Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Visual Music - Labyrinth by Edwin Roxburgh

There's a bunch of pianist-composers, guitarist-composers and conductor-composers, but I can't say I've heard of too many oboist-composers (except for Heinz Holliger, of course).  A student of Herbert Howells, Edwin Roxburgh (b. 1937) is one of those blessed contemporary composers who maintains an impressionistic sense of enchantment in his work.  There's some classic titles in there like Stardrift, Le Miroirs de Miró and Moonscape, the latter of which actually has two separate performances on YouTube - that's quite a compliment for a living composer, as most of them can only muster one for any given piece, if any at all.

Perhaps Moonscape's relative popularity is its flatter learning curve than some other contemporary piano works, such as Roxburgh's Labyrinth.  It was written to close out a performance of the first book of Debussy's Preludes on a piano with a nine-note bass extension to a super-low C, and though I haven't heard the piece played on that kind of piano I can guess it'd be swell, considering those notes are too low for people to recognize their pitches.  The recording I heard was pretty good despite the lack of low notes, and the piece itself is crashing, horrific and really, really cool.  It's the kind of ultra-dramatic color showcase that could inspire young people to the piano.  Roxburgh's publisher, United Music Publishers (UMP), is largely minimalist with their covers, so I was delightfully surprised when I saw this:

(Sorry about the stickers)

This is what happens when you make the cover artist write the title with a crayon taped to the end of a six-foot pole while blindfolded.  It's entirely appropriate, and evokes that feeling when you're in a labyrinth and you come across a foreboding warning written by somebody once lost in its walls, taken by the Minotaur*.  The cramped framing and small print below do wonders to make the word and the concept overpower the viewer, like it'll burst from the paper at any second and consume them.  There's also a distinct lack of curves, inferring a name more forced than graced.  I don't know who the artist is on this one (a sad pattern that will emerge as this series continues), but whoever he is I salute him as a scholar of the creepy.  If you want to hear the main show, here's a CD with it:



*Just like any other Wednesday.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Gentle Death of Lilacs - Rare Gems from the Cos Cob Song Volume


I've referenced before my adoration for the early years of American modernism, but there's still much more to show and soak in.  It's easy to see that modernism in American music didn't really get started until the mid-20's, far behind Europe and with little good reason.  That ungood reason is simple - American publishing houses had no interest in modernism.  The biggest force for publishing new music in the late 10's and early 20's was the Society for the Publication of American Music, and their output may have worked in the American musical climate then but now seems embarrassingly stodgy.  While a few odd ducks escaped (such as Carl Ruggles's Toys, by far the strangest, most haunting piece published by church and organ music publisher H. W. Gray), young composers had no real haven for their larger modernist works.  However, 1929 delivered in two capacities: Henry Cowell's seminal journal New Music Quarterly, and Cos Cob Press, Inc.  While the former has been immortalized as the most important advocate for new music in America's modernist development, Cos Cob has largely evaded the public eye, partially for its short life span but also the lack of frequently-performed works in its catalog.

Founded and partially funded by Alma Morgenthau Wertheim, Cos Cob Press was largely begun to publish works by the Young Composers Group, containing such future luminaries as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Elie Siegmeister and Roger Sessions.  Before you assume the Cos Cob catalog was all polychords and populism, let me just say that in these early years the Coplands of the country were just getting their bearings and wrote in very different idioms than the language of Appalachian Spring (in many ways more personal and rewarding idioms).  Taking its name from the famous Impressionist art colony, the six years of Cos Cob's existence (before it was absorbed by the equally important Arrow Music Press, which was absorbed by the bastardly Boosey & Hawkes**) allowed a number of beautiful and varied works to see well-engraved*** print.  It's brief run makes it a time capsule of a wonderfully free-form time when modern music could have gone in any direction, and in its way fulfills the American dream of rugged individualism like no other publisher before or since.  As the face of modern music became less intimate and more soaring and mechanistic, the link to an Impressionist movement seems all the more poignant.  Though I can't go into much more detail here, the musicologist Carol Oja wrote an excellent article on Cos Cob for the journal Notes that can be found here.

