ths, and 9ths. And a cadenza for the Viola – starting on G – parallels both the heaven-storming of the piano in bars 80-92 and the preceding dialogue: note how the louder triplets form one voice contrasting with a second voice of soft 16ths.

Punctuated by the piano (fortissimo) with a hexachord (Db/Ab/C in the bass, Eb/F/Cb in the treble), the cadenza continues now with large chords on the Viola, harkening back to the piano’s Maestoso section: check bar 142-143, where the minor second (C#/D) “resolves” into a F#/C/E 7th chord. The chords also presage a similar section in the Finale (e.g. bars 105-114 in the Tango in Boston), which even occasionally uses the same chordal sequences (cf. the two chords at the beginning of bar 147 with bars 105-106 in the Tango in Boston. A repeated chord (D/B/F#/E) ends the cadenza, and brings us to another dialogue between the two instruments, even more antiphonal than before, with an exotic array of rhythmic figures repeating the same notes, as if a Martian Morse code were being transmitted. In fact, however, one tastes here some of the “tango-ish” aspects of the last movement.

From this exotic soundscape we plunge downward on the piano – starting on (a high) G – while the 5:4 motif is heard in the Viola, and is soon echoed in the piano. After the ff climax, the Viola plays a Largo version of the opening Adagio, again in a kind of key of G, with which the piano quietly and sweetly (dolce) disagrees in the final bar with a D#/C# 7th in the bass, which we easily understand, since a 7th has been heard in the bass before (on F/E in bars 64-78). We have gone full circle, but discover that circle is actually a Möbius strip, so that we are no longer back at the beginning but somewhere else...maybe we are in Boston and ready to tango!

— Leo Schulte

Here reproduced with the author’s permission.