Friday, December 12, 2014

Happiness Month One-Off - Charles Villiers Stanford's The Bluebird

Christmas is unique among holidays in that it promotes Classical music like no other, with many people only listening to Classical music when attending Christmas concerts and having deep associations between Christmas and specific Classical genres like choral music and Baroque music.  As choruses get an enormous amount of exposure this time of year some works I was previously unfamiliar with have been popping up, and one that has me completely entranced is a secular song by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924).  One of the only Irish composers to gain international stature, Stanford was among a generation of British composers, including Hubert Parry and Alexander Mackenzie, whom scholars credit with revitalizing British Classical music and paving the way for younger, more popular and more influential composers like Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and an article on Stanford wouldn't be unwelcome on this blog.  However, the song of his in question flies far above the other works of his I've heard, and does so with the simplest of subjects - a bluebird.

The lake lay blue below the hill,
O'er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue,
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught his image as he flew.

Part of a set of six song after words by Mary Coleridge, "The Blue Bird" draws some of the most intense yearning out of very few musical material, chiefly the use of a mid-chord pedal note held throughout its first major phrase:

The note is the root of the song's key, but holding it throughout the harmonic movement gives it a conflicted identity, threatening to drag down the work but, through the hushed volume and deft voicing, manages to illuminate it instead, a kind of gentle pressure on the heart.  Stanford sets aside one soprano as a soloist, at first intoning a single note, creating a tension out of its preciousness and fragility.  The song continues much the same, as tenuous as dream-silk, peaking with one of the most shockingly beautiful choral phrases since Allegri's Miserere Mei:

The music is repetitive only in being appropriate for the floating, haunted poem by Coleridge, its simplicity almost a question rather than an answer.  This emotional fermata is captured by Stanford's refusal to let his harmonies resolve, ending the piece on a minor vi chord without the fifth and featuring the eternal G-flat as its minor 7th.

I'm sure some of my readers will laugh at me for featuring a work as popular as this on a blog devoted to rarities, but "The Blue Bird" is rare in its own way, its writing out of its own time and place, seemingly existing in a faraway room with a single tree beyond its window.  It's also rare in that very few pieces can make me cry.  In a way there is a need within me for it to exist, much like I needed Bruce Simonds's Prelude on "Iam sol recedit igneus" to exist.  I was particularly moved by the recording below by the Finnish group Lumen Valo, and hopefully it makes for a worthy early Christmas gift for you all.  At the very least it makes me deeply happy, and for that kind of happiness to be inspired by a piece so modest is a great thing indeed.


You can view and purchase original art by the creator of the heading image here.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Happiness Month - Patricia Goodson's Strange Attractors album

This Thanksgiving was one of our lamest and most miserable in recent history, my parents and I all stricken with head-stuffing illness and being forced to skip out visiting local family in fear of transmitting heavy coughing and phlegm.  That's not to say we didn't have any food or had to go to the hospital, but it was most definitely not what we had in mind.  As a balm to this, I've decided to make December Happiness Month for my blogs, spotlighting not only worthy rarities but also artists and works that make me happy, including a few of my favorite things in the world.  I'm kicking off the month with a long-standing happiness supplier in my CD library, Patricia Goodson's Strange Attractors.

As it is easier and more profitable to market new music under a general banner rather than pitch an unknown name as being worthy of a solo album, modern composers have long relied on anthology albums to get their names out there, and sometimes those works included alongside others become their only successes.  In some cases, such as Susan Blaustein and the late, lamented Dennis Riley, the composers never get a solo album.  I always like scooping up these kinds of CD's, not only for their value as historical documents but also as ways of hearing works by composers that might not have gotten a better shot in their careers, and while I can't say the latter is overwhelmingly true with Strange Attractors the album does capture a distinct frame of mind in American music and has the bonus of having all good pieces, rather than the crapshoot these things can occasionally be.

Patricia Goodson isn't exactly a household name among pianists, but her two recording projects prove that she should get a few more shots at the limelight.  Aside from this striking album, whose contents comprise the only recordings of their works, she managed to record a five-CD retrospective of the piano works of Josef Bohuslav Foerster, an intriguing figure in Czech music that looks at the very least close to par with Dvořák and Suk if what I've seen has anything to say on the matter.  Anybody who cranks out a five-CD set and lives to tell the tale is worth our praise, and Goodson's work on today's album is consistently excellent, rumbling and ecstatic at one end and acutely sensitive on the other, both qualities well suited to American classical music of the 80's.

The high modernism of the 60's and 70's in American classical music left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths, and while many people rebelled against serialism's overarching reign by sinking into the flatly raging river of minimalism others found a new path.  Encouraged by the success of composers such as Joseph Schwantner and Joan Tower, a new kind of music emerged, informed by experimental techniques of the past but more concerned with bringing together rich pantonal harmonies and post-romantic passions, a kind of emotional core sorely missing from new music for some time.  This happy medium brought a whole new crowd to the audience that previously considered modern classical music an elitist monastic order with the occasional Cagian cook.  The message of the medium (apologies to McLuhan) is that classical music can speak to modern, non-cook audiences without soullessly pandering to simplicity or becoming a parody of itself, and in my opinion much of this music is destined to last for decades without appearing dated or embarrassing for its Passion Over Fashion attitude and formal freedom, once again proving that Charles Ives is the true father of American classical music.

