Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Eliott Carter's First Hundred Years

I particularly like the title above because at 99 Elliott Carter doesn’t seem to be slowing down. In fact, he has written more and varied works (an opera, more symphonic works, etc.). There is an embarrassment of riches in his output for winds. His chamber music has been where most all of his watershed works have come from and the opportunity for Elliott’s orchestration to really shine comes from the unusual combinations of wind music to be heard throughout his career. From the charming and slightly challenging Quintet for Winds (1948) we hear a young voice aligning himself with what’s come before by marrying elements of both American and European sensibilities. This was de rigeur for much of the new American composers; especially those who studied abroad in Nadia Boulanger’s Paris studio (Carter, Copland, Thomson, and many others). The forms are classical for the most part with a nod to American popular dance music in the rondo that is the last movement.

From there he seems to move into new territory almost immediately by tackling the exact problem that every composer faces when writing for the wind quintet, how to orchestrate it so that it doesn’t sound like the hot mess that many wind quintets turn out to be. Elliott deftly uses the character of each instrument to play not just a dramatic role but also a defining characteristic of the texture. Indeed the Eight Etudes and a Fantasy (1950) written just two years later goes off in search of novel combinations in an almost experimental (yet thoroughly enjoyable) piece that stand up as a dramatic statement leading to the fantasy which sums up all that has come before it. As you will see below, in a five year period three composers with very singular voices brought their first wind quintets to light using elements from the past but definitely looking toward the future. In each case the composer traveled much further afield in the second work adopting what was the beginning of their signature styles. Berio is the exception to this; he was translating a larger element of his music to a smaller ensemble to great effect.

It’s interesting to note that Gyorgy Ligeti who also defined his style well early on with nods to his own country’s music took up the same experiment as his second wind quintet Zehn Stucke (1968). This opus also came after a setting of some of his serial tinged but folk inspired piano experiments for quintet entitled Six Bagatelles (1953). While stylistically on different sides of the aisle these two composers were obviously wise enough to reach into the wind quintets bag of tricks. Luciano Berio is worth mentioning here as well given his two enormous accomplishments in the quintet literature again kick started by the use of folk elements and novel scoring. Berio’s first work for wind quintet entitled Opus Number Zoo (1951)also reworks earlier music of the composer’s modified from some popular and folk elements as well; while the music is more clear cut, the dramatic role used by Berio was to give different players part of a spoken text that passes through the ensemble. He then moved on to something completely novel for the wind quintet, but all his own compositionally, with Ricorrenze (1987).

Each of the three composers then went on to explore their own peculiar approaches to harmony, each with fascinating and rich careers. Never quite far enough away from a pitch center, Elliott’s music tickles the ear with a variety of texture immediately thrown into relief by the use of near misses in the rhythmic layout of each piece. This creates a tension that draws the listener into a microcosm of sounds held together by an interlocking but off-kilter forward motion. Another comparison to Ligeti is the pervasive use of melody as a sort of “cantus firmus” that slowly makes its presence felt steadily throughout his works. This is demonstrated well in his several works for solo instruments. Even in the very recent Catenaires (2006) what looks like and etude with a steady stream of fast notes belies a melody made up of the accents and various attacks that stick out of the continuous onslaught of information.

The Quintet for Piano and Winds (1991) is as serene a statement of continuous motion as I have ever heard. The piece moves forward with a controlled urgency and grace that rarely seems harried in its movement to the inevitable finish. There is a sense that you have walked in on the middle of a conversation that’s been going on for quite some time. Like his friend Milton Babbitt, Elliott pursues every possible combination of the ensemble while keeping each instrument in its rhythmic and intervallic role. These two definitions of each character makes them placeholders in the continuum and stakes out a piece of your hearing whether you are aware of the theory behind what’s going on or not. The horn just keeps coming at you with minor thirds and seconds in values of five and it serves only to further underline the rightness of that part in the flow. The piano serves as both catalyst and commentator in the proceedings prodding the poets forward and underlining their vehemence while also providing support in repose, etc..

