Beamish’s Future Past: Bellburst, Tomblight

Sometimes an album is like a snapshot. Summer 1967: the summer of Sgt. Pepper’s, when the world of “popular music,” whatever that was, became something else. The snapshot was of a changing world, a record of kinesis between this and that, the high jump captured in mid-air, time miraculously frozen. But Sgt. Pepper’s is an easy example: an album that wanted to be understood as a moment, that knew it would be a moment before it was one, as the gathered dignitaries on its iconic cover so memorably demonstrate. (What else could have convinced them to show up?)

Album cover of Beamish’s “The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone”

British (Scottish, we should say!) composer Sally Beamish also gives us a snapshot with her album The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone, which is also the name of the last work on it, essentially a one-movement concerto for saxophone and orchestra. Released after the decade of her meteoric rise (the 1990s) but before her more recent acknowledgment as a major composer of the last quarter century, the album includes works that chart that rise and articulate her compositional journey, a gradual tapping into a deep well of creativity that connects to her identity.

(Nexus entry.)

Felix Femina’s album of Scottish medieval polyphony, with pieces from W1, the musicologist’s bane!

The Caledonian Road (1997), first work on the album, is named after the road in North London where Beamish’s family went shopping when she was growing up. As she explains in the liner notes, the road really was the road to the north – to that place the Romans called Caledonia, the frightful region beyond the reach of Empire. This was also the place to which Beamish moved in 1990, a move described as “the most important of her career.” So The Caledonian Road, while seeming simply to point to Scotland, is also autobiographical and has to do with Beamish’s personal road to Scotland. The sound of the north seems to be present in at least two ways in the work: through a pastoral style conjured by lyrical wind lines over string drones and through specific reference to a complex of musical sources – “ancient bells,” horn calls, and fragments from the St. Andrews Music Book (that is, W1. . .that is, Wolfenbüttel 1, that is, Cod. Helmst. 628, which, as every musicologist of a certain age knows, is one of the major repositories of the Magnus liber organi). Beamish had brought these sources together before in St. Andrew’s Bones (1997), a work for horn, violin, and piano, which was also inspired by the ruins of St. Andrew’s Cathedral in the county of Fife in Scotland, ruins the composer had heard described as “like the rib-cage of some long-dead god.” And so the work is autobiographical in layers, touching on the composer’s childhood and on another work of hers, with its related but distinct set of referents. One of the most unusual qualities of the work to me is its essentially non-dramatic nature. Despite the fact that the largest number of “bell bursts” is saved for the end, the end is really no louder or more impressive than other moments throughout the work. The notes describe the work as being in “variation form,” with variations marked off by those “bell bursts,” combinations of chime sounds and orchestral renderings of bell resonance. Some variations are more active, some more lyrical, and the whole is loosely arranged in a kind of arc shape, with the most active, densely contrapuntal variations inhabiting the central section and the variations with sparser textures bookending the work.

What does such a form suggest if the title points to journey, to a road, and if the notes argue for a sort of narrative dimension where one eventually arrives in a physical and spiritual Caledonia? In thinking about this, it has seemed to me almost as if Beamish structures the work so that the road to the future leads to the past and that the activity of the central section, its agitation, is the movement – a great exertion – that leads back to the beginning. The elliptical journey suggests the preordained, moving forward only find that the destination was within you, was you yourself in some version you sensed but did not fully comprehend. This is less the unfolding of a drama and more the dawning of enlightenment, the recontextualization of ever-present material.

Reeds near the Budôkan, Photo by Kevin Salfen

The idea of moving into the future to get to the past is also present in the second work on the album, The Day Dawn. Without having read the notes, my first thought was that the saturated, slow-moving string sonorities at the beginning were reminiscent of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, called the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs because of the texts, concerned with mothers and children, and more particularly with the loss of children. And then I read the notes. Beamish wrote the piece, as it turns out, as an act of public mourning for a friend of hers whose young daughter had died. Perhaps, therefore, Beamish was deliberately referencing Górecki, or perhaps she couldn’t escape him. But the idea running through the piece, of a parent, a mother, trapped in mourning, greeted by sunshine on the day of the funeral after a week of rain, also suggests the world of Kindertotenlieder, and more specifically of “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn”: “Now the sun will rise brightly, as if nothing bad had happened in the night.” But where Rückert and Mahler are mired in irony, beset by self-doubt, and Górecki makes grief so beautiful that you never want to leave it, Beamish shows us a way out.