While Strange Attractors does feature one of the demigods of this era the first composer on the docket is also the most obscure, Martin Herman.  A professor at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at CSU Long Beach, Herman's piece Arena remains the only piece of his to get a commercial recording (that I could find through research), and he was kind enough to send me a score when I asked nicely, proving again that most composers actually like hearing from fans and are more than willing to help performers.  Arena is a set of three concert etudes, and the first one takes its inspiration from this print by Robert Longo which I recall being used for a paperback edition of A Clockwork Orange:

As such, "Arena Brains" is quite violent but also reduced in its color range, mostly featuring two-note oscillations, accels and rits grinding against each other and no clear harmonic center.  It's a bravura start to any concert and pushes the pianist's physical presence to the forefront, requiring a lot of charisma to keep from becoming silly posturing (not to say the music isn't good, though).

"Sky, Blue Sky" is an elegy for open spaces, moving restlessly from sweet-'n'-sour, Romantic-throwback piano writing to galloping modal arpeggios, bearing its Impressionistic heart on its sleeve.  It's the kind of music that diminishes with extended explanation, so I'll step back for a few minutes and let whoever feels like listening savor the thing.

The finale, "Strange Attractors", is named after mathematical feedback loops (and please, PLEASE don't ask me to explain advanced mathematics) and is the closest Herman and the rest of the album gets to outright minimalism.  Starting with one note restruck insistently, the piece expands into a widely shifting screen of pealing sixteenth notes, wringing a lot of tension out of how well the pianist memorized the seemingly endless stream of music.  Herman is too good at his job to let the harmonies slip into post-minimal clichés, and as such "Strange Attractors" manages to double back and roil internally without letting the audience off the hook, launching the tension off into space at the exact moment when you think the piece isn't going to end anytime soon.  Really great stuff, making me wish more of Herman's work was available to the public.

The second piece is actually most of why this album is so dear to me, as it has become one of my favorite piano pieces to play.  Stephen Jaffe probably deserves a whole article on this site, as I'd love to feature such fine works as his impressive Double Sonata for two pianos and the nifty Spinoff for guitar, but todays a good enough day to feature my favorite work of his, the Impromptu for piano.  Written as part of a series of 13 piano pieces composed in honor of George Rochberg's 70th birthday (which seem to be largely unpublished, BIG PUBLISHING HOUSE DINKS), Impromptu is a variation set on a pavane that incorporates two gestures from Rochberg's second symphony, neither of which I could identify for you as I haven't heard that symphony.  No matter, as a lack of Rochbergian references won't take away from anybody's enjoyment of the piece.  This is a very bluesy pavane, anchored by a split-third G triad, progressing through ever-more-disparate elaborations and diversions that are at turns broadly singing and floating out of time and harmony.  The mist recedes and the pavane makes a bittersweet return, making a good case for composers never forgetting about the blues.

And here we have the Shining Golden God* of the era, John Harbison, with the first four of his Occasional Pieces, none of which need much explanation.  "Gospel Shout" shows the best attributes of Harbison's third stream writing, a good warm-up for Three City Blocks and probably easier to play.

"Two-Part Invention" proves that you don't need more than two notes at a time to be really charming, and I wonder why this piece didn't show up in any of my piano lesson books when I was a kid.

"Thank-You Notes" is very quiet and more enigmatic than the others, leading the ear every which way but resolved.  If you thought the piece would get more conventional you're sorely mistaken, but there is a major chord at the end, albeit blurred.

"Standards" is a clever ode to bar piano music, adding a lot of atmosphere and shimmer to a usually burly and unsentimental genre.  Harbison gets a lot of mileage out of sustained notes left over from earlier chords, as we all should in most pieces.  All the Occasional Pieces are testaments to Harbison's wit and amiable nature and can fit most any occasion.

Augusta Read Thomas's Whites is one of her early works from where she was a Presser composer.  When she switched over to G. Schirmer almost all of her Presser-era works went out of print and weren't picked up for republication, including Whites and a quite good Sonata for solo trumpet, even leaving the works off the official worklist on her website, a move most likely done just to make me mad as I prefer her earlier works to her more recent, semi-populist stuff.  Based off of two six-note aggregates, Whites is a sonic exploration of "the equivalent to the visual exploration into the infinite variety of the color 'white'".  Thomas saw lots of potential in white, as the totally atonal piece finds many elegant and novel ways to gently swoop through diffusion.  It's an excellent piece of timbral adventuring and I'm pretty miffed it's out of print, and considering how hard it is to find used sheet music you're more likely to find blue moon dust than a copy (aside from this one).  I'm sure she thought disowning the piece to write etudes combining Bach and Thelonius Monk was a good idea at the time, but we'll just agree to disagree.