In 1935, Aaron Copland rounded up a pile of song by his friends and published them in the Cos Cob Song Volume, one of the most important anthologies in American music history.  The songs are a snapshot of one of the most fertile modernist collectives of the time, including Copland, Sessions, Charles Ives, Virgil Thomson and Paul Bowles.  In addition to people you may have actually heard of, the collection included a few songs by figures who either never gained due respect for their work or dropped off the map entirely.  In late 2012 I gave a recital called American Diary, showcasing an hour of America's best unheard prosody and featuring several songs from the Volume.  Three songs in particular caught my adoration, and I made YouTube recordings of them after the recital in order to further emphasize their value.  I've tagged this article as a One-Off because the songs, all of which I'm featuring here, are the bulk of the published output of their respective composers, and two of them make up a whole 50% of their oeuvres.  And each composer is as elusive as they are in desperate need of a revival.

(Click each for larger view)

Arguably the most mysterious of the three, Irwin Heilner (1908-1991) was an island unto himself.  His style has little in common with his contemporaries and he had few champions in his time, though you couldn't get a much better advocate than the conductor William Strickland.  Only one piece of his, Chinese Songs for voice and orchestra, ever got a commercial recording (a service done by Strickland), and The Tide Rises is the only piece of his to get published for wide release.  It's one of the darkest, most foreboding art songs I've ever seen, taking a Longfellow poem to its most extreme capacity for horror.  Heilner's language often employs collaged modes, but in the climax breaks out into free dissonance, resisting analysis at every turn.  The grave, hushed vocals only add to the sense of a coming storm just outside the concert hall.  It begs for further investigation, not only of Heilner's oeuvre but of the song's hidden depths, the latter of which I'll let you infer.


(Click each for larger view)

Israel Citkowitz (1909-1974) was a close friend of Copland's since his teenage years, and his current obscurity can mostly be attributed to his extreme perfectionism.  Aside from Gentle Lady, the excellent Five Songs, settings of James Joyce's Chamber Music, is the only piece Citkowitz let escape; he destroyed nearly everything else he wrote.  That piece of information is decidedly un-public, as I heard that from Rodney Lister, a good friend and pupil of Virgil Thomson.  While the Five Joyce songs are written in a spare and luminous modal language reminiscent of Ned Rorem, Gentle Lady takes a turn for the ambiguous.  Composed mainly of a snaking, atonal treble melody, the song is the antithesis of pianistic prosody, keeping the proceedings oddly dry.  It's more suited for winds and strings, and I actually made a transcription for voice, flute, two cellos and contrabass - I may prefer it in that setting, but Citkowitz is the boss.  Much like TideLady's inspiration stems from a funereal place, but is much more distant from tangibility, requiring utmost sensitivity from the performers.  Hopefully I didn't make too much of a hash of it.


(Click each for larger view)

My favorite song of the whole collection, Lilac-Time is one of only two published pieces by Alexander Lipsky (1900-1985), an influential pianist whose legacy is mostly comprised of a series of Bach editions for Kalmus.  I have no idea how much more music he wrote, because I haven't been able to track down a single score beyond the two that were published, and I don't know anybody who knows where his manuscripts are.  It's a crying shame, because Lilac-Time, as well as the ridiculously scarce**** Four Sketches for piano, are fantastic, illustrating a rich and deeply creative musical mind.  Both pieces are reminiscent of the Ultra-Modernists such as Ruth Crawford, Ruggles and Charles Seeger, but their writing is so emotionally resonant they make a case for standing on their own as American classics.  Counterpoint is the name of Lilac-Time's game, and you probably never thought clashing minor seconds could be so beautiful.  The subject matter is once again death-centric, and in contrast to Heilner's doom and gloom Lilac-Time is haunting and unbelievably yearning.  The poem is beautiful enough as it is, but Lipsky's enriches the words and makes the listener's neck arch in dream-like ecstasy.  I have no idea why nothing else of Lipsky's has surfaced, and the lack of a professional recording for Lilac-Time is a travesty.  There is a recording of the Four Sketches but it's acutely rare, so I may be forced to make my own in the future.  For now, here's Lilac-Time:

Cos Cob's catalog stands as a testament to the fecundity and liberation of early American modernism, and the Song Volume is the cornerstone of the firm and the early years of the Young Composers Group.  If you're interested in the rest of the songs, a few more were recorded very well on the album But Yesterday is Not Today: The American Art Song 1927-1972.  The three composers featured here need to be heard, and my efforts are not enough.  Even if we don't have the time or energy to single-handedly revive them, let's at least celebrate them in the spirit of rugged individualism.  It's music like this that makes me proud to be an American*****.