That way is an old Shetland fiddle tune named “The Day Dawn,” which was played to celebrate the Winter Solstice, “to mark the dawn of lengthening days,” according to the notes. The tune is heard at its clearest at the very end of the work, a sort of Ivesian solution to form, as if it could only be pieced together a bit at a time over the course of the work. When it is heard in this clearest version, however, it is without the vim and vigor of dance: a vessel that needs to be filled, the shape of life that needs to be stepped into. And here I’m reminded of another line in Rückert’s “Nun will die Sonn’”: “Du mußt nicht die Nacht in dir verschränken / Mußt sie ins ew’ge Licht versenken!” – “You must not become the darkness yourself but must commune with eternal light.” (That’s my attempt, but I’ve often seen it in English as “you must not enfold the night within you but must sink into eternal light.”) How do you enter into the light that exists beyond mourning? Beamish uses that old Shetland fiddle tune to suggest a potent cure: music, dance, activity, the land, home, the rootedness of those things, their ability to subsume individual grief in a larger story, all of which means that life does go on after loss. It’s a kind of ancient wisdom, the wisdom that has the mother dance all night at a wawa verlorio to mourn her child. To live into the future, Beamish has us travel deeper into the past.

That album that everyone has. . .still good!

Time breaks down in music, becomes a kind of riddle. Brevity stands for length, forward stands for backward. We are time travelers, set adrift in a timeless soundscape.

Beamish, as I’ve said, lets the last work on the album, The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone, give its name to the whole. And the way that work plays with sound and time will now seem iconic for the album and composer. The material, according to the notes, comes from various places and times: an old Swedish herding call, “psalms and chants coming from different traditions,” “blues,” though I think this is an oversimplified way to describe a much more sophisticated jazz-inspired idiom, which sometimes steams and screams like Coltrane and sometimes simmers and sneaks like a gumshoe in postwar film noir. Beamish is kind enough to describe the form of the work in her notes, and I would gloss her description as “accumulation, arrival, dispersion.” The arrival happens a little over halfway through the twenty-minute work and is a true climax on an album of few overt climaxes: an explosive, gripping burst of C major, which the composer describes as “the moment at the solstice when light enters the prehistoric tomb.” That arrival shatters conventional time. It serves as a sort of portal into a place where jazz and ancient chant exist in swirling simultaneity – a universal “hymn” in the Ivesian sense of a thousand different voices singing their thousand different songs at once. Gradually the elements released by this C-major arrival, which seems to me a cousin of the Sanctus from Britten’s War Requiem, scatter and fly away, but a cycle has been established: seasons flow, and the solstice will come again, letting past and present dance together until the tomb goes dark.

Irina Ratushinskaya’s most well known work.

The other piece on the album, I’m not afraid (1989), is also fascinating. An early work, one that Beamish apparently considers crucial in her compositional development, it is a sort of response to six poems by Ukrainian poet Irina Ratushinskaya (1954-2017), which are read (by the composer!) as the chamber ensemble provides an accompaniment that is part filmic underscore, part expressionistic Pierrot-like mimesis. The clown logic of the piece may connect to the poet’s history. A Christian dissenter in the Soviet Union, imprisoned for almost four years, who wrote poetry throughout her imprisonment, some of which was smuggled out on scraps of paper: this is the sort of grim grotesquerie that would seem to require the surreal distancing techniques of Pierrot to achieve anything other than the bleakest tragedy. I would love to write about Stravinsky in the work, about the special role for oboe, and yes, about clown logic, but for this entry maybe it’s just as important to note that in 1989 Beamish was already “singing” the song of the dispossessed, of the woman imprisoned, yearning to seize freedom. On this album she has shared that sound of yearning, in her own human voice, before showing us the ancient destination that lay on the path ahead.

(Nexus exit.)

You see, sometimes an album is like a snapshot. . .

Celebrating Zwilich’s First Symphony

Mayday! May Day. May 1st. As good a day as any to celebrate beginnings.

