Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Needed One-Off - Bruce Simonds's Prelude on "Iam sol recedit igneus"

As someone who has spent a good amount of time digging up unknown great works, I have spent much of that time in search of the answer to a simple question: what do people need from music?  Many other questions orbit this one, such as: why do people gravitate towards some musics and not others, and what do the differences between people's tastes say about us?  Is there any point in believing in any one standard for excellence?  What does music accomplish for us on a scientific level?  While there are a ton of answers for all these questions I still find myself asking, and I'm often surprised at how I can come to need certain pieces.  And one such piece that has taken the hand of my psyche is a largely unknown organ piece from the mid-20's, something I never thought I'd utter.

One area of Western music I'm not much of an authority on is sacred music, and the organ is Christianity's chosen instrument (aside from the human voice, of course).  It's impossible to talk of organ repertoire without having most of your material coming from the church, and because I find a big chunk of sacred music I've come across to be purely functional I haven't done too much independent listening into either church or organ rep.  I most likely wouldn't have heard of today's piece, or its composer, if I hadn't been researching another figure entirely: Robert Russell Bennett, Broadway's most famous arranger and the author of two astoundingly good orchestral pieces, Abraham Lincoln: A Likeness in Symphony Form and Sights and Sounds: An Orchestral Entertainment.  I'll get to those guys later, as well as the piece I was searching for in the first place, his inventive and haunting Organ Sonata.  The CD I'd loaned out, David Britton's Organo Deco, featured the Sonata as well as five other organ works that Britton felt reflected the Art Deco spirit (all performed on a Deco-styled organ from the late 30's).  While the other works aren't much to write home about (such as Leo Sowerby's very early Comes Autumn Time, which sounds a lot better in its orchestral version), one other work has stuck with me for quite some time: the Prelude on "Iam sol recedit igneus" (1924) by Bruce Simonds, a Yale professor and concert pianist.  This is one of two works he wrote for the instrument, and as far as I can tell the only things he ever published.  Organ music, much like guitar music, is largely written by its performers, and it's not uncommon (especially in a sacred music setting) for a performer to contribute only a work or two to the rep before retreating from composition.  In the case of Simonds, not only was he an interloper, but the piece is actually pretty wonderful.

The piece takes inspiration from an inner verse of the chant "Lux Beate Trinitas", and "Iam"'s title translates to, "As fades the glowing orb of day" (or "As now the sun's rays declining" as the CD booklet tells me).  The sacred prelude tradition goes way back (with Bach's 371 chorale preludes a staple of music theory classes), though I feel this piece as being a more extended study than the name "prelude" allows for, stretching for more than ten minutes.  It takes the sunset cue from the text and sprawls, with a lush, hallowed intensity, across the subconscious.  In my Gardner Read article I talked about how a reliance on extended, resonant simplicity can invade our inner space, taking us into a different state of mind.  I'm not sure Simonds was really a composer (the small inconsistencies in the score tell me he wasn't a professional), but if he wasn't it's all the more remarkable how the Prelude accomplishes this effect in spades.  He relies on few elements, largely a central theme derived from the chant itself, and slowly develops and resets it through a fine, quiet drama.  A simple structure reveals itself, whereby different castings of the theme envelop distant and progressively mounting quotes from the chant.  Simonds knows organ colors very well, using stops and writing density to effortlessly achieve his arc.  And as much control is evident in the piece this is music written from and for the heart.  There is no larger technical device present; it's all a sung dream, a cathartic close to a universal day.  There's no need to explain anything; you know it already, and it surrounds you.

As I said before I'm no expert on organ music, and this piece may be fairly run-of-the-mill in comparison to its more impressive cousins.  I'm also not Catholic, and so I can't speak for the religious significance of the chant or this setting.  I do know this piece's staying power, if only for me personally.  I've come to need it in a small way, and it's a need that's impossible to put into words.  It's something of a given that defending music with words is partially a lost cause, and this isn't any truer than with a seemingly artless piece like this.  It certainly isn't really artless, but rather has the illusion of artlessness.  I am referring to a quote by the composer Leland Procter (husband of Alice McElroy Procter), here talking about his first symphony: "Art is most perfect when it ceases to be art - when there is an impression of artlessness.  I do not underestimate the importance of artfulness or craft, but the greatest impact is achieved when the craft of musical composition is relatively inconspicuous, except to the analyst."  I've come to appreciate this philosophy more and more, as that's where the appreciation of music springs from in the first place.  I'm also reminded of Clarke's Third Law, an oft-repeated statement on the future of science that states: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  The implication is that technology's ultimate goal is to become invisible, allowing for purely intuitive living and doing.  I've come to realize that the greatest composers are those that have achieved a level of craft where they no longer think of how they compose, and simply do as they were born to do.  Simonds's Prelude isn't a "how" piece - it's a pure emotional statement, an epiphany at the gloaming of the mind's eye.


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Johanna Beyer and the Mystery of Your Own Devices

There are few more exciting moments in research when you stumble across a hold of unseen work.  There have been many cases of talented artists left out of the eye of the art establishment, with a wide variety of reasons for their hermitage.  One part of being an artist that isn't brought up enough is the importance of being sociable to your fellow artists, and the obscurity of Johanna Beyer (1888-1944) is largely due to simply being withdrawn and odd.  So withdrawn that information about her early life is very hard to come by.  A German expatriate, she came to America in 1923 (although she had been in the country from 1911-1914, though nothing is known about what she did), studying at Mannes College of Music.  Her ticket to possible recognition came when she began studying with Ruth Crawford Seeger (wife of Charles Seeger), Henry Cowell and Dane Rudhyar, all major figures in the American Ultra-Modernist scene in New York.  She also worked with the even-more-obscure Canadian-American Jessie Baetz, and if anybody has any idea as to how I can get ahold of her scores I'd love to hear them.  Despite having connections to many figures in the scene she remained very private, and her works were rarely performed (though she maintained a friendship, and possible romantic connection, with Cowell until the early 40's).  She eventually succumbed to ALS, dying in her early 50's.  It's difficult to tell if being more outgoing would have helped her reputation more in her lifetime, because long after the fact it's difficult to know where to start with her work.

Beyer's compositions are among the most fearlessly inventive and wide-ranging of her time and place.  Music of the Spheres (1938) is one of the earliest works for an ensemble of electronic instruments; Messiaen's Oraison for ondes martenot ensemble is the only one I can think of that predates it (or Marinetti's Futurist instruments).  It's one of the more accessible entryways for her experimental style, focusing on processes and odd pitch and rhythmic structures rather than arc, harmony or programmatic context.  It's almost minimalistic in feel, but with Beyer it's difficult to tell her real motives by the works alone.  Her pieces range from distressingly naive (such as the Sonatina for piano) to baffling, such as this:

This is only one of a series of such "pieces" at the beginning of the Piano Book, a multi-volume (I think) pedagogical piano series in the same vein as Bartok's Mikrokosmos.  It's possible that these first, note-less works were intended as exercises to coax music-making out of children before they were able to read music; the fact that the plant-like figures vaguely resemble notes makes this page all the more intriguing.  I can't tell if they're not supposed to be played, because what purpose do they serve otherwise?  The music doesn't begin until after a bunch of these things.  Also, the book's progressive difficulty isn't terribly challenging, so my Mikrokosmos comparison may have been un-apt.

If history has remembered Beyer for anything it was her works for percussion of which there were many and make up a significant contribution to the development of percussion music in the 30's.  To be blunt, I'm not really a fan of early percussion music; I feel that too much of it is too taken by the mere fact of percussion instruments playing by themselves to constitute a satisfying musical experience.  I put the Waltz (1939) up because it took up the least amount of time and I've actually seen it live (or maybe it was the very-similar IV).  Normally I'd point out a lack of musicality in these pieces but with Beyer I really haven't the foggiest as to what her motives were.  The Waltz at least leaves you with a smile, and has an identifiable process at work that doesn't overstay its welcome.  Speaking of processes, a work that has attracted some scholarly attention is her Suite no. 1b for solo clarinet, specifically the fourth movement:

(Click for larger view)

I got the score for this, as well as a bunch of other scores by Beyer, off of Larry Polansky's website.  An advocate for the early Avant-Garde in America, Polansky wrote about the use of "tempo melody" in the fourth movement to this and the 1a clarinet suite.  "Tempo melody" is shown in the indication of "m=m", or "measure = measure".  Essentially, however long it took to play the previous measure is how long the next measure is to be played, accounting for different numbers of notes.  For example, if the first measure had two notes in it and the second three, the tempo shift would be a 3 : 2 ratio.  Polansky noted that the integer ratios found in the tempo shifts have related ratios in pitch relations, but I'll not bore you by inserting his chart.  I've heard two decent performances of this movement, and the tempi get outlandish, compounded with the great difficulty of the piece without the speed issues.  There is an effective arc to be found in this piece, but I'm not sure the performers were able to get a handle on it, or if that was Beyer's wish to begin with.  Polansky has become one of her greatest posthumous advocates, as he got many of her compositions published by Frog Peak Music, a composer's collective.

In 2008 the non-profit record label New World Records released Sticky Melodies, a 2-disc retrospective of her work that covers nearly everything she tried to accomplish (in what we've found, that is).  I don't own it, but judging by the preview clips available on Amazon there's a pretty wide swath of moods, techniques and listenabilities.  In addition to that set I would recommend tracking down an album by violinist Miwako Abe that includes her dark and lovely Suite for violin and piano as well as works by Crawford Seeger, Cowell, Polansky and Antheil.  As with all Beyer pieces I suggest treading with caution, because as intrigued and enthusiastic as I am about getting her work out there I'm not sure we'll ever get to her true core.  But that's all part of the uncovering process, and I'm very grateful that people like Larry Polansky are working for her welfare long after her death.


Monday, May 6, 2013

On the Gardner Read collection at Boston University

Every collector reaches a level in their work where they ask a simple question: why?  Why put work into preserving these things, things that you may be unique in desiring?  What is their real value?  Why do you need to collect at all?  With classical music, I find myself questioning its collector appeal simply because I feel relatively alone in what I do (not to say there aren't other hopeless obsessives on YouTube and the like).  I'm also curious as to why I collect certain composers' work, usually in cases where I have hesitations in showing that work to others.  Every collector has attachments to their finds that are tricky to explain by purely objective standards.  This is where Gardner Read comes in.

The music of Gardner Read (1913-2005) can be best described as sitting neatly between John Alden Carpenter and Ned Rorem, but that doesn't do a whole lot for people uninitiated in the American Classical Canon (TM).  Read's works inhabit a rich, yet stately, sound-world, heavily influenced by impressionism but possessing an American solidity, never raising its voice.  He is mostly known today for authoring one of the definitive handbooks to music engraving, Music Notation: A Manual of Modern Practice, and despite having a work list nearly 200 strong no frequently-performed works bear his name.  I probably would have gone a good while longer having not heard of him if it weren't for his position as a Professor in Composition at Boston University, my Masters Alma Mater, and for a career-spanning collection of his works at BU's main library.  These kinds of library collections (the M3's for those unfamiliar with the Library of Congress system) are oeuvre sets, and BU houses the life's work of such luminaries as Debussy, Shostakovich, and Josip Slavenski (who I may get to in a later article).  This is what the Read collection looks like:

Those crusty volumes haphazardly stuck in the shelves were donated by Read himself; he also donated dozens of other great works by lesser-knowns to the stacks as a gift to people like Mr. Y. Truly.  It should be noted that the library staff isn't too keen on keeping these scores organized, and I suspect I'm the only person in a while to take an interest in them.  The M3's are only pulled out by students for classwork and I highly doubt Read has come up in Music History recently.  Also, Read is one of the more accessible composers from the mid-20th century to remain sophisticated, so I'm not sure why more students aren't playing perfectly good recital material like the 6 Intimate Moods for violin and piano (which contains a leaf) or the Threnody for flute and piano.  Am I nuts for caring about him?

I need to warn you that there aren't a lot of recordings of Read's work on YouTube and half of them are very old, very bad recordings, so I don't have much to play for you.  I can give little examples like the above Night Song for piano.  To make a stab at it, the main reason for the neglect of Read's music today is its way of never jumping out and smacking the listener over the head.  Nothing smacks the listener over the head, and historical memory is largely written on shallow criteria.  While some of Read's pieces are loud and exciting there are a heck of a lot more written from a subdued, internal space.  The bulk of the pieces I've seen from him are patient and inviting as a philosophy, utilizing economical techniques and a masterful handle on long form to create their catharses.  That first line from the Night Song isn't an anomaly for Read's piano writing, as a number of other piano pieces and a lot of his lovely songs grow from a similar place.  I grew up on this kind of music (Debussy and Chopin being my first classical heroes), so I've found a lot to love in his oeuvre but sympathize with those who start checking their watch at the sight of a nocturne.  He has a very good pile of night pieces, like the Petite Berceuse for piano, the songs Lullaby for a Man-Child, Lullaby for a Dark Hour, At Bedtime, When Moonlight Falls, and one of his best pieces, Night Flight for orchestra:

The piece is inspired by the beloved novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and depicts the magical, mysterious space above the clouds, evoking mood and atmosphere rather than telling any kind of story.  One thing Read is very good at is bringing the listener into a subconcious world without resorting to minimalist techniques, and the economical writing and long-form focus serve that purpose excellently.   It should be standard rep for American orchestras, with its ingenious orchestration, modest length and programmatic context.  I especially like the use of a repeated oboe note to represent the beeping radio in the cockpit.  Another work that invades the subconcious the best is the ass-flattening De Profundis for horn and organ (recorded by the great trombonist Christian Lindberg for his album The Sacred Trombone along with Read's Invocation for trombone and organ).  I'm actually kind of mad that piece isn't uploaded, though it would be nice to hear it played on an actual horn.

In an effort to get more of his stuff online I have made a performance of his Impromptu, op. 42 for YouTube.  The Impromptu is one of his best piano pieces and is highly reminiscent of Ravel's Neo-Baroque works:

Most of his piano works were marketed by their publishers as pedagogical works, and his most advanced work for piano, Driftwood, has never been published; I was lucky and got to scan a copyist's version from the BU collection.  It appears Read relied on these small pieces for income and actually re-published the Impromptu in a revised version as the Intermezzo, op. 42a.  Comparing the covers of these two works is a nice era comparison, as the Impromptu was published in 1940 and the Intermezzo in 1959.  The Intermezzo cover is about as modern as the marketing for his works ever got, by the way:

I read that Copland and Read got into a minor spat that ended with Copland calling Read a "romanticist", and Read questioned whether his music was too lush for the Neo-Classical Populist language for which Copland was the Sun God.  As modestly romantic as Read must have appeared in the 30's, 40's and 50's, that's nothing compared to how out of place he must have looked after the 60's ended and the hard Avant-Garde took over in the U.S.  He did try his hand at more advanced compositional techniques, including aleatoric music and extended instrumental technique, but more often than not they would feel like his music.  An attractive example of that tendency is the Canzone di Notte for guitar, which has the guitarist tapping the body of the guitar among Read-ish arpeggios.  The lower line is an elegant notational solution to where the guitarist taps.

He retired from teaching in 1978 and kept composing into the 90's, including the excellent-looking 5 Aphorisms for violin and piano, which would make an excellent framing piece on a recital that starts with the 6 Intimate Moods (violinists: take note).  One late work that got recorded is the Fantasy-Toccata for harpsichord, using the crunchy tone quality of the instrument to augment crunchy polychords.  The harpsichordist Mark Kroll was actually a Professor Emeritus at BU and performed the piece all over the U.S. and Europe:

I wish I could show you the first two symphonies (both written in the 30's), both of which won first prize in two different contests, but the recordings on YouTube are dreadful, so I'll let you find them at your own risk.  The third piece that got first prize is actually one of my least favorite works of his, the Nocturnal Visions song set from the 80's.  It may have been apparent that Read was running out of ideas, as the first song is just a revision of an older one without proper credit.  Most composers find themselves in Read's position at the ends of their careers, but the difference is that you can tell from Read's music that he was a really nice guy, and that's a little sad.  The good news is that his colleagues and students knew he was a nice guy, and a very understanding teacher who didn't force his rhetoric upon his students.  Upon his death in 2005 BU's website published an obituary (’s-gardner-read-dies-at-92/), and it mentions a 1998 concert of his works at BU that appears to have gone over well.  I think Read is far more deserving of his own study room than Arthur Fiedler, who not only has a special library area but a ghastly stone relief outside the door.  Maybe it's not that I'm crazy, but rather I just feel for Read and his desire to make beautiful music, and think it shouldn't be forgotten.

In the end it may have been the surface modesty that kept Read from broader academic and public acceptance, and his personal evolution was always on his own terms and not the zeitgeist's.  There are some CDs out there if you want to investigate his work further, and I would recommend The Art of Song, a 1999 collection of his vocal works recorded by D'Anna Fortunato and friends.  His songs are quite lovely and would be welcome to Ned Rorem fans.  Perhaps if more people hear his pieces I'll start to feel less odd for wanting his pieces to be heard.  And if you think that a full investigation won't turn up anything terribly exciting, I'll leave you with one of his most invigorating orchestral pieces, Toccata Giocosa: