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. . .

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