Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Moonflowers, Baby! - the Irrepressible Meyer Kupferman


Tiger Moon.  Perpetual Licorice.  The Stone Tears of Ixtaccihuatl.  Moonchild and the Doomsday Trombone.  Miro Miro on the Wall.

It should be obvious that we're dealing with a priceless imagination.  It walked this Earth by the name of Meyer Kupferman (1926-2003), and it never compromised.

Born in New York City and trained on the violin and clarinet, Meyer Kupferman didn't let early success with his Gertrude Stein opera In a Garden keep him from breaking the mold.  Joining a fine bunch of Classical composers who doubled as jazzmen (including Mel Powell and Hall Overton), Kupferman did a lot of arranging for big bands and playing on Coney Island, learning the vitality and 'tude of jazz while writing red-blooded modernist pieces like his 1948 Variations for piano:

Now, I know what you're thinking - I didn't pump you guys up to hear dreary old dodecaphony, did I?  Of course not - Meyer's only getting started, and by 1961 (the year he composed his savage big band score for the Paperhousian Blast of Silence) he had devised his "Infinities Row" (G-F-Ab-B-Bb-D-F#-E-C-Eb-A-C#), a 12-note tone row that would be the basis of all his major works.  His approach to serialism was far from academic, as he was entirely self-taught and didn't know Schoenberg's way of dealing with the Troublesome Twelve.  Before that row took over, though, he had already found his big problem with serialism and modern music in general, discovered through his jazz work - a lack of rhythmic vitality and drive.  Grappling with this problem led to the Sonata on Jazz Elements, a breathtakingly original work featuring lines like this - 

- and clad in a cover excellent enough to make the Visual Music cut:

He was deeply dedicated to eclecticism in his work, and managed to blend jazz and Avant-Garde Classical technique more thoroughly and effectively than any other composer of his time, eventually authoring the book Atonal Jazz in 1990.  His crossover-ing also produced the Jazz Symphony -

- as well as what is probably his most popular work, Moonflowers, Baby!**

Kupferman was also unconstrained by instrumentation, writing pieces for practically any combination you could think of.  Guitar, bassoon, double bass and piano?  Landscapes of the Sun.  Mezzo-soprano, oboe and electronic harpsichord?  The Mask of Electra.  Harp and double bass?  The Diaries of a Tarot Player, here painstakingly realized electronically from the manuscript and foolishly uploaded for free by a guy who deserves an award for his work:

As you may have noticed, his music features a lot of long phrases and short dramatic moments, a style he called "gestalt" (shape) writing which purposefully mixed disparate moods to create tapestries of emotion.  He believed in developing dodecaphonic music to its fullest emotional potential - as almost all his music is atonal, it helps uninitiated audiences quite a bit that Kupferman wrote gesturally, making his music naturally gut-punching and comprehensible while still enchanting with exotic sonorities.  For example, it takes no expertise in the Second Viennese School to appreciate his hilarious Blake Songs for soprano and clarinet:

In fact, his mastery of gesture led to one of his greatest crossover creations, Music Without Sound, a set of 13 drawings (available for free at the link) that turn music notation into unbridled visual fun (the most fun before Burr Van Nostrand, at least).  They aren't meant to be played, but rather heard internally, and I can tell you from experience they make both hip wall art and excellent New Music recital posters.  You already saw number 12 at the top of the article, but here's a couple more:

And just for X-Mas generosity's sake, here's another great cover, this time for 3 Ideas for Trumpet and Piano, a curt set of miniatures recorded by the legendary Thomas Stevens alongside a bunch of other pieces all trumpet players should know of.

There are actually quite a lot of Kupferman LP's and CD's, which is astonishing considering how I never, ever hear people talk about him.  Kupferman was wildly prolific, and the recordings cover music from the whole of his career and feature dozens of talented artists, many of them recording multiple works on their own, such as Morton Estrin, who recorded the Variations and Sonata on Jazz Elements.  Heck, Thomas Stevens recorded two of his pieces, and he usually only managed one per composer, as the trumpet rep is small compared to overstuffed reps like those for violin and piano.  The other piece, The Fires of Prometheus, is scored for trumpet and two pianos with their pedals held down.  They don't play, but simply offer resonance, as the trumpet plays into them and sets the strings vibrating (a trick used earlier by Luciano Berio in his absurdly difficult Sequenza X).

His consistently far-reaching oeuvre may have contributed to his lack of layman fame, but I'd like to think of him as a champion of the adventurous round peg in a world of square holes.  I see him as a direct descendant of Charles Ives, a rugged individualist who used any and all techniques and genres that suited him regardless of their source, never compromising and always trucking full speed ahead.  America is a nation defined by diversity and pluralism, and as such its greatest artists should be open to anything and everything, and few composers stuck as steadfastly to the pluralistic way as Kupferman.  He's one of the few composers who tried to do everything he could as an artist short of actually planting flowers on the moon (though he did write piano pieces based on constellations), and with a catalog as large as his there's certainly something for everybody.  As Christmas Eve is here, I thought it best to showcase a composer who is the human equivalent of the gift that keeps on giving, and Kupferman is a bottomless treasure chest bursting with creative energy and good humor.  And also in the Christmas spirit I'll end the review with one of his more youthfully enchanting (and early) works, the Symphony No. 4, here recorded by the essential Louisville Orchestra under Robert Whitney.  Merry Christmas, and Happy Moonflowers, Baby!***



**Isn't that title fun to say?!

***Well, I love saying it, anyways.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Peter
    Thanks for your kind comments in the Kupferman article back in 2013 (only just spotted it :-) ). I think it has not been published. I returned the manuscript to Mayer's widow a few years ago (after scanning it of course) but forgot to ask about publication.

    BTW You might be interested to check out some of my music some time:
    Kind regards
    David Solomons