Wednesday, March 22, 2017

An Open Letter to Groupmuse


Tomorrow, March 23rd at 8:00 pm, Tall Wind, the newest program by my chamber group Cursive, will see its one-night-only performance (deets in this link).  Cursive is a group dedicated to the ideals of this blog, shining a light on excellent classical music that has been swept under the rug by the establishment and history, though with a focus on music from the latter half of the 20th century.  This is our third program and features some of Seattle's best and most adventurous new music performers playing scarce works such as Tison Street's Variations for flute, cello and guitar and Chinary Ung's fabulous Tall Wind.  It's been a dream come true to be able to mount programs like this repeatedly and I hope all my musicians the best for tomorrow night.  I've been having a bit of trouble finding ways to use this blog to promote our cause, a risk that one takes when most of the programmed pieces lack recordings.  However, a situation presented itself just today which required my action and helped me expound on Cursive's cause.

Groupmuse is a community project that creates a framework for local chamber groups to do house concerts in any home in the greater Seattle area that signs up to host.  All the money gathered from seat sales goes to the musicians and hosts and audiences have an easy, safe way to get the chamber music experience in a comfortable and relaxed environment.  It's a great deal for everybody, especially the musicians, except for one caveat: at least half of the program has to be "standard rep".  Their reasoning (viewable here in their mission statement page) is that "standard rep" works have stood the test of time for their "substance and profundity", and that ensuring that some older works make it on to every concert keeps the artistic quality high.  For many soloists and groups they were going to perform a standard work anyways, so this isn't an issue, but for groups like mine, other modern groups and groups that just don't like having to make every program built around something you hear on the radio every day.  I've never considered submitting a Cursive program for their consideration because I know it'll be rejected solely based on the rep, but that doesn't mean that Groupmuse upholds this policy 100% of the time.  

The only Groupmuse performance I attended was one by Trio Pardalote wherein they performed Hans Krasa's Theme and Variations and Jean Cras's gorgeous String Trio, the latter being the reason I wanted to go.  Neither of these works is in the "standard rep" but both have what could be called cult followings.  It was a great concert but was a bit deceptive, as it gave me hope that I could make a program that was as "standard" as that and get it selected.  I made a piano recital program of British Impressionist works, pieces that were not only rarely heard but that general audiences would probably really like, and submitted it only to have it rejected multiple times.  One could argue that I'm not a big enough name to be selected, or that the videos I had of myself performing on my Groupmuse page weren't good enough, but what cheesed me off was how the rejection notice came with the suggestion that my program could have been rejected because it didn't have enough standard rep on it.

Today I got an email from Groupmuse with a link to a survey asking if we had any suggestions for changing the model.  One of the questions was if Groupmuse failed to meet any of its mission statements - my response (slightly reformatted and revised) is below, and I'd like to submit it as an open letter, not just to Groupmuse but to the music community at large.  The issues addressed here matter not just to Groupmuse but to the whole classical music industry, and I hope that it will help focus the reasons I run Cursive, and write this blog, for readers and colleagues.

An Open Letter to Groupmuse:

You asked me in your survey if there were any issues with your business model, such as if your concerts didn't meet the goals stated in your "Mission & Values" page on your website.  My main issue is with the insistence that at least half the music performed needs to be "standard rep" classics, a claim that wasn't necessarily upheld at the Groupmuse I attended.  I was at Trio Pardalote's recital where they performed the Jean Cras String Trio and the Hans Krasa Theme and Variations, both excellent pieces but neither or them "standard rep".  What is or isn't "standard rep" is subject to change, and they way that someone like myself who's well-versed in classical music and was at that last concert interprets this clause is that you're trying to make sure that at least half the program consists of work(s) old enough to have been written when the "standard rep" pieces were new(er) works.  

I fully understand why you'd want this, as works before modernism largely fit the popular image of what classical music is supposed to sound like and lack things that audiences new to modern music might find ugly or offensive, such as strange harmonies and rhythms or unpleasant thematic material.  The mission statement talks about supporting "substance and profundity", which is all well and good, but just because something was written before 1910 doesn't mean it has either of those qualities.  Plenty of vapid classical music has "stood the test of time" simply because general audiences like it, and the establishment knows this and programs those pieces anyway.  That isn't to say that more modern music can't be vapid - there have just been more composers making music with each passing year.  There will always be vapid music, profound music and stuff in between.  

What your policy does is keep groups from performing music that is possibly unpleasant, or is written by a composer whose name doesn't appear at least once during every orchestra season.  It ensures some kind of consistency in drawing an audience, as the general public hasn't been encouraged to venture any farther than that in the classical genre, but it does little to expand the possibilities of local classical performance or do justice to works that deserve play but aren't famous.  Classical performers and record labels have been doing a lot of work in the last few decades to unearth excellent works that have been forgotten by the public and classical establishment and give them a new lease on life; whole record labels and groups have been established solely for that purpose.  Doing this isn't just for the sake of the music but is also a good business strategy as per supply and demand - create demand for your product by supplying something that the public can't get anywhere else.  

This is why I came to the Trio Pardalote concert, because they were playing great works that nobody else in the area is performing.  There's so much great music out there that doesn't get performed frequently that every chamber group in the community could perform full seasons of extremely obscure music, with no overlap, and have enough left over to do the same for decades.  That doesn't mean they have any encouragement to do so or even scratch the surface of this hidden rep.  If you want to keep the music pleasant, or stylistically consistent with music more than 100 years old, that's fine, but you ought to change your "mission statement" to reflect what you're really going for.  On the other hand, if you're really looking for substance and profundity, you could aim for programming that kind of music while still leaving the door open to music that's new to audiences, both recently written and written long ago.  I was there with the audience of the Trio Pardalote concert, one that was both engaging and fulfilled the "substance and profundity" goal, and the audience loved it.  

There's so much out there that general audiences could appreciate if they were shown the way.  People need encouragement to explore the arts, both creators and consumers, and there's no reason Groupmuse can't be an open and supportive environment for exploration.  Your structure is fantastic - it's a great deal for the musicians and creates a framework for fun, relaxed concerts in otherwise unlikely venues.  Why not open the door to performers and audiences who want something more than what they hear every day on the radio, who want a concert-going experience that doesn't kowtow to what the establishment thinks is "standard", who want to make their own way through the vast and wonderful world that is classical music?

Sincerely,

Peter Nelson-King, founder of Cursive

Friday, December 30, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Pauline Oliveros


Do you Deep Listen?

I don't mean whether or not you listen deeply, but rather if you practice Deep Listening, an altogether more obscure and delicious type of listening.  Chances are you think that I'm foisting a Zen riddle or bad popsicle stick joke on you, but some of you will recognize that phrase as the calling card of one of the premiere ambient music groups in the US, one whose importance and recording sites were both very large indeed.  I'm referring, of course, to the Deep Listening Band, a group created by the great Pauline Oliveros, a singular figure in Classical music and beyond who kept on trucking to the very end.

Oliveros was able to surmount incredible odds to make a career in music, specifically being taught the accordion when she was a child*.  Once she reached college she bounced around a few institutions before settling in at San Francisco State College where she came under the tutelage of Robert Erickson, one of America's great compositional never-heard-a-'im's, and first met her longtime co-conspirator and co-genius Stuart Dempster, as well as the one and only Terry Riley.

You see, these were the Days of Wine and Hallucinogens, the heady and wacky era of New Music when the cultural revolution was seeping into academia, the era of John Cage's greatest influence, and Oliveros took to it all like a ring in a bell.  She was an original member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, an important early center for electronic music on the west coast, and became the director of it when it moved to Mills College on the Wrong Side of the Tracks**.  During this time she developed the Expanded Instrument System, an improvisational technique that combined live instrumental playing with electronics and sound processing environments, and would continue to refine and employ this system throughout her career, especially with the DLB.  She wised up after a while and moved back to California to teach at UC San Diego, in a department that Erickson co-founded, and eventually became the director of the university's Center for Music Experiment (sic).  However, she left that position, at the end a tenured one, in 1981 to move to upstate New York and become an independent musician and composer, a bold move that freed her creatively and allowed here to further immerse herself in nature, a foretelling move if there ever was one.

In 1988 (my birth date, by the way JEALOUS MUCH?!), she heard about the Fort Worden Cistern in Port Townsend, WA, a massive military well that had long ago been drained and was built to hold millions of gallons of water.  Joined by Dempster on trombone and the vocalist Panaiotis (check his Wikipedia page for pronunciation), Oliveros descended into the cistern to make an album-length improvisation that took advantage of the cistern's incredible 30-second echo.  The result was Deep Listening, the first album to capture what would become a band, institute and philosophy.  Deep Listening is a little hard to define (Oliveros wrote a book on it if you need a longform explanation) but Oliveros offered a single sentence version: "listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing".  It's essentially a way of creating an immersive soundspace ruled by sympathetic, resonant improvisation and geared at achieving higher sonic awareness, though that sentence in itself is a bit goofy.  However you want to define it the results with the Band are excellent, and the group has put out 15 albums as of this writing.  Their future is a bit uncertain with Oliveros's passing but the albums will continue to stand as a testament to the Band's magical creativity, and founding member Stuart Dempster is still alive and kicking.

Speaking of Dempster: his 80th birthday was back in July, and there was a concert/happening in his honor at the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Seattle.  I stopped in, as I had worked with Dempster years prior when he visited the University of Puget Sound, and I enjoyed every second of his birthday jam, a nearly 2-hour improvisation preceded by the audience humming outside and ended with Dempster himself (seated practically right next to me the whole night, unbeknownst to myself until he got up) leading a big group dance/conga line/whoopinanny.  Among the musicians were Seattle trombonist/Indian music specialist/goofball Greg Powers on flugelbone (a fascinating flugelhorn/trombone hybrid) and squeaking pig toy and the unearthly vocalist Ione, whose mouth improv must be seen to be believed.  Also present was Oliveros, who had quite the talent with a harmonica and looked happy to still be performing at her age.  I clandestinely made a nearly 20-minute video of part of the improvisation with my phone, so hopefully one day I'll upload the footage to YouTube and get sued by somebody, but rest assured that it was a warm and fuzzy 80th bash and I'm very happy I went.  I'm also very happy I was able to see Oliveros perform live before her passing, and I guess that what I saw was one of her last performances - and thankfully it was a great one.

There's a lot to the life and career of Pauline Oliveros, electronic and improvisation music iconoclast and overall musical legend, but I feel that nothing could be a better eulogy for her career than showing you guys some Deep Listening goodness.  Here's the original Deep Listening album in full, originally released in 1989 by New Albion and still in print as one of the coolest ambient music projects of all time.  Rest in peace, Pauline.


~PNK

*ZZZZZZIIIIIIINNNNNNNNGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG
**ADOUBLEZINGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG

Thursday, December 29, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Gregg Smith


As this past month has had me checking the "recent death" pages of many a site each and every day I've been antsy about making sure I don't miss anybody notable or "men of my own heart" as it were.  Wikipedia's list was pretty eye-opening (Steven Stucky was totally left out of national news, for one) and helped me remember a few figures who I'd mourned in previous months but had since slipped my mind.  A few people are bound to slip through the cracks regardless of my vigilance, however, and Gregg Smith was nearly one of them, largely because even the majority of people who knew of him didn't know he was a composer.  Gregg Smith was, and should remain, best known as the founder and leader of the Gregg Smith Singers, one of the most revered choirs in America for their pioneering work in championing new music and historically valuable American music.  Equally at home recording William Billings and Elliott Carter, the Singers have had a career spanning more than 60 years and over 130 albums, making them one of the most prolific recording choirs of all time.  I could go on for ages about the Singers' accomplishments, including showcasing this Christmas Carol album -


- or their recent recording of Stravinsky's "notorious" arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner -


- but Smith's composing career is why we're really here, though my review of it will have to be brief.  Smith's own compositions were almost exclusively choral works, covering a wide swath of poetic sources and shaking up the traditional choir "sound" with some instrumental variety.  Almost none of it was recorded, or at the very least searching for it has been something of a challenge, but there is one work that I'd like to spotlight here, and that's the only one that showed up, without any direct involvement by Smith, on a new music compilation completely devoid of choral music.


Steps, a setting for voice and guitar of a poem by Frank O'Hara, New York experimental writer and Harvard roommate of Edward Gorey, might not be enough to be representative of Smith's compositional "voice" but is certainly a bubbly and engaging work that adds a fresh perspective to the voice and guitar rep.  This 1975 piece may have been inspired by the 1972 National Book Award co-win of The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, the first of several posthumous collections of O'Hara's work, but might also have been simply because the text is pretty boss.  O'Hara's poetry stretched the boundaries of form and content, featuring everything from snippets of diary entries to telephone conversations, and were primarily autobiographical, and reviewing the lyrics to this piece (viewable by opening the performance video in a separate window and looking at the description) make me want to have met him, badly.  The writing here for the voice and guitar is showy and full of wild climaxes, following the ditzy, yet highly observant and sometimes grim, nature of the text.  Surprisingly for someone primarily devoted to vocal composition, Smith's guitar writing is quite sophisticated and untroubled, though I'm not sure if he worked with a player or learned all by himself.  The piece has never been published, the only copy I know of donated as a gift by Smith to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but it was recorded by none other than David Starobin, America's premier new music guitarist.


That previous recording was done at the SFCM, so it sadly looks like Smith's best shot at a "hit" isn't getting the repeat performances it deserves.  That doesn't mean we all have to sit on our hands, though, so perhaps you guys know some guitarists, some guitarists who wouldn't mind playing from a manuscript gotten from the archives of a school in the worst housing market in the States, someone who knows a singer with a taste for satirical theatrics.  The Singers wouldn't be afraid to play it, so why should we?

Rest in peace, Gregg.

