Thursday, May 22, 2014

Isolate Aquarelles - Lucien Durosoir

One of the most hazardous variables in the life of a musician, one that is rarely considered in a full appraisal of an artist's life, is the role of the artist's family.  The question is not only how much they supported the artist's development, but also applies to how their work is treated after their death.  A particularly sad case I came across is Thomas Peterson, an absolutely obscure Seattle composer who went unannounced through his whole life and quietly passed away in 2006.  I found a few works of his on Dartmouth professor Larry Polansky's website, and Polansky led me to Peterson's old friend David Mahler.  Mahler told me that the only kin who came in contact with Peterson's works after his death was his sister, who didn't understand the value of the work, and threw the majority of it out with the trash.  Part of this included his unique quarter-tone counterpoint system, developed by detuning a chintzy Casio keyboard and playing it alongside a normally tuned one.  I can't begin to tell you how heartbreaking that is, especially because of how rare successfully self-taught composers are - Meyer Kupferman's career consistency is doubly inspiring in light of this statistic.  This brings us to Lucien Durosoir (1878-1955), a virtuoso violinist who taught himself composition, making little to no effort to show his work to the world.  If it wasn't for the discovery of his manuscripts by his son, Durosoir's work may have been stuffed into the dustbin of history, and France would have been deprived of one of its most fascinating auto-didactic Classical oeuvres.

Entering the Paris Conservatoire at age 14, Durosoir enjoyed great success as a soloist, distinguishing himself with Parisian premieres of important late-Romantic violin concertos by Brahms, Strauss and Gade.  He worked as a stretcher-carrier in the first World War, and during his duties became increasingly drawn to composition, collecting any and all scores that took his fancy.  In 1921 he was offered the first violin chair of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but was involved in an accident before he could accept the post and was forced to give up playing the violin entirely.  His retirement separated him from Parisian artistic circles, and his dormant compositional aspirations took flight.  Receiving virtually no input from contemporary figures and trends, he developed a rich personal voice, aware of his time but pointing towards the internal timelessness of his own psyche.

His Trio avec piano, one of his most extended and representative works, shows off his penchant for unique harmonic textures and extreme drama right off the bat.  A hypnotic piano motive anchors the listener as the strings swoon and melt into exotic outer harmonies, often employing harmonics and different bowing techniques to heighten the otherworldly air.  There are times when Durosoir can't keep his imagination still, employing so many contrasting textural and harmonic ideas at once that the piece feels ready to collapse under its own weight (à la Jean Huré's Piano Quintet).  He had that lovely ability to introduce recurring ideas in the middle of a seemingly rhapsodic section only to pull them out of his hat later on to create long-form cohesion, and even when the Trio seems to slip into noodling a familiar ornament or color surfaces.  Despite this I wouldn't recommend Durosoir's music for those looking for a half-hour of incessant thematic pounding à la Franck's Symphony in D Minor*, as the arc trajectory of the Trio is more akin to a mountain range or the life cycle of a phoenix, a series of rhapsodic episodes linked by reiterations the mesmeric opening section - until the halfway point (13' 50'').  Even the yearning adagio of the second movement can't fully control the tendril-like movements of the strings, and one can't help but think of the sight underneath a carpet of lily-pads, their vines tangling organically in the dark.  One also can't help but read the video's description and see the uploader's description of the movement - "a piercing sadness from another time."  I'll admit that Durosoir's harmonies occasionally seem a bit "I wrote this down but didn't actually listen to it", a tad sour for the rest of the piece, though I also get the feeling that the performers of the Trio didn't quite understand the piece as a whole.  These attributes are entirely understandable when you consider that Durosoir had little-to-no performance opportunities for his work, composing merely for himself.  The last "movement" is the most volatile of the bunch, ornaments and spare notes leaping from the fold without warning and harmonies at their most unpredictable.  However, shades of the opening phase in under different cloaks, and the movement winds down for a bit before erupting in the final seconds.

