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.


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