Piano Music for Wizards and Misbehaving Children: Judith Lang Zaimont

Again the (almost) random pick leads me home. Last time I listened to Canadian composer Violet Archer only to discover that she had taught at my alma mater. This week I reached for an album of music by Judith Lang Zaimont, who certainly has a place somewhere in the greater pantheon of significant contemporary composers: frequently played, referenced, and commissioned. And the first piece on the album, Wizards, was a commission by. . .wait for it. . .the 2003 San Antonio International Piano Competition. Well, I used to write program notes and give pre-concert talks for SAIPC’s concert series; moreover, esteemed fellow San Antonian Ethan Wickman has recently been commissioned to write the required piece for the Gurwitz 2020 International Piano Competition, the revamped and renamed SAIPC.

Album cover, “Pure Colors: Music by Judith Lang Zaimont”

But back to the album. The pianist for Wizards is Young-Ah Tak, who won the silver medal at the 2003 SAIPC and who manages the formidable challenges of Zaimont’s work with assurance and verve. The liner notes explain that the composition is divided into three sections: Spell CASTER, Spell WEAVER, and Magister – SORCERER. As I listened, I tried to imagine the sort of wizard Zaimont was conjuring with her tracery of ornament and thrumming chords. It occurred to me at a certain point that perhaps different “wizards” of 20th-century keyboard music were being evoked: hints of Messiaen, Ravel, Prokofiev, more distantly Scriabin. But at a certain point Zaimont asks for a pizzicato effect—achieved, I think, by reaching into the piano and using the finger to dampen the string—and instead of suggesting prepared piano it points to a kind of orchestral range of color present throughout the piece.

(Nexus entry.)

So again, what “sort of wizard” is Zaimont conjuring with her pseudo-orchestral palette? Here I have to preface further comments with an apology and a justification. First, I am sorry for what I’m about to say; it might be a bit irresponsible, lazy, postmodern, self-indulgent, inappropriate, inauthentic, and therefore far from ideal. But. . .a blog should have a certain spirit of freedom, don’t you think? So much for the apology. Now for some justification. Many moons ago at a national meeting of the American Musicological Society I heard a (clearly memorable) paper about George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae during which the presenter made the claim that certain passages in Crumb’s work echoed Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, an association that resonated in part because of the intermediary of Disney’s classic Fantasia (1940). (Dinosaurs = leviathan = ballaenae?) You see there? I have the AMS on my side. All that to say that the contour of Wizards, from the finely wrought filigree of the opening to the explosive ending, suggested to me not just Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but also the intermediary of that particular sequence in Fantasia, replete with the initial visual hocus-pocus of the sorcerer changing a phantasmagoric bat into a butterfly, Mickey’s later violent axing of the poor broomstick, and the unstoppable flood. Obviously no one needs to hear Zaimont’s Wizards in this way, but I can’t help but wonder if some hazy childhood memory played a role in the creation of this colorful and effective work.

Still from “Fantasia” (1940) – the Sorcerer conjures. . .

Another association I made as I listened to Zaimont’s album was with ¡¡¡BeNjAmIn BrItTeN!!! In fact, the association was suggested by two different aspects of Zaimont’s unusual Virgie Rainey: Two Narratives (2002), written for “soprano, mezzo, and piano.” This suggested to me Britten’s Canticle II: “Abraham and Isaac”, perhaps for no other reason than that both pieces are narrative in nature and they are lengthy works, in the art song tradition, written for two singers. The justification for two singers in Britten’s work is made clear in the title: two voices, one high and one low, take on the roles of father (Abraham) and son (Isaac). The perspicacious reader will know that Britten doesn’t always use the voices this way: for example, Britten uses the two together in close voicing to suggest, gloriously, the voice of God.

Eudora Welty’s “The Golden Apples” (1949)

The two voices in Zaimont’s piece don’t have this titular justification, or at least that’s how it seems initially. Virgie Rainey is a single character in Eudora Welty’s collection of interrelated short stories, The Golden Apples (1949). The first narrative is about Virgie’s response to the death of her mother, Katie. She walks down to the Big Black River, takes off her clothes and floats there for a while, “always wishing,” after she has returned to the bank and put her clothes on, “for a little more of what had just been.” The second narrative, markedly different in character, is about Virgie Rainey as a pianist – or, rather, about her limits as a pianist. “Für Elise was always Virgie Rainey’s piece,” the section used in Zaimont’s second narrative begins. The passage then shifts quickly into a description of Miss Eckhart, Virgie’s piano teacher, and the conflict between them over the teacher’s “worship” of her metronome and Virgie’s refusal to “play another note with that thing in her face.” The passage then moves on to Virgie playing piano for the picture show, “the world of power and emotion,” where she only got to play Für Elise in fragments to accompany the occasional advertisement.

One might be tempted to think that the two voices, soprano and mezzo, have been used in a way resembling Britten’s Canticle II: that two characters are being suggested in the two narrative passages. In the first, the two women could be the mother and daughter; in the second, the piano teacher and student. But Zaimont hasn’t written the music this way. Obvious conflict, the stuff of musical drama, doesn’t exist between the vocal parts; instead, they generally function as part of a single instrument, a chorus of two. Or perhaps Zaimont is suggesting something about the simultaneous sounding, through one set of words, of the narrative voice (Welty’s voice) and the characters (Virgie, Katie, Miss Eckhart) who inhabit the world.

Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” (1954)

But these issues of musical narration weren’t what suggested Britten to me. Instead, it was the weirdly virtuosic treatment of shards of Für Elise in Zaimont’s piano writing for the second narrative. This is out of keeping, of course, with Beethoven’s original and with the idea of a girl playing Für Elise incessantly in rural Mississippi with a piano teacher who wants to subject her to the will of the metronome. There’s a lot of irony to unpack here! Who is the virtuoso? Is the more virtuosic Für Elise an indicator of Virgie’s spirit of resistance, of the magnificence of her Beethoven-like will? Or is the virtuosity authorial: the presence of Welty (and Zaimont) in what is otherwise a mundane, non-virtuosic space? However one might read it, I was reminded of the extraordinary piano sequence in Act II of Britten’s Turn of the Screw (1954), when the boy Miles plays a twisted version of. . .well, what is it, anyway?. . .Mozart? Clementi? Whatever it is, it’s either terrifying or humorous, depending on your mood. Anyway, as Miles plays his sick Mozart, the Governess and Mrs. Grose sing together, “O what a clever boy; why, he must have practiced very hard.” This grouping of a child practicing strange distortions of a familiar (banal) classical idiom and two women singing in a sort of unified utterance is just too close to Zaimont’s second narrative not to mention the correspondence. Of course, Virgie’s “crime” is different in detail from Miles’s, though both are rendered as unlikely antiheros, children defying authority, influenced by some dark and lingering ghost.