It may be a while before the music world fully understand's Durosoir's music, as is the case with isolated artistic passions.  His works are certainly concert-worthy and don't require ludicrous instrumentation or degrees in parapsychology, but there are those moments which aren't entirely, shall we say, "provable".  However, those quixotic wrinkles are not only valuable to his artistic M.O. but also in the spirit of Debussy's dream of a lush musical world unconstrained by traditional notions of organicism and apartment-complex top-to-bottom order.  His pieces reflect a wild internal world that can't be pruned to fit a front lawn, one far more reminiscent of the winding roots of an ancient forest, paths down which only shadows can travel.  That being said, there's always room for simplicity, and among his works his Berceuse for cello and piano makes a calm and gentle end to a program of dense abandon, featuring one of his most poignant melodies.  Once again, real beauty has no need to explain itself, and Durosoir's sui generis oeuvre has enough mystery and sincerity to endure on its own energies.  Here's to another rock overturned, revealing rich soils and the untrimmed growth they bear.


*If pressed to describe the Franck Symphony in a word I can't imagine a better candidate than "gooey".  A lot of orchestra subscriber headaches might be fixed by simply replacing all instances of Franck's over-insistent ode to textural opaqueness with Paul Dukas's much fresher (and far less performed) Symphony in C.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Corridors of Azure Shells - David Diamond's The Tomb of Melville

While Hart Crane is considered to be far and away one of America's greatest poets, there haven't been nearly as many settings of his poetry to music as other American laureates such as Whitman and Dickinson (or even Sara Teasdale).  The only attempts that came to my mind without research were Elliott Carter's profound setting of the third part of "Voyages", simply called Voyage (dubiously performed here), and Burr Van Nostrand's "setting" of "Voyages" as Voyages in a White Building I.  This lack is easy to divine once you read his work, which is so exotic and dense in its imagery and themes that setting it to music is almost a cheapening tactic.  Some enamored composers have avoided this problem by simply writing absolute music and sticking Cranian titles at the top, such as Anthony Iannaccone with his Woodwind Quintet no. 2: Scenes after Hart Crane and Irwin Bazelon with his Prelude to Hart Crane's "The Bridge" for string orchestra (though he did manage to actually set Crane in his chamber song cycle Legends and Love Letters).  David Diamond's only foray into Crane's world went this direction, though its dimensions are far more intimate at 88 keys* (much like Miriam Gideon's exquisite Of Shadows Numberless) yet manages to out-profound those works by a not-shabby margin, making its permanent vacation in OOP Limbo all the more disturbing.

Despite the fact that Diamond (1915-2005) was once as famous and highly touted as the likes of Copland, Harris and Piston, he is remembered today almost exclusively for Rounds, a string orchestra staple that is far, far away from his most interesting work.  There was a revival of interest in his work in the 80's and 90's due to the tireless performance and recording efforts of Seattle Symphony conductor Gerard Schwarz and his contract with Delos Records, and his late-80's wind band piece Hearts Music gets some play hither and thither.  I have no hesitations in saying that he made an extraordinary case for mid-century American Neo-Classicism, displaying breathtaking creativity and mastery in modal harmony, counterpoint and structured lyricism, and his later, more chromatic works are even more striking.  His piano works span his whole career, from the 30's through the 90's, and I'm quite puzzled as to how nobody has recorded the majority of his pianostuffs (such as his epic first Piano Sonata and beguiling miniatures like A Myriologue and Gambit).  While I've never had the time to plow through the 66-page Sonata I did have time for the 5-page Tomb, and several playings later it firmly remains the best piano work of his I've heard.  Anything less would have been doing Crane disappointed, as the poem he chose for his subject is "At Melville's Tomb":

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

That quote at the top of the page is included opposite the first page of music in the score, and I don't know if he just worked with that fragment or with the whole poem.  I do know he had deep appreciation for Melville at the time of this piece's composition (1944-49), as he set a number of his poems to music in the latter half of the 40's, such as his achingly sad Epitaph.  Tomb was the apex of his Melville pieces both in quality and in chronology, its long gestation period suggesting several attempts at a Melvillian piano piece framed by the Crane poem and his Melville songs, as if each new songs spurred revisions and additions to an obsessive central task.  Considering all the moments of vivid invention the piece offers, it's no wonder he tinkered it into existence across several years worth of work.

A distant hunting-horn motif introduces us to Diamond's keen eye for internal structure, the figure nothing more than mirrored minor thirds but already a nice piece of piano writing.  That minor third is the ground from which Tomb's wildflowers grow, fecund enough for unpredictably modal chords and near-improvisatory variation.  That improvisatory feel is bolstered by the use of odd meters, such as 3/4 + 1/8 and 1/4, not to mention the quickly shifting rhythmic structure, giving the pianist a lot of meat to chew on in performance.  Tiny moments creep in only to deepen the sense of mystery, such as that sf major third interjection at the bottom of the first page, and turning on each dime the mercurial path puts in the way is a rewarding challenge.  The sonorities are alternately lacy and beefy, though moments such as the first measure of line 2 of the third page require a very light touch despite most of the large chords' intention to be played with journeying virility.  As with the best elegiac queries Tomb's primary motivation is wanderlust, its dovetailing lines and harmonies pulling the listener through Diamond's emotional hall of mirrors as he processes Crane's overwhelming imagery.  These kinds of pieces remind us that Death has no answers to uncover, its philosophical significance only to reflect our own fears and no more logical or human than craters on the Moon.  Diamond does find resolution, a profound one to boot, but the themes aren't transformed permanently or definitively and Tomb's final moments are just as lusciously ambiguous as the rest of the piece.  A critic eager to make all art a monothematic spiderweb could see parallels to Melville's more existential fictions, such as Moby Dick and Bartelby the Scrivener, but I'd prefer to let Tomb stand as richly unknowable as it is simply because that's the spice of life.

Tomb's out-of-printedness is depressingly easy to understand; its publisher, Leeds Music Corporation, hasn't existed for decades, while most of Diamonds works were published by the surviving firm Southern Music.  Somebody must own the Leeds back catalog, so if I were an enterprising young artist I'd start sending whoever that is semi-sternly-worded e-mails pronto.  I've made getting the score easier here, but an official reprint would do the work better justice than my low-quality scan.  More justice would be a recording more recent than the warbly old tape below, though the unidentified pianist does a fine job traversing the shifts in mood and tempo.  It was uploaded by this man along with a number of other archival Diamond recordings, so it's a good channel to investigate for those entranced by Diamond's sophisticated language.  As Melville, Crane and Diamond are all passed The Tomb of Melville seems an apt elegy for all three, as powerful and challenging as any memorial I've heard.  I'm sure you've got a spare six minutes in your next evening at the keyboard, so do those great men proud and give in to their wanderlust.


*I hate to keep springing these ivory-ticklers on you, as I'm sure many instrumentalists are sick of the piano's despotic grip on the imaginations of solo rep's audience.  I'll try to squeeze in some different one-offs once they arise and are YouTubed, 'kay?  'Kay.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

One-Off - René Blin's Rosace en violet dans la pénombre du soir

God bless the internet and its users' bottomless curiosity, for otherwise I would never have found this secret rosace.  Though a much longer celebration of the Public Domain Renaissance is coming I can say in few words and free from hesitation that the internet's infinite storage space and inexhaustible generosity has allowed once-forgotten pieces to float to the surface and craft a new digital repertoire, free from petty economics and codified tastes.  Most of the music I've covered on this blog wouldn't have made it to my computer so easily without the help of YouTube, IMSLP and many other extraordinary free resources that you have no business ignoring if you love classical music and its potential futures.  That being said, today's work was discovered only very recently but its craftsmanship and emotional heft made singing its praises top priority, and it was found only by the luck of random experimentation.