~PNK

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Pierre Boulez


Earlier this year I used this same image in an article about a piece that the pictured composer, Pierre Boulez, had withdrawn from his catalog, the infuriatingly enticing Trois Psalmodies for piano.  It's the most happy, inviting one I could find of him, and while I've been making an effort to get flattering, sunny photos of the people I've talked about for these In Memoriam articles there's an added pressure with Boulez, partially because that for a lot of people, including a part of me, Boulez was the troll under modern music's bridge.  For decades there was no way to experience the cutting edge of Avant-Garde classical music without running across his name or his works, and the latter's reputation was primarily painted with the brush of his Piano Sonata no. 2, an especially brutal work that has gained quite a status since its authorship in the 1950's.  While I personally favor that work over Jean Barraqué's Piano Sonata, as forbidding an "opus one" work as there ever was, I'll probably never see eye to eye with Boulez's oeuvre or ideals.  Sticking to music that doesn't kowtow to popular tastes or Classical music's "relaxing" market niche does make him quite admirable, but it's mostly just not music I can use - and I say that as a man who has spent this entire blog championing works by artists whom the general public found no use for.  For this memorial article, however, I'll talk about a work that is the most appropriate musical eulogy for Boulez, and some of you may have heard a different version of it without even realizing it.


The Memoriale is one of the several versions of ...explosante-fixe..., originally written for flute, clarinet and trumpet in the early 1970's as a eulogy for Igor Stravinsky*.  I may have mentioned in my last Boulez article that he kept revising and recycling this piece for decades, culminating in a work for flute, midi and orchestra, and that I personally heard Gunther Schuller express disdain at the fact that Boulez was allowed to publish all the revisions as separate pieces and collect royalties for all of them.  I'd argue that they're all fairly different from one another (and Stravinsky himself constantly revised and rearranged his own works and nobody complains about that, now do they?!), and my favorite one is the one here, scored for flute, two horns and string sextet.  Another composer I personally met, Daron Hagen, claimed that he preferred Boulez works where he "was trying to be Debussy, and not playing mind games with himself (*motions with hands*)", and I can't think of a more Debussy-esque piece of his than this.  The Memoriale is lush, a bit capricious and enchanting to a "t", several spins of a kaleidoscope with core material diced up in the lens.  The younger Stravinsky would certainly have approved, as the softly jutting flute line and cushioning, sympathetic strings would be right at home in the Firebird, itself heavily indebted to the harmonic doors that Debussy opened for the world.  There's also an indebtedness Memoriale has to Debussy directly, as his Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune, allowing a flute solo to dictate rises and falls and cycle back to the same phrases over and over.  It's a lovely rest-stop for Boulez's career of making works to stand one's skin on end.  And luckily for you guys somebody uploaded a score/recording combo video so you can see Boulez's subtly ingenious orchestrations at work.



Rest in peace, Pierre.

~PNK

*Fun fact: the premiere of The Rite of Spring is closer to Beethoven's time than ours.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Steven Stucky


As I mentioned in my peek at Roland Dyens's Songe Capricorne, Re-Composing is spending the rest of this month paying tribute to the composers we lost in 2016, many of whom were major figures and at least a couple who were living legends.  Back in February we lost a man who gained as much acclaim and credibility as an American composer can without actually becoming necessarily famous, Steven Stucky (1949-2016).  Stucky is a composer that I had never heard of before college and have since strangely forgotten to really investigate, even though I've heard a number of his works and I ran across his scholarship when reading about Witold Lutoslawski, one of my favorite composers and one upon which Stucky was an expert.  He's even unfamous for a Pulitzer Prize winner, snagging it for his Second Concerto for Orchestra, an unusual winning work in that it still hasn't been recorded in the 13 years since its composition.  As I'm writing this I'm admiring one of his later works, a Symphony from 2012 that sounds like it's right up Ludovic Morlot's alley (*HINT SSO PROGRAMMERS*):


Perhaps he needed to attach himself to a movement or school of thought to be recognized, like post-minimalism or post-modernism or post-postism.  The education system in this country, as well as the general public, prefer to think of artists in broad, historically categorizable terms related to technique, oftentimes smudging or ignoring their actual modi operandi in the process.  You'd think that performers and other composers would be the experts on different the different "camps", and they usually are considering their first-hand knowledge of the techniques and aesthetics involved, but the more you understand an artist the more you see them as an individual and want to promote them on their own terms, rather than as a package deal with several other artists whom they might not agree with or even think are worth giving the time of day to.  A number of mediocre talents have sustained careers through sticking with the categories, while more individual composer have to work at it a bit.  That isn't to say that Stucky was eccentric (which would have won him those kind of fans (the best kind:))) - his music had an untroubled, "normal" brilliance, if that makes any sense, and he allowed himself to change with inspiration and simply do good work, which is kind of the only thing we can ask of composers.

While my own investigation of his work will take a bit of time I can freely speak on what has the potential to be his best-known work, one that I performed in my time at UPS with the Wind Ensemble: the Funeral Music for Queen Mary, a model work of Everything-Old-Is-New-Again-ism.  Ya see, there was a wave of composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who went about "recomposing"* works from the Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical periods, such as Grieg with his suite From Holberg's Time to Stravinsky's Pulcinella and Respighi's Gli Uccelli and Ancient Airs and Dances.  This practice continued sporadically through the century until gaining a resurgence after the 1970's when postmodernism became the mot juste du jour.  These kinds of works have gone from being fashionable to being nearly inevitable in any given orchestral season, but no matter how many homages/riffs/caricatures we see of older works I'll still remember Stucky's Funeral Music for Queen Mary as being one of the best.


Purcell's stately funeral march, composed in 1694 for the funeral of Queen Mary, has persisted through the centuries as one of the most loved English Baroque works, though it's probably best known these days in its "switched on" form that Wendy Carlos made for A Clockwork Orange.  Stucky's recomposition for wind ensemble does more than beef up the orchestration and throw in a modern harmony or two, instead weaving together three different Purcell pieces from the same funeral service through diffusion and dark psychological episodes.  Each work is presented clearly but then superimposed and whorled, sometimes as rubbing a pencil line into a cloud and other times as an overwhelming anarchy of mourning.  Stucky's orchestrations are ingenious, showing deft coloring choices and expert balancing, delivered with perfect pacing - all skills he was able to hone through his study of Lutoslawski's works, some of the most finely orchestrated and paced works of the mid-century Avant-Garde scene.  It's stirring and unsettling, satisfying and haunting all at once and I'm very glad I was given the chance to perform it with an excellent group.  I may return to Stucky's music in a later article but for now this will more than suffice as an introduction and fond farewell.  Rest in peace, Steven.

~PNK

*Blog title drop! (finally)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Roland Dyens


..............................................

(long sigh)

.............................................

OK, the bright side of life first.  I'll take a selfish attitude to start so I can insist that, yes, some good things happened this year (though if I were a Cubs fan like certain best friends of mine I'd count the ultimate "Hell Freezing Over" sports event of the year as a good thing).  I was able to get a full-time job through a 20-minute interview, the shortest I'll probably ever get in my life, and it's worked out for nearly 3 months now.  I still have both my spleens, and...wait...  My chamber group Cursive played two excellent, challenging programs this year and are in preparations for a third, the cherry on top being that the musicians involved actually appreciate being in the group and the work that we're doing.  I secured future housing with an amazing deal, I don't have any terminal illnesses, and I'm not in crippling debt due to student loans, loansharks or my own multitudinous sins.  However, all of us, and I mean everybody who can stand to speak to me without projectile vomiting, can agree that this year sucked supreme shit of every type, shape and species of origin imaginable.  Full-stop, cheek-bulging shit-sucking.  Let me sum it up with much funnier writing than my own:


Let me say this as clearly as I can: there's nothing America did worse this year (that I know of) than electing Trump president.  Nothing.  I just heard about how bird flu is ripping through South Korea without proper government acknowledgement or action and every chicken in a meat/egg plant has been ordered to be killed, and Trump's 99.99999% potential presidency is still worse.  What the fuck.  I'd break my legs in protest but that would only prevent me from sprinting to Canada until my lungs explode.  Fuck Trump, fuck this country, fuck the media and fuck humans in general.  Fuckity fucker fuckfuckfuckeatmyanuswithshitsauceandbastardinteriorfuckfuckfuckfuckdonkeyanus.  And while there have been big wallops of despair like that we've had to endure an obscene number of small wallops (smallops?) of despair in the form of celebrity deaths, including the one-two punch of pop-music legends David Bowie and Prince.  I mean, for fuck's sake.  The big'un's, of course, dominated social media and the news when their deaths were announced, but dozens of little guys went largely or totally unnoticed, leaving people like me with the sad responsibility of checking Wikipedia's deaths page every day to make sure I don't miss anything.  I didn't get into this habit until late this year and most likely wouldn't have bothered if it weren't for the sheer volume of these kinds of deaths, and in doing so I found that a number of classical composers near and dear to my heart left us this year, some of them too young to go and a lot of them well-established and even legendary figures.  Normally I'd spend December covering Christmas music (and I might squeeze in a few nods before the month is out) but I've decided that for this year-end I'll talk about my favorite composers that passed away this year, because, sadly, hardly anybody else has bothered to.

When I was in Middle School I went to my first classical guitar recitals, perhaps not so surprising as classical guitar recitals aren't something that parents think to take children to as primary cultural education.  It was at a Unitarian Universalist church in Kirkland, WA, and the soloist was Michael Partington, arguably the Pacific Northwest's best-kept classical music secret.  Partington is a wonderful guitarist whose talent and heart seem larger than this area, making many of us wonder how he hasn't been snatched up by a label or lured to the Northeast or LA by all those that "success" and "money" nonsense we all claim to be above but secretly all want.  We'll treasure him while he's still around, and his recital made a fine impression on me at the time, so much so that I bought one of his CD's.  The woman selling the discs claimed the one I ended up buying had "fireworks" on it, and though I can't tell if I heard the same fireworks it succeeded in shaping my impressions of what good classical guitar music should be, featuring classics like Lennox Berkeley's Sonatina and Richard Rodney Bennett's Impromptus as well as lesser-known stuff like a pair of etudes by Seattle native Tom Baker.  You can get the CD here and it's worth the money, and among the better pieces on the disc is a work by Roland Dyens, a Tunisian-born French guitarist-composer who passed away this year two days before Halloween.





I'll admit that I haven't heard much of Dyens's music, not just because of the dumb luck that I never got around to it but also that classical guitar rep doesn't get much discussion music world, aside from with guitarists, of course.  The instrument's modest volume and the overwhelming influence of Spanish national music on the rep has kept most "serious" composers away, even though a number of big-time composers, including the likes of Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, have written major works in the field, and I consider at least one pair of works, Maurice Ohana's two large cycles for the 10-string guitar, to be considerable contributions to modern music in general.  Much like the Cuban giant Leo Brouwer, Dyens promoted his compositions through his own performance, such as here with his best known piece, Tango en Skai:


Songe Capricorne ("Dream of Capricorn") doesn't have the same crowd-pleasing flair that the Tango does but it's a work very near and dear to my heart - not only did I hear it at the right place and the right time but it further proves that composers can be technically inventive and still hushed and soulful.  Dyens's music largely had an air of improvisation and Songe is no exception, shifting moods with emotive grace and allowing for much wiggle room for the performer.  The piece shows the truly comprehensive knowledge of the instrument that Dyens had, utilizing chordal counterpoint as well as rushing 16ths, the rich tenor of the guitar's main voice as well as advanced harmonics.  While the whole piece is excellent a particularly striking section is the opening to the "bridge" of the piece, with hard harmonics cutting into a string of 16th's at uneven rhythms.  All of the fine details, such as the final chords which are explicitly marked to be unstrummed, are in service of a great dramatic sensibility, helping the piece create a portrait of enormous yearning in a vast landscape.  It's a piece that has the ability to outlast its creator, and hopefully we can help it last longer than we can even dream of.  Rest in peace, Roland.


~PNK

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Halloween Classics - Baba Yaga in music


NOTE: This article features music tracks auto-generated by YouTube which might not be viewable outside of the U.S.A.

Anybody can make up monsters, but the ones that stick in the culture, folklore in the past and now most commonly in specific media, usually strike a chord deep within the human consciousness.  If people learned anything from pop psychology in the 70's it was that folklore persists because of psychological and emotional parallels between folklore and human needs and anxieties - "Little Red Riding Hood" can be interpreted as a warning for girls to stay away from predatory men, to quote a famous extrapolation by the likes Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment, the parent text to most theories of this sort, and Angela Carter's story "The Company of Wolves" from her collection The Bloody Chamber.  The latter was adapted into a rapturously insane film by Neil Jordan (co-writing the screenplay alongside Carter herself), a good sign that there's a great deal of appeal in this most haunting version of the story.  In some ways these connections we create with fiction and (supposed) fact are obvious if one is able to slip into the mindset of those who can't speak directly of what lies beneath the surface of life.  However, some folk tales are so vivid, so creative and so off-the-wall that they defy easy explanation, owing more to pure art than subconscious messages, and that's where Baba Yaga sprints in on giant chicken legs.

Arguably the most famous of all Slavic folk characters, Baba Yaga, and her hut, stand tall as crowning achievements of weird storytelling.  Depicted by herself or as one of three identically-named sisters, Baba Yaga has many characteristics of a classic witch - she's an old woman with an iron will and magical powers, powers which she often uses to evil and destructive ends.  However, the tools she uses to wield those powers are unique - a mortar and pestle used to fly around, and a hut that stands on huge chicken legs - and her tales often let her help those in need.  Her first known appearance on record even noted her uniqueness in the Slavic pantheon, equating many of the other gods to the Roman pantheon but recognizing her singular existence in the culture.  Another interesting ability is the occasional skill of sniffing out the "Russianness" of people who visit her, much like the scent of the blood of an Englishman if you ask me.  Her domain is the depths of the forest, and if I had to paint her in symbolic terms I'd burrow into that woodsy connection pretty deep.  Forests have long been sources of conflicting experience for humankind, teeming with life and potential food and safety but forbidding in their density and lurking dangers; Baba Yaga's personality, alternately helpful and wrathful, fits with this pretty snugly.  The good news is that you don't have to take just my word for it, as there are a ton of adaptations and portraits of the Grand Crone to choose from, a heap of which we're talking about today.

