Sunday, March 22, 2015

Marion Bauer's Elegant Turbulance

There is a certain "story" with American classical music wherein before Ives met the New York Avant-Garde circle the musical landscape was a desolate void with tumbleweeds rolling across concert stages.  Because Ives and his fellow composers were the first generation of truly "American" modern Classical composers there must not have been anything of consequence before, and it has taken many decades to slightly overturn this notion.  This is in no way a knock on Ives, of course, or any of the Copland circle, but rather a reminder that modern American music didn't pop out of their heads like Athena but naturally developed across generations like most artistic traditions.  In my opinion the first American composer to be really great is actually Amy Beach, a wonderful figure whose legacy might be so vindicated that there's no need to feature her here (but we shall see about that in the future).  There's Edward MacDowell, of course, a mainstay of piano teachers for the last century for reasons I don't really understand.  There was a vibrant New England school in the late 19th century with guys like Horatio Parker and George Whitefield Chadwick writing some excellent music in an amicably sophisticated late-Romantic style.  Their main successors were John Alden Carpenter, Ferde Grofe and Leo Sowerby, all of whom cultivated an effervescent, cosmopolitan approach to Impressionism - though both Carpenter and Sowerby would progress to more challenging styles in the succeeding decades to excellent effect.  Another important figure was working among these pre-Coplands who needs to be mentioned, but it took about half a century for her genius to really be recognized - Marion Bauer.  Her language was unique but the American musical establishment simply wasn't interested, and it's high time I gave her music its due.

Born in 1882 in Walla Walla (Washington State can I hear an A-(WO)MEN?!), Bauer was recognized as a musical talent in her youth by her father and arranged for her to take lessons from her older sister Emilie, a bond that would last well into her old age.  After her father's death the Bauers moved to Portland and after her graduation from high school Marion moved with Emilie to New York to study composition, a very bold move for a woman at the turn of the century.  The two of them studied under Henry Holden Huss and Eugene Heffley, the first conservative and the second so obscure even I've never heard of him*.  Huss's conservative music was par for the course for most American composers of the time - not bad, just conservative.  This artistic reserve made Marion restless, especially after she traveled to Paris in 1906 to become Nadia Boulanger's first student and saw all the neat things guys like Debussy and Ravel were doing to extend and explode tonality.  Upon her return she started writing in a more adventurous style than most of her contemporaries and in the process signed a seven-year contract with the publisher Arthur P. Schmidt.  While that might sound like a great move, it was also part of why her more interesting music took so long to surface.

It wasn't just the American musical establishment that took long to recognize the value of modern music, but also American music publishers.  Arthur P. Schmidt had absolutely no interest in publishing any of Bauer's modernist works, and while some of the music she got out in her contract was interesting, such as the lushly dark Up the Ocklawaha -

- and the warm 6 Preludes -

- most of it was songs that, while certainly well-written and worthy of resurrection, didn't exactly make guys like the budding Henry Cowell quake in their boots.  Cowell was a notable exception to the lockout of modern music, as his experimental piano works like the Three Irish Fantasies made their way to publication.  I can sense you're about to jump up and down yelling "LEO ORNSTEIN!  LEO ORNSTEIN!", but may I remind you that his modernist works were originally published when he was working in England.  Particularly disappointing in this regard was the Society for the Publication of American Music, and with a name like that you'd think that they'd be the standard-bearer for the younger generation, but no.  And again, I must reiterate that not everything they published was bad - Leo Sowerby's Serenade for string quartet, one of the most brilliant American works in the genre**, was published by SPAM, and in later decades the Society allowed much more daring works in, such as Ingolf Dahl's Divertimento for viola and piano and Jacob Druckman's insane-yet-awesome Dark Upon the Harp for mezzo-soprano, brass quintet and percussion.  While I can't prove they had anything to do with the greater musical establishment there was even a Society for Sanity in Art, established in the dang late year of 1936 (!) and opposed to all modern forms of painting, and the fact that its founder wrote a poem that was set by a young Gail Kubik (no stranger to modern trends some time after the fact) is a funny story for a later time.