As I mentioned in my review of Bruce Simonds's Prelude on "Iam sol recedit igneus" organ composition is often a fly-by-night genre, its performers writing a handful of their own works and then moving on with their lives.  As I bit my lips trying desperately not to call the compositional ambitions of these organists "pipe dreams" I remembered that a lack of prolificness is no guarantee of artistic failure ("Of course not!" huffed Abel Decaux.).  Before I checked Worldcat I thought René Blin was one of these guys, but the case is not so much a lack of extant works as much of a lack of works people have bothered to put up on his IMSLP page.  Blin's most notable accomplishment was his work as the organist and choirmaster at Église Sainte-Élisabeth-de-Hongrie for nearly 30 years, though he did publish a few dozen works for organ, piano and choir along the first half of the 20th century.  However, only three of his organ pieces have made it to the loving embrace of the Petrucci Music Library, and while his Organ Symphony does look pretty impressive (or just long) I'd bet dollars to donuts that his Rosace en violet dans la pénombre du soir is his best bet for contemporary immortality.

I suspect that the New Digital Repertoire will include lots of eye-catching titles, and Rosace en violet dans la pénombre du soir (purple rose in the penumbra of the evening) is quite pleasing to the mind's eye as well as the ones in your face.  When I was but a naive viewer of this work I took the title literally and imagined a purple rose bathed in the half-light of the setting sun.  As wonderful as that image is to behold the excellent YouTube performance that I'm using today mentions stained glass, and I decided to do a bit of research.  As you can imagine l'Église Sainte-Élisabeth-de-Hongrie has a lot of exquisite stained glass, and one window in particular got stuck in my eye for its obvious significance to my query:

Yep, those are purple roses, and my research into their meaning uncovered a lot more than I could have guessed.  The miracle of the roses is a Catholic legend that has been attributed to many female Saints, including the Saint Elizabeth of Hungary that loomed large over Blin's work.  I'm not exactly sure of the significance of purple roses in Catholic symbolism, though purple is the color of the Lenten Season and I found a Holy Cross church in Wisconsin that uses different colored roses in their Elizabeth Ministry program, wherein purple roses are reserved for special prayers for families.  There's an air of pain and mourning surrounding the color in the Catholic faith, and while Blin's Rosace is similarly not an upper its inspiration may be much simpler than the baroque hullabaloo of Catholic symbology.  Like the Simonds piece, Rosace is all about the Magic Hour, and soaking in the faint illumination of these flat-yet-deep roses could have been a profound experience for Blin, or at the very least melancholic.  My research on flower symbolism revealed across the board that purple roses stand for enchantment and mystery, quite apt as they're a modern crossbreed and not naturally occurring, and Blin nails both those qualities on the head.

While written in a traditional-enough context of close-voiced liturgical composition Rosace finds its true colors in the brave new harmonic worlds opened up by the fin de siècle Catholic composition tradition helmed by Fauré and the French organ school (and even Satie's Messe des Pauvres in its own way).  There was certainly room in French Catholic music for otherworldliness, as La Belle Époque was all about reviving Catholic mysticism in all its monolithic glory.  Right away Blin drags and disjoints harmonic transitions to create modal dissonance and ambiguity.  The intertwining lines snake through odd off-key notes, allowing the inverse motions to travel up and down the staff with gentle insistence and urgency.  Once the first line of page 2 is near finished louder stops are pulled and a canon at the octave is deployed.  The second line has one of my favorite details -

- as the bottom of the first phrase of the canon subject becomes the texture underneath the next phrase, a nearly invisible detail but a testament to Blin's organ writing.  He also reverses the order of imitation, letting the left hand lead the way for a while, and any sense on paper that that's not as exciting as it sounds should be quelled by the fact that the canon subjects are intensely lyrical, and the slowly marching pedals only heighten the sense of voluptuous loss.  These singing lines give way to glassy planing in a delicately exotic mode, the searching four-part chords intensifying and finally unwinding into a mysterious E sus-2 chord.  Again, talking about the piece does little justice to its value to the soul, and thankfully the YouTubing organist Jonathan Orwig has a taste for unearthing fine French organ music from the turn of the 20th century.  His performance also turns up on the piece's IMSLP page, meaning you can download it for free and keep Rosace on your mp3 player for those wee-hour bouts of introspection wherein all the best thinking is done.

While I may never turn to René Blin's other works his Rosace is a dark jewel of the French organ school, and as there's already more than one YouTube performance available we may be lucky enough to see it pop up in recitals and even commercial recordings.  We need more pieces like it to surface for classical music to stay relevant and enchanting, and luckily the internet has assured that your new favorite piece may only be a few mouse clicks away.


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Cosmic Visions of Vytautas Bacevičius

While I'll admit that I don't follow truly contemporary music as much as I should, I have been to an awful lot of concerts primarily composed of works written by my generation or slightly older, the proverbial Hope For Our Future.  While that music was many things, I can sum up 90% of it in two words: emotionally empty.  I don't know exactly what's going wrong in composition education (at least in this country), but the majority of new music I've heard from college students has a certain amount of technical polish and a professional attitude but either lacks heart or lacks the ability to communicate heart through music.  My theory is that, as more and more people are going to college and signing up for arts tracks, a higher percentage ordinary people are put into positions where they are forced to produce works that express their unique, honest voice - and that's the very thing most college-aged arts students don't express.  A big culprit is composition education's relationship to classical commercialism, and one can see the pressures facing a fledgling composer to go either commercially viable or most definitely non-commercial, with these ideas being recognizable, mutually exclusive spheres.  Classical music is often marketed on its supposed accessibility and emotional impact, and many of the biggest names in classical music today write largely tonal, crowd-pleasing programmers (such as two of the most popular contemporary orchestral works today, John Adams's Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Jennifer Higdon's blue cathedral), and so impressionable young people see emotional communication as part of the "commercial" M.O. and think that "serious" music can't have any of it.  Not helping this is the fact that many people see "emotion" in music as "sentimentality", but it's best not to get bogged down by semantics.  Education is controlled by its desire to be standardized and provable, and as such composition teachers focus on composers whose works have clear organizational principles, teaching students that they will have to explain their work in plain English (especially for thesis committees), and therefore their work needs to adhere to strict principles of their own design.  Crafting original technical parameters as well as effective emotional statements is quite difficult, and so the second big culprit is the inability of young composers to realize emotional effectiveness in the grinding work of codified composition.  It may also be as simple as a glut of ordinary people training in the arts producing a higher percentage of artists who have nothing to say, but that accusation is depressing and unhelpful (though not necessarily false).  Shouldn't artistic youth be a celebration of creative abandon?  Isn't that why we love Petrushka as much as we do?

A small solution to this would be to start teaching a new classification of composers, an elusive and brilliant class I'd like to call Pantonal Visionaries.  These composers are defined by their use of every radical modernist technique they can come up with in an effort to create transcendent emotional experiences through music, writing from enormous interior worlds and shunning normalcy.  These figures have an obvious appeal to younger artists as their work is less focused on provable economics and more on ingenious howling at the moon. The father of all of them could be said to be Gustav Mahler, whose 10 massive symphonies touched upon universal themes of man's place in the cosmos and attempted to encapsulate all of life through music.  There's a whole line (kinda) of Americans beginning with Charles Ives, who embraced classical and colloquial musics, tonality and atonality, pleasant music and noise in a Whitmanian celebration of total artistic expression.  The next in line after him would be Carl Ruggles, whose scant few works are equal in drama to the War in Heaven and were carved out by his utterly unique, trial-and-error system of atonal counterpoint.  Two acutely obscure descendants are George Flynn and Nicholas Thorne, both of whom will be coming to this blog and the latter of which is one of my favorite composers of all time.  Two other sui generis figures qualify, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji and Dane Rudhyar, both of whom are blessed loons and whose musics couldn't be farther apart in techniques and inspirations.  I'd also be kicking myself if I didn't include Abel Decaux, whose sole composition took Impressionism to staggering new possibilities in the name of poetic horror.  And lastly, there's the great post-Chopin mystic Alexander Scriabin, who began in that wonderfully Russian tradition of piano miniatures much in the style of his contemporaries and ended far away from tonality, seeking a far-off star of private theosophy.