(Nexus exit.)

As a final note, it’s well worth listening to the other pieces on this disc, which are all attractive and played well: Astral (2004) for solo clarinet, Valse Romantique (1974) for solo flute, ‘Tanya’ Poems (1999) for solo cello, and ‘Bubble-Up’ Rag, a “concertpiece” for flute and piano. The effect of the whole, in fact, is to encourage one to go searching for works by Zaimont for larger ensembles to see how they relate to her chamber style. Homework for a future entry. . .

Violet Archer Faraway, So Close

Last time I listened to a disc of concertos by R. Murray Schafer, but only after I had scoured the listening library database for every last recording by said Canadian composer.R-12215282-1530717631-4779.jpeg.jpg This led me to a 5-disc compilation, Ovation: Volume 2, which does indeed feature a disc of R. Murray Schafer’s music that includes his first concerto, written in 1954 for harpsichord and eight wind instruments. But that’s for some other time. This time I couldn’t resist the first disc in the set, featuring an assortment of pieces by another Canadian, Violet Archer (1913-2000), covering an almost 40-year span, from the Sonata for Flute, Clarinet and Piano of 1944 to the finale from the Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello of 1981.

Nexus entry.

Can I share something about process? I like my first listen to happen before I read the notes. So I listened, not knowing anything at all about Violet Archer or her music. When I got to the Divertimento for Saxophone Quartet (1979), I was struck by what I heard as a debt to Bartók, particularly in the third movement (marked “Festive”). More specifically, I heard one of my favorite movements of the Bartók quartets, the middle movement of the Second Quartet, a barn burner if ever there was one. Then once more, in the final work on the disc, the Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello, I heard echoes of Bartók’s quartets, but. . .what can you do? What young composer, having heard Bartók’s quartets, would not want to seize hold of that inimitable kinesis, that frolic and force and ferocious fire? So I thought Violet Archer perhaps stumbled inadvertently into the shadow of the Hungarian master. Then I read the liner notes. Turns out that Violet Archer, ahem, studied with Bartók in New York in 1942. So there’s that. This was no accidental traipse through a shadow, but the transmission of something tangible from teacher to student. Archer earned her Bartók merit badge.

Similarly, when I heard Archer’s Landscapes (1951), a trio of settings of short texts by T. S. Eliot for choir, I heard something like Vaughan Williams at a distance, or at least that era of British composers, occasionally even in the direction of ¡¡¡BrItTeN!!!. And then the notes. Another of her teachers was Douglas Clarke, himself a Brit, who studied with Vaughan Williams and Charles Wood. Archer was, like Clarke, an organist, and it’s tempting to imagine that the transmission of that early twentieth-century British choral idiom was carried on a current of liturgical music that they both played. Alas, there’s really none of that choral liturgical music on this album, although there is an art-song-like setting of Psalm 23.

And now something I missed. Upon listening to the Sonata for Flute, Clarinet, & Piano (1944), the earliest work on the album, I heard in its sardonic style, its playful half-poisoning of familiar dance idioms, the stamp of Shostakovich. But the notes revealed that her longest period of composition studies was under Paul Hindemith, from 1947-9. And once I read that, even though her study with Hindemith came after the composition of the Sonata, I could now hear an early affinity with Herr neue Sachlichkeit. My favorite thing about Archer’s Sonata? Repeated, and I would say unmistakable, wisps of Sobre las olas (Over the Waves, 1888), the waltz by Mexican composer Juventino Rosas (1868-94) that would eventually be adapted into “The Loveliest Night of the Year” for the 1951 film The Great Caruso, starring Mario Lanza. 51rBAbROLiL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgNot that Archer could have known that in 1944, which begs the question: What’s it doing in there, besides parading around its insouciant self? A little searching revealed that Sobre las olas supposedly had a long association with (fun)fairs in the United States, in part because it was a tune available on Wurlitzer fairground organs. If that’s where Archer got the idea to use the tune – she was an organist, after all? – then its use seems of a piece with the “classic” neoclassical aesthetic set forth by Cocteau in Le coq et l’arlequin, bringing fairs and circuses and machines into the concert hall.

Speaking of concert halls, here’s something else from the liner notes that piqued my interest: Archer’s “Cradle Song” (1949), second in a set of four songs on this album, had its première in 1952 at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas). Archer_1950.jpgElsewhere in the notes the writer says that Archer was composer in residence at “Texas State University” before moving on to the University of Oklahoma; I can only imagine that NTSU/UNT is what was meant, and indeed there’s a brief bio of Archer on UNT’s website on a page listing former composition faculty. All that to say that Archer, this composer whose music I found when searching for R. Murray Schafer recordings, was professor at my alma mater, taught in the program where I would receive composition degrees some four decades later. And who was one of her students but Larry Austin, who by the time I was working on my degree had become a composition professor there himself. Small world, eh?

When from time to time I’ve thought of Larry Austin (1930-2018), one of the things that most frequently pops into my head is the concert where I first heard his Canadian Coastlines (1981). 81s0vx61gUL._SS500_.jpg(Picture eight instrumentalists with headphones, each hearing a different clicktrack, with everything routed through a massive central mixing board, wires strewn all over stage.) The piece itself was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and in writing it Austin derived musical phenomena from maps of, yes, sections of the Canadian coastline. As a student I heard an anecdote about the piece where John Cage, Austin’s longtime friend, “seemed enthralled by the piece, and after the performance very enthusiastically said, ‘Larry, it was beautiful; I didn’t understand it.’” [1] I’ve often told that anecdote as a way of illustrating Cage’s aesthetic preference for unknowability, but just this week, through my encounter with the music of Violet Archer, Austin’s teacher, the piece has come to mean something more to me.

For Canada is a presence in several pieces on the Archer album. That presence is perhaps at its most unmistakable in the song cycle Prairie Profiles (1980), for the unusual combination of baritone, horn, and piano. The work was commissioned, like Austin’s Canadian Coastlines, by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and was written “in honour of Alberta’s 75th birthday.” Of all the pieces on this album, Prairie Profiles includes the most extreme effects: explosive, terrifying, raw, stark – all qualities that seem worlds away from, for example, the Sonata for Flute, Clarinet, and Piano. Take the first of the songs, “Buffalo Jump,” where a moto perpetuo line in the piano’s lowest range suggests the stampeding of untold numbers of bison as they plunge off a cliff, after which there is simply silence. The combination of mad violence and bleak emptiness, an uncompromising stare into the elemental, reminds me again of The Monk by the Sea, which I mentioned in my entry on Schafer, and of that composer’s The Darkly Splendid Earth: The Lonely Traveler. Here are forces beyond human control, which music grasps in a way that suggests a parallel with Larry Austin’s incomprehensible sonic projection of coastlines. A mystical response to the magnificence of nature informs these pieces. And there they were: Archer and Austin, teacher and student, writing pieces a year apart for the CBC, having been brought together first some thirty years earlier in Denton, Texas, united in their awe before an unknowable vastness and in their attempts to sound out something of that unknowability.

Nexus exit.

But I barely mentioned the Divertimento for Saxophone Quartet (1979), an admirably accomplished work, or the Ten Folksongs for Four Hands (1953), by turns attractive and quirky, or “Red River” (from the choral cycle Landscapes), the piece from the album I’ve now listened to the most. Well. May life provide us all with more opportunities to hear the world’s Violet Archers and to come to understand that they may well have walked the same hallways we did.


[1] Thomas Clark and Larry Austin, “Coasts: On the Creative Edge with Composer Larry Austin,” Computer Music Journal 13, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 21-35.


The Human Presence in Schafer’s Soundscape-Concertos

“Well, there’s another completely cool thing I knew nothing about.”

This was my feeling after hearing Tyler Kinnear’s paper on R. Murray Schafer’s The Princess of Stars (1981), an opera that is meant to be performed (and has been several times) on a lake. Hearing excerpts from the work, the sound of a human voice blending with the elements, I could understand how the same person who wrote this music also coined the term soundscape. This music exists as an environment, a particular combination of the concert and natural worlds. Take the natural world away and the piece would lose a central aspect of its identity. During the paper and since, I’ve been thinking about the connection between Schafer’s Princess, part of a twelve-work cycle called Patria, and another late twentieth-century extravaganza of avant-garde opulence, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht cycle, which has an opera for each day of the week. I don’t understand the connection at the moment and am resisting the urge to search for it, in part because I think it would require digging into the twelve-part Patria in earnest, and, well. . .so many albums! As a stopgap, though, I determined to seek out all the albums with pieces by R. Murray Schafer (b. 1933) we had in the listening library, to see how they related to the extraordinary noises I heard during Tyler Kinnear’s paper.

The short answer is: There’s no short answer.

The longer answer is:


What a remarkable composer R. Murray Schafer is that he should write something that sounded like that excerpt I heard from The Princess of the Stars and also write the three pieces on the first album I listened to: Flute Concerto (1984), Harp Concerto (1987), and The Darkly Splendid Earth: The Lonely Traveller (1991). I should perhaps say that the third of these pieces is, in the words of the composer, a “double rhapsody for violin and orchestra” – that is, not precisely but almost a concerto, even though it came about in a concerto-like way, as a commission from violinist Jacques Israelievitch. As the title suggests, there are two presences in the soundscape of the piece: the earth itself, sounded by the orchestra, and the traveler, sounded by the violinist. The liner notes to the album (credited to the composer and Robin Elliott) say nothing about the origin of the work’s title, as evocative as it is. I thought perhaps Milton, but a hesitant, wincing peek into the rabbit hole of Google search results yielded only obscure references to Zoroastrianism and to the song “Darkly Splendid World” from British band Current 93’s album Of Ruine or Some Blazing Starre (1993). Perhaps the origin of the title is very obvious, but somehow I doubt the piece’s connection to either of these eyebrow-raising finds, either as descendant or influence.


The other possibility that occurred to me as inspiration for the title was Rousseau’s Meditations of a Solitary Walker (1776-8), which in my mind always suggests Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (1808-10). Arguably the spirit of Schafer’s double rhapsody is poised between these two works. In Friedrich’s painting, the human is anonymous, voiceless, insignificant in the face of the vast and unknowable. In Rousseau, we are invited to “walk along with” the solitary writer, to trace the steps of his thought as he observes the world. In Friedrich, we never find the human; in Rousseau, we never escape him. Schafer’s violin is in a sense a Rousseau sort of presence, rhapsodizing, yes, in ways virtuosic and expressive, lyrical, fiery – really, in all those ways that we expect the violin to behave in a twentieth-century concerto. The surprise comes with the orchestra’s part of the double rhapsody, which often seems to operate according to entirely different principles. The darkly splendid earth inhabits this soundscape but is not subservient to the traveler in terms of texture or material. Its climaxes need not involve the violin at all, even as an obbligato element, and they need not respect the sovereignty of the soloist by getting out of the way. This is a darkly splendid earth like Friedrich’s rendering of the sea. According to the notes, the unconventional relationship between soloist and orchestra was even more pronounced in the first draft of the piece. I find myself wondering what the experience of it is like in live performance. Does the violinist seem like the monk before the orchestral sea, staring up into the ether to the backdrop of fathomless churning?

The other two pieces on the album would seem to have a much less obvious connection to the Schafer of Princess of the Stars. First, they are called concertos, and each has the traditional three movements. The album notes point out that the Flute Concerto from 1984 was only Schafer’s second work to bear that generic title, the first being the Concerto for Harpsichord and Eight Wind Instruments from 1954. So, after a thirty-year gap, Schafer came back to. . . classical form. This is a different sort of soundscape, maybe not something that Schafer would even identify as such: a sort of soundscape of the mind comprised of an inheritance of works. Here the individual concerto stands in relationship to its own ocean of repertory, which inevitably threatens to subsume any individual concerto. Are we hearing an enactment of genre or a single work? What we hear is, of course, the tension between those two options. I’ll mention just one aspect of each concerto that gripped me, that seemed to claim a certain independence.

In the Flute Concerto, this happened in the slow second movement, by far the longest of the three. The album notes point out that the movement “uses microtonal pitch inflections in imitation of [Asian] music.” Nothing more specific than that. But in the cadenza at the very end of the work, the flute (played by Robert Aitken, who commissioned the work) unmistakably evokes the shakuhachi, a sound that the listener has not been prepared for in any specific way but that points to an important source of extended techniques for the contemporary flutist – i.e., world flutes – and to the international and arguably intercultural orientation of avant-garde music in the last quarter of the twentieth century and beyond.

In the Harp Concerto, what gripped me was the identity of the principal motive that runs through the entire work. (Nexus entry.) I think it’s difficult to ignore that the motive powerfully resembles the one that opens the concluding March from Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943). Could this possibly be a coincidence? Given the popularity of Hindemith’s work, I don’t see how. That other evocations seem to be scattered through the work – echoes of Bartók, Britten, Beethoven, possibly of Berlioz – suggests that the weight of the concert inheritance was very much on Schafer’s mind when writing the work. It is such an attractive work, but it’s hard to conceive that this is the composer of the opera on the lake. Perhaps Schafer is simply supremely good at wearing different hats. Or perhaps the symphonic repertory itself is functioning as a sort of environment that soloist and ensemble inhabit and traverse. It is their darkly splendid earth. (Nexus exit.) However conceived, the concerto seems to have been a useful form for Schafer to continue to explore the relationship between the individual voice and that voice’s inevitable participation in a larger soundscape. And now Patria’s on my ever larger listening list. . .

Forever Unfinished: Ives’s Fourth Symphony

“This was like a first shot of heroin to me. I became hooked thoroughly on Ives.” So said John McClure (1929-2014), famed producer of some of the great Stravinsky and Bernstein albums for Columbia Records, about his experience of hearing the Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860,” each of the movements of which connects to the American transcendentalists: I. “Emerson”; II. “Hawthorne”; III. “The Alcotts”; IV. “Thoreau.” I had a similar reaction to Ives, though I can’t remember if the first piece of his I heard was Three Places in New England, The Unanswered Question, or the Second Piano Sonata, because once I had encountered the first, I sought out the others in quick succession. I do remember, though, that the first time I heard Ives’s Concord Sonata, my experience was, bizarrely, not that Ives’s was quoting someone else, but that someone else was quoting Ives. At the risk of being self-indulgent, I’ll take the trouble to explain.

It happened that, in the late 1980s, when I regularly fired up the Walkman to ease the passage of homework that didn’t particularly compel me (Shame!), I would often pop in a cassette of Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s 1986 album The Way It Is. 81PMp5uth2L._SX425_.jpgThe second track, “Every Little Kiss,” opens with Hornsby’s piano solo—hardly a surprise, as that was sort of how he carved out his unconventional place in the popiverse of the Reagan years. Through repeated background listening I memorized “every little” nuance of that opening solo.

¡¡EnTeR tHe UnIvErSiTy YeArS!!. . .when I encountered Ives, as described above, and was stunned to discover that Hornsby’s opening solo was lifted straight from the opening of “The Alcotts.” Hornsby has never made any secret of liking Ives, so I think this gesture is a straightforward homage to an important musical influence and not an attempt to communicate anything connected with the household that gave the world Louisa May Alcott. Nevertheless, so fascinated was I by this connection, and by the phenomenon of initially encountering Ives’s music as something someone else had quoted instead of as a compendium of quotes itself—and the opening of “The Alcotts” is itself a compendium of quotes, as I would later learn from J. Peter Burkholder’s All Made of Tunes (Yale Univ. Press, 1995)—that I quoted the opening of “Every Little Kiss”/“The Alcotts” in a piece I wrote at university, “Job Work,” a setting of a poem by James Whitcomb Riley for tenor and chamber winds. (Here’s the really self-indulgent part—sorry.) I used the quote for Riley’s lines “And shout in glee such a symphony/That the whole world understands.” The opening of “The Alcotts” is a sly re-harmonization of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, so by using the Ives-via-Hornsby quote for this line, I think I must have been saying something about how the quotation and re-quotation of Beethoven points to a “symphony that the whole world understands.” But the more interesting point to me now is that my recognition of the phenomenon of quotation sparked further quotation, a compositional quirk I’ve never really been able to shake.

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It was illuminating, therefore, to sit next to a (ahem) certain Ives scholar at the last American Musicological Society meeting in Rochester, and to briefly discuss, while we were waiting for Susan McClary’s talk to get underway, quotation in Ives. I said something about how different an experience Ives must be for students now, many of whom don’t know any of the tunes that Ives quotes. (Lots of people have said this; I was just being banal.) The Ives scholar pleasantly but firmly made the point that identifying a particular tune was not necessary for an enjoyment of Ives’s music—that, in fact, perceiving the quotation of style was sufficient, an argument he had been making for a very long time and one that he continued to promote through publication and, I’m happy to say, in casual conversation.

I’ve thought about that conservation frequently in the intervening months, wondering if my knowledge of, say, classical repertory and hymn tunes, makes Ives fascinating to me because of my familiarity with specific pieces or because of the concomitant familiarity with certain styles. The answer isn’t an either/or. Yes, it does mean something to identify specific quotes in Ives; it enriches the listening experience significantly. But suddenly I catch myself and wonder if what it enriches is the process of reflecting on the listening experience, and if, during the experience of listening itself, style “leads” and specificity of quotation is less significant. To identify a specific quotation is to stand outside the experience of listening, to a certain extent. (If all you’re thinking about during “Ice Ice Baby” is “Under Pressure,” you’re not in the musical moment, right?) The frequency of quotation in Ives’s music, taken with listeners’ varying abilities to identify specific pieces, would seem to suggest that the experience of listening to his music is a dance between in and out, between riding along on a current of style and considering a concatenation of distinct phenomena from a distance. This inside/outside dance that potentially characterizes listening to Ives can be initially disorienting, confusing, but it can also be terrifically exciting, because you’re not sure what the composer is asking of you. Are you in or are you out, and where should you be? There’s something about it that feels like our experience of music as an entire field; Ives seems to me always to be asking his listeners to tie the experience of a specific work to a larger conception of the messy way in which music permeates our lives. He’s after a kind of honesty that breaks down the wall between concert experiences, private musical moments, and walking around in public environments. It’s the American experimental road that leads to John Cage: a proposal for perpetual conceptual revolution that accepts all experience as fundamentally musical.

Nexus entry.

How delighted I was to encounter on YouTube a documentary and full performance of the 1965 première of Ives’s Fourth Symphony by the American Symphony Orchestra under the baton (principally) of Leopold Stokowski. The film was shot for National Education Television, which would later morph into PBS, and includes interviews with John McClure (from which the gem that opened this entry), charmingly dotty podium remarks by Stokowski, and some artful shots of the orchestra tackling what was clearly a dauntingly complicated work for them.

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But the recording I listened to for this entry was the 1974 recording of the Fourth Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under José Serebrier, who was one of the assistant conductors for the televised première under Stokowski. 4296307.jpgThe atmosphere of quotation begetting quotation that Ives inspires seems echoed, therefore, in the link between the NET film and the LPO recording. This quality is brought out in Serebrier’s extensive program notes, which often reference the 1965 première. In the spirit of Ives, I can’t resist a quotation: “I shall never forget that winter morning at Carnegie Hall, when Stokowski had scheduled the first rehearsal of the Ives Fourth. He stared at the music for a long time, then at the orchestra. I had never seen the score, and my heart stopped when he turned to me and said, ‘Maestro, please come and conduct this last movement. I want to hear it.’ After it was all over, my arms and legs still shaking, I complained that I was sightreading. Stokowski’s reply was, ‘So was the orchestra!’” If they were sightreading on that first day, one of the remarkable things about the première was it was especially well prepared: Stokowski asked for (and got) a number of extra rehearsals, underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation. (See the NET documentary at 7:55 for Stokowski’s explanation, delightfully redolent of the absent-minded professor.) But Serebrier’s recording brought with it almost an additional decade of opportunity to live with the work’s challenges and possibilities, and so it inevitably sounds more refined.

musicsales-HL50490634.jpgStill, it is a revelation to listen to Serebrier’s recording while following along with the 2011 Charles Ives Society Critical Edition of the score, with each movement edited by a different scholar from the variety of sometimes conflicting sources. (This extraordinary publication includes a CD-ROM with scans of all of Ives’s manuscript material for the work.) Looking at Wayne D. Shirley’s edition of the fourth movement, for example, shows how much either was excised from or never incorporated into the edition prepared by the staff of the Fleischer Music Collection, used for the 1965 première and the 1974 recording; following the course of almost any single part reveals that much more is possible than got realized under Stokowski or Serebrier. And, well, who can blame them? Ives asks for an entirely different ensemble for each of his four movements, pushing past Richard Strauss into a kind of proto-Gruppen orchestral environment, particularly in the finale. All this in a work of the 1910s and ‘20s. Not that Ives would have recognized the finale in the 2011 Critical Edition as his, per se. As William Brooks brilliantly proposes in the preface to the edition, in the face of the impossibility of creating a single definitive edition of the finale from a multiplicity of sources, “The workable anarchy of Ives’s music is better manifested in his manuscripts than in publications; and it is the manuscripts which you [Who, me?!?!]—through whom Ives’s music sounds—can and should enter. There can be no Ives urtext, no approved edition. In the re-formed world universal access to the manuscripts will bring into being an ever-expanding sphere of visions, performances—‘editions,’ if you will—all shaped for particular times, places, circumstances. I look forward to your contributions.” This quote resonated powerfully with me as I sat there in the stunned aftermath of the last movement, thinking about the beauty of what I heard and the promise of what I didn’t hear but could almost imagine. (More of it is present in other more recent recordings, incidentally.) Could there ever be enough instruments, enough parts to satisfy Ives’s all-encompassing vision? Could there ever be enough refracted and refracting quotations to answer the call? Brooks says no, but he looks forward to a Borges-like infinite gallery of responses. How wonderful to imagine that in writing about it we come to constitute a version of the work.

Nexus exit.

I think that the idea of being unfinished, as with my entry on Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, needed to inhabit the center of this one, and that other conceptions I initially had for it—that I should mention links between Three Places in New England and the first, second, and fourth movements of the Fourth Symphony, or that I should write about “place” and the slow third movement, which has to me more than a touch of the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth–simply must wait. There’s great and perhaps infinite promise, after all, in what’s left unfinished.

Unfinishment: (In)completing Mahler’s (In)completion

(Nexus entry.)

From the opening bar of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, we are plunged into a memory space populated by ghosts of the Prelude from Parsifal, the Prelude from Tristan, and the final movement of Mahler’s own Ninth Symphony. In fact, the opening of Mahler’s Tenth feels like a renewal of the conversation that Mahler had with himself in the Ninth. Like Hermann Hesse or William Faulkner or Terry Gilliam, there were certain topics that Mahler, once he had introduced them, simply couldn’t let go.

Of course it’s possible, however unlikely, that Mahler’s Tenth wouldn’t seem this way if the composer had finished the symphony himself. For over fifty years the world only had the colossus of an opening movement and the featherweight sidekick of a third movement, a self-effacing Allegretto with the bizarre appellation “Purgatorio.” Then Deryck Cooke (1919-76), who never finished his own planned study of Wagner’s Ring (mentioned in my last entry), made a performing version of all five movements of Mahler’s Tenth, which premièred in 1964 and was published in 1976. Other performing versions have been made, but Cooke’s is distinguished by being the first and having more than one famous name attached to it. Brothers David and Colin Matthews both helped revise Cooke’s orchestration to achieve something approaching a Mahlerian sound. R-3485643-1332258657.jpeg.jpgThe recording I was listening to, incidentally, was of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Wigglesworth, which accompanied the August 1994 issue of BBC Music. In some ways it makes a great deal of sense to listen to this live performance, as the 1964 concert that brought the fully realized Tenth to the world was part of that season’s Proms.

The three movements that Cooke’s completion introduced to that 1964 audience (II, IV, and V) make for a fascinatingly symmetrical form in performance: around 23 minutes for the first and last movements, around 11.5 for the second and fourth, and a four-minute middle movement. Mahler clearly intended this symmetry. The outer movements are slow and share with the last movement of the Ninth an autumnal atmosphere that ranges from desolation and despair to searing pain—including the most dissonant sonority Mahler ever wrote, out of which blazes a solo trumpet, which is then submerged again in a “poisoned” chord—to visions of paradise and achievement of rest. The second and fourth are scherzos, similar to the placement of the Nachtmusik movements in the Seventh Symphony. But unlike the Nachtmusik movements of the Seventh, which are clearly differentiated, the scherzos and slow movements of the Tenth, respectively, feel like siblings, so that the interrupted kinesis of the first scherzo is picked up again in the second, and the solemnity and scope of the first movement are picked up again in the fifth. The sense that any Mahlerite has from the first note of the Tenth—that this symphony is a return, after an “interruption” between symphonies, to the essence of the Mahlerian conversation—is mirrored in the finale’s “return” to the first movement’s manner, after the interruption of three movements, and in the fourth movement’s return to the scherzo language of the second movement after the interruption of “Purgatorio.”

In a symphony that blends Mahlerian tropes with extraordinary surprises, one of the things that surprises me most is the language of constant interruption that Mahler cultivates in the scherzos. Motives are cut short; phrases are arrested; cadences are unfulfilled. Mahler has created a style in which a sentence almost never ends; instead, it gets turned into another sentence, which itself does not end. There’s logic to this—a way of the music—but the logic is one of incompletion. What Mahler does with form at the largest scale, he also does with material at a local scale: incompletion has become a sort of aesthetic, made poignant because of the unfinished state in which the composer left the symphony.

What does incompletion mean? Is it a sign for nervous anxiety, the impossibility of positive action in the symbol-laden decaying world of fin-de-siècle Europe? I think people often feel compelled to read Mahler like that, to look for ways that the music expresses the extraordinary emotional contours of its creator’s thinking in a Freud-filled, angst-bedeviled prewar context. But I confess that as I was listening to the scherzos of the Tenth this week, thinking about the aesthetic of incompletion that they embody, I perceived not a neurotic rhetorical hyperactivity but an achievement of rhetorical emptiness. One can only follow so many changes of mood before the rapid-fire volte-face of happy face-sad face-happy face-sad face—emoticons spinning in a slot machine—loses its precision and ceases to mean in conventional rhetorical ways. It feels to me as if in these two scherzos Mahler is unhooking mode and gesture from rhetorical function. He seems to be trading in musical twists and turns shorn of their communicative inheritance, a world powerfully close to Schoenberg’s where musical extremes need not signify emotional ones. I increasingly hear the two scherzos of the Tenth Symphony as a kind of kinetic workshop, a place where the composer was thinking, through music, about where music was going.

And what does this mean for the diminutive “Purgatorio,” a movement that spends a good deal of time spinning its wheels, like Gretchen am Spinnrade, with an empty oscillating figure underlying more conventional statements of melody? This is clearly Mahler’s Lieder style, and arguably it’s a more specific reference than that, but it’s so strange to hear this between the boldly fragmentary, proto-modernist scherzos, a leaky skiff bobbing along between Scylla and Charybdis. (Romantic metaphor-of-the-day award winner). I place the blame for this ridiculous metaphor squarely on Mahler. 61uYgohaXCL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgHe’s the one, after all, who called his middle movement “Purgatorio,” suggesting the epic scope of Dante’s Divine Comedy and practically begging a listener to look for an Inferno and a Paradisio. Or is it really the middle three movements that function collectively as a kinetic purgatory—a waiting place, an interruption—foil to the first movement’s hell and last movement’s paradise? Music musics, ultimately, and any narrative parallel fails to fully accommodate those qualities that make the music so extraordinary.

One of the extraordinary features of Mahler’s Tenth, the narrative significance of which is elusive, is the final movement’s shape, which begins and ends with expansive tempos and features a central Allegro moderato. This shape echoes the rhythmic profile of the entire symphony, an echo enriched and complicated by the resurfacing of motives from earlier movements in the finale. There can be no question of the “validity” of a narrative reading here; Mahler brewed up such a complicated potion that one must simply accept that multiple readings, resonances, visions and revisions abound. Mahler has created a space constituted of reflections and refractions, making the nature of any one fragment difficult to pin down.

I’ll mention just one more such feature, which seems more powerful to me the more I hear this symphony. One of the principal motives of the last movement is a trumpet figure, another in a long line of funereal brass motives whipped up by Mahler. 800px-Richard_Strauss-Woche,_festival_poster,_1910_by_Ludwig_Hohlwein.jpgBut this one bears a striking resemblance, I think, to the motive from Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905) that Lawrence Gilman called the ¡¡¡EnTiCeMeNt!!! motive in his 1907 guide to the opera. In isolation, the connection would perhaps merit little attention, but taken with the bass drum hits that open Mahler’s finale and the return of the “poisoned” chord, both of which have parallels in Strauss’s score, I cannot resist the comparison. (It’s the bass drums, remember, that crush Salome with their shields [or something like that], and who can forget the “poisoned” chord when Salome kisses the forbidden fruit, the severed head of Jochanaan?) When Mahler was sketching his Tenth the music of Strauss’s operatic success de scandale was all the rage, and Mahler certainly knew the score well. What’s Mahler doing here? Perhaps he’s contemplating, through music, another recent development in music, in just the same way that the internal scherzos reflect a kind of Schoenbergian shearing of aspects of signification from musical gesture. If Mahler is thinking about Strauss in the finale of his Tenth, the music is too potent, too evocative and immediate not to spark narrative dimensions. What forbidden fruit has Mahler’s symphonic protagonist tasted to be crushed in this way? Whatever it was, Mahler himself didn’t live to taste it. In listening to the last movement, we hear Mahler from beyond the grave, expressing things he did not have the time to express.

(Nexus ex. . .

Honegger: Rugby and Musical Scrums

Contributed by Dr. Ken Metz (Professor of Music, University of the Incarnate Word)

51-5xVSwtbL._SY355_.jpgHonegger’s Rugby, a piece inspired by that sport, would seem to represent an unusual phenomenon in art music. My search to find similar pieces has revealed that there are not many that relate directly to a sport or a game. (I welcome readers to add to my initial list!) Stravinsky wrote Jeu de cartes, for example, which of course deals (no pun intended) with a card game. Honegger may have been inspired by Debussy, whose Jeux features an attempt to connect musical rhythm with a bouncing tennis ball. However, Jeux is not directly inspired by the game of tennis. That most eccentric French composer, Erik Satie, did write Sports et Divertissements for piano solo, but the only actual sports subjects in the work are tennis and golf (unless you think Satie thought of yachting and fishing as sports). Bohuslav Martinů composed Half-Time, inspired by football (soccer). (Bateman 2015) I am not sure whether Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1908) should be counted as another example, since it’s mostly about watching the game (and eating at it), but even if it is, there are not that many popular songs that turn sports into music.

One reason for the small number of sports-related pieces of art music is that team sports such as rugby and soccer were a development of the later nineteenth century, so composers before that time simply didn’t have them to write about. Before the nineteenth century, the hunt was a sort of sport, and there is much music inspired by its sounds and rhythms, but it would be a stretch to call it a team sport. Suffice it to say that there are not many pieces of concert music that aim to depict or are motivated by a team sport. But I would like to suggest another reason that composers have avoided writing pieces about team sports by discussing Honegger’s Rugby at more length.

Here, then, is Honegger’s statement about the piece:

“I very much like football (soccer), but I prefer rugby. I find it more spontaneous, more direct and closer to nature than football, which is a more scientific game. I am aware of a carefully controlled rhythm in football and for me the savage, brusque, untidy and desperate rhythm of rugby is more attractive. It would be wrong to consider my piece as program music. All it does is to try to express, in my own musician’s language, the attacks and ripostes of the game, and the rhythm and color of a match at the Colombes Stadium; I honestly feel it is only right to name my sources. That is the reason why this short composition bears the title of Rugby.” (Waters 1997)

Honegger distances himself from “program music,” focusing instead on the kinetics of rugby expressed through pitch and rhythm. One would assume that the words “brusque, untidy, and desperate” would connote dissonant pitch collections and rhythmic conflict. Here I’m particularly interested in how Honegger treats rhythm, because that is an important aspect of his most well known music.

In Pacific 231, for example, Honegger uses a rhythmic crescendo as a formal organizational principle. (Waters, 1997) It’s easy to hear this principle in the piece’s gradual change to faster rhythms on a hypermetrical level, because it evokes a train leaving the station, increasing its speed, and slowing down to arrive at its destination. The locomotive motive, if you will, integrates well with a plan in which rhythmic crescendo and decrescendo combine with rhythmic displacement and polyrhythm to create an arch form structure that parallels a familiar real-world event.

A similar use of rhythmic crescendo informs the structure of Rugby; however, the effect here is less successful. I think the problem lies in the game of rugby itself and the nature of team sports in general. I think that the way a rugby game unfolds in time does not create a fitting model for musical form, because the rhythmic ebb and flow of the many events in a game conflicts with the rhythmic crescendo employed in Honegger’s piece.

Perhaps the kinetic profile of a game such as rugby or basketball could be used as a model for musical form if the game could be temporally stretched, so that one event in the game could occupy a much larger time span in music, like a slow-motion replay in musical terms. Imagine that the speed of the players could be reduced to that of performers in Japanese noh theater. If this could be the speed of a game of rugby, then music might provide a more suitable architectural parallel. To look at the situation in reverse, I suppose a game like rugby is like a piece of music that has too many different and unrelated changes in rhythmic structure, too many climatic points. How many times can music effectively portray the same sets of recurring events such as scrums without losing its focus and overall momentum? Honegger must have struggled to fit his compositional process onto rugby, a struggle happily absent from Pacific 231.

Sources Cited

Bateman, Anthony. Sport, Music, Identities. Oxford: Routledge, 2015.

Waters, Keith John. “Rhythmic and Contrapuntal Structures in the Music of Arthur Honegger” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Rochester University, 1997).

I Saw the World Begin: Das Rheingold

It wasn’t possible to post last week. And why? Well, life presents its various difficulties, of course, but I think more than this is that I reached the precipice: Wagner. It was inevitable that I should eventually write about him, as I knew when I started this blog, although I wasn’t sure how I would get there or when. But, having spent some time on the Circe myth in Alcina and South Pacific, I started thinking about sirens, about the Lorelei, and this led me to the Rhinemaidens, that trio of seductive water nymphs swimming in the Rhine in the opening scene of Das Rheingold, first of the Ring operas.

(Nexus entry?)

This is the kind of moment that has the power to arrest the flow of prose. What can one say that hasn’t been said? At the same time, how can one choose what to say when there are so many things to say? Just take the Prelude of Das Rheingold, that long suspension of E-flat major bliss, growing from the subterranean basses and blossoming into swaths of full orchestral diatonic glory—how to focus? Do I say something about the significance of the three-flat key signature, suggesting simultaneously the trio of Rhinemaidens, the trio of Norns, the three muses (Dance, Music, Poetry) that Wagner cites when writing about his concept of music drama, the Christian trinity, the key of Beethoven’s Eroica, of the Masonic in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte? Do I then opine further about how in this originating kernel of E-flat-ness, Wagner has conducted preliminaries for a ritual theater during which he makes obeisance to the Christian god, to the norse gods, to the Greek gods, to the gods of music (Mozart and Beethoven)? v1.bTsxMTYxODIxMjtqOzE3Njg0OzEyMDA7NzY4OzEwMjQ.jpegOr do I go in another direction entirely and talk about the uses of Wagner—for example, the use of the Prelude from Das Rheingold in Terrence Malick’s film The New World (2005), ostensibly about the founding of Jamestown and the relationship of John Smith and Pocahontas, but projected, through the use of Wagner’s Prelude, into a larger creation myth, an originating legend for America paralleling the creation of Wagner’s world of the Ring, and/or a suggestion of the unspoiled world before European colonization.