Here’s a question for you: What does it mean to write a first symphony? Perhaps for Beethoven it meant self-assertion, a way of setting himself apart from his classical forebears. Perhaps for Brahms it meant living in a world after Beethoven and composing in the company of his by turns inspiring and oppressive ghost. Perhaps for Mahler it meant showing that the symphony had a place in an age of Wagner and Strauss, that it had sufficient epic pull in a concert culture of program music. Perhaps for Bruckner it meant a path toward the divine. Perhaps for Prokofiev and Shostakovich it meant something about returning to the classical origins of the form, reminding a twentieth-century audience that symphonies didn’t have to be hour-long plummetings into the pool of Weltschmerz, although they knew plenty about that. And after the wars? And in the U.S.? Perhaps it came to mean something like. . .self-assertion, at individual and national levels, or living in a world after. . .well, after lots of things—a world of post-ness—or a claim that a first symphony could possess epic pull or was a path to the divine or that it could still manage classical deftness. In fact, it gradually came to mean all those things and more: an overburdened opportunity, and so very irresistible for it, even in a post-symphonic age. I caught the symphonic bug early myself and attempted a three-movement Symphony No. 1, not that anything particularly useful came of it except perhaps an appreciation for composers who could manage it better than I. And it so happens that two fellow San Antonio composers are even now laboring away at symphonies (Brian Bondari, and James Syler, on his second).

(Nexus entry.)

The album I listened to for this entry contains a Symphony No. 1, of course, a work that scored the Pulitzer Prize in 1983. Some of the aims of this particular first symphony are probably similar to those proposed above. Possessed of an immense lyrical wealth akin to late Mahler or Berg or the agonizing side of Shostakovich, it has about it the atmosphere of the epic. At the same time it’s three relatively brief movements taken together clock in at a modest seventeen to eighteen minutes, terser even than most of Papa Haydn’s. The composer (still living) was, as the awarding of the Pulitzer indicates, an American, and here’s where things get more interesting. Does it sound like the great American symphony, and if so, how?

I heard Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s First Symphony long ago as an undergraduate but then hadn’t heard it in the intervening (ahem) years until I recently pulled it from the shelf of the listening library in order to revisit what I understood as an important American work in the genre. Zwilich [pronounced ZWILL-ik] was, after all, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in music, a mighty accomplishment in the early 1980s, which, although it was post­-many things, was also pre-many others. I speculate that the prize committee heard in Zwilich’s First something that did sound American to them, not in a flag-waving sense but in a finger-on-the-pulse one, and that they also understood that the composer’s accomplishment represented an important part of the American story, as indeed it did and does.

But the thing that strikes me so powerfully as I return to this symphony is how skillfully Zwilich makes a Euro-American hybrid. I hear the aching strings of Mahler and Berg—she was a violinist first, and it shows—but the texture is far leaner, clear and direct, even Coplandesque at times, primed for effective communication with a larger, American public. In the liner notes for the album, Zwilich explains that she had “long been interested in the elaboration of large-scale works from the initial material.” That might sound like a Schoenbergian way of talking about what happens in symphonic space, but when you listen to the opening of the First Symphony, you hear a major third once, then a second time, then a third time, and that repetition establishes the rising motive that becomes a theme. This strategy—the straightforward communication through repetition of a simple initial idea, a germ, that will give rise to the rest—is more appropriate to Beethoven’s Fifth than to most works with such notable modernist credentials. Mass communication of classical music, like Texaco sponsoring broadcasts from the Met from 1931 to 2003, sounds pretty American, doesn’t it?

The opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, isn’t it?

But more is needed to make that communication work than the repetition of an ascending major third, however beautifully varied or artfully orchestrated. And Zwilich does give more. The central developmental section of the first movement doesn’t sound like but is informed by melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, and orchestrational logic reminiscent of the action-oriented music of late-1970s and early-1980s big-budget Hollywood film scores. More specifically, I hear the development section as a cousin of John Williams’s score for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). There’s probably more to say about specific connections between film scores and (latent) narrativity in Zwilich’s symphony. Richard Dyer writes in the liner notes that, despite the fact that the composer usually waits for commissions, she began her First Symphony before she had one, and that the “first fifteen bars,” from which “everything in the work arises,” she felt “compelled to write.” Who knows what lies behind this, what it was that compelled her? But the lyrical language of the work, which moves between anguish and repose, opens the door to the narrative imagination. We needn’t walk through. It’s easy enough to accept Zwilich’s work as “absolute music,” and my suggestion about a certain affinity with contemporaneous film scores is about the materials of music: notes, rhythms, and textures. Moreover, these notes, rhythms, and textures link what was going on in the classical season of orchestras in the late 1970s and 1980s and what was going on (or starting to go on) in the pops season. Finger on the pulse indeed.