On a goofier note, the wonderfully-named Randall Woolf wrote Nobody Move to find "the common ground between the menace of the hard-core Hollywood villain and the fearless bravado of the virtuoso pianist."  Off-rhythm quartal chords and whole-tone scales abound, or rather apunch.  Another fine curtain-raiser, this is the most accessible piece on the CD but in my opinion the least rewarding on repeated listening.  The good news is that you can download the score for free here, so that way you have full opportunity to disagree with me.

The final piece, White Tigers by Robert Kyr, brings the mood back to the epic emptiness "Sky, Blue Sky", but setting its sights farther East.  White Tigers is based on a legend recounted in Maxine Hong Kingston's novel The Woman Warrior - "a young girl learns the ways of a woman warrior in part by emulating a white tiger - the wildest, most mysterious beast in the jungle - and goes on to liberate her people from oppression."  White Tigers is a long and winding journey through tonality and technique, starting with a single plucked note and eventually finds itself in the bowls of cluster glisses and the heights of circle-o'-fifths arpeggios.  Kyr has a fine lyrical imagination and supports it with deft and often quite original harmonies, Goodson brings out the Big Sky of the piece, illuminating whatever strange and forbidding land the listener can conjure in their mind.  Those last many chords are some of the more effective chords of the 80's, reminding me once again of the importance of emulating Dane Rudhyar in all things.  A fitting end to a wonderful album, and I'm glad I was able to show you all of it.

Happiness Month will continue on all my blogs, including focuses on a 19th-century Polish composer, a British string orchestra, Argentina's favorite son, one of my favorite rock bands and my favorite young adult movie ever.  I'm glad you can stay tuned.


*Apologies to Almost Famous, of course.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Wassenaer's Concerti Armonici, the Most Beautiful Shame in Music

Believe it or not, there was a time before intellectual copyright law, and misattribution used to be a big problem, not the least in classical music.  The most famous case is most likely the trumpet voluntary Prince of Denmark's March, often just called Trumpet Voluntary, which was long attributed to Henry Purcell but was in fact written by his younger contemporary Jeremiah Clarke - the confusion arose from a late-19th-century organ arrangement.  More salacious are cases where an unknown composer simply published their work under another composer's name, and no composer was more of a victim of this than Giovanni Battista Pergolesi.  After his death at 26 (ouch!), dozens of works were either published under the name Pergolesi or incorrectly stuffed into his oeuvre by unwitting scholars, and so prevalent was this issue that most of the pieces Stravinsky used for his ballet Pulcinella under the presumption that they were all Pergolesian were written by other composers, including the man we're talking about today.  

The "Tarantella" movement of the Pulcinella Suite was based on the final movement of the fifth Concerto Armonico in B-flat major, part of a series of six Concerti Armonici for strings and continuo by an author who was initially anonymous upon their publication in 1740.  The idea was put forth that they were written by the violinist Carlo Ricciotti, but the Polish composer Franciszek Lessel asserted that they were written by Pergolesi, a misconception that lasted until 1980.  That year, a book was published by musicologist Albert Dunning that proved that the Concerti were written by a Dutch nobleman by the name of Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer, which admittedly doesn't roll of the tongue like Pergolesi, but the discovery was made by the author when he visited the castle Wassenaer grew up in and found a manuscript of the Concerti, written in Ricciotti's hand, with a revealing foreword.  As it turns out, Wassenaer requested that his name be left off the pieces upon publication, a decision whose explanation is both frustrating and, oddly enough, tacitly inspiring, but before we talk about the whys I must assert evidence that the Concerti Armonici are the best pieces of music anybody ever tried to take their name off of.

Cast in a four-movement slow-fast-slow-fast church sonata format and following the Roman-Neopolitan concerto practice of using four different violin parts, the Concerti are masterpieces of their time.  Wassenaer must have studied deeply and worked very hard on these works, as they show an extraordinary gift for contrapuntal and harmonic richness.  It's hardly not worth talking about them as their high quality is self-evident, some moments almost shocking in their beauty.  Wassenaer had a special taste for deep pedal points and layering motives, weaving cells together in rapturous euphony like flocks of birds over immense canyons.  If it seems my adjectives are a bit over-the-top I'd argue that the music sparks grand emotions, a truth that turns odd once you know why Wassenaer wanted to remain uncredited for their composition.

Wassenaer's foreword with the manuscript mentioned that Ricciotti, the first violinist for the Concerti's first private performances, insisted that the pieces be published, and that only with the insistence of their ultimate dedicatee Count Willem Bentinck did they come to print, and only under the condition that Wassenaer's name be stricken from the record out of his own shame at their existence.  One source I read claimed that Wassenaer felt that it was unbecoming of a nobleman to have to "peddle his wears", so to speak, but Wassenaer's own words in the foreword are more revealing:

"Some of them are tolerable, some middling, others wretched. Had they not been published, I would perhaps have corrected the mistakes in them, but other business has left me no leisure to amuse myself with them, and I would have caused their editor offence."

That's just insane.  Never before have I heard such damning words attached to an artist's own work in contrast to such high quality, not even in famous cases of regretful authors like Thomas Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49.  I suppose there have been more extreme cases, such as Franz Kafka's wish that all his unpublished works be burned after his death, but I can see no reason for these pieces to be deemed so unsuitable as to be orphaned.  It's not like the authorship of Primary Colors where the content of the piece is scandalous and dangerous to its source.  It's not even like Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, the incredible early Renaissance allegorical novel written by a Franciscan priest, because at least there's a tradition of the clergy shunning their own contributions to art out of humility to God.  Sure, Gerard Manley Hopkins destroyed all his early poems when he joined the clergy but he at least got back to work after that whole humility thing blew over.  In fact, if there's any other work this case reminds me of it's - and bare with me - American History X.

For those who don't know, American History X is a really dang good movie starring Edward Norton as a Neo-Nazi who goes to jail for curb stomping a black man and turns away from racism in jail, only to get out and do his damndest to keep his little brother Edward Furlong from going down the same path.  Well-directed by Tony Kaye, Kaye claimed that Norton took the movie away from him and edited it in a way to put in as many shots of himself as possible, but was denied the right to release the movie under a pseudonym (which would have been "Humpty Dumpty", by the way) after doing interviews blasting the studio's decision to release the mucked-with version.  Upon its release, Roger Ebert called it the best movie anybody ever tried to take their name off of, and without better evidence I'd be inclined to agree.  That being said, Kaye did have legitimate concerns that the movie was no longer his, and apparently the workprint version and the final film do feel completely different (though I've never seen it), which is more reason to be fearful than Wassenaer's.  Seriously, did you hear these things?

I'm making my official vote for the Concerti Armonici being the best pieces of classical music anybody tried to publish anonymously, and I get the feeling that I'm not the only one, as once the pieces were reprinted with proper attribution a number of recordings popped up, including the ones featured here by the excellent Canadian string orchestra I Musici de Montréal under the direction of Yuli Turovsky.  These performances milk every exquisite harmony and timbre out of the scores and have the power to renew one's faith in the bridge music between the Baroque and Classical eras - after snatching this CD from the clearance rack I certainly realized it'd been far too long since I'd taken a dip in Enlightenment waters.  The Concerti Armonici would be stunning no matter who wrote them but thanks to Dunning's discovery the classical community has finally gotten around to honoring the name of an unknown master, and if that's not a happy ending I don't know what is - except for the last movements of the Concerti.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fulvio Caldini's Memories of the Flood

I'll freely admit that I'm no expert on contemporary Italian classical music.  Sure, I know and love post-WWII guys like Luigi Dallapiccola, Luciano Berio and Giacinto Scelsi, and featured a piece by Niccolò Castiglioni on Forgotten Leaves, but that's hardly a comprehensive knowledge and would make me look like a poser if I ever attended university over there.  That doesn't mean that I won't promote lesser-known Italians like I own the place, which brings us to Fulvio Caldini, a composer I discovered via Keith Johnson's sheet music shop in Seattle, the stock of which can be viewed here.

Caldini is best known for his pieces for the recorder as a soloist and ensemblist, an instrument I've long held disdain for due to its deceptive difficulty and tendency to create grating wolf tones (at least whenever I try playing it).  Caldini is a spiritual disciple of Steve Reich, and as such most of his more current music, including the many recorder works of his to get recorded, are dyed-in-the-wool minimalism that reflect a heavy Reichian influence.  They also show how excellent it can be when people can actually play the recorder, such as in the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet in their recording of his Clockwork Game, op. 72/a:

That slap-tongue effect is really something, adding a rich percussive texture that immediately sets the piece apart.  There's also a slight flanging, possibly unintentional but totally welcome.  In the spirit of the genre he allows harmonies to unfold naturally, and the rhythms gently transition from duple to triple meters and back again.  The texture becomes more pointillistic as the piece reaches the middle but the true center sees longer notes than ever before, accompanied by seething dissonances.  Once the 8-minute mark rolls we get both high slap notes and moments of actual silence, and the low strings of repeated notes eventually return, though in a different key.  It's a fine act of hypnotism at the very least and the performance here is excellent.

The Sonatina in Quartetto, op. 65f, features a long solo on the sopranino recorder or garklein (I think; I don't have the album liner notes) that dances across a disjointed chaconne in the first movement.  This instrument is one of the more treacherous I know and the performer here is pretty stunning; I'd think those li'l beasts require insane breath control.  The second movement is more flowing and pastoral, akin to a late Medieval partsong and exploiting the recorder's Earthy resonance.  The third brings back the sopranino for another off-kilter dance, but this time there's less staccato chirps and more melismatic lines supported by quasi-organ chord bursts.  In all three movements Caldini's harmonic palette is ebullient and bubbly, making for a sonatina both condensed and somewhat light in tone, especially in the last movement.  Did you know that you can get both these tracks as well as many other recorder ensemble pieces by Caldini on this excellent-looking CD?  Lovely stuff.

On a less Reichian note, Caldini created this piece of musique concrète only a few years ago, Sulle scogliere di marmo, op. 132.  The title translates to "On the Marble Cliffs", and I have a feeling it's in reference to Ernst Junger's novel of the same name.  Published in 1939, the novel is mostly remembered for having predicted the outbreak of WWII with its depiction of a Utopian rural society infiltrated and corrupted by an insidious, pseudo-fascist regime.  I read that book some years ago, and while I didn't think it was all that great and largely read like bad fan fiction of the War, it did have some very striking imagery and I can see other people liking it far more than myself.  I can't be sure that Caldini had that book in mind when writing this, the first movement of which begins as a study of bells and gongs smeared across a wide, processed canvas.  By minute two crashing waves and screeching wails have entered the scene, as well as low thunder-tube notes akin to the music that accompanies the scene in Star Trek: the Motion Picture where the Klingon ships get destroyed by V-GER's energy field.  Caldini's own energy field soon takes over and is wholly terrifying, layered break drums emerging from a hundred writhing snakes.  The waves subside and single pitches needle into our foreheads.  Movement two aims to illustrate the sensation of dropping a 70's moog into a river.  The high pitches insinuate themselves into our frontal lobes and the break drums/gamelan bells return.  Then Caldini tosses a rock in and we flash back to 'Nam.  Movement three slows down to allow for an apparent alien invasion as many of the electronic layers are classic sci-fi stuff, but as before water and helicopters take precedence.  It's here that I realize what Marmo is - a psychological tale of the arrival of war and an atmosphere piece that works best as a stream-of-consciousness narrative of someone hiding from war machines in the wild, and the Junger reference makes much more sense after a full listen.  In purely musical terms, the best reference I can muster for this piece is Xenakis's concrète masterpiece Hibiki Hana Ma, but Marmo's sound tapestry is wild and mysterious enough to evoke whatever you feel like.  Any way you look at it the piece is a striking and expertly crafted addition to the musique concrète rep and shows Caldini as a master of atmospherics.

All of these pieces allude to wide spaces and internal worlds, and this fascination is much older than his Reichian work - it has been present since his career was in its infancy, which brings us to the works I wanted to talk about the most.  At Keith Johnson's shop I found two sonatas, which we won't be discussing, as well as three large-format one-sheets written back when his opus numbers were single digits and immediately grabbed my attention for their elusive beauty and elegant engraving.  I recorded all three of them for my Soundcloud (making my performances the recording premiere of these pieces) and scanned them as to make them as easy as possible to enjoy and perform by others.  And first on the docket is a micro-suite inspired by Old Scratch himself, just in time to miss Halloween by a little while.

"Iblis" is the name for the Devil in the Qu'ran, and Caldini totally avoids filling his portrait of the Lord of Lies with lots of fire and brimstone.  Each of the movements of the suite are played attaca and are not immediately perceptible as distinct pieces, relying on the prowess of the performer to make them notable.  Starting out only with three intervals - minor second, minor third, major third - each movement expands the sound palette to create mounting foreboding, all within the context of static-yet-expansive drama.  Caldini ladles on fermati and dynamic quaking, his harmonies caught in a limbo between tonality and atonality but can't help but be dark.  A particularly curious detail are he quasi campanella fourths and fifths in the Liberissimo statico movement, marked with both staccato markings and fermati; as there's no standard approach for this on the piano I used half-pedalling to make the notes decay unpredictably.  The piece reaches a climax in the middle of page 2 at Libero, where rolled tenth chords sound subterranean gongs and a minor ninth roll marks a grand fall to a low E, leading into a soft variation on the opening figure and a final abyssal D-flat.  There's been a lot of great classical music written about the Devil but the Iblis Suite, op. 3a is one of the most subconsciously compelling and makes for a singularly entrancing performing experience.  Let's hope I didn't botch it too much.

Translating into "Memory of the Flood", Memoria del Diluvio, op. 5 is a bigger step towards minimalism but avoids the modal noodling that is post-minimalism's hallmark sound.  In fact, in all these early pieces Caldini's harmonies are unlike anything else being written at the time, neither tonal or dodecaphonic, maintaining strong lyric sensibility without appearing old-fashioned or sentimental.  Once again using limited intervallic variety as stepping stones, Memoria pulls the dragshoot on drama and sits on the sustaining pedal, allowing single notes to shimmer in the deep.  The left hand ambles along broad triads to create enormous resonance, allowing familiar harmonies to emerge organically and clash with one another.  When the pedal is finally changed nearly a minute has elapsed and the effect is like a huge heartbeat.  Caldini maintains this reduced writing for many minutes, all the way until the middle of the third staff of page 2 where two perfect fifths offset by a minor second and a few octaves sounds like an Earthy bell.  Some people will think of John Cage's In a Landscape as a possible inspiration, and while I'd buy Caldini being a fan of the work what this piece really reminds me of is the piano suites Charles Koechlin wrote in 1910's, such as his famous hour-long cycle Les heures persanes, op. 65 and more appropriately Paysages et marines, op. 63:

Those resounding open intervals are key to Koechlin's unique brand of Impressionism and Paysages was my biggest reference point for performing this work, and even if my work here only succeeds in making Paysages et marines more popular than that's okay, too.  Memoria del Diluvio doesn't need help from Koechlin, though, and hopefully it'll come in to its own with repeated performances.