The wind quintet is alive and well in the hands of the New York Woodwind Quintet. Perhaps it’s an ensemble that will continue to inspire composers with its many combinations of sounds to be explored. In the current trend of making big statements with small means it certainly has much to offer.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Within Worlds with Omer Klein and Friends

Omer Klein gave us a new piece last night that really went beyond my expectations of what a young composer might come up with for jazz combo plus string quartet. It was a wonderful mixture of instruments but not a huge glut of styles as many
“crossover” pieces often become. Nor was it an extension of either his keyboard or the rhythm section. Rather, it was an engaging, very tightly composed work of about ten minutes that featured a lively dance-like theme with some nice improvised solo passages for piano and bass most prominently.

While listening to it I was reminded of something that Omer said earlier in the concert while commenting on a tune he titled ¾ Mantra. He something along the lines of: “sometimes my ideas for pieces come to me in very small packages yet end up being the ones that become the longest ones in concert.” What reminded me of this was precisely the tightness of the composition of Septet, which firmly established its presence from the first measures—a swingy little triplet passage that left me thirsting for its return. Omer’s use of a bit of middle eastern tang also put me in mind of Chick Corea’s Temple of Isfahan, which I’ve tried—in vain—to secure for performance later this season in a series entitled Writing Jazz where we have a concert of composed responses to jazz ending in a new work by David Rakowski (that I just got and looks fantastic). We will also have a concert with another jazz pianist, Jonathan Batiste, entitled Rag’s Riches, where he will explore ragtime in his own way while sharing the concert with Imani Winds, who will play arrangements and originals by jazz composers.

The gift of this piece commissioned by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation is one of true value and astonishing prescient given the fact that I solicited it in no way from anyone. There is definitely something in the air with our young jazz greats branching out into just—well—music without label or other baggage as they freely write what they want to with the instruments that spark their imaginations. Other lagniappes this season will be when Omer Avital (the bass player last night) graces the stage with new works for an expanded ensemble alongside the recently commissioned work from Ryan Cohan and his expanded ensemble in a series of concerts supported by Chamber Music America that highlight their jazz members’ composition projects. They will be the one mentioned above as well as an evening with Joel Harrison, Oliver Lake and Wendy Sutter; and Jamie Baum’s Ives Suite will be featured alongside Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s explorations in free jazz.

The direction we are taking at Merkin is to shed light on what’s happening on the ground in New York’s creative music scene through surveys of artists, composers and genres to give our audience the most comprehensive look at music today. See you at the concert!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Towering Achievements

Towering Achievement
Joan Tower celebrates her 70th birthday at Merkin Concert Hall on the actual date. Her output after a successful career on the piano lead her to the heights of Grammy, Gravemeyer, etc. and she adds yet another feather to her cap with the American Music Center’s Letter of Distinction to be presented by their board president, Ed Yim. The concert features solo and chamber music from most of her career. Joan really can’t be subdivided into periods since the music that she writes is consistently solid, straightforward melodic constructions with a rhythmic drive that often make the music seem to take flight.

I hate to get too purple but the name Tower really is a fine description of Joan’s achievement as composer, performer, and teacher. Her music often evokes images for the listener and with titles like Big Sky, Copperwave, and Or Like a........an Engine you can imagine the kind of music that might bring you there. The ability to trigger such images and emotion through music is the finest example of the sophisticated communications we humans are capable of.

Making connections on the human experience through an abstract medium has been a feature of much of the American musical output. Joan achieves these states through original modes of thought filtered through a facile use of harmony, melody and rhythm that seems as fresh as it is familiar. Her music challenges the listener through its multi-faceted casting of places and emotional states. Even the impressions she takes from the concept of purple result in ear catching music that has the ability to transport and transform the listening experience into a magical trip for the imagination.

We will have the following pieces which I leak a bit of program notes on below. Also, some of the performers have written tribute pieces for the occasion. Oh, and Naxos cd’s will be on sale in the lobby for just $10. See you there

eighth blackbird
Big Sky for piano trio is a piece based on a memory of riding my horse "Aymara" around in the deep valley of La Paz, Bolivia. The valley was surrounded by the huge and high mountains of the Andes range; and as I rode I looked into a vast and enormous sky. It was very peaceful and extraordinarily beautiful. We never went over one of these mountains, but if we had, it might have felt like what I wrote in this piece.

Blair McMillen, piano
Or Like a ... an Engine is dedicated to the pianist Ursula Oppens who premiered it at Alice Tully Hall in New York City in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the radio station WNYC-FM, which commissioned the work. It is a motoric piece, somewhat like a virtuosic Chopin etude.

American Brass Quintet
My father was a geologist and mining engineer and I grew up loving everything to do with minerals and rocks. Copper is a heavy but flexible mineral that is used for many different purposes and most brass instruments are made of copper. The ideas in this piece move in waves, sometimes heavy ones and at other times lighter — also in circles, turning around on the same notes.

Paul Neubauer, viola
Simply Purple
This is my third piece for viola (and for Paul) which includes the word “purple.” The first was Wild Purple for solo viola and then came Purple Rhapsody for viola and orchestra. I have always thought of the viola (which I played briefly) as having this deep kind of rich purple sound, a beautiful timbre, quite distinct from other string instrument sounds.

Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio
For Daniel is dedicated to Joan Tower’s nephew, Daniel MacArthur, who passed away in 2003 after a long illness. The piece tries to convey the imagined struggles associated with someone who is facing a long-term terminal illness. The hopes, joys, depression, anger, deep turmoil and occasional serenity are in constant juxtaposition in this work, as they were throughout the last years of Daniel’s life.

Birthday Pieces Written for Joan:
Blair McMillen, John Rojak, James Tocco, Paul Neubauer, Yossi Kalishstein and
members of eighth blackbird

Monday, July 21, 2008

Musically Speaking

Musically Speaking is the beginning of many sentences in my day to day. Very often musicians find themselves having to explain what it is they do. In general, people are so busy that music exists on the periphery for them, as something to pass the time in the car, on the train or while working out. Music for use has been a concept for as long as there has been music. What began as a way to move together then became a way to worship together which then became a way to enjoy others singing poetry, etc. Somehow after the Romantic era there came this notion of music not needing to mean anything. How then would it have any relevance to anyone’s life with no charm whatsoever to recommend itself to a listener’s attention, let alone their rapt contemplation on the psyche, the world, etc. Music has been used to keep people in step or make them look good and show off at parties, to scare people, make sure brides and grooms don’t rush down aisles.

The main ingredient in a good piece of music for me is the direction it’s going in, if any. I find myself listening for where the thrust of the music might be headed. When I hear something ear-catching I wait in patience for that part to recur. This is not to say that I have no affection for non-repetitive music made up of novel sounds that may refer to something else. If I can discern a language either of context within or reference to some story or structure without, I’m happy. So, Musically Speaking is just that to me, Music that speaks.

With all of the signals we learn how to decipher in our lives, it’s only fair that a composer use as many as necessary to get an audiences attention. A blues tune can be imbedded in a string quartet just like a folk inspired melody can be the starting point for a serious piece of new music. A different setting for a certain “sign sound” can find its way into many forms of music. Some of the most beloved music of all time refers to other sounds found in nature or made by man. Handel’s Water Music isn’t about the water and contains no water sounds, it’s enough to listen to the majestic strains and envision yourself watching the great spectacle on the water that the music was commissioned for.

Birds have had a great part in the history of music. There’s a certain drama in the repetitiveness of birds. You don’t know what they’re saying, but it’s compelling. I like this as an element in all kinds of music. If it’s not telling a specific story like “A Hero’s Journey” or some such thing, I’ll add one as I’m listening to it. I used to do this endlessly when I was in school and we would all be in stitches over it. People need drama and action in their music just like they do in their movies and there’s plenty of that in all kinds of music.

Another interesting part of the music we listen to is the idea of music to relax to. Quiet, consonant music is generally thought of as something to sleep to but I find that dissonant music if presented correctly, in a language that can be understood can be just a soothing. Just listen to Giacinto Scelsi, Cage, Brown, Takemitsu, Glass, or Feldman to name a few who use systems of their own to write music that speaks a language all its own.

Come to concerts with an open mind, but demand that there be some sort of discourse coming from the stage to you. And please, please never come just because it’s all familiar music. Art can’t hurt you.