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.