The Etruscan civilization became distinct around 800 BC and fell around 500 BC, and has sustained a fascination in the Italian soul due to its unique language and deep roots in the land; the region of Tuscany is named after the culture.  I've seen at least two Italian horror movies that use Etruscan mystery to spice up mundane zombie stories, and that's got to count for something.  In Caldini's case Etrusci (is that what you'd say?) is used much like Satie used ancient Greek gymnopedes, backdrops for delicate evocations of an unknown past.  The action is marked by contrasting beat divisions, simultaneously more sustained and faster moving than the textures of Memoria and alluding to a recalled restlessness.  Melodies snake eliptically and the hands dovetail each other's phrases.  The second "incantation" features a rarity in contemporary music, a repeated section, and he gives the number of repeats over to the choice of the performer; I've only repeated it once as to not overstay my welcome.  As in Memoria Caldini uses larger note values at slow tempi to give the illusion of flying over large space, and in the third incantation those values are nearly doubled, resulting in the one string of quarter notes moving by very quickly.  This practice might not be so much new as a throwback to Medieval and Renaissance music that used whole and half notes how we tend to use quarter and eighth notes today.  Not as obviously euphonious as Memoria, the Incantesimi occupy a harmonic world of their own and might be the most elusive of these works, and as always performance takes serious concentration and restraint, things which might not excite the Transcendental Etude crowd but is well-served by this haunting music.  Much like the GymnopediesIn a Landscape and Paysages et marines, these three dark-eyed beauties by Fulvio Caldini need special advocation and a mature touch/ in order to survive, and thankfully they can all be acquired very cheaply at Sheet Music Plus, but I've tried to make it as easy as possible for you to take a crack at them yourselves.  Caldini aims to ripple deep waters in the psyche and casts a richly layered stone to do so, and the waves will keep going long into my future.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

One-Offs of the Damned - Charles Ives's Hallowe'en

Happy Halloween!  The bad news is that there's Wiccan razor blades in your caramel apples, and the worse news is that you're apparently the kind of person who likes pulling their own teeth out trying to eat caramel apples.  The good news is that I found the perfect piece to showcase on Halloween night, Charles Ives's Hallowe'en from his Three Outdoor Pieces.  Ives wrote, "It is a take-off of a Halloween party and bonfire - the elfishness of the little boys throwing wood on the fire, etc, etc... it is a joke even Herbert Hoover could get."  Well, as I always say, if it's good enough for Herbert Hoover it's good enough for Re-Composing.

In order to illustrate a building fire and joyous tomfoolery, Ives designed the piece to be played multiple times in growing numbers of voices, speed and volume.  The first time just the second violin and cello play at pp; the second time just the first violin and viola at mp, a little faster.  He allows for a three-time version or a four time, and in the recording I'm using they go four times, the third time still faster with all strings but piano p, and the fourth time everybody ff and pretty dang fast, taking the jokey coda at the end.  He gives the option of having a bass drum play during the moments when all the instruments rest, and this performance by The Boston Chamber Ensemble under Harold Faberman does just that.  Ives notes in the introduction to the score that "It has been observed by friends that three times around is quite enough, while others stood for four - but as this piece was written for a Hallowe'en party and not for a nice concert, the decision must be made by the players, regardless of the feelings of the audience."

I performed in an all-Ives concert with Alea III under the direction of Gunther Schuller a few years ago, and not only did I get mentioned favorably in the Boston Globe, wherein Jeffrey Gantz called my playing in The Unanswered Question "properly disturbing", giving me my career slogan, but was also one of my most successful and enjoyable performing experiences of my life (though we didn't do Hallowe'en).  While rehearsing one of the goofier pieces, Schuller stopped for a second and said, "You know, a lot of pieces Ives wrote were jokes, and some of them ended up being unperformable...but he was a good insurance man."

Happy Hallowe'en.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Visual Music - Ghost Tales by Mathilde Bilbro

Holding the unique position of being Alabama's most prolific composer, Mathilde Bilbro was once an undisputed leader in pedagogical piano music, but like the majority of artist who work in the field her music has been totally forgotten.  I'd also point to the fact that, like most music written for the most beginning of beginners, Bilbro's music isn't exactly worthy of critical attention.  I'd normally not even mention her except for the presence of one of her pieces in my collection of sheet music covers, and once you see it you'll understand its dire need to be recognized among Halloween's visual artifacts.

Christ on a cracker, look at those things.  The unsettling apparitions you see here are from story episodes told through narration accompanied by music, but the thin-line, etched art style has made these spirits far more frightening than anything pedagogical music could even dream of.  It seems you're never safe - getting a snack, going to the well for water, swimming, boating, trying to sleep - every corner of these kids' world is a soul swallowing waiting to happen.  The stories themselves give up any sense of true fear by attempting to rhyme, and sometimes language itself forgets to put its pants on in the morning ("We were skeered for fair!"?).  But do you really need flimsy words for ghosts like that?  I can't even tell if the attic ghost is holding a guitar or a tommy gun, and that's just the kind of thing you don't want to mess around with when the Ghostbusters are called.


Friday, October 24, 2014

One-Offs of the Damned - Fartein Valen's The Churchyard by the Sea

There are few more enduring images in horror than the graveyard, especially those final resting places that appear ruined and abandoned, reminders that our feeble attempts at spiritual consolation and relative immortality are futile in the face of Nature and Time.  Old graveyards and crypts appear so often in horror that it's a wonder that anybody has lived on Earth more recently than a hundred years ago, and there are plenty of classical pieces that use cemeteries as inspirations for some startlingly beautiful music, most memorably our dear friend Clairs de Lune by Abel Decaux.  Most old cemeteries don't have to do anything to haunt us - their static presence is enough to grab us in the darkness that we cannot solve.  While it's hard to beat Decaux in my book, one of the worthiest attempts to top the Graveyard Smash Hits came from an unlikely source - Norwegian serialist Fartein Valen.

Not content to merely copy the Second Viennese School, Valen developed a sophisticated and unique approach to dodecaphony that placed a big emphasis on polyphony and harmonic richness.  While it's probably worth doing a whole article on his work on this blog I can't think of a better way to introduce him than with one of his most colorful works, The Churchyard by the Sea.  Those with even a passing knowledge of geography know that Norway is a country gashed open by fjords, shoreline canyons familiar to Seattlites by their other name, sounds, and as such Norway is a nation run by its harbors.  One can only imagine what the winds must be like on the shore, and before the industrial revolution the only buildings strong enough to forever withstand whatever pounding storm the North Sea can lob East would have been churches.  This brings to mind the horripilative image of generations of gravestones being worn down to nothing by the harsh judgment of the elements, and this is from where Valen draws his ink.  

Valen's approach to depicting a is not strictly horror and most certainly not liturgical, but rather atmospheric, opting for a very slow burn to evoke distant forces making their way towards a last bastion of human faith.  Valen had a great ear for melody and allows a handful of motives gradually emerge in scattered instruments, aiming for accumulation rather than overconfidence.  Absent are stereotypes of orchestral tone-painting (especially those God damned wind machines) as Valen stencils fine lines into each other to let the storm clouds gather, as if standing on a cliff's edge, peering towards a vast Approaching without truly understanding its power.  Orchestrational prowess eventually peers an icy eye our way, as flutter-tongued flutes and sul ponticello violins form a seething drapery behind an eerie horn solo, and the piece remains for the longest time a showcase for section leaders as soloists dominate the melodies.  And just when you think the storm has passed the whole land is engulfed, rocked by vaulting sevenths in the brass and vast string surges.  And then it's gone, leaving whoever is still standing uncomprehending of the storm's intent, knowing only the way it changed the face of his soul and the world around him.

"Sure," you may say, "that's all fine and good, but what's the horror in some rain splashing on rocks?  I thought you said this was a chop-'em-up."  And you'd be right - there's no supernatural elements or explicit deaths, but The Churchyard by the Sea manages to frighten by the sheer power of setting a tableaux, and that's no small feat considering that we literally see nothing.  Horror is such a visual experience that we often forget about the mind's eye's ability to create images more terrifying than anything we can see in the real world, and Valen's sound world here is singularly haunting in a way words can hardly express.  His horror is both visceral and existential, cool to the touch and impossible to forget.  Horror's first principle is that we are always more afraid by what could be than what isand few orchestral works are steeped so fully in that truth than this one.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

One-Offs of the Damned - Aaron Copland's Grohg

Yes, it's been quite a while since these blogs trembled with excitement, and as Halloween is the time when spirits walk the Earth once more there's no time like the present for a resurrection.  I love Halloween and all things horror but, like I mentioned in my articles on Abel Decaux's Clairs de lune and Tina Davidson's 7 Macabre Songs classical pieces themed on horror are few and far between.  The handful of horrific pieces that get regular play (Night on Bald Mountain, Danse Macabre, Erwartung and Wozzeck, the Witch's Sabbath movement of Symphonie Fantastique) are fine but we've heard them so many times that the real horror is the realization that the classical repertoire has crept into a soul-crushing stasis.  That's why I'm using the rest of this month to spotlight some hidden frights in the unknown rep, and why not start things off with the biggest name I could muster, Aaron Copland.

The earliest of Copland's work dates from the 20's and his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, and in 1922 a German film escaped the legal attack of Bram Stoker's widow to be released to an entranced public - F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu.  A pioneer in location filming and Expressionistic design, the film made a huge impression at the time and has continued to scare and inspire to this day, due not only to the continuing success of its parent novel Dracula but to the creation of one of the most striking and original movie vampires ever, Count Orloff.  Copland was among the film's admirers and in the following few years created a one-act ballet drawn from the film called Grohg, a fine made-up vampire name if I ever heard one.  Started as an exercise, it was completed in 1925 after his return to America and was later recycled to make the Dance Symphony, the only work to be recorded by RCA Victor's Composer's Competition out of its five winners (more on that in another article).  I'm sure that you're curious as to which one is better, but as Halloween is the season of surprises I'll let you track down the much-more-common Symphony and join me in savoring the original recipe.

The scenario of Grohg, written by Copland's filmmaker friend Harold Clurman, reads like a choreographer's first attempt at combining the words "dance" and "horror" but it somehow manages to be just right.  The eponymous Grohg is a sorcerer who uses the evening to summon the dead in order to...get  First the dancers are just the coffin bearers, an image ripped from Nosferatu's chilling scene of a plague overtaking the town Count Orlok takes residence in (but with dancing, of course).  Grohg enters after a bit and the dancers pay him their respects.  Grohg then revives a teenager who is frightened by the sorcerer, so Grohg strikes him dead (after a xylophonic dance, of course).  Next up is an opium addict who sways to a smoky jazz tune, and apparently this act is enough for Grohg to pity the man so much as to undo the spell and let him rest.  No good vampire (?) story would be salacious enough without a sex angle, so Grohg resurrects a prostitute, one so good at her job that the presumably immortal sorcerer is smitten with the first hooker he brings back from the dead (really puts a whole new meaning into "necromancer").  As their dance draws into an embrace he starts hallucinating and believes the corpses are laughing at him, and let that be a lesson to you, young impressionable men - sexual insecurity can last you centuries if you don't get over yourself.  Grohg joins in what is now a massive danse macabre, getting so worked up as to throw the prostitute into the crowd.  The dance dies down (heh) and Grohg is left alone on stage in a beam of light, his form receding as the music reprises the opening grave chords (heh heh).

One of the most striking things about Grohg is how many of Copland's signature tics, such as gravely suspended stacks of polychords, bell-pinging motor rhythms and deft synthesis of jazz elements, are already present in a score this early in his career, a mark of a strong artistic personality resistant to the idea of compromising one's creative fingerprints for the sake of getting pieces finished.  Sure, it's not exactly Appalachian Spring 0.5 but who wants that, anyway?  The obvious influences of the breathtaking revolutionaries of modern ballet saturate the score but are invigorating rather than overbearing.  The orchestration is inventive and enriches Copland's musical ideas rather than smothering them, especially touches like a prominent English horn part, the traditionally skeletal timbral combination of piano and xylophone and the novel dead-skin timbre of strings played col legno (struck with the wood of the bow).  While Copland's resolve and imagination hadn't yet fully grown (or gained confidence) his music is always charming and engaging, even in its more canned, even entombed (heh heh heh!)* moments.  

I can't say that any of it is particularly scary, lacking the titanic savagery of The Rite of Spring and the searing psychological terror of the Second Viennese psycho-triumphs, but in a way that's just fine for Halloween.  As I alluded to in my article on the electronic project Slang Halloween isn't about being truly scary but rather as a way to use concocted specters as harmless representations of true horrors so we can laugh in the face of death and spend millions on candy.  Let's be perfectly honest - when was the last time you were actually frightened on Halloween, outside of some excellent horror movies and the poor excuse for fear elicited by being startled?  In fact, most Halloween stuff is geared to put grins on faces, and a lot of it is openly funny.  Grohg is a sustained celebration of that mood, and some moments (especially the prostitute dance) are pretty funny, almost quaint in their idea of horror.  The wildest music is the "mocking" section, and Copland really lets the clarinets and trumpets rip with guffaws.  In that sense Grohg ultimately pays much more homage to Danse Macabre than Wozzeck, putting a savory veneer on the soul-freezing oblivion of death.  I can't say it has much of anything to do with Nosferatu or Dracula or even vampires, but there are other Dracula ballets and that dang Philip Glass score so those hang-ups can take a hike so the rest of us can enjoy Grohg's little ritual bal.  In case you're wondering why the piece hasn't made it to your local ballet company's program, Grohg was shelved after Copland reworked it into the Dance Symphony and was thought lost until a full score was found in the Library of Congress, and the orchestra version was premiered in 1992, getting recorded by Oliver Knussen and the Cleveland Orchestra along with a couple other Copland rarities for the sadly defunct Argo label.  What's not defunct is YouTube and a bright star uploaded the work in full along with the section names, and that's the kind of generosity that I can claim inspires memories off trick-'r-treating and hopefully rake in the cash like everybody else this time of year.  All joking aside, Grohg is a warm and gooey confection, a Ballet of the Living Dead you can wrap like a scarf around your Halloween night, and hopefully I'll let some more Pieces that Go Forte in the Night out of the bag before the month is up.  Stay tuned and, hopefully, scared.