(Nexus exit.)

ETZ, from the composer’s website. . .

As always, there’s so very much to say. A work like Zwilich’s First Symphony deserves lengthier exposition, a rich and nuanced reading: it is a worthy and wonderful work, and important since Zwilich has to date written four other symphonies. Go listen to it if you haven’t, or listen to it again if you’ve forgotten it. But this album contains two other fine works as well—Prologue and Variations (1984) and Celebration (1984)—all played admirably by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under John Nelson. Celebration particularly fascinated me on this listening, unmistakably evoking the opening of Mahler’s First Symphony and anticipating the Tarantella movement of Corigliano’s First Symphony. If neither of those works seem particularly celebratory in those places, then you’ll understand something of my fascination with the rhetorical riddle of Zwilich’s title. And discovering for the first time or rediscovering something fascinating is well worth celebrating.

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. . .

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:

51SiugerzVL._SX355_.jpg

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.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Der_Mönch_am_Meer_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

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. . .

Symphonic Island-Hopping: Kiwi Edition

For the last entry I listened to Spanish composer Tomás Marco’s Symphony No. 5, inspired by (and with individual movements named after) the Canary Islands. So I couldn’t resist when I came across a CD of Christopher Blake’s music with a featured work called Symphony – The Islands. 31-PBmncQEL.jpgBlake (b. 1949) is a dyed-in-the-wool Kiwi: born in Christchurch, educated at Canterbury University, and now Chief Executive of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. And the “islands” referenced in the title of his 1996 symphony are those that comprise his own country, which makes Blake’s symphony notably different from Marco’s. Blake’s symphony is about home.

But Symphony – The Islands is about something else as well. Cast in three movements, it takes its title and a good deal of inspiration from three sonnets by New Zealand poet Charles Brasch (1909-73). md22536625228.jpgThe poems are printed in full in the liner notes, and emblazoned across the album art as an epigraph is this quote from the second of them, from which Blake says the music takes its “mood of restlessness”: “Always, in these islands, meeting and parting/Shake us, making tremulous the salt-rimmed air.”

Nexus entry.

I can’t stop thinking about Debussy’s “sea symphony,” La mer (1905), and not because Blake’s work sounds anything like it. In fact, Symphony – The Islands doesn’t remind me of the sound of Debussy or of early twentieth-century French music at all. That, though, is almost the point. Debussy is writing a sea symphony from the perspective of the water; Blake is writing an island symphony from the perspective of the land. Water is present in both, but Blake gives the motion, the “restlessness” of water, something substantial to push against. Another obvious comparison is Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony (1909), which shares with Blake’s piece a grounding in poetry that uses seascapes as a kind of mechanism for the visionary. But Blake doesn’t sound much like Vaughan Williams either, and he sounds even less like the Vaughan Williams of A Sea Symphony, only most obviously because Blake’s isn’t a choral symphony.

I’m stepping up to the ledge of an entire category of environmental music here, as well as a rich cache of ecomusicology. 9781783270620_2.jpgThe recent thought-provoking volume The Sea in the British Musical Imagination, edited by Eric Saylor and Christopher Scheer, leaps to mind, as does an excellent paper given by Karen Olson (at the most recent AMS conference in Rochester) on two pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies tied to “his” islands, the Orkneys. What I mean to say is that the musical trope-iverse of “island music” and “sea music” inevitably intersect, but they’re not the same. Teasing out the differences at a larger level would be, I imagine, a worthy pursuit.

But to the music at hand. . .