Late Romantic and early modern Russian composers were many things, firstly excellent, but also way into capturing the Russian identity in their music, both abstractly and programmatically.  The latter method brought a heck of a lot of identity into musical form, from the landscape (such as Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia) and climate (such as Tchaikovsky's The Seasons) to stories both literary (such as Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, based on Pushkin's play) and folkloric.  Folkloric adaptations, especially fantastical ones, were quite popular in la Belle Époque all over Europe, spurred by increasing urbanizing and distance from peasant innocence, but many Russian composers of the day made them their specialty.  Rimsky-Korsakov's most famous pieces are in this vein, such as his "orientalist" pieces like Sheherazade, and his acolyte Anatoly Lyadov crafted The Enchanted Lake, one of his most celebrated pieces, in this vein.  And wouldn't you know it, both of these guys tipped their hats to ol' Babby Yags.


Lyadov's other most celebrated orchestral miniature is his sinister scherzo Baba Yaga, op. 56, as good a model for 19th century witchy writing you'll see outside of Berlioz.  Actually, not so far outside, as many of the tricks employed show up in that witch's sabbath at the end of Symphonie Fantastique, such as a jerkily jaunty compound meter, loud full-orchestra stings and chromatic skittering.  There's also a lot of Wagner in the language, such as the dated, yet classic, use of chromatic downward planing ripped right out of the ride of the Valkyries.  Dating from 1905, Lyadov's piece is a bit, I dunno, passe (?) for the time, its tricks a little played out and familiar.  As much as I appreciate Lyadov's piano music not everything he wrote was indispensable, though this is an easy and welcomed addition to any Halloween concert.


There are similar techniques at play in a considerably older piece yet in some ways more memorable piece, written in 1862 by one of the lost-and-found fathers of Russian classical music, Alexander Dargomyzhsky.  Dargomyzhsky is almost totally unknown to mainstream Classical music fans, never achieving much success in his home country or abroad during his lifetime, but his opera The Stone Guest was highly regarded by the Mighty Handful and was considered the gap between the work of Glinka, the earliest Russian composer of international note and one who set the stage for all those who came after, and the Handful themselves.  None of his pieces have entered the standard repertoire since his death but I certainly hadn't heard of Baba Yaga, Fantasy-Scherzo before researching for this article, and chances are I'd have gone my whole life without hearing it.  The latter half of the piece is definitely witchy enough, starting off on another jabbing bassoon solo, but the mood before it is much more staid, even tragic, and the use of more conventional minor and major chords rather than a smorgasbord of diminished schmears lends the piece an air of dignity unseen in many horror-themed works.  Biographical info on Dargomyzhsky in English is scanty, at least over the internet, but part of me would like to think that he took the inherent ambiguity of Baba Yaga's appearances in folklore to heart.  It's hard not to be fascinated by a villain with more human qualities than not, and of all the Baba Yaga settings it's the one that seems the most like a portrait of a person rather than a Satanic imp.



Originally I was going to discuss Rimsky-Korsakov's 1880 Fairy Tale, op. 29 here as another Baba Yaga setting, having been brought to it as per IMSLP's subtitle for it on the work's page there.  Upon listening to it, though, it seemed a lot less sinister than I was expecting.  Then I took a look at the description of the recording I had found and saw that it was based on Pushkin's prologue to his poem "Ruslan and Ludmila", based on a corresponding folktale.  "Ruslan and Ludmila" is a wild and fantastic tale of similar vintage and flavor as Baba Yaga, and also features her signature hut on chicken legs, and it was this connective tissue, as well as Pushkin's other allusive indications, that inspired the Fairy Tale, or Skazka.  The skazka, translated alternately as "fairy tale", "folk tale" and just "tale", became a quite popular miniature piano form among Russian composers in the decades following this one; Nikolay Medtner wrote so many of them he was practically hip-deep in them by the end of his life.  Whereas the piano skazki were short, dramatic works similar in feel to the ballade or legend, Rimsky-Korsakov's use of the title is of course more literal and much more extensive.  Clocking in at three times Lyadov's Baba Yaga, the piece eschews curtain raising in favor of creating a diffuse atmosphere of magic and mystery, maintaining the fine sense of thematic architecture shared by Sheherazade and others but removing the need to trundle the audience along on storytelling rails.  There's a lot to like here, especially the orchestration; Rimsky-Korsakov was the great creative master of his scene in that regard, and not only are his ideas masterful they are also brilliantly balanced and paced, never blowing out the speakers and perfectly matching the sense of wonder and unease he was trying to create.  It's not exactly Halloween, per se, but it is fantasy and went over well with audiences at the time, though I can see why it's not one of his more popular works - 15 minutes is kind of long for what feels more like an interlude rather than a main piece.  Still, I'm glad I got to hear it and the relationship it has with Baba Yaga is quite intriguing.

However, there's one piece that you're all waiting for, one that will define Baba Yaga for all time.  You know, that one that was written by a Mighty guy and later orchestrated by a master Impressionist and was inspired by a painting of a clock?  Yeah, that one.


This one is now and forever the most famous Baba Yaga piece out there.  "The Hut on Fowl's Legs" is the 9th movement of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, a piano suite based on paintings by artist and architect Viktor Hartmann created during his travels.  The Baba Yaga painting used as a reference for this movement wasn't of Ms. Yaga herself but rather was of a clock modeled after her hut:


That's a pretty boss clock and this is a pretty boss piece.  While the other pieces might have depicted the hut standing or stalking, this one has it running at full speed, or Babs Yags flying in her mortar depending on who you ask.  Mussorgsky had a knack for depicting energy and savagery in his music and here the language is at once terrifying and cathartic, each percussive slam matched with a surprisingly satisfying harmonic shift or fresh motive.  Pictures was highly regarded by the Impressionists among Mussorgsky's other works for its progressive language, and some people argued that Mussorgsky's unique voice was due more to a lack of formal education than creative will.  Whether that's true or not is not for me to make the final call on, but what I can make the final call on is its balderdashedness in terms of modern relevance or intrinsic value.  I've performed this piece before and as exciting and fulfilling as it is to perform the whole work this one is probably the most entertaining from the musician's point of view, and in a normal article this would be the rousing closer.  And it is - if you don't like piano music.



It could be argued that there was no ballet company more singularly important to musical and theatrical history than the Ballet Russes under the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, a company that mounted the revolutionary first productions of Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune and Stravinsky's Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.  Even though it's impossible to objectively prove it, no other company has been more talked about and lauded, from the mindblowing choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky to the sheer number of bleeding edge composers whose music was mounted.  Another seminal name is brought up in more academic circles and isn't nearly as famous as Nijinsky's, the set designer Alexandre Benois, and any time we can talk about Benois is a good time.  Educated in Paris, the Russian Benois returned to Moscow and founded the periodical World of Art which did much to promote Aestheticism and art nouveau in Russia.  He moved back to Paris in 1905 and spent most of his time as a set designer, principally with the Ballet Russes, and his designs for their productions of Les Sylphides, Giselle and Petrushka are all considered masterpieces in the field, the last one of which has been revived multiple times to great success.  He also served as the curator of the Hermitage Museum in the first decade following the October Revolution where he did much to preserve Russian art history.  Before all that revolution and ballet stuff, however, he produced one of his most beloved works, The Alphabet in Pictures, a picture book of the Russian alphabet for children.  Each letter is assigned with a colorful subject, many having a specifically Russian cultural reference, and the results are simply stunning.  Original copies of it fetch up to $10,000 in auctions and I can't say that I disagree.  In 1910, Nikolay Tcherepnin, the first in one of the most successful compositional dynasties in Russian music, composed a piano suite based on 14 of the 36 represented letters (the alphabet was reduced to 33 in 1918), and a recent recording by David Witten brought it to my light as well as the world's - and wouldn't you guess who flew in with a mortar and pestle.







It's debatable whether or not this is more experimental than Mussorgsky's Baba Yaga (though the fact that Mussorgsky's piece was written decades earlier most likely answers that question immediately) but it can be said that Tcherepnin's Baba Yaga is easily the funniest.  The tinkling arpeggios plopping on augmented chords is more akin to the improvisatory caprice of Debussy's "Le poisson d'or" from his second book of Images, and the cute ppp ending chord is equally spritely.  However, most of the piece is a black gallop, that offset bass pattern bumpity-bumping chromatically contracting and expanding chords in the right hand.  The tunes might not be as iconic as Mussorgsky's but Tcherepnin more than makes up for that with his expert piano writing, as detailed and subtle as anything of his day, and believe me that there was a heck of a lot of competition.  And why can't there be room for a funny-scary Baba Yaga?  The set came from a kid's picture book and the tone is properly accessible throughout the suite, so a witch that's a bit humorous is exactly the kind of thing kids love at Halloween.  It'd make a fine encore as well, totaling a mere 1'20'' for a witchy bolt off stage*.  It can't really be the encore for this article, though, as I've spent the most amount of time talking about it of all the pieces and even included the sheet music for the benefit of busy work scrolling - perhaps I'm trying to tell you that there's a certain Russian composer that we'll be talking about next week, one whose name rhymes with "pickle-eye"...**


~PNK

*Somebody needs to get on a Baba Yaga hut costume right pronto.

**Hey, more costume ideas!