Friday, March 28, 2014

Shadows Magic and Macabre - Two Poetic Piano Suites by American Women Composers

While there's several warehouses full of settings of poetry by classical composers, there aren't nearly as many pieces based on poetry but don't set the words.  The latter half of the 19th century was chockablock with tone-poems, vast swaths of programmatic music inspired by poetry or novels or whatsits, but most of those have tripped into the gaping maw of history and there hasn't been much modern action to take its place.  There have been a few, such as Irwin Bazelon's Prelude to Hart Crane's "The Bridge" for string orchestra (one of the better recent pieces for the ensemble by an American), but I've been particularly interested in digging up bill-fitting piano works ever since I found Martin Bresnick's For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, a 35-minute suite for speaking pianist after the William Blake book that includes a video projection using Blake's illuminations.  Another catalyzer was David Diamond's The Tomb of Melville, inspired by another Hart Crane poem, "At Melville's Tomb", and quite possibly Diamond's most beautiful work (don't worry, its time is coming).  However, today's subjects are both chronologically jammed between those three works and more female in their authorship.  They were conveniently recorded as the first and last pieces of an obscure piano album, New Dimensions: Music by Women, by the pianist Paula Ennis-Dwyer, and an individual more blessed than myself uploaded the works to YouTube.  Separated by many years of artistic shifts and a generation gap or two, the two works are fascinating nuggets in the rep that could be quite inspiring to composers with cross-pollination aspirations if anybody had heard them.

Miriam Gideon (1906-1996) really shouldn't need an introduction here, as she consistently proved herself over her long career to be one of America's most consistently excellent composers.  Her work maintained modernist rigor and creativity while also exuding vast amounts of charm and excitement for layaudiences, a combination that gives her music a distinctly (and deliciously) American feel.  Among her some-150-or-so works, my favorite (that I've heard) is Of Shadows Numberless (1966), the opener to New Dimensions and one of Gideon's works available at her ACA page.  It's inspiration is John Keats's exquisite "Ode to a Nightingale", a near-hallucinogenic tidal wave of nature imagery and high Romance.  However, rather than go the tone-poem route and paint each word in note form, Gideon picked a handful of depictable lines from which to form a suite, similar to how Persichetti made is Poems for piano.

The first movement is "Magic casements opening on seas of perilous foam", and you hardly need music to drink in that line's velvet tones.  Gideon's language is comparable to elegantly contrapuntal polytonality, though all the lines and harmonies are so neatly interlocked that easy analysis is both a distant dream and totally unnecessary.  The sweetly clashing lines moving in opposing motion vaguely intimate fine stencils or lace, and they nicely set up the suite's air of gossamer mystery.  As surreal as the piece can get Gideon isn't afraid to clear the air with a nice melodic reprise or turn for the cute.  The second movement, "The blushful Hippocrene", takes a mocking, caustic turn for the bounce, swerving erratically between 2/4 and 3/8 until a "distantly; dance-like" section dons the una corda dampers.  Hippocrene was a fountain on Mt. Helicon, formed by Pegasus's hooves and revered by the Muses, and drinking from it was said to provide poetic inspiration.  Methinks that Gideon used this section to turn the traditionally stuffy Greek mythology that so many Romantic poets couldn't escape into a burlesque act, and the results are both funny and elusive.  The third movement is a half-page reprise of "Magic casements opening", and the fourth moves into tense realms in its depiction of "The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves".  An interruptful perpetuum mobil with a coy double-trio, it's an easy cousin to Bartók's Diary of a Fly, the black key-white key interlacing reminiscent of the incessant chatter of a fly's wings, and nothing bad has ever come from depicting a summer eve, so things don't get too annoying.  The most beautiful movement is the fifth, "White hawthorne and the pastoral eglantine", and these pictures of white hawthorn and eglantine rose are mere tastes of the movement's suffused dream quilt.  It's core is mirrored, bitonal chords, split and rocking under an una corda blanket and a distant, pinging melody.  I won't spoil it for you, suffice to say that the movement impressionists with the best of 'em.  The final movement, "Adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades past the near meadows...", begins with a quasi-recitative before arpeggiating into a reprise of "Magic casements", and in the final bars Gideon reveals the most poignant variation on the opening figure one could ever imagine, closing the case on a gleaming note.