Blake’s first movement, “Recitative and Appassionata,” opens with an almost imperceptible throbbing that slowly grows—it really seems as if we are getting closer to it. When the cello recitative begins, it feels as if an entirely different character has been introduced or, rather, that a character has been introduced. “Recitative,” after all, means that a character is singing, and since Blake has told us all about the centrality of Brasch’s poetry to his symphonic conception, the instrumental recitative stands in for the poetic voice, and by extension for our human voice. Then what was that growing throbbing? I think Blake is asking his listener to perceive more in it than accompaniment. Its relative stasis, its rhythmic permanence suggests the natural world of rocks and waves, the land and sea against which the poet writes the story of his own recitative-like perception.

This kind of conceptual polyphony between the human and the environmental is, I think, one of the most compelling aspects of Symphony – The Islands. It occurs again in the slow second movement, “Gongs, Echoes and Chants,” where an opening subterranean pedal is answered by shimmering ascents. In the words of Brasch’s middle sonnet, “Divided and perplexed the sea is waiting,/Birds and fishes visit us and disappear.” And then, the human element appears. Blake calls it a “chant” in his movement title, but it sounds more like a hymn played out in atmospheric strings. I hear in it an echo of the end of the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. MarbledGodwit.jpgWhen a descending trumpet figure cuts through the hymn texture, at first it feels like a response to Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, in which the strings’ slow-moving hymn is cut through by the questioning trumpet. But there’s more to Blake’s trumpet than a dissonant question; as other instruments take up the figure, it reveals itself not as a human but as avian. To wit, the call of the godwit, as Brasch’s poem verifies: “from their haunted bay/The godwits vanish toward another summer.” And now we arrive at the doorstep of Messiaen, who uses birdsong to suggest the voice of the divine. By the end of the movement Blake synthesizes some of these varying elements—the primal throbbing of natural forces, the shimmering ascents of fishes and birds, the hymning of humanity—but the synthesis doesn’t achieve apotheosis. Instead, and as Brasch writes, “None knows where he will lie down at night.”

This sentiment is carried over into the third movement, “And None Knows. . .,” which gives much of its bulk to “rapid string and wind figurations” and “an energetic fast dance” before an extensive coda that returns to the stasis of the natural world and the “human voices” of earlier movements. The coda is calculatedly inconclusive, the relationship between the natural world and human presence unclear, the future of that pact unknown. Or, as Brasch’s third sonnet has it, “The stones are bare for us to write upon.”

Nexus exit.

The CD is rounded out with three “tone poems,” each about ten minutes, which Blake explains in the liner notes “are conceived as a group and share similarities in style, sentiment, and technique.” Two are elegiac—We All Fall Down (1996), an “extended threnody. . .which remembers the children of the wars of our time,” and Echelles de Glace (1992), commissioned by the Wellington Youth Orchestra in memory of their former member David Heymann, who died while climbing the Matterhorn. The first belongs to a growing body of late twentieth-century works in memoriam for which Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976) is perhaps an ultimate stylistic model. R-898934-1241102979.jpeg.jpgThe second, while fulfilling its memorial function admirably, also references a special kind of twentieth-century orchestral writing that I think owes a considerable debt to nature documentaries. The final work on the album is also the most recent: The Furnace of Pihanga (1999), inspired by a Maori story about the contest of mountain gods “for the love of the beautiful Pihanga.” There’s a sensitive timbral imagination on display here, and it’s a pleasure to hear Blake tell the story described in his liner notes through the orchestral medium.

When a Symphony is Like an Archipelago: Marco’s Symphony No. 5

The symphony is dead. Long live the symphony.

Last night I had the local classical radio station on in the car, and they started playing Brahms’s Second Symphony. Brahms is not my ¡FaVoRiTe! symphonist, and the Second isn’t my ¡FaVoRiTe! Brahms symphony, and yet. . . And yet. . .

I love this form. I love the experience of listening to a symphony. Live. On recording. I love talking about them, reading about them, thinking about them. I love studying scores of them, and, as a composer, from time to time I repress the urge to write one. Or at least to start writing one. y450-293.jpgI happen to think—and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who does—that the symphony is one of the ¡gReAt IdEaS oF hUmAnKiNd!, in the way that Peter Watson places the invention of opera between chapters called “Capitalism, Humanism, Individualism” and “The Mental Horizon of Christopher Columbus.” <1> And so hearing Brahms Second at the end of a long day was my own little piece of heaven.

For the last entry two entries I’ve been listening to “island music”: the first, steel band music from Trinidad; the second, works by Tania León that are profoundly informed by Cuban culture. This week I encountered two symphonies that were new for me: Spanish composer Tomás Marco’s Symphony No. 4 “Espacio Quebrado” and Symphony No. 5 “Modelos de Universo.” But the one I found most fascinating is also “island music,” in a sense.

Nexus entry.

MI0001105480.jpgMarco’s Fifth Symphony has seven movements, each of which is named after one of the seven main Canary Islands: I. Achinech (Tenerife), II. Ferro (Hierro), III. Avaria (La Palma), IV. Maxorata (Fuerteventura), V. Tyteroygatra (Lanzarote), VI. Amilgua (Gomera), VII. Tamarán (Gran Canaria). (As an aside, I’ll admit that one of the reasons I was drawn to the piece is because in the last few years I’ve read a fair amount about the connection between San Antonio and the Canary Islands.)

Things get a bit more complicated here. In extensive program notes, Marco (b. 1942) explains that the symphony was commissioned by the Festival of the Canaries and that he wanted, therefore, to create an homage to the islands, which he claims to know “inside out (better than the natives, I expect),” as a kind of testament “to their progressive destruction.” Despite the titling of movements, though, the composer had “no desire to commit the tactlessness of appropriating Canarian folklore. . .an easy, opportunist way out, as well as being a sort of profanity, that would have harmed both the folklore and the symphony itself.”

Instead, Marco wanted to create a “universal work for the Canaries that would carry their name across the wide world every time it was performed.” <2> (This makes me think of the Dalai Lama approving the recording and distribution of Tibetan Buddhist rituals with the idea that every time one pressed play, the prayer was renewed, like a disembodied prayer wheel.) And how does a composer make a symphony universal, other than by omitting any direct reference to music and folklore of the Canary Isalnds? Marco attempts this by tying his work to others in the symphonic tradition. He references the famous opening motive from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra repeatedly. Arguably, that’s a different kind of opportunism; at the very least, it’s the ¡MoSt ObViOuS wAy! of involving an audience in a conversation about the music, through the music.

Marco also explains that there are “hidden references to various well-known Fifth Symphonies” elsewhere, especially in the transitions. But three other “non-Fifth” symphonies occur to me as models of Marco’s symphonic universe. One is Mahler’s Third, a six-movement work with titles that most often point to the natural world as inspiration. Another is Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Sinfonie (1948), with which Marco’s Fifth Symphony shares an unorthodox number of movements, many featuring titles that point to a personal cache of complicated referents. A third is Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1969), the symphony after symphonies have died, which famously uses the scherzo from Mahler’s Second (1894) as a “vessel” into which many text and musical quotations are poured.

Berio’s scherzo movement, with its apparently self-defeating environment of hyper-quotation, might seem the most apt comparison, especially when Marco writes something like, “Once creative innocence has been irrevocably lost, one has no choice but to be ironic about one’s own creation.” MV5BMmNlYzRiNDctZWNhMi00MzI4LThkZTctMTUzMmZkMmFmNThmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzkwMjQ5NzM@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpgIn other words, it’s difficult to hear Also sprach, especially after 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Beethoven’s Fifth and not roll your eyes. But when ironic experience is repeated so often, it loses its ironic edge, becomes instead simply an environment. That environment is a palimpsest, endlessly written over, just as Marco’s movement titles have traditional island names and parenthetical “colonized” names, just as the symphony as a genre is a model that is written over again and again. What is left is a place of depth, a place where unfathomable things have happened and are recovered only partially, through a veil of imperfect memory, Marco Polo repeatedly trying to describe the glories of Venice for a mesmerized Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Nexus exit.

Ultimately, in his Fifth Symphony Marco claims to have given the listener “seven formal models,” inspired by various theories of the universe, “translated into seven abstract and exclusively music movements,” the “techniques of construction” for which the composer does “not want to tire the reader by describing.” No matter. On the island of symphonies, there’s enough to hear without all that.

References

<1> Peter Watson, Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (HarperCollins, 2005).