(Nope, just kidding.)

You see? I have a problem. And no one’s even on stage yet!

40300.jpgI take consolation from reading Deryck Cooke’s I Saw the World End: A Study of Wagner’s Ring (Oxford University Press, 1979). An attempt to say as much as could be said, Cooke managed to say intriguing things about the libretti (and occasionally the music) for the first two Ring operas, and then laid him down to rest. Somehow this is touchingly fitting, in a way that echoes other extraordinary projects of scholarship cut short by the unsympathetic winnower: Henry-Louis de La Grange’s revision of his definitive Mahler biography, J. A. B. van Buitenen’s translation of the Mahabharata. What I mean is that the epic subject is honored, in a sense, by not being fully encompassed by similarly epic scholarship. On a more pedestrian level, I was by turns upset, amused, and relieved that in the extensive liner notes + libretto accompanying Karajan’s classic recording of Das Rheingold with the Berlin Philharmonic, the essayist Wolfram Schwinger hardly mentions that singing is going on. (Yes, really!) Schwinger’s focus is almost exclusively on the Master—Karajan!—and his sensitivity to orchestration, his commitment to accuracy, transparency, his refusal to get bogged down and insistence on maintaining forward momentum. All well and good, but. . .singers?

118001648.jpgAfter all, here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Wotan, the ultimate singer of German Lieder crafting a father of the gods who is lyrical and sympathetic instead of brash, spoiled, tyrannical. And here is the masterful performance of Gerhard Stolze as Loge, who follows every opportunity for multi-dimensionality of character that Wagner provides: at one moment playfully mercurial, at another fiercely scornful, at another distant and wise. And here is Martti Talvela as Fasolt, volleying blasts of bass sonority over the orchestra and hamming it up marvelously as the unlikely love-struck giant. But perhaps this is why Schwinger doesn’t say much about the singers—they do their job splendidly, on the whole, so his focus is free to flit to other phenomena. (How’s that for Stabreim?) All this to say that, after delay and uncertainty, I feel liberated not to attempt the completist’s gambit. Flit, float, fleetly flee, fly—it will be enough to be and not to be enough.

Nexus entry.

Wagner’s command of musical irony always stuns me, and I was perhaps more sensitive to it than ever on this listen to Das Rheingold. The gold standard for Wagnerian musical irony is Act I of Tristan und Isolde, and the queen reigning over that language is Isolde herself, who can snatch away someone else’s line and spit it back laced with venom. But I don’t think I had fully appreciated how much irony there is throughout the first of the Ring operas. Take, again, that opening scene with the Rhinemaidens, where the dwarf Alberich, frustrated in his attempts to capture one of them, takes the Rhinegold instead and curses love so that he will be able to forge the ring of power.

00005973.jpg(Don’t say anything about Tolkien. . .don’t say it!!! No, go on and say it—you’re in the nexus!)

In Wagner’s cosmology, love is the ultimate power inasmuch as it cannot be achieved through force, whereas everything else can be. So when Alberich can’t have love, he seizes upon the next best thing. Seen another way, the denial of love is what twists Alberich into a destructive tyrant. In Tolkien’s mythos, the creation of the Ring doesn’t work this way. It is forged by Sauron, who is so wholly evil, a force so far beyond conventional human experience, that to imagine him (it?) giving up love for power is a laughable suggestion. Love is foreign to evil in Tolkien’s universe; it cannot be imagined as existing anywhere in Sauron’s sphere.

Steamboat_Willie.jpgWagner invites us to consider, though, what might have happened had one of the Rhinemaidens chimed, “Oh, so he doesn’t replace the toilet paper and puts his elbows on the table—can’t help lovin’ that dwarf of mine!” And how does he invite us to consider this possibility? By writing mock-love music, of course! The Rhinemaidens sing, each of them, as if they’ve fallen for our sulfurous cave-dweller, and he buys it each time. But we know better, and not just because of the narrative context. Wagner hams it up, giving us saccharine overtures interrupted by action-oriented “underscore.” (Incidentally, do you realize how much mickey-mousing there is in Das Rheingold?! Steamboat Willie, sit down!) The music shifts gears too quickly for us to hear the love music as genuine; something that gets that sticky that quickly must be manufactured.

There are so many moments like this in Rheingold, each representing its own unique dramatic accomplishment, and the completist in me wants to dwell on many more, but the realist in me wants to mention one more general idea that kept occurring to me on this listen to the opera, and this has to do with Wagner’s materials. When the Rhinemaidens first direct Alberich’s (and our) gaze to the Rhinegold, we hear, for the first time in the score, a bright and shiny solo trumpet line. Got it, Wagner. A trumpet is made of brilliant metal, and so is the Rhinegold. But what about other such associations? Like the blast of clarinet sonority that accompanies Alberich, suggesting a reedy, swamp-like origin for him. Or the waves of arcing string lines in the Prelude suggesting, yes, the motion of the waters of the Rhine, but also, because of presence of string instruments themselves, the “threads” (strings) that the Norns are weaving and the wood of the World Tree—those organic materials. IMG_4855.JPGWagner was the kind of brilliant orchestrator who understood the cultural significance of timbre, particularly as it had been used historically in opera, and knew therefore how to use timbre to communicate dramatic ideas. But the world of the Ring seems to me to have presented Wagner with the perhaps singular opportunity to associate instruments with primal elements. Okay, so this idea is partly formed at best, but I’m recording it nonetheless as one of those topics to keep in mind as the life journey that constitutes anything more than a passing familiarity with Wagner’s Ring continues to unfold. Long may it last and never reach its end.

Nexus exit.