Thursday, December 22, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Steven Stucky

As I mentioned in my peek at Roland Dyens's Songe Capricorne, Re-Composing is spending the rest of this month paying tribute to the composers we lost in 2016, many of whom were major figures and at least a couple who were living legends.  Back in February we lost a man who gained as much acclaim and credibility as an American composer can without actually becoming necessarily famous, Steven Stucky (1949-2016).  Stucky is a composer that I had never heard of before college and have since strangely forgotten to really investigate, even though I've heard a number of his works and I ran across his scholarship when reading about Witold Lutoslawski, one of my favorite composers and one upon which Stucky was an expert.  He's even unfamous for a Pulitzer Prize winner, snagging it for his Second Concerto for Orchestra, an unusual winning work in that it still hasn't been recorded in the 13 years since its composition.  As I'm writing this I'm admiring one of his later works, a Symphony from 2012 that sounds like it's right up Ludovic Morlot's alley (*HINT SSO PROGRAMMERS*):

Perhaps he needed to attach himself to a movement or school of thought to be recognized, like post-minimalism or post-modernism or post-postism.  The education system in this country, as well as the general public, prefer to think of artists in broad, historically categorizable terms related to technique, oftentimes smudging or ignoring their actual modi operandi in the process.  You'd think that performers and other composers would be the experts on different the different "camps", and they usually are considering their first-hand knowledge of the techniques and aesthetics involved, but the more you understand an artist the more you see them as an individual and want to promote them on their own terms, rather than as a package deal with several other artists whom they might not agree with or even think are worth giving the time of day to.  A number of mediocre talents have sustained careers through sticking with the categories, while more individual composer have to work at it a bit.  That isn't to say that Stucky was eccentric (which would have won him those kind of fans (the best kind:))) - his music had an untroubled, "normal" brilliance, if that makes any sense, and he allowed himself to change with inspiration and simply do good work, which is kind of the only thing we can ask of composers.

While my own investigation of his work will take a bit of time I can freely speak on what has the potential to be his best-known work, one that I performed in my time at UPS with the Wind Ensemble: the Funeral Music for Queen Mary, a model work of Everything-Old-Is-New-Again-ism.  Ya see, there was a wave of composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who went about "recomposing"* works from the Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical periods, such as Grieg with his suite From Holberg's Time to Stravinsky's Pulcinella and Respighi's Gli Uccelli and Ancient Airs and Dances.  This practice continued sporadically through the century until gaining a resurgence after the 1970's when postmodernism became the mot juste du jour.  These kinds of works have gone from being fashionable to being nearly inevitable in any given orchestral season, but no matter how many homages/riffs/caricatures we see of older works I'll still remember Stucky's Funeral Music for Queen Mary as being one of the best.

Purcell's stately funeral march, composed in 1694 for the funeral of Queen Mary, has persisted through the centuries as one of the most loved English Baroque works, though it's probably best known these days in its "switched on" form that Wendy Carlos made for A Clockwork Orange.  Stucky's recomposition for wind ensemble does more than beef up the orchestration and throw in a modern harmony or two, instead weaving together three different Purcell pieces from the same funeral service through diffusion and dark psychological episodes.  Each work is presented clearly but then superimposed and whorled, sometimes as rubbing a pencil line into a cloud and other times as an overwhelming anarchy of mourning.  Stucky's orchestrations are ingenious, showing deft coloring choices and expert balancing, delivered with perfect pacing - all skills he was able to hone through his study of Lutoslawski's works, some of the most finely orchestrated and paced works of the mid-century Avant-Garde scene.  It's stirring and unsettling, satisfying and haunting all at once and I'm very glad I was given the chance to perform it with an excellent group.  I may return to Stucky's music in a later article but for now this will more than suffice as an introduction and fond farewell.  Rest in peace, Steven.


*Blog title drop! (finally)

No comments:

Post a Comment