<2> Tomás Marco, Sinfonia No. 5 “Modelos de Universo ‘88/89”; Sinfonia No. 4 “Espacio Quebrado ’87,liner notes by Harry Halbreich with program notes by Tomás Marco Indigéna, aurophon AU 31812, 1991, compact disc.

Placing Tania León, Indígena of the In-Between

For the last entry I listened to an album with origins in Carnival on Trinidad: steel band music, preserved for posterity (thanks, Nonesuch!) as it was in the mid-1960s. No performers are mentioned by name on the album; it’s just The Westland Steel Band, so that the listener is encouraged to conceive of “music as culture” instead of as an account of the intersection of the complex lives of complex individuals.

The album I listened to this week—Indígena, featuring music by Tania León (b. 1943)—also has a connection to Carnival in the Caribbean, this time in Cuba. 515J6W88JEL.jpgBut perhaps it’s better to read the composer’s explanation of the work’s background: “Growing up in Cuba was a kaleidoscopic experience with sound. . .You have all of these revelers in the back of my home, preparing themselves for the Carnival. Even when I was actually trying to play Chopin or Tchaikovsky or, you know, I mean, Czerny, they would parade in front of the house, I would stop playing the piano, go, see the revels pass by, and when they pass by, we all dance, you know. And then, when they were gone, everybody went back to their chores. I went back to the piano; I continue practicing. . .Of course, upon my return [to Cuba, years later], I realize that the revelers were not there anymore, and these are just my memories.” [1]

In January 2018 there are lots of places one can go to read about Tania León’s life and career: her own website, Grove, several dissertations and scholarly articles. But here are three pieces of information, culled from those sources, to provide a bit of context or to send you looking for more. The first is reported almost every time León is introduced in print. She claims five distinct sources of heritage: French, Spanish, Chinese, African, and Cuban. She “take[s] pride” in each and “represent[s] all of them.” [2] Second, she was a founding member of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem and served as accompanist, and later music director, resident composer, and conductor of its orchestra. Third, León is currently working on a new opera—with libretto by Thulani Davis aided by “historical research” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—called Little Rock Nine, about those extraordinary black students who began attending Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. [3]

What do we take from these three pieces of information? Something about race or ethnic identity? Something about musical influences? Something about the production of contemporary concert music in late-20th-/early-21st-century America? If you read any interviews with or writings about León, it quickly becomes apparent that she resists attempts to make her into the voice of a particular ethnicity (and/or gender). Marc Gidal discusses this at length in a 2010 article for Latin American Music Review, ultimately arguing that Homi Bhabha’s phrase vernacular cosmopolitanism is a useful concept for understanding composers such as León, finding in it a way “to join contradictory notions of local specificity and universal enlightenment.” [4]

Local specificity. Such as? Well, for example, in Indígena (from which the album takes its name), after a spiky and dissonant, almost Varèse-like opening, León “conjures up a comparsa, the group of revelers that roams the streets during Carnival season.” A solo trumpet even quotes an “authentic comparsa melody.” [5] This is local knowledge. And universal enlightenment? This is achieved through the expert use of orchestra—a sign for universalism, however problematic—with ample evidence of mastery of the musical modernist’s toolbox. Read against the interview with León quoted above, Indígena becomes more than a juxtaposition of distinct cultures, coming together for a multicultural extravaganza. A new creature is made, growing from exile and loss, memory and a wealth of contemporary experience. The title of León’s piece, Indígena, is not an answer, but a question. She is not saying, “Listen to my indigenous, Cuban authenticity in the context of a universalizing orchestral treatment.” Instead, she is asking us to consider what in-between place she is an indigene of, from what “cosmopolitan” city-state of the mind she has picked up all these intriguing elements. Those synthesized elements are capable of communicating broadly, in part because of connections they spark with people who recognize the individual elements, in part because her audience includes fellow in-betweeners who also live a synthetic existence. Indígena seems to ask the listener to consider how we all come to create our sense of belonging in this world when we’re made of so many fragments, disconnected from their original context.

Nexus entry.

Having felt myself invited, I journey. When listening to this album of León’s music, so many fragments and elements come to mind from the world of twentieth-century concert music. The second track, Parajota Delaté (1988), which means “For J[oan] from T[ania]” was written for the Da Capo Chamber Players, for which Joan Tower (b. 1938) was longtime pianist. The ensemble—flute, violin, clarinet, cello, piano—is of course the Pierrot ensemble, and the experience of listening to the piece for me was like listening to a telescoped version of Pierrot lunaire (1912), with textural, timbral, and rhythmic ideas pointing to specific songs in Schoenberg’s twenty-one-movement work. 51zrYS4zNmL._SX368_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe connection is suggested in part because of the episodic nature of Parajota Delaté: a gait is established, then arrested and joined to the next by an interlude, as often in Pierrot. I hear fleeting references to “Enthauptung,” “Serenade,” “O Alter Duft.” Is León suggesting some alternate reading of the Pierrot narrative or exploring the ensemble in a way that playfully interacts with one of the touchstone works of the twentieth century? According to Ellen K. Grolman’s Grove article on Joan Tower, the composer “sometimes offer[s] musical salutes in titles of her works” (e.g., Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, in response to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man), so there’s also a kind of echo in León pointing to Tower (and, more obliquely, to Schoenberg) through a work for her and her ensemble.

The only solo piano work on the album, Rituál (1987), seems to me to possess a sort of dance logic. The opening—sonorities built from accumulating ascending pitches—is like a body in a crouched position gradually opening up, gaining height and exploring space. A contrapuntal section with jazz-tinged harmonies gives way to a one that K. Robert Schwarz describes as having a “savage, brutal rhythmic power.” [6] That description of a solo piano work inevitably calls to mind Bartók’s Allegro barbaro (1911), though Bartók’s suite Out of Doors (1926) might be a more apt comparison. Then the next work on the album, León’s A la Par (1986), for piano and percussion, just as inevitably descends from Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937). Both A la Par and Bartók’s Sonata are in three movements, with a fast-slow-fast(er) design, and both find ample room for the atmospheric and the kinetic, though of course Bartók’s rhythmic drive draws from a different source. The two works inhabit different timbral universes, too, with Bartók’s score favoring timpani and “old-world” percussion and León’s highlighting “new-world” percussion (e.g., toms, marimba, vibraphone. . .bottles!)

The final work on the album, Batéy (1989), was written with “Dominican-born pianist and composer” Michel Camilo. MI0001119973.jpgIt’s a work of about twenty minutes for six amplified voices and percussion, on a text created by the collaborators in a mixture of Spanish, Yoruban, a Cuban dialect, “nonsense syllables,” and a little English. Sometimes it reminds me of Steve Reich’s Tehillim (1981), another work situated at the fruitful intersection of art music and a distinctive linguistic and spiritual heritage. In Batéy’s third movement, “Rezos” (“Prayers”), composed entirely by León, I hear a debt to Luciano Berio’s choral writing, particularly as found in “O King,” the second movement from Sinfonia (1969). The final word in “Rezos” is the English word “DREAM!” which references the famous speech by Martin Luther King. Why? A batéy is a slave village at a sugar plantation; the text of the piece fittingly centers on labor and oppression, on the one hand (and also weather, which perhaps signifies powerful forces beyond our control), and, on the other, the freedom achieved through ritual, community, and music. Perhaps this collection of ideas suggests parallels with the civil rights movement in the U. S., which in turn anticipates León’s current operatic project, Little Rock Nine.

Nexus exit.

Does all of this make León speak a language of “vernacular cosmopolitanism” as Marc Gidal proposes? I wonder if León would prefer to think of it in terms of inviting her listeners to hear as vernacular cosmopolitans.

[1] American Composers Orchestra, “Composer Portrait: Tania León,” August 2, 2007, accessed December 30, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpXH149-bBY.

[2] Tania León, Indígena, liner notes by K. Robert Schwarz, CRI eXchange 662, 1994, compact disc.

[3] Carmen Pelaez, “‘The Little Rock Nine’: Composer Tania León Hopes Opera Fosters Important Dialogue,” NBC News, September 25, 2017, accessed December 30, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/little-rock-nine-composer-tania-le-n-hopes-opera-fosters-n803931

[4] Marc Gidal, “Contemporary ‘Latin American’ Composers of Art Music in the United States: Cosmopolitans Navigating Multiculturalism and Universalism,” Latin American Music Review 31, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2010): 40-78.

[5] León, Indígena, 6.

[6] Ibid, 5.