*I've counted this article as a Visual Music post because of Cos Cob's cover design.  Unfortunately I don't have a color scan of their stuff, but the B & W version sums it up nicely.  I just adore that big note - pure Art Deco.  The font is spare but bold, meshing perfectly with the geometry and space of the Bunyan-sized engraving.  Once again, good design was thwarted by the end of the Deco movement.

**Boosey & Hawkes is best summed up by my former orchestra conductor Christophe Chagnard: "Boosey & Hawkes are a bunch of gangsters whose only purpose in life is to screw poor musicians out of their money."  Now that they've been absorbed by Hal Leonard, all is lost.

***Their output was engraved by the same engraving house that Universal Edition used in the 20's, giving the Cos Cob scores a very recognizable and cozy feel.

****Let me know if you want the score and I'll send you my PDF scan.  Trust me, you need it.

*****I hope this article can stand as a piece of contemporary patriotism that isn't completely stupid and embarrassing.  The loudest and proudest of today tend to be horrible people, so maybe we can return intellectualism to Americana - it needs a bit of help.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Visual Music - Trains by Roy Agnew

In my article on Roy Agnew I was forced by YouTube's wheel of fate to showcase the slower side of Agnew's oeuvre, and so I was delighted to discover that one of Agnew's most driving pieces has one of his best covers:

There weren't (and arguably still aren't) many sheet music firms in Australia in the '20's, as the majority of music for sale was by British and continental European composers, so seeing an exotically marketed machine-age curtain-raiser by a local boy must have knocked off socks from Sydney to Perth.  As you can guess from the snippet above, Trains is a futurist vehicle portrait much in the spirit of the many '20's "airplane" pieces, including works George Antheil, Leo Ornstein and Emerson Whithorne (even though trains predate cars and planes by several decades).  While the piece itself looks perpetuum mobile enough with plenty of pan-tonality to go around, its cover is what makes it distinctive, as it's about as far away from futurism as you can get without tripping into previous centuries.  Made with thick-brushed watercolors, the train looks like a toy, and if it were to follow that track at full speed it'd fly off the rails.  The title presentation is overwhelmingly bold for the engine below (with the bottom of the T's trunk forming the point of a rail spike), creating a child-like sense of mis-proportioned design and the feel of a sketch tucked into the corner of the page of a larger art notebook, waiting to be brought to life.  There's a part of me that wants to attribute this childishness to a youthful sense of wonder at the sight of a train, an idea only vaguely supported by the piece's frightening tone, but the other part thinks that's giving the art department a little too much credit.  The publisher may have felt the cover didn't properly illustrate the modernism the piece itself mustered, so the inner title page take a turn for the sparse:

While this artwork is a far cry from the piece's menace it certainly brings the deco to the table.  Horsehair brushes are swapped for ultra-fine fountain pens, displaying such a pristine touch and eye for space as to evoke the comics of Winsor McCay (Little Nemo, Gertie the Dinosaur).  It's remarkable how much of the physical presence of a train the artist achieves with a single line.  The lettering is the height of sophisticated restraint, as elegant and spare as a Basie solo.  I especially enjoy the word "by", usually an afterthought or ornament but here an alluring typographical island unto itself.  I can't help but admit that both these covers fail to advertise the mood of the music, but I don't really care - each one stands as a minor gem of inter-war design, and in some ways more rewarding than the music itself.  Lord knows the piano rep didn't need another endless parade of 16th notes passed off as excitement, despite their author's considerable talent.  Also, I'd be in remiss if I didn't feature the seal of Trains's publishing firm, W. Paxton & Co., because monograms are always worth your time.


Roy Agnew - Diffuse Refractions of the Southern Star

Australia had a long road to being taken seriously as a global presence, or even as a Western presence, and its arts scene, while now thriving, spent the first half of the 20th century in limbo.  While many people in the US know about the boom in the Australian film industry in the 1970's (Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Cars that Ate Paris), Australia's compositional scene is still a non-entity for most of the world, aside from John Antill's Rite of Spring-esque, now-pseudo-racist ballet Corroboree.  The only Australian composers of the past 30 years to gain any kind of international recognition are Peter Sculthorpe and Carl Vine, both of whom have made a habit of playing the populist card.  The most famous Australian-born composer is Percy Grainger, though he left the country at age 13 and spent his most important years in England and America (that hasn't stopped any Australian fans, though).  It's perhaps fitting that the other important Australian composer from the first half of the last century, Roy Agnew (1891-1944) shares some technical similarities with Grainger, though not his heart or themes.

Trained in piano by a handful of Sydney-based musical sub-names (as well as a brief stint under Alfred HIll), Agnew sidestepped the stereotype of cloying conservatism that so many English-speaking countries cultivated in music throughout the 1910's.  His Australian Forest Pieces of 1913 brought his vernacular into the impressionistic fold, and he was very successful performing his own works throughout the next few decades.  In the 20's he studied with Gerrard Williams and Cyril Scott, the latter of which was once a household-name famous impressionist-mystic best known for the Avant-Salon classic Lotus Land.  Scott has been named among possible influences on Agnew's work, but one man who may have had more influence than any other was the meteorically influential Alexander Scriabin, another self-made impressionist by way of mysticism and a candidate for an alternative founder of 20th century music if the big four (Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok) hadn't pummeled his name from the history books.  His mature works of the 20's and later traverse harmonic landscapes few other people did, not so much in density of dissonance but rather his very personal choice of sonority and movement, making him an Australian counterpart to Arnold Bax.  Agnew's works lean towards aching poignance and reverie, a sentiment periodically shared by Grainger but always framed by Anglo folk influences and a predilection for overt climax.  His mature language is best encapsulated in his 1922 miniature Poem no. 1, of which the only YouTube version is performed by me (albeit a tad slow); oddly enough I'm the one who's made the most effort to record his work on the web.

It's odd how very few modern pianists have recorded his works; they're just ripe for the picking and would go over quite well with today's audiences.  There are a few all-Agnew albums in existence, but they're all confined to Australian labels with no American exposure.  Impressionism has never had much of a problem making money, after all, and not all of his work is langourous.  Listeners without the time on their hands for extensive searching will find that almost all the easily accessible performances, all on YouTube, are by amateurs, sometimes with glaring errors, but one of his big works did find its way to our thrifty doorstep:

The Sonata Ballade most shows the influence of Scriabin, with vaulting post-Romantic sturm und drang flowing into elliptical harmonic swirls.  As in vogue as these kinds of piano sonata were among early Soviet composers (until the arts inquisitions put a stop to dissonance and any music of interest), the rest of the music world had taken a turn for the Neo-Classical, which left no room for dark sincerity such as Agnew's.  The piece won an award in the Musical Association of New South Wales' Sesqui-Centenary Competition for Australian Composers, but I can't imagine it would fit in well with the musical environment of the eve of WWII.  It's oddly fitting as a war piece, as the synthesis of Straussian heroic motives and fraught pan-tonality make for a grand portrait of misplaced nationalism and the horror of clashing jingoism.  Though Agnew died having achieved real success and made his country proud, the memory of his work entered into steep decline in the latter half of the century and it hasn't been heard too much since.  Academia and the entertainment machine favored clarity over mystery, and so the rich, personal atonalists such as Agnew, Scott, Scriabin and Dane Rudhyar were the first casualties of the New Provable Order.  I'm certain a revival is inevitable, as Agnew's oeuvre is a lush and marketable one, and it's not like Australia's pianists have completely dropped the ball.  If only we could get a hold of those albums, then maybe we'd have more incentive to make his music our own.  Many of his scores have been uploaded to IMSLP, which is where I got the ones I play here, so have at 'em and thank the stars that the internet exists.  Hopefully my efforts, including two more articles on Agnew for Forgotten Leaves and Visual music as well as the recording below, help out a bit, but the loveliness of his works are self-evident and may be the source of their own gravy.  In any case, here's to the mystery of extended tonality and humanity's need for the dark and quiet.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Visual Music - The City of Joy by Deems Taylor

As the age of fully intangible media inches closer and closer, I've spent too many years now lamenting the death of physical packaging.  Oh, sure, we can still get pathetic reproductions of covers on pocket-friendly surface sizes, but they don't really exist, and publishers of all stripe have been forced to reduce the complexity and artistry of covers and posters to be recognizable by iLight while trying to fall asleep.  Before anybody accuses me of Old Timer's Disease, it's important to note that I'm 25, and what may sound like crippling nostalgia coming from a man much older than myself should be a grave problem coming from the 18-34 demographic.  The music publishing industry has seen many cutbacks and simplifications over the years, and is currently in a black period what with IMSLP and the Sibley Music Library putting up public domain music online for free; the meat-and-potatoes standard rep almost entirely predates 1923, the U.S. cutoff date for copyright.  The inferior funding, combined with the standardized use of template-based digital imaging software, has made the prospect of interesting packaging for classical music dead in the water.  I have this theory that when people are unable to rely on templates for design they get more creative with form and content, and that whizz-bang graphic design software is largely responsible for the embarrassing, crippled state of movie posters and book covers we see today (don't even get me started on "floating head syndrome").  My point is that in order to find great, original artwork for sheet music, you have to go backwards, more often than not several decades.  Visual Music is a series dedicated to great sheet music cover art, and before you say one word about old one-sheet pop songs from the turn of the century I'll assure you that the series will stick to classical music.  Antique stores are chockablock with one-sheets, and even a cursory glance at the internet's selection will reveal hordes of wacky and stylish pop music covers from the days of yore.  Great covers for classical music are harder to find; I'll get into the why when I feature evidence for that fact in a later article.  For the maiden voyage, let's showcase a piece by a guy you probably only know by sight: Deems Taylor.

(Click for larger view)

Deems Taylor (1885-1966) is primarily remembered as the bald, bespectacled man who hosted Fantasia, as well as a music critic and general promoter of classical music.  He also composed his own works, and they are largely forgotten today because of their general mediocrity, aside from the orchestral suite Through the Looking Glass.  A setting of poems by Charles Hanson Towne, The City of Joy (1916) contains some quite nice music, and much like Looking Glass it's vernacular is a laid-back, plush tonalism reminiscent of early Hollywood scores.  Taylor originally wanted to become an architect, and perhaps because of this training he was able to do his own decorations for this score.  As the poems are a celebration of urban life, the view from the cover's window depicts residential Manhattan with excellent linework, limited-yet-appropriate coloring and an eye for detail and perspective.  The placement of the image off to the left is an inspired modern choice, and the font points towards the Deco stylings of the decades to follow.  Taylor also made small decorations for the title pages to each song, such as this one -

While the engravings and cover wouldn't be too out of place among illustrated literature at the end of the 19th century, the latter has a slightly jazzy feel, and much of the music is reminiscent of lounge piano writing of the first half of the 20th century.  Perhaps these elements factored in to this performance of "The Roof-Garden", song no. 4, uploaded as part of a revival attempt of Taylor's music by the pianist George Small.  I don't know if he plays in this video, but I do know that the singer took to the music by way of modern jazz, and strangely enough it doesn't seem too jarring.  It's a nice little song about the envious seclusion of a private urban garden, and moments of pause and unusual harmonic movement suggest an awareness at the stark inequality of the owners of such miniature paradisi to the own-less.  There are many more covers to come, so if you sharpen your eyes between now and then we'll all have a great time.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Harold Brown - Everything Old is New Again

There's always one more out there.  Whether you've given up or not, even if you have no idea where to look, there's always an unturned stone.  Case in point, Harold Brown, who I'd never heard of before a few days ago but now has shot to the top of my Tell Other People About This Guy You Schmuck list.  I'd never have found him unless I was looking for something else entirely: the Instituto Interamericano de Musicología -

- who made this:

Before the McCarthy era clamped down on foreign influences like a death viper, America made serious attempts to musically join hands with Latin America and the Soviet Union, with some publishers, such as Leeds Music, making their mark with importing works by Khatchaturian and Kabalevsky.  For a nation so eager to be disgusted by Stalin-approved art it's interesting how deep Soviet music has burrowed its way into our musical pedagogy.  The Instituto Interamericano de Musicología was a Deco-styled, optimistic organization that published a series of watershed anthologies throughout the late '30's and '40's, ensuring exposure to a who's-who of the Latin-American music scene.  In 1941 they did their first (and possibly only) issue dedicated to U.S. composers, featuring such luminaries as William Schuman and Walter Piston, as well as such unlit corners as Robert Delaney and Mary Howe.  The University of Washington has a copy of this some-150-page gem, and while in a scanning frenzy I came across this:

(Click for larger view)

Effective architecture, a unique modal language, and an attractive Neo-Baroque flair, all in two pages.  Though the name was a mystery (and as unremarkable as they come), I scanned and searched, coming across something rare in my field: a contemporary fanbase.  The Renaissance Chorus of New York, founded by Brown in the '50's, has built a website dedicated to the man and his music, making this one of the few times on this blog that you can actively support a long forgotten composer's revival.

Harold Brown (1909-1971) was a New Yorker from birth to death, and played the viola from childhood; his parents, though not too musical themselves, felt their children should have music in their lives.  While gradually rising in the ranks of local institutions he wrote the Christopher Robin String Quartet at age 21, which earned him a fellowship at Columbia University and is one of three of his works to get a commercial recording as of this writing.  A student of Nadia Boulanger, he was not only involved in modern composition but also Medieval and Renaissance music, the study of which gained him the support of many of his young colleagues, including Lehman Engel and Bernard Herrmann (yes, that one).  Fascinated with the fluid modality of older works, he started working elements of Renaissance composition into his own works, and by the mid-30's (the String Quintet and the Four Little Preludes) had achieved his own personal style.  In his memoir Knowing When to Stop, Ned Rorem recounted his time as a student of Brown's, and admitted to having been influenced by Brown's String Quintet; the evidence could be seen in Rorem's early songs.

Aside from the first Little Prelude (above) and the Choral Setting no. 1, Brown's work went unpublished until the ACA was formed in the early '50's, and after Brown's death in 1971 the manuscripts were returned and now sit in the Special Collections at the University of Maryland.  For many other composers on this blog that's the end of their story - but Brown had cultivated an alternative fanbase during his lifetime.  In the mid-'50's, Brown formed a volunteer chorus to perform Renaissance choral music, including his own editions of works by composers such as Ockeghem and Martini.  The chorus outlasted its founder, and in 2009 they hosted a memorial concert for his centenary that featured his chamber, solo and choral works as well as a couple of his Renaissance editions.  In 2011 they secured funding to begin a CD recording project, and in 2012 Albany Records released Harold Brown: Music for Strings, which features the Christopher Robin String Quartet (there just called String Quartet (1930)), the String Quintet and the String Quartet no. 1 (1932/48).  Despite some of the most boring art design I've ever seen on a CD the music is wonderful, and I recommend checking it out, even if just for the Quintet, the star of the show.  Albany has their own YouTube channel, and in the interest of capitalism they only release one track from each of their CD's to the web; unfortunately they put up the most octatonic music he ever wrote, which isn't the best representation of his compositional voice but is still pretty good.

Knowing full well that exposing Brown's music is more important than withholding non-commercial recordings until they get revamped for sale, the Renaissance chorus has included performances of many of his works on their website, from his orchestral pieces to those Four Little Preludes I keep mentioning.  They also included a scan of the score for the Choral Setting no. 1, a surprise considering that Boosey & Hawkes bought its publisher, Arrow Music Press, and B & H holds on to their property with an iron grip (especially now considering they were purchased by Hal Leonard, transforming them from publishing giant to conglomerate subsidiary).  It's an inspiring effort, and one that you may have a chance to join if they ever decide to work on another CD.  It'd certainly be nice to see recordings of Choral Setting no. 1Four Little Preludes and the Two Experiments for flute, clarinet and bassoon of a higher caliber and less room noise than the ones included there.  So go: explore, enjoy, repeat.  I Am A Nerd (and So Can You!).