Friday, September 27, 2013

Hans Otte - Medieval Minimalism and Tone Tomes

Books are no longer worlds.  I don't mean worlds like the book from The Neverending Story, though I'd put dollars to donuts people would snap up those volumes before they could blink.  I mean artistic worlds, all-encompassing artistic objects - the kind of vast, hand-crafted tome from pre-Gutenberg Medieval Europe, the kind that inspires wonder and hunger in antique book collectors and fantasy consumers.  Because there was no way to exactly reproduce anything before the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, the requirement to remake everything by hand inspired a great deal of individuality, either intentional or unintentional, in format, illustration, and scope.  Many music history students come across Roman de Fauvel in their required reading, a 14th-century French allegory about a horse who rises to power in the French court and embarks on various satirical misadventures.  One of the earliest copies of the book comes with 169 musical insertions that span the breadth of Medieval music and allow for entrancing design opportunities such as this page:

This era also produced a trend for what is now called "eye music", notation in the form of a visually recognizable object or symbol, such as this gem:

The shape has no effect on the sound of the music, but rather is a holistic touch in a medium that over time would become more and more narrow in its look and feel.  It naturally went away with standardized printing, as does anything expansive and innovative in life, and the concept of engraving outside the box didn't come back until the 60's had something to say about it.  You remember our old friend Burr van Nostrand, don't you?  He was aided by the counterculture and his work is a fully-formed, organic anarchy, like Shel Silverstein was possessed by John Cage.  However, the most famous 20th century composer to work non-musical sight elements into his work is without question George Crumb, whose Makrokosmos sets for piano have adorned hundreds of college dorm walls since their inception in the 1970's:

While these guys were breaking American Mold there was another guy on the other side of the pond who wouldn't leap as intensely into the eye music fold but would return a Medieval past all the same (no, not Arvo Pärt).  Hans Otte (1926-2007) isn't a name that would leap out of the bushes of your local record store to bite your aural jugular, and he wasn't that name in Europe, either.  A longtime music director for Radio Bremen, Otte was unique in his steadfast promotion of the 60's Avant-Garde in America, specifically the John Cage/David Tudor/Terry Riley/La Monte Young continuum.  Minimalism never really caught on among European classical composers (who were so deep in the dodecaphonic cookie jar they wouldn't have anything to do with vast swaths).  There was a big minimalist movement in progressive rock (specifically Krautrock) and midbrow electronic music, with figures such as Jean Michel Jarre, Holger Czukay, and Klaus Schulze coming to the fore on parallel tracks to Brian Eno.  It's this lack of academic engagement in minimalism that lets Otte stand out, and his method was both delicate and enveloping, modern and ancient, down-to-Earth an spiritual all in one.

His most well-known work is The Book of Sounds (1979-1982), and even if he died the second after he inked the last note it would still loom high in late-20th century piano rep.  He played it quite frequently during his lifetime and a cursory glance through the interbuts reveals a plethora of performing admirers.  Properly notating minimalist pieces can prove tricky, as literally writing out each repetition induces madness in both the engraver and the consumer, and sticking repeat signs on every other bar is a clunky solution.  Otte's novel approach puts elegance and open space first, a system I've only seen matched in appeal by György Kurtág's unique system:

The performance included above is only one such solution, and no two performances are alike.  These pieces hinge simultaneously on precision and instinct, and The Book of Sounds facilitates both of these forces without getting in the way of a good-looking score.  Less is certainly more, and the lack of some recognizable elements in the staff allows for others to be expanded and exploited.  Sometimes a visual collision occurs, such as this charming latticework:

It's important to know where all of this came from, and along with the official explanations of Eastern spirituality and championing of American minimalism, certain earlier works point to another source:

Being quite the far cry from my thesis, this work is a fine example of the 60's new music atmosphere surrounding the iron curtain.  The major players in this kind of monumental, gesture-based music were Witold Lutosławski and Krzysztof Penderecki.  While Penderecki's works eventually diverged from 12-tone blocks,  Lutosławski stayed firm and fashioned serialism into a vehicle for pure musical drama, allowing systems and jargon to melt away and seducing audiences with passion and movement.  Like Lutosławski's best, Passages is a bestiary of timbre, occasionally edging into farce but largely staying within the realms of concert-hall terror.  The most notable moment is at 5:45, where the orchestra gives way to reveal a D-flat major chord spread across the strings, a chord that wouldn't have been half as powerful without everything that came before it.  Sometimes beauty comes from withholding what we most anticipate, and Otte is nothing if not a master of pacing.

The Book of Hours (1991-1998), while not nearly as popular as The Book of Sounds, is just as worthy, spreading 48 pieces across four volumes in page-long increments.  Otte continues developing his notational scheme but, rather than slipping into modal complacency, lets chromatic linelets ping into the distance.  Pedal saturation is a given, and forward momentum is nil.  The only YouTube performance I was able to find was of the entire set, and I'm assuming you don't have an extra hour to spare, so don't feel obliged to watch the whole thing.  The act of reproducing the composer's manuscript brings the reader back to the handmade nature of illuminated manuscripts, where each copy is unique and the scribe can be felt through the book.  One element that rears its lovely head more than in Sounds is physical space between notes, and part of his notation allows notes to be held longer if there is more blank space after it than others.  This is a tricky game to play, and it wouldn't work at all under a different musical reading history than ours.  Thankfully, most people seem to get the drift:

There's plenty more to see, of course, and the lack of clandestine uploads of his scores may be more of a boon than a problem.  As with Medieval manuscripts, their singularity and physical beauty intimates a mystical quality that ordinary printed music lacks.  As with any object worth finding, the search is a major element, even if that search is nothing more than a simple online order form.  If I were you, I'd abscond with the nearest copy of your favorite Otte Book and head for Mont St. Michel, perhaps camping out next to its ancient clock with an oil lamp and a wheel of brie.  In a few hundred years Otte's work will perhaps be confused with sacred tomes or New Age manifestos, and perhaps that's for the better, and perhaps we can all group the Books with Charles Koechlin's Les Heures Persanes and Kaikhosru Sorabji's massive cycles as the closest the piano has gotten to a religious experience.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Illusory Trail of Dante Fiorillo

If there's one thing that's rare in the classical music world, it's disgraced figures.  There have only been a handful of controversial cases of classical artists being called into question and thrown out of their respective circles, such as Solomon Volkov's Testament: the Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich and its dubious authenticity, or the ejection of Léon Delafosse from Marcel Proust's artistic circle (a story for a later time).  One crime that I've heard almost none of is plagiarism, specifically compositional plagiarism, and it may be for a disgust with the perpetrators that there is a lack of cases in the accessible literature.  Of the scant handful of plagiarist composers I've heard of, one begs further investigation, as his story is as fascinating as it is mysterious - Dante Fiorillo (1905-?).  His alleged musical theft may have ensured his extreme obscurity, but it also helps when you disappear for no apparent reason.

A native of New York, Fiorillo was apparently self-taught as a composer, but studied cello at Greenwich House Music School.  By his own admission he wasn't much of a cellist, but that didn't stop him from finding his way to Yaddo, one of the Northeast's most needs-no-introduction-ish art colonies.  He also had no trouble gaining the love and support of Yaddo's guests, partially by his character but helped in no small part by his perpetually poor health.  In addition to winning the Society of Professional Musicians award, several guests rallied for him and helped him secure the first and second of four consecutive Guggenheim fellowships (1935-1938), and he was appointed as Composer-in-Residence at Black Mountain College, a short-lived but seminal experimental institution dedicated to an overarching presence of the arts in a liberal arts education.  The President of the Guggenheim foundation, Henry Allan Moe, thought that Black Mountain College would be a comfortable, supportive environment for Dante and his delicate composure, and kept a close watch on his productivity and health.  The eccentric and ailing composer required two quarts of milk a day in addition to what he had with meals, and Moe made sure that he was given a warm thermos of it each night before bed.  Fiorillo was a charming presence, an excellent storyteller and magician, and the poet Theodore Dreier noted in letters that he was "in danger of being sued for alienation of affection by all the dog owners, -they have all deserted their masters for Dante."

Moe also supplied him with composition paper whenever he needed it, and he turned out to be quite productive, authoring at least four orchestral (?) suites and possibly a fifth as well as many other works, including the Concertino for Piano and Strings, which was performed by the Promenade Symphony Orchestra to three curtain calls.  His compositional style was appreciated, with fellