Saturday, December 28, 2013

Lux Ruris - Jean Huré's Piano Quintet

Impressionism has been disturbingly absent from this blog, so much so that the closest I can find in the back issues is Abel Decaux, and saying his music defies categorization is the understatement of the decade.  Oddly enough, this article is also something of a One-Off, as Jean Huré (1877-1930) didn't write much music and the works of his to get pro recordings can be counted on two hands.  There's a strange class of 20th century French composers who make up for their modest oeuvres with the quality of their work, and though I haven't found anything by Huré to equal Decaux's Clairs de Lune he did write some rich and enchanting works, all in a twilight-drenched Impressionism that can't help but evoke his native Breton landscape*.  He was recently revived in the news by saxophonist Javier Oviedo as part of his project to revive all the Impressionist saxophone pieces commissioned by Elise Hall, who commissioned Debussy's Rapsodie for saxophone and orchestra.  A piece of Huré's work, Andante, and be heard here, and I think it's lovely, but in reviewing his works for this article I found one piece in particular stood out - his grand, single-movement Piano Quintet, on of the finest French works in the genre and in need of a revival beyond its stellar 2010 recording.

(Click to enlarge)

Much of Huré's work is inspired by Breton culture and folk music, and his Quintet begins with this simple, determined elaboration on modal elements, reminiscent of the tunes immortalized in his 7 Chansons de Bretagne.  This earnest undulation forms the backbone of the piece, a bucolic burbling that floats by on effortless, preternatural class.  Resurrecting folk music is a natural fit for Impressionist writing, with its emphasis on modal writing and valuing static harmonic swaths over functional tonal movement.  Tension and release are modern contrivances - folk music is eternal and evokes the infinite expanse of simple society, or at least the kind of stability that is so valued in small-scale societies.   Huré doesn't lock his germ cell up in a strict structural vision, but rather drapes ornaments across it freely, at times as if he wrote the piece in one go like Sorabji.  There are moments once things get cooking that invention overtakes him and five disparate elements are joyously fighting for exposure -

(Click to enlarge)

- as if he just couldn't stand to not use some exciting piece of orchestration or melody, pacing and restraint be damned.  There is a firm sense of arc and pace, though, and while the piece consists of a single movement there are clearly-defined, movement-like sections, an admissible method in Impressionism's anti-Germanic revolt against formalism.  That backbone keeps coming back, but it never feels like a proper subject, as it has no melodic trajectory - it's more akin to a texture, like a golden thread woven through a large tapestry.   Huré never lets modernism overtake the piece, and his use of new-fangled techniques is natural and unforced.  For example, during an interlude he employs a limited aleatoric method, whereby a soloist floats a piacere across an a piacerely repeating background -

(Click to enlarge)

- which is a familiar idea in jazz (vamping), as well as Classical cadenzi, but this was an early use of it with a complex background texture.  His notational method leaves something to be desired, but what can you expect from a guy who grew up without any previous examples like it from which to work?

Huré also had a gift for melody, and some truly memorable ones come up in the Quintet, such as this harrowing minor line from past the work's halfway point:

(Click to enlarge)

At fortississimo with a driving piano platform, this is the kind of searing, red-blooded melody that should show up in the climax to a great serious opera, like Boris Godunov or Tosca.  The stinger is that this never shows up again, aside from a recap at the fifth a couple measures later.  There are so many gorgeous moments in the quintet that are so fleeting, such as an ornament in an arpeggio or the way a handful of notes interlock sweetly in a passing phrase, that at times the listener is gripped with the need to pull Huré through the veil of death and force him to repeat that kernel of gold.  It's the kind of writing that rewards repeated listening, as so much detail is present and yet able to melt into the air, leaving the listener with a cornucopia of moments to uncover.  My favorite moment may be in the coda, where the piano, present throughout the piece, fades to leave a masterful quartet passage in the strings, leaping by fourths with high viola and cello straining in pianissimo, a passage that would be twinkling if not for the desperation in its voice. 

(Click to enlarge)

This is followed directly by a perfectly tragic 16 bars in the piano:

(Click to enlarge)

The piece ends as it began, in tranquility and quiet, a sunset to mirror the sunrise of the opening 2nd violin.  The Quintet is dedicated to George Enescu, Romania's musical champion and author of a 1907 String Octet that became the toast of the town (Paris, that is) while Huré was writing his piece.  That piece was defined by its evocation of expansive Earthscapes, and Huré plays that game to win.  It's the kind of music that makes one want to become a hermit in the Old Country, living by the seasons and drinking eternity's nectar.  My talking about it can't possibly replicate the experience of hearing the thing, so in  Huré's honor we should all get the score here and listen to it below this paragraph.  Whether or not you delve deeper into his work can't stop you from hearing what is probably his masterpiece, a glorious fin-de-siècle triumph and probably the finest Impressionist piano quintet.  Let it sweep you down the river as gentle and raucous as it may.


*Would his music reminded you of Brittany if I hadn't just told you that was where he was from?  It's like playing Sibelius to non-Finns and telling them Sibelius is Finnish, and BAM! - they're soaring across fjords like nobody's business.  Composers aren't travel documentaries, for cripes's sake.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Moonflowers, Baby! - the Irrepressible Meyer Kupferman


Tiger Moon.  Perpetual Licorice.  The Stone Tears of Ixtaccihuatl.  Moonchild and the Doomsday Trombone.  Miro Miro on the Wall.

It should be obvious that we're dealing with a priceless imagination.  It walked this Earth by the name of Meyer Kupferman (1926-2003), and it never compromised.

Born in New York City and trained on the violin and clarinet, Meyer Kupferman didn't let early success with his Gertrude Stein opera In a Garden keep him from breaking the mold.  Joining a fine bunch of Classical composers who doubled as jazzmen (including Mel Powell and Hall Overton), Kupferman did a lot of arranging for big bands and playing on Coney Island, learning the vitality and 'tude of jazz while writing red-blooded modernist pieces like his 1948 Variations for piano:

Now, I know what you're thinking - I didn't pump you guys up to hear dreary old dodecaphony, did I?  Of course not - Meyer's only getting started, and by 1961 (the year he composed his savage big band score for the Paperhousian Blast of Silence) he had devised his "Infinities Row" (G-F-Ab-B-Bb-D-F#-E-C-Eb-A-C#), a 12-note tone row that would be the basis of all his major works.  His approach to serialism was far from academic, as he was entirely self-taught and didn't know Schoenberg's way of dealing with the Troublesome Twelve.  Before that row took over, though, he had already found his big problem with serialism and modern music in general, discovered through his jazz work - a lack of rhythmic vitality and drive.  Grappling with this problem led to the Sonata on Jazz Elements, a breathtakingly original work featuring lines like this - 

- and clad in a cover excellent enough to make the Visual Music cut:

He was deeply dedicated to eclecticism in his work, and managed to blend jazz and Avant-Garde Classical technique more thoroughly and effectively than any other composer of his time, eventually authoring the book Atonal Jazz in 1990.  His crossover-ing also produced the Jazz Symphony -

- as well as what is probably his most popular work, Moonflowers, Baby!**

Kupferman was also unconstrained by instrumentation, writing pieces for practically any combination you could think of.  Guitar, bassoon, double bass and piano?  Landscapes of the Sun.  Mezzo-soprano, oboe and electronic harpsichord?  The Mask of Electra.  Harp and double bass?  The Diaries of a Tarot Player, here painstakingly realized electronically from the manuscript and foolishly uploaded for free by a guy who deserves an award for his work:

As you may have noticed, his music features a lot of long phrases and short dramatic moments, a style he called "gestalt" (shape) writing which purposefully mixed disparate moods to create tapestries of emotion.  He believed in developing dodecaphonic music to its fullest emotional potential - as almost all his music is atonal, it helps uninitiated audiences quite a bit that Kupferman wrote gesturally, making his music naturally gut-punching and comprehensible while still enchanting with exotic sonorities.  For example, it takes no expertise in the Second Viennese School to appreciate his hilarious Blake Songs for soprano and clarinet:

In fact, his mastery of gesture led to one of his greatest crossover creations, Music Without Sound, a set of 13 drawings (available for free at the link) that turn music notation into unbridled visual fun (the most fun before Burr Van Nostrand, at least).  They aren't meant to be played, but rather heard internally, and I can tell you from experience they make both hip wall art and excellent New Music recital posters.  You already saw number 12 at the top of the article, but here's a couple more:

And just for X-Mas generosity's sake, here's another great cover, this time for 3 Ideas for Trumpet and Piano, a curt set of miniatures recorded by the legendary Thomas Stevens alongside a bunch of other pieces all trumpet players should know of.

There are actually quite a lot of Kupferman LP's and CD's, which is astonishing considering how I never, ever hear people talk about him.  Kupferman was wildly prolific, and the recordings cover music from the whole of his career and feature dozens of talented artists, many of them recording multiple works on their own, such as Morton Estrin, who recorded the Variations and Sonata on Jazz Elements.  Heck, Thomas Stevens recorded two of his pieces, and he usually only managed one per composer, as the trumpet rep is small compared to overstuffed reps like those for violin and piano.  The other piece, The Fires of Prometheus, is scored for trumpet and two pianos with their pedals held down.  They don't play, but simply offer resonance, as the trumpet plays into them and sets the strings vibrating (a trick used earlier by Luciano Berio in his absurdly difficult Sequenza X).

His consistently far-reaching oeuvre may have contributed to his lack of layman fame, but I'd like to think of him as a champion of the adventurous round peg in a world of square holes.  I see him as a direct descendant of Charles Ives, a rugged individualist who used any and all techniques and genres that suited him regardless of their source, never compromising and always trucking full speed ahead.  America is a nation defined by diversity and pluralism, and as such its greatest artists should be open to anything and everything, and few composers stuck as steadfastly to the pluralistic way as Kupferman.  He's one of the few composers who tried to do everything he could as an artist short of actually planting flowers on the moon (though he did write piano pieces based on constellations), and with a catalog as large as his there's certainly something for everybody.  As Christmas Eve is here, I thought it best to showcase a composer who is the human equivalent of the gift that keeps on giving, and Kupferman is a bottomless treasure chest bursting with creative energy and good humor.  And also in the Christmas spirit I'll end the review with one of his more youthfully enchanting (and early) works, the Symphony No. 4, here recorded by the essential Louisville Orchestra under Robert Whitney.  Merry Christmas, and Happy Moonflowers, Baby!***



**Isn't that title fun to say?!

***Well, I love saying it, anyways.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Brief One-Off - Gerald Kechley's Foggy Morning

It's about time I covered another Pacific Northwest composer, considering my John Verrall article was months ago.  Like Verrall, Gerald Kechley was a teacher at University of Washington many moons ago, and also like Verrall was included in the pedagogical piano collection Northwest Passages: Intermediate Piano Pieces by Six Northwest Composers.  I can't blame you if you've never heard of it, as it was only printed and distributed locally - I only discovered it because my local library system (which is awesome) had a copy, and it's pretty dang strange for a public library system to have an obscure piece of sheet music.  I don't know if I'll really dive into his music, but I did find one of his pieces in the collection to be quite lovely, and appropriate for the end of autumn.

The language isn't easily analysable, but it doesn't really matter.  Foggy Morning is quite jazzy, though tightly structured and prone to Schoenbergian dramatic denouments, and gets good effect out of a mere handful of sonorities.  It works quite well as a pedagogical piece, and fulfills my wish of bringing young musicians to the possibilities of modern music.  Much like Earl George's Intermezzo, this piece might work better tucked in a corner than widely distributed, but I made a recording anyways - and it's okay if it's not actually a foggy morning when you listen to it; the piece does a fine enough job of taking you there in spirit.


Visual Music - Lee Hoiby's Piano Album

As renowned and overwhelmingly popular Samuel Barber is, nobody is going to jump up to prove how innovative he was.  Barber was always a conservative voice, but it was also a distinctive one and it stemmed from a unique, emotionally profound sensibility, and his oeuvre is rewarding if you slip into the right mindset - one of emphatic, sepia-toned melancholy.  Lee Hoiby is cut from the same cloth, but never achieved the success of Barber, partially because he didn't have an Adagio for Strings, but mostly because he never matched Barber's sophistication and emotional power (his cloying, saccharine Violin Concerto aside).  He's of that dubious tradition of tonalesque gay composers who are mostly known as art songwriters, with Ned Rorem leading the pack out of sheer mastery of the form.  There's a very large and rich song tradition in this country, and the worst part about it is the overarching success of its blandest authors, most recently the distressing popularity of gay Pop Classical vocal composers Ricky Ian Gordon and Jake Heggie.  The unusual tradition of tonalesque, high profile gay male American composers (Copland, Thomson, Bernstein, Rorem, Blitzstein, Flanagan, Bowles, Del Tredici, etc.) may be to blame, but pure economics can't be ignored.  Vocal music is both highly resistant to change and a good financial investment, and there's little pressure to open new doors - singers are some of the most coddled performers around, and writing vocal music adds enormous restrictions to modern composers already struggling with the pressure to be original.  Not only is it an uninspiring world for fledgling art song composers, it's also uninspiring for gay male composers - the link between being gay and vapid, tonalesque composition has the potential to become a hurtful stereotype in itself, and I'm surprised it hasn't been called out at this point.*

Lee Hoiby was also gay and tonalesque, but wasn't nearly as vacuous as others of the ilk, and has his moments of real creativity - just be warned that those looking for new sound experiences will be left in the dust soon as look at them by his stuff.  I had picked up his Piano Album some time ago, and they feature some of his most original and passionate writing, though all possessing a subdued air of sadness.  His best piano work, Narrative, op. 41 (1983), has been recorded three times, and is worth a look.  You can find all his piano works here, but don't tell anybody I gave you that link (and only click the "PDF" buttons). Many publishers are perfectly satisfied pigeonholing their artists, so I consider G. Schirmer's choice to issue this handsome edition a welcome act of charity, a small effort in exposing Hoiby as more than just a songwriter.  What may be more notable is an illustration featured on the cover, one of the best nightmares I've ever seen in pencil:

I couldn't find any consistent information on the illustrator, Robert Beers, but perhaps its best if I pretend the image slipped over from the dream world.  While clearly surreal and at times even cubist, the style is charmingly crude and its flat superimpositions are more akin to collage than an actual scene.  I haven't met too many unicorns in my day but I can guarantee they don't have anemones for feet and teeth like a handsaw.  I was about to point out that the artist messed up the keyboard, but I realized it was a mirror of itself, and it occurred to me that I shouldn't ask too many questions about things I enjoy having.  It's actually a very apt image when you think about the mindset it must require to write music like Hoiby's: nocturnal, world-weary and deeply personal, much like Barber's.  Hoiby's writing is too patterned and restrained for audiences to really plunge into its pathos, but it doesn't keep his music from having an emotional effect.  The distance between Hoiby and his audience helps put them in another place, almost that sense of reverie that was so intently sought after by 19th century composers.  That kind of fraught restraint is akin to the songs of Schubert, and Hoiby even payed tribute to him with his Schubert Variations, op. 35, included in the album.  I'm too jaded to become a real fan of Hoiby, but I'd choose his piano music any day over the New Vapids.  I get him, and that's really all you can ask when taking in art.  There aren't any good recordings of pieces from the album on YouTube, but Albany Records did upload Dark Rosaleen, a substantial piano quartet after Joyce, on the occasion of Hoiby's death in 2011 at the age of 85.  The quartet weaves variations upon a melody by Joyce himself, and Hoiby successfully evokes the dark atmosphere of dream that permeates much of Joyce's poetry.  I can only imagine how it went over in the land of sawnicorns, as Hoiby can never tell me himself - he illuminated the value of private music and I'd like to respect his personal world.


*Rodney Lister told me of an encounter between the stubbornly tonal (and gay) Virgil Thomson and the (gay) serialist Ben Weber.  Virgil said, "I hear that you're a twelve-tone composer."


"I also hear that you're a homosexual."

"...that's right."

"Well, which one is it?  You can't be both!"

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Alexei Stanchinsky's Euphonious Fractals

The music world is littered with many untimely deaths, so much so that it's business as usual in Rock stardom, and without fail people keep a special place in their hearts for the Might Have Beens.  Monroe Couper was a recent example, but there are many more and today's may be my personal favorite (if that's the most sensitive wording).  Hailed in his lifetime as a genius by his elders, Alexei Stanchinsky (1888-1914) had always been troubled, having been diagnosed with the symptom-stuffed dementia praecox and reeling from the death of his father.  At the age of 26, just months after a career-making recital of his mature work, Stanchinsky was found dead next to a country stream, and to this day no one is sure if it was illness or suicide, but all new that Russian music had lost one if its best and brightest.  I first discovered him through one of my favorite piano albums, Thomas Adès - Piano, and his best pieces are some of the most haunting and innovative works in the whole of the piano repertoire.  The pieces on Ades's album are part of the reason I started looking for obscure works, and they remain gorgeous reminders of music's capacity to create religious experiences.

Trained among the already rich and intricate language of Russia's turn-of-the-century elite, Stanchinsky soon found his own sophisticated and heartbreaking voice.  Readers of this blog may remember the "Scriabinism" tag I've attached to a couple of articles, though I'll be the first to admit its vagueness as a label.  Alexander Scriabin's piano music came flying out the starting gate with some wildly influential attributes, such as deft rhythmic complexity, a rich extended tonality and refined, lattice-like arpeggiated melodies.  For example, here's the first line to the first of his 24 Preludes, op. 11:

All of these elements are exploited in the Prelude in the Lydian Mode, one of Stanchinsky's most beautiful early works, at times to startling new extents, such as the rare 21/16 time signature (three groups of seven notes each).  The left hand ostinato makes a rich tapestry upon which the melody tiptoes, as well as being a sweeping, cello-like melody in itself.  I've always thought that you can create the impression of expansive or constricted time by simply bumping all the note lengths up or down a level respectively, and in Stanchinsky's slow works such as the Prelude he note values are zoomed in to a near microscopic level, as if euphonious fractals exist just below humanity's musical comprehension.  The already intoxicating rhythmic web is divided in a seemingly endless variety of pulse, fashioning in the process new melodies so poignant as to arch the back in ecstasy.  Counterpoint has been deeply important to Russian classical music since the Mighty Handful, with an unbroken line stretching from Taneyev to Shostakovich, but I never saw a composer reach the same dazzling heights of mastery and innovation as Stanchinsky.  The Prelude is just a taste, and soon enough he showed his contrapuntal power with the Four Canon-Preludes, the third of which is especially incredible.

The listening experience is like stargazing, drinking deep of the silent diamond expanse of the universe.  It takes extraordinary sensitivity of balance and pedal to play these works, and both recordings of this work are excellent.  They also require stellar vision*, as looking at the scores of some of his works is like looking at wood grain through an electron microscope.

His last works, by the time he started assigning opus numbers, are so accomplished they make his death seem an unthinkable robbery.  While many people point to his 12 Sketches, op. 1 as his greatest technical display, I think that while their variety and innovation make them important entries in Russian piano music his greatest work is his Piano Sonata no. 2 in G major, and it has become one of my favorite piano works of all time.  Divided in two movements rather than the usual three or four (even one movement is more common), the latter is his best fast movement, cast in 11/8 and containing passages and sonorities so unbelievable I'd sacrifice a dozen newborns to have written them myself.  Essentially a dance, the Presto swings between charismatic darkness and atmospheric delicacy.  Every possible rhythmic subtlety and melodic contour is exploited, a harrowing kaleidoscope of motives and passions.  While Scriabin's most virtuosic sonatas may eclipse it in technical display, Stanchinsky's reliance on singable melodies and recognizable modes gives the audience the anchors necessary to comprehend his genius without deep analysis.  That doesn't mean that it's easy to play, and only a couple of pianists have tackled it; Nikolay Fefilov's recording has both the technical mastery and interpretive confidence to make the movement sing.

Just because I put the second movement first doesn't mean I forgot the first, and it may be the greatest fugue I've ever seen**.  Stanchinsky's subjects and counter-subjects are his best ever in this movement, using wide leaps without losing the listener's ability to follow the tune.  The tempo is once again achingly slow, but the rhythmic divisions become so thin as to eschew fears of monotony; some of his textures are immensely fragile in their static refinement, like crystal spiderwebs.  The key follows a unique path, beginning in G major and snaking down into atonality, the piano's lowest registers creating a feeling of arcane foreboding.  When the home key returns the right hand explodes into constellations of fractalling arpeggios, and the piece eventually settles into a sophisticated, almost jazzy alternative to V-I (which I won't dare spoil).

Only a scant handful of pianists have recorded Stanchinsky's works, and his audience is far too small for the accessibility of these works.  I'm of the opinion that it's better to bring an audience to esoteric art with a few good anchors for them to hold onto, and Stanchinsky picked the right ones to draw the listener into his crystalline soundworld.  He'll continue to remain obscure unless he gains more high profile performers, and his oeuvre is the kind that could attract someone like Marc-Andre Hamélin, arguably the world's greatest living pianist and a champion of piano works of this period and character.  All of Stanchinsky's works have fallen into the public domain, and all his piano music can be gotten here.  This article has been a long time coming, with the opportunity to share some of my favorite pieces being a driving element in my unjustly ignored scholarly subjects***.  Perhaps its not very rigorous of me to highlight a composer with such strong sentimental value, but this is the season of memory and you couldn't pick a better piece of nostalgia if you raided the Library of Congress.  Here's to you , Alexei, and let your legend grow as much as it can - I'll help out as much as I can.


*Heh, stargazing puns.

**Apologies to Bach fans, of course.

***Though I'd be the first to call my work more Pop Scholarship than anything else.  I have no shame in that, thank you very much.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Visual Music - Grotesken-Album


I leaped for joy last night (or rather leaped internally as I remained sitting in my bed), because arguably the seminal document of Expressionist music has finally been uploaded to IMSLP in full.  Universal-Edition's Grotesken-Album, though mostly compiled from single movements of larger works as a marketing ploy, encapsulates a rich and striking moment in Classical history when horror, madness and mockery were the soups du jour.  Expressionism gained traction in music after WWI, and the freedom of dissonant architecture that works like Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and The Book of the Hanging Gardens introduced made a huge impression on younger composers.  Much like Impressionism, Ultra-Modernism and Scriabinisim, the fecundity of Expressionism was ultimately swallowed by movements defined by regularized architecture and reduced individuality.  That isn't to say that Expressionism didn't have its mediocre moments, and viewers of the Grotesken-Album may experience varied mileage with its mix of still-established (Béla Bartók, Ernst Krenek) and now-obscure (Felix Petyrek, Rudolph Réti) artists working in a volatile new language.  A fine example of the language in the book by a lesser-known composer is the Burleske movement of Eklogen, op. 11 by Egon Wellesz - just skip to 5:31.

Universal-Edition was unstoppable at the time, a new music juggernaut and bastion for all things exciting and Germanic (Durand had the French stuff).  What's so great about the collection isn't even how creative its works were at the time, but rather that it owes its existence to good old fashioned advertising tricks**.  And with such an inventive product to sell Universal-Edition felt compelled to market it inventively.  Thank God for inter-war irreverence.

A better grotesk cover couldn't have come to be even if Leviathan coughed up Behemoth onto your Thanksgiving dinner table to sing bawdy drinking songs.  The jester, Europe's longtime symbol of the Id's cruel laughter at everything sacred, is deformed into a skeletal, superhuman frame, head spinning like an Art Nouveau Regan MacNeil.  His clothes, along with the backdrop, are drenched in browns and grays, subverting any hope for a symbol of glory by presenting its messenger resplendent in mud.  The superimposition of fuschia and sky blue against charcoal is bizarre, almost beckoning the viewer to a demented carnival.  Much like Edwin Roxburgh's Labyrinth the title gains power by reaching past the frame, but instead of that cover's overwhelming font mass Grotesken's letters remain nimble and spidery, their overreach more a quirky mistake than anything else.  The grasp of exotic humorror*** on display is almost impossible to describe in words, so I'll let the inevitable realization by the viewer that the jester's left leg isn't attach to anything sink in.  It's too good for the music it's promoting, and while that may be a recurring theme in this series that shouldn't keep you from gobbling this anthology with as much speed as you can muster on a mid-November Sunday.  I can't guarantee you'll finish it with your head right side up, though.


*Isn't that font just fantastic?

**Is Scorewife an acceptable term?  Either way I'm using it.

***Humor-horror, but you can chuck that word into the dustbin if you like.  The jester got to me.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Visual Music - Labyrinth by Edwin Roxburgh

There's a bunch of pianist-composers, guitarist-composers and conductor-composers, but I can't say I've heard of too many oboist-composers (except for Heinz Holliger, of course).  A student of Herbert Howells, Edwin Roxburgh (b. 1937) is one of those blessed contemporary composers who maintains an impressionistic sense of enchantment in his work.  There's some classic titles in there like Stardrift, Le Miroirs de Miró and Moonscape, the latter of which actually has two separate performances on YouTube - that's quite a compliment for a living composer, as most of them can only muster one for any given piece, if any at all.

Perhaps Moonscape's relative popularity is its flatter learning curve than some other contemporary piano works, such as Roxburgh's Labyrinth.  It was written to close out a performance of the first book of Debussy's Preludes on a piano with a nine-note bass extension to a super-low C, and though I haven't heard the piece played on that kind of piano I can guess it'd be swell, considering those notes are too low for people to recognize their pitches.  The recording I heard was pretty good despite the lack of low notes, and the piece itself is crashing, horrific and really, really cool.  It's the kind of ultra-dramatic color showcase that could inspire young people to the piano.  Roxburgh's publisher, United Music Publishers (UMP), is largely minimalist with their covers, so I was delightfully surprised when I saw this:

(Sorry about the stickers)

This is what happens when you make the cover artist write the title with a crayon taped to the end of a six-foot pole while blindfolded.  It's entirely appropriate, and evokes that feeling when you're in a labyrinth and you come across a foreboding warning written by somebody once lost in its walls, taken by the Minotaur*.  The cramped framing and small print below do wonders to make the word and the concept overpower the viewer, like it'll burst from the paper at any second and consume them.  There's also a distinct lack of curves, inferring a name more forced than graced.  I don't know who the artist is on this one (a sad pattern that will emerge as this series continues), but whoever he is I salute him as a scholar of the creepy.  If you want to hear the main show, here's a CD with it:


*Just like any other Wednesday.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Gentle Death of Lilacs - Rare Gems from the Cos Cob Song Volume


I've referenced before my adoration for the early years of American modernism, but there's still much more to show and soak in.  It's easy to see that modernism in American music didn't really get started until the mid-20's, far behind Europe and with little good reason.  That ungood reason is simple - American publishing houses had no interest in modernism.  The biggest force for publishing new music in the late 10's and early 20's was the Society for the Publication of American Music, and their output may have worked in the American musical climate then but now seems embarrassingly stodgy.  While a few odd ducks escaped (such as Carl Ruggles's Toys, by far the strangest, most haunting piece published by church and organ music publisher H. W. Gray), young composers had no real haven for their larger modernist works.  However, 1929 delivered in two capacities: Henry Cowell's seminal journal New Music Quarterly, and Cos Cob Press, Inc.  While the former has been immortalized as the most important advocate for new music in America's modernist development, Cos Cob has largely evaded the public eye, partially for its short life span but also the lack of frequently-performed works in its catalog.

Founded and partially funded by Alma Morgenthau Wertheim, Cos Cob Press was largely begun to publish works by the Young Composers Group, containing such future luminaries as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Elie Siegmeister and Roger Sessions.  Before you assume the Cos Cob catalog was all polychords and populism, let me just say that in these early years the Coplands of the country were just getting their bearings and wrote in very different idioms than the language of Appalachian Spring (in many ways more personal and rewarding idioms).  Taking its name from the famous Impressionist art colony, the six years of Cos Cob's existence (before it was absorbed by the equally important Arrow Music Press, which was absorbed by the bastardly Boosey & Hawkes**) allowed a number of beautiful and varied works to see well-engraved*** print.  It's brief run makes it a time capsule of a wonderfully free-form time when modern music could have gone in any direction, and in its way fulfills the American dream of rugged individualism like no other publisher before or since.  As the face of modern music became less intimate and more soaring and mechanistic, the link to an Impressionist movement seems all the more poignant.  Though I can't go into much more detail here, the musicologist Carol Oja wrote an excellent article on Cos Cob for the journal Notes that can be found here.

In 1935, Aaron Copland rounded up a pile of song by his friends and published them in the Cos Cob Song Volume, one of the most important anthologies in American music history.  The songs are a snapshot of one of the most fertile modernist collectives of the time, including Copland, Sessions, Charles Ives, Virgil Thomson and Paul Bowles.  In addition to people you may have actually heard of, the collection included a few songs by figures who either never gained due respect for their work or dropped off the map entirely.  In late 2012 I gave a recital called American Diary, showcasing an hour of America's best unheard prosody and featuring several songs from the Volume.  Three songs in particular caught my adoration, and I made YouTube recordings of them after the recital in order to further emphasize their value.  I've tagged this article as a One-Off because the songs, all of which I'm featuring here, are the bulk of the published output of their respective composers, and two of them make up a whole 50% of their oeuvres.  And each composer is as elusive as they are in desperate need of a revival.

(Click each for larger view)

Arguably the most mysterious of the three, Irwin Heilner (1908-1991) was an island unto himself.  His style has little in common with his contemporaries and he had few champions in his time, though you couldn't get a much better advocate than the conductor William Strickland.  Only one piece of his, Chinese Songs for voice and orchestra, ever got a commercial recording (a service done by Strickland), and The Tide Rises is the only piece of his to get published for wide release.  It's one of the darkest, most foreboding art songs I've ever seen, taking a Longfellow poem to its most extreme capacity for horror.  Heilner's language often employs collaged modes, but in the climax breaks out into free dissonance, resisting analysis at every turn.  The grave, hushed vocals only add to the sense of a coming storm just outside the concert hall.  It begs for further investigation, not only of Heilner's oeuvre but of the song's hidden depths, the latter of which I'll let you infer.


(Click each for larger view)

Israel Citkowitz (1909-1974) was a close friend of Copland's since his teenage years, and his current obscurity can mostly be attributed to his extreme perfectionism.  Aside from Gentle Lady, the excellent Five Songs, settings of James Joyce's Chamber Music, is the only piece Citkowitz let escape; he destroyed nearly everything else he wrote.  That piece of information is decidedly un-public, as I heard that from Rodney Lister, a good friend and pupil of Virgil Thomson.  While the Five Joyce songs are written in a spare and luminous modal language reminiscent of Ned Rorem, Gentle Lady takes a turn for the ambiguous.  Composed mainly of a snaking, atonal treble melody, the song is the antithesis of pianistic prosody, keeping the proceedings oddly dry.  It's more suited for winds and strings, and I actually made a transcription for voice, flute, two cellos and contrabass - I may prefer it in that setting, but Citkowitz is the boss.  Much like TideLady's inspiration stems from a funereal place, but is much more distant from tangibility, requiring utmost sensitivity from the performers.  Hopefully I didn't make too much of a hash of it.


(Click each for larger view)

My favorite song of the whole collection, Lilac-Time is one of only two published pieces by Alexander Lipsky (1900-1985), an influential pianist whose legacy is mostly comprised of a series of Bach editions for Kalmus.  I have no idea how much more music he wrote, because I haven't been able to track down a single score beyond the two that were published, and I don't know anybody who knows where his manuscripts are.  It's a crying shame, because Lilac-Time, as well as the ridiculously scarce**** Four Sketches for piano, are fantastic, illustrating a rich and deeply creative musical mind.  Both pieces are reminiscent of the Ultra-Modernists such as Ruth Crawford, Ruggles and Charles Seeger, but their writing is so emotionally resonant they make a case for standing on their own as American classics.  Counterpoint is the name of Lilac-Time's game, and you probably never thought clashing minor seconds could be so beautiful.  The subject matter is once again death-centric, and in contrast to Heilner's doom and gloom Lilac-Time is haunting and unbelievably yearning.  The poem is beautiful enough as it is, but Lipsky's enriches the words and makes the listener's neck arch in dream-like ecstasy.  I have no idea why nothing else of Lipsky's has surfaced, and the lack of a professional recording for Lilac-Time is a travesty.  There is a recording of the Four Sketches but it's acutely rare, so I may be forced to make my own in the future.  For now, here's Lilac-Time:

Cos Cob's catalog stands as a testament to the fecundity and liberation of early American modernism, and the Song Volume is the cornerstone of the firm and the early years of the Young Composers Group.  If you're interested in the rest of the songs, a few more were recorded very well on the album But Yesterday is Not Today: The American Art Song 1927-1972.  The three composers featured here need to be heard, and my efforts are not enough.  Even if we don't have the time or energy to single-handedly revive them, let's at least celebrate them in the spirit of rugged individualism.  It's music like this that makes me proud to be an American*****.


*I've counted this article as a Visual Music post because of Cos Cob's cover design.  Unfortunately I don't have a color scan of their stuff, but the B & W version sums it up nicely.  I just adore that big note - pure Art Deco.  The font is spare but bold, meshing perfectly with the geometry and space of the Bunyan-sized engraving.  Once again, good design was thwarted by the end of the Deco movement.

**Boosey & Hawkes is best summed up by my former orchestra conductor Christophe Chagnard: "Boosey & Hawkes are a bunch of gangsters whose only purpose in life is to screw poor musicians out of their money."  Now that they've been absorbed by Hal Leonard, all is lost.

***Their output was engraved by the same engraving house that Universal Edition used in the 20's, giving the Cos Cob scores a very recognizable and cozy feel.

****Let me know if you want the score and I'll send you my PDF scan.  Trust me, you need it.

*****I hope this article can stand as a piece of contemporary patriotism that isn't completely stupid and embarrassing.  The loudest and proudest of today tend to be horrible people, so maybe we can return intellectualism to Americana - it needs a bit of help.