Tina Davidson (b. 1952) is a composer I'd never heard of before I found the recording of the Gideon, and her recent developments may keep me from investigating further.  After dabbling with Crumbian extended techniques in her college days, Davidson fell down the post-minimalist stairs and hasn't gotten back up after some decades.  Before she left her shoelaces untied she crafted 7 Macabre Songs (1979) for piano, based on the poems of the same name by Howard Nemerov.  I knew about the poems before, as they were set to music by the article-beckoning Louis Calabro, and the poems were actually dedicated to him, though I don't know how the two men knew each other or if the poems were published before or after the songs.  Coincidentally, Calabro was one of Davidson's teachers at Bennington College, and I can only assume that his settings were the inspiration for Davidson to write her own set.

If Gideon's muse was luxuriant and Old World, Davidson abides by her muse by keeping things simpler and twenty times creepier.  She's right to do so - the source poems are slivers of a malicious grin, epigramatically short and deeply unsettling.  Nemerov was a stickler for strict forms, and the neat rhyming schemes of the "songs" only heightens the Woyzeck-ian nightmare state.  Davidson uses each song to expand on single textural and technical ideas, focusing more on sound effects than theory.  "The Ground swayed like a Sea" follows tidal surges of chromatic clusters and their twinkling, coldly dramatic crests.  "The officer wore a thin smile/Over his dental plate" stomps on stopped strings and minor seconds, its stifled horror reminiscent of John Cage's prepared piano works, such as Root of an Unfocus; 100 Monopoly dollars will go to whomever can name a recent movie that used this piece to great effect.  "Roses were planted and grew again/Out of my pain" morphs between tinkling upper keys and string plucking so smoothly it's nearly unnoticeable, like how you can't see plants grow but they somehow get bigger behind your back.  "Under the pie crust...I must" employs that trick wherein the pianist silently depresses the bottom octave of the piano and holds it with the middle pedal, and when they play notes above it without the right pedal they leave a resonant trace behind, a great dramatic effect pioneered by George Crumb.  "It is forbidden to go further/Darkness stand in the wall" takes a break from terror to allow nostalgically atonal melodies to unfold in the night.  It's the closest the set gets to conventional expression, and it's a stark contrast to the evil humor of "My husband bluebeard has a blue beard".  The swift scales and claws-out trilling is a very old-school technique for musical horror, at least as old as the witch's sabbath from Symphonie Fantasique.  Davidson is smart enough to save the best for last, and "My death with a nail in his foot" takes things inside the piano for closure in the Black World.  The pianist has to slap the lowest strings with their hand and play a note while stopping it, sliding along the length of the string to touch off harmonics.  Higher notes occasionally poke out a melody, but the piece is trapped in a permanent dramatic stasis - until the very end, when a measly three notes eke out one of the best eerie endings I've ever heard in a piece of music.

The other two works on the album aren't up to the Gideon/Davidson snuff, though if you're a fan of Shulamit Ran or Nancy Van de Vate you may want to spin them 'round.  No matter - the outer works are more than good enough for a sit-down with your record player.  Of Shadows Numberless is a lush Old World Ode that has become one of my new favorite piano pieces, and 7 Macabre Songs is the best horror-themed piano piece I've heard since Abel Decaux's Clairs de lune.  The performances by Paula Ennis-Dwyer are excellent, simultaneously sensitive and daring and quite attentive to the dramatic potentials of the music.  There's another recording of the Gideon, by the pianist Margaret Mills on an album that includes works by Elizabeth Lauer, Richard Wilson and Anthony Newman, but Ennis-Dwyer's is much better.  The works are contrasting testaments to the power of artistic cross-pollination and worthy additions to the piano rep, and there's still time to put on theme recitals for Spring and Halloween if anybody's up for the challenge.  Gideon and Davidson drank from the blushful Hippocrene, and what sprang forth made everybody's day.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Opium Dreams - the Grand Illusions of Gabriel von Wayditch

