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. 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.
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. Not 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). Elsewhere 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). (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.’”  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.
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.
 Thomas Clark and Larry Austin, “Coasts: On the Creative Edge with Composer Larry Austin,” Computer Music Journal 13, no. 1 (Spring 1989): 21-35.
2 thoughts on “Violet Archer Faraway, So Close”
Your writing is exceptional. I do enjoy reading your words. Thanks for that unique voice.
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Thanks so much, Charles!