It wasn't until after the 20's had mostly passed by that Bauer was able to find appropriate outlets for her modernist music.  In the meantime she had published the wistful Impressionistic piano set From the New Hampshire Woods (which I'd love to have a copy of, thanks-so-much-message-me-for-addresses-I'm-willing-to-trade), and at the end of the below performance you can also hear Turbulence, one of a number of nerve-wracking piano pieces written about airplanes in the 20's as part of a larger "machine music" trend.  It took her until 1942 to get that one published, long after George Antheil's "Airplane" Sonata and Emerson Whithorne's The Aeroplane had been let out of the box.

Her best success in getting her modernist music published was through the Arrow Music Press, the company by which the previously-featured-here Cos Cob Press was absorbed.  Cos Cob Press was established in 1929 as a way for younger, more progressive American composers to get their larger and more modernist music published, and it's here where guys like Copland, Harris, Sessions and Thomson got their start.  Arrow Music Press published a heck of a lot of great modern music and Bauer had some of her most progressive works featured here, namely the illusory Four Pieces for Piano (pub. 1930) and the wonderful Concertino for oboe, clarinet and string quartet (pub. 1944).  The Pieces are a fine example of her kind of "extended tonality", using a number of techniques that the Impressionists and Expressionists were pioneering but filtering them through her quixotic-yet-assured imagination.

She also found success with G. Schirmer - they had previously published New Hampshire Woods in the early 20's but once the late 20's rolled around three of her larger works made it to their presses, including her two best known works.  The first is the Fantasia Quasi Una Sonata for violin and piano, written in a mysterious, nature-drenched Impressionist mood that recalls the second book of Debussy's Preludes on a driving trip:

Later came the American Youth Concerto, a piano concerto designed for youth orchestras that is undoubtedly populist and recalls Hollywoodesque concert works of the 30's:

The other is her most frequently performed work, the Viola Sonata, that comes with a clarinet part - before the 20th century had progressed enough viola and clarinet sonatas were often supplied with alternate parts for each other.  The sonata features some of her smoothest piano writing and is a serious and matured contribution to both the viola and clarinet repertoires, and as such has appeared on many a college instrumental recital.

One other published work I'd feel bad if I didn't mention is the Duo for Oboe and Clarinet, presumably written for the same performers as the Concertino, though we have found no evidence as to who they might have been.  Oboe and clarinet isn't the most common combo, and I recall from orchestration class that composers are warned against combining the two in unisons for various aesthetic reasons.  It's too bad there's no YouTube upload of the excellent recording of the Duo as it's one of my favorite works of Bauer's and would make a great recital companion to Paul Bowles's engaging Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet and Arthur Berger's acid Duo for Oboe and Clarinet.

The Duo as well as the Concertino and American Youth Concerto were all recorded by The Ambache for an excellent disc released by Naxos as part of their American Classics series.  The disc also featured the Prelude and Fugue for flute and piano (published by Hildegard Press in the 90's) and two unpublished works, the Symphonic Suite for strings and the Lament on an African Theme, a string orchestra arrangement of the richly sad slow movement from her unpublished String Quartet.  Remember: just because a composer writes a fine work, it's no guarantee that the piece will be published.  It takes enterprising and sympathetic performers for these works to see the light of day, such as Leone Buyse when she recorded Bauer's charming Forgotten Melodies for unaccompanied flute as part of a retrospective of all the pieces written for the great Georges Barrère.  I've also heard that Bauer experimented with serialism in the 40's but I've seen neither hide nor hair of those works, so there's work to be done yet.  The CD's that are available are a great start and a fine addition to libraries wishing for a more complete picture of American Classical music and Women's music history.  Marion Bauer's works are both daring and approachable, acid and smooth, and each new one is a joy for me to hear.  Shouldn't we all have heard of her years ago?


*Though he was the founder of the MacDowell club, so maybe it's better that I've never heard of him.

**Seriously, that piece should be in the standard American quartet rep, but I you can't always get what you want, now, can you?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Abbie Conant at the Outer Limits

As March is Women's History Month I've decided to dedicate all my blog posts this month to badass women in music and film, and hopefully my goal of praising the underpraised will help out in its modest way in the march towards equality.  The better news is that I'm starting out with a musical figure that is nearly unclassifiable, trombonist/performance artist Abbie Conant.

I was introduced to Conant by my good trombonist friend Kevin Shintaku.  He had been studying Luciano Berio's wicked Sequenza V for unaccompanied trombonist and had found her standout interpretation of the work.  The piece calls for the performer to wear a clown costume and employ a wide variety of extended techniques to imitate a clown act Berio saw as a child.  It's a singular concert experience and Conant had added to her already illustrious career by doing a lecture tour on the work.  This precedent was not only met but exploded when Kevin got her to come to the University of Puget Sound (our school) with her husband to do a pair of their musical theater acts, and just talking about the daring and creativity she brings to musical performance art doesn't even begin to compare to what I witnessed.

Before we get to those works, however, I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about the incident that got her international repute.  In 1980 Conant won a blind audition for the principle trombone position in the Munich Philharmonic, beating 32 other candidates.  The conductor at the time, Sergiu Celibidache, was rather hostile to the prospect of a woman holding the principle trombone chair, and after two years Conant was suddenly demoted, and Celibidache explicitly told her that he wanted a man for the position.  Conant turned around and sued the city of Munich to recognize that her demotion was unlawful as per the city's work equality laws, and after some 12 years she won the case and got her seat back.  The case is recounted in detail on Conant's website and in this hilarious Cracked article.  It's good to know that even if you don't like her music we can rest assured that she's a civil rights champion.

I saw her much later in her career, obviously, and since her departure from the Phil she has crafted a number of striking stage shows with her husband William Osborne (she write the libretti, makes drawings and performs, he writes music and does video editing) and the two I saw are unlike anything I've ever seen live.  In both cases Conant performs on the trombone as well as reciting and singing, all part of multi-media storytelling with wild and often satirical ideas.  The satire is especially evident in the first, Cybeline.

Cybeline is about the titular Cybeline, a cyborg, trying to prove her humanity as a talk show host in a future where everyone's thoughts are programmed.  As such, her thoughts can be projected, and these thoughts and other images are manipulated live by the performer with a glove controller.  Cybeline was heavily inspired by Jungian psychology and works on the notion that humans create images that control both the dreaming and waking worlds we perceive, and the conceit of watching a mind-controlled talk show allows for both contrived showbiz acts and stream-of-consciousness ramblings to intermingle and flow over the audience.  You might be able to tell from the screencap on the video that the drawings, and Conant's costume, look very silly.  You'd be correct, and that's part of the point; it's satire at its most Crayola'd and loopy.  Talk shows are rarely a venue of dignity to begin with (aside from Charlie Rose or Dick Cavett) and their canned humor and stiff lip service paid to old-school notions of class are ripe for identity-crisis plots.  That video contains the complete performance and some would say that I've said too much already, but if you watch it expect more hummingbirds and cowboys than you'd normally see on a talk show run by a cyborg.

A far cry from the freewheeling schizophrenia of Cybeline is Music for the End of Time, a 50-minute meditation on the monolithic austerity of the Catholic apocalypse.  Once again using music and video effects by Osborne, Music dispenses with plot and focuses purely on trombone and electronics fed through an enveloping quadrophonic speaker setup, trading wackiness for hypnosis.  The work showcases Conant's beautiful lyric tone on the trombone and the graphics, while straight out of 1993, reminds us of an era when computer graphics for the sake of abstract art was still a welcome possibility.  These two works put together are an unforgettable emotional contrast, sort of like how Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro were originally shown as a double bill.

The great thing about their website is that the scores for these works are included in their info pages, a move both charitable and wise, as it would be nice if the works outlived their creators and electro-acoustic stuff is difficult to reproduce without good preparation.  And there's plenty to choose from, as you can see on the page for their musical theater act, The Wasteland Company.  If you should glean anything from the site it's that Conant is a widely accomplished and exciting performer that makes the listener wonder why more women aren't encouraged to play the trombone, much less expand its potential.  Women's History Month marches on at Re-Composing and my other blogs, so stay tuned for more explorations of the Woman's Century and great underappreciated Classical music.