The term "outsider artist" is as annoying as it is difficult to define - thrown around far too often, constantly shifting the line between outsider and simply unique, and ultimately a marketing buzzword.  There's simply no exact demarcation line for when an artist qualifies as an outsider, and oftentimes what people mean by "outsider" is "talented, determined and mentally ill".  The term comes from the study of the art of asylum inmates, and all the qualifiers for the "genre" come from these artists.  The general idea is that these artists are disconnected from reality just enough so that they make art but have no need to follow pre-existing forms and conventions, and it's easy to see how people could label anybody sufficiently left of the dial as an outsider.  This problem will only get worse as the years pass, as it is easier these days not only for anybody to create art but even easier to distribute it to a global audience, making the inside/outside demarcation even fuzzier.  That doesn't mean that the outsiders aren't trying, and before the Grand Hooie that is the internet and digital self-publication came about Gabriel von Wayditch (1888-1969) spent his life crafting 14 grand operas that to this day remain largely unperformed.  Perhaps the answer lays in the fact that they range up to eight-and-a-half hours long and can take place anywhere from Jerusalem to Venus.

Wayditch was the child of a Hungarian inventor, Dr. Aloysius Wayditch von Verbovac, and a Prussian Baroness, Helena von Dönhoff, and among the former's accomplishments were a deep-sea thermometer and the concept of 3-D film in 1913.  The concept of 3-D movies in the 1910's makes my head explode, but his concept was deemed impractical and never implemented, his contributions unrecognized when 3-D did eventually become popular 40 years later.  He was trained in piano, composition and conducting at the National Hungarian Academy of Music (now the Franz Liszt Academy of Music) under Emil von Sauer and Hans von Koessler.  While I don't expect anybody to recognize the latter, he ended up being the teacher to arguably the most important generation of Hungarian composers ever, a class including Bartók and Kodály.  Those guys went on to develop what we think of as Hungarian, and to some extent Eastern European, classical music (with help from plenty of others), so Wayditch's proximity adds a fascinating note not only to his biography but also to his music.  The problem with asking the Influence question is that Wayditch moved with his father to New York in 1911, the second year into work on his first opera, Opium Dreams.  His family's fortunes ran out, but Wayditch kept on composing without any promise of performance or even understanding, separated from Hungary but still steeped in its culture.  Opium Dreams, featuring his own Hungarian libretto and a 110-piece orchestra, lasted four hours and was never performed then and is still unperformed today.  He pulled a couple of orchestral suites out of it, as well as a performably short piano piece, Reminisces from Opium Dreams.  Of course, that doesn't mean any university holds a copy of that score, or any Wayditch scores, because history has a way of making me angry.  The rest of his compositional career was spent in near total isolation in the Bronx, and each piece following Opium Dreams was enormous on nearly every level.

The next two operas he wrote were uncharacteristically short, 90' and 45' respectively, but were still in Hungarian and required huge orchestras - The Caliph's Magician and Jesus Before Herod.  One can see a pattern emerging with the subjects of his operas: they all revolve around fantastical, exotic, ancient or even alien lands and peoples (especially intriguing is Venus Dwellers).  While this is nothing new, Wayditch upped the stakes by having frequent scene changes and complex plots, making narrative clarity an absolute top priority for anybody attempting to stage these things.  In fact, for his entire operatic oeuvre, Wayditch only saw one opera staged in his lifetime, Horus, in 1939 by the Philadelphia La Scale Opera Company.  While we have no recording of this performance, assessing it is even more difficult because of its review by the notoriously anti-modern Henry Pleasants, author of the anti-modernist diatribe The Agony of Modern Music.  The performance was later included favorably by Nicolas Slonimsky in his book Music Since 1900, an encyclopedia of important musical events of the 20th century (what he saw of it, anyways), but that wasn't enough for anybody to revive it.  His biggest opera was his last, The Heretics, an eight-and-a-half-hour epic to presumably be spread across multiple evenings, and he died while writing page 2,850 of the full orchestral score.  Before I found out about this, I thought that nobody in the 20th century even came close to Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji in terms of the sheer volume of music written, and while Sorabji's collected scores most likely eclipse Wayditch's in page count alone I don't think anybody else has hand-written a single piece 2,850 pages long, let alone an opera.  That is, except for the Guiness World Records holder for the longest opera, Robert Wilson's 13-and-1/2-hour The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, though that piece's legitimacy as an opera is extremely questionable.

After Wayditch's death, his son Walter was determined to get his music exposed to the world, and in the 70's both The Caliph's Magician and Jesus Before Herod were recorded on the Musical Heritage Society label.  After Walter's death in 2005, all the scores were miraculously delivered to Frank Oteri, a notable rabblerouser of modern American music and one of Walter's best allies.  Oteri has become Wayditch's greatest advocate, writing the Grove Music Encyclopedia for him and re-issuing the MHS recordings on CD, which you can get here and here (the second "here" is cheaper).  He also wrote an article, Enter the World of Gabriel von Wayditch, as part of a Wayditch retrospective mounted at the Brooklyn Museum by the Hungarian Cultural Center that also included a performance of Reminisces from Opium Dreams by pianist Lloyd Arriola and a ballet featuring orchestral excerpts from his pieces.  

Of course, this still has nothing to do with what the operas sound like.  In the liner notes to the CD, Oteri warns that the two operas were written before Wayditch had reached his matured style, but after I snagged the thing and gave it a spin I can safely say that there's not one problem with that.  The operas were written in 1917 and 1918 respectively and sound the part - Wayditch's early language is an intoxicating, dark fairy tale vernacular, much like if Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle wanted to be as emotionally fraught as Strauss's Death and Transfiguration.  Everything is big, from the orchestrations to the dynamics, to the phrasing, and I can only imagine how exhausting it would be to mount even the 45-minute Jesus Before Herod, for the orchestra and especially the singers.  Wayditch was a great student of impressionism and its tricks, though while much of the technical framework will be familiar to fans of stuff like Stravinsky's The Firebird, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Florent Schmitt's La tragédie de Salomé, everything put together is still quite personal.  Wayditch was composing at full strength, and even listening to the operas can be an exhausting experience, though in the best possible sense of the word.  They manage to avoid being too dated despite how old-fashioned they can seem, staying ahead of the curve in terms of imagination and low repetition.  As with all opera recordings the pieces can seem trying simply because one can't see the action as it unfolds on screen, and the performances by the Budapest National Opera orchestra and the San Diego Symphony Orchestra are not exactly perfect, but considering what they have to work with the listener should leave these minor quibbles at the door.

I can tell that some of you are dying to hear them now, and unfortunately no blessed individuals have uploaded them to YouTube.  However, I can give you a taste, but the catch is that it's inside of one of the more maddeningly unfilled holes in Wayditch's possible revival.  In 2009, the documentary studio Normal Life Pictures released a trailer for an in-progress documentary on Wayditch, showing footage of Walter Wayditch showing the filmmakers his father's manuscripts, which are even more intimidating in front of the eyes as they are in the imagination.  Playing behind it are excerpts from The Caliph's Magician and Jesus Before Herod.  Any viewer hearing that ecstatic, wide-eyed stuff and seeing the huge scores would doubtless be interested in seeing the full thing.  Sadly, the page on Normal Life's site has been taken down, and there doesn't seem to be any current information on the project, once again stopping a possible Wayditch revival in its tracks.  That doesn't mean you can't do your part, though.  The scores are out there - Oteri has them all, and perhaps with some support he could commission them to be scanned and copied.  You can grab the CD reissue of the MHS LPs at whatever available price suits you best, listen until your ears fall off, and then start pestering Normal Life Pictures to get to releasing the documentary or at least leaking the raw footage so people like me don't have to camp out in front of their New York headquarters with weaponized Michael Moore DVD's.

Could one describe Wayditch as an "outsider artist"?  He was certainly outside the American musical scene, not only in his heritage and compositional style but also socially, as he had virtually no contact with anybody in the scene during his life.  However, there's no part of me that believes him to be an outsider to classical music itself, and from what I've heard there were plenty of composers with stranger music who were regular fixtures in major musical organizations, such as John Cage and Edgard Varèse.  He was certainly quite sane - it would have taken an incredible intellect and fortitude to write that much music with any kind of focus.  Another term for outsider art is "visionary art", a label often ascribed to art created from subjective religious or spiritual experiences, and while Wayditch's music has nothing to do with a religious experience (such as Arthur Ferris's angelically informed harp-violins) one could call his fantastic settings and grand scopes as "visionary", but that's not particularly helpful.  It is marketable, so if Wayditch ever does get the publicity push he deserves I'd expect to see both "visionary" and "outsider" to crop up quite a bit in the ads.  And really, who cares if they're accurate or not?  Wayditch is Wayditch in spite of labeling, and his music is astonishing in its scope and wonderful to hear, so if anybody reading this is an opera patron I've got a few shows you could suggest for your local company.  They can't do Aida EVERY year.