I've left Scriabin for last because he was a primary member of a "tradition" of which today's subject, the Lithuanian composer-pianist Vytautas Bacevičius, felt he was a descendant.  The other figures included the dreadfully underperformed André Jolivet and the beguiling ultra-modernist Edgard Varèse, and those three figures crafted masterful works enormous in their conception and dense in color and technical innovation.  Bacevičius stands apart from these men not only by his unique artistic voice but also his tragic obscurity, an issue that is slowly being resolved only very, very recently, largely due to the efforts of Lithuanian pianist Gabrielus Alekna.  It has been a while since we visited the Baltic states, the last time being many months ago when I talked about the Latvian composer Volfgangs Dārziņš, and while Lithuania is no stranger to artistic visionaries (like the fine composer and brilliant painter Mikolajus Čiurlionis Bacevičius is easily the most original and fascinating composer I've ever heard from its shores.

Bacevičius (1905-1970) was born in the Polish city of Łódź to a Lithuanian-Polish family, one whose children were taught not only music but also to celebrate both of their heritages.  Some may recognize the name of Grażyna Bacewicz, and that's because she's Vytautas's sister; he moved to Lithuania in the 20's and adopted the Lithuanian form of his name as his identity matured.   Grażyna's music is Neo-Classical, and the complete disparity of their music is not only a testament to their distinct imaginations but also to the quality of their upbringing.  After studying with Nikolai Tcherepnin (father of Alexander and grandfather of Ivan) in Paris he returned to Lithuania and had great success as a pianist as well as a composer, becoming the Lithuanian Chair of the International Society for Contemporary Music.  However, while touring in Argentina, the Nazis invaded Poland and Lithuania, cutting him off from his family and nation.  He settled in New York in 1940 and would remain there until his death, never again stepping foot in Lithuania or Poland, and his cultural and ideological isolation is most likely the prime suspect in his obscurity.  He maintained a career as a pianist and teacher, performing many of his own works, and his self-concertizing led to the publication of a number of his piano works, mostly in the late 60's by Mercury Music Corporation.  Though now defunct, Mercury was a major player in the 40's and 50's with plenty of highly regarded composers in their roster, but while their engravings of his works are excellent the covers do nothing for him, a clear indicator that they had no idea how to promote his work.  Just look at this:

Now that's just sad.  There's something deeply irritating about how small the title is, and I've seen that font used in replacement title cards for 50's monster movie trailers.  All of the Mercury editions look like this, jaw-droppingly boring introductions to wild, cathartic music, and I'm saying this as a guy with no qualms about template covers as long as they're eye-catching and classy; this template just happenes makes me think I'm about to read the bio-bibliography of an economist.  The funny thing is that the same problem affected the few scores of his published in the mid-40's by the much smaller publisher Paragon Music, as if Bacevičius actually liked the template (though with the Paragon scores you can at least read the title from more than a foot away):

If it seems like I'm harping on minutiae I apologize, but if you listened to that first track it should be apparent that Bacevičius's music is so much more creative and emotionally powerful than anything you could imagine looking at those covers.  His early works are steeped in the vaulting pantonality of late Scriabin, though Bacevičius was quick to craft his own language, harmonically and rhythmically rich and able to instinctually turn on a dime.  While he employed familiar structural phrasing in these early works he able to pack in moments of astonishing invention to break the pattern, and as his assurance in his own voice matured his lyrical instincts would progress beyond traditional phrasing and into his "cosmic" phase (but we'll get to that a bit later).  His harmonic language was certainly reminiscent of tonal chord structures and scale patterns, but his diversions from these elements lead to some of the most elaborate, refined and haunting post-tonal sonorities I've ever heard.

The pieces I've featured here are part of his seven-strong series of Mots (French for "words"), six of which are for piano (the last for two pianos) and the second for organ, and they are some of his most accomplished and representative works.  The quicksilver approach to phrasing, emotion and dramatics requires an especially sensitive and virtuosic performer to bring the pieces to life, and Alekna fits the bill with talent to spare.  The fact that Bacevičius performed these himself gives you some idea of his skills as a pianist, and hopefully more pianists can take on the gorgeous challenges these works present, though It's a shame the American scores are all way out of print.  He also wrote many orchestral works, including six symphonies and a number of concertos and genreless works, and he considered them to be superior to his piano music.  The last of the symphonies, "Cosmic" (maddeningly absent from YouTube), is one of the great works of the last phase of his career in which he strove for an artistic ideal of "cosmic" music.  For Bacevičius, "cosmic" didn't refer to outer space but rather the human interior world, and he believed the next step for atonality was to capture the infinite complexity and beauty of this horizonless interior space, the full realization of his Pantonal Visionary status.  He encapsulates this sentiment exquisitely in his praise of Varèse's electro-acoustic work Déserts, where he describes "this distant inner space which no telescope can reach, where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude."  There is a Poème Cosmique for piano from this time which is wonderful, but for my money the closest he gets to this ideal in his piano works is the Sixième Mot.

Discarding both time signatures and bar lines, the Mot's musical ideas erupt organically, almost improvisatory in its instinctual freedom but showing a complete mastery of Bacevičiusian harmony.  He swings between horripilative resonance and terse pointillism, terror and introspection and everything in between with a breathless sense of discovery and charisma.  Each new idea is trumped by the next, allowing not a single moment of tedium or complacency to slip in, making performing it a minor spiritual experience as the pianist draws the listener into a mysterious and harrowing subconscious plane.  It's one of the most startlingly brilliant piano works published at the time and should be sought out as fast as you can (or as fast as I can scan the scores of his that I've got).

There's always one more out there.  Just when you think you can't find any more undiscovered geniuses guys like Bacevičius get tilled from the barren Earth like forgotten potatoes.  His work is a kind of music I can only dream of, as emotionally cathartic as it is technically adventurous, as careful to detail as it is barreling through new worlds only understood by itself.  It opens the door to the horizons that no telescope can reach, so make the plunge and never look back.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Visual Music - Elie Siegmeister's Festive March

Firstly, check out that boffo sweater.  Just brilliant, and a sign that there's goofiness afoot.  Elie Siegmeister may not be a household name today but he was a fine composer and good friend of Copland & Co., best known for his "American" Sonata for piano.  In the early 60's Siegmeister's daughter Mimi was going to be married, and he wrote her a whimsical wedding march, which was later published in 1962 to presumedly poor sales.  I must assume the sales were poor as this piece has been out of print most likely since its release, and a measly two or three university libraries in the whole country have copies.  It's a situation in dire need of correction, mostly because otherwise the world would miss out on the greatest classical sheet music/New Yorker crossover ever.

For those without eagle eyes, it's possible to see the signature of famous New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren at the bottom left (albeit cut off at the knees by the photocopier I used), but with a cartoon like this I wouldn't blame people for not taking their eyes off the main subject.  Koren, now the new husband of Mimi and son-in-law of Elie, took that "whimsical" spirit of the march and pinned all the donkey tails he could find on it, because seriously, what are those creatures?!  They clearly hail from a universe far more entertaining than ours, and the pianist's reaction is a sign that the critters came for a party.  Ed no doubt did the cover out of generosity for his new father-in-law, and as wedding season is rolling up I've decided to be generous as well and put up the whole piece, as anything this fun should never be this rare.

There's a funny story behind that pp at the end.  The only recording of this piece was made by the composer-pianist Leonard Lehrman along with some dozen other pieces by composer in the Long Island Composers Forum*.  Lehrman was a student of Siegmeister's at the tender age of 11, and Siegmeister played it for him before it was formally performed.  In the original version it ended at ff, and Lehrman complained that you can't end a wedding march with a Crash! Bang!  After the piece was published, Lehrman saw the cartoon by Koren and decided that ff was much better suited to the Carnival of the Animals in front of the thing.  He recorded it with all Crash! Bangs! intact, and you can hear the whole story here as he performs it for some students.  If his rendition seems a little fudged, keep in mind that Siegmeister may have been a little too generous with how many notes a hand can play at once.  Maybe he wanted one of Koren's interdimensional fauna to give it a try.


*PSST!  I should warn you that a number of pieces, including the Festive March, are pitched up a whole step on the CD.  I've seen this done before, where the performer records it slower and pitches it up as to get a faster tempo, and unless you have the score (or perfect pitch) it can remain a dirty little secret.  Fortunately he plays it in the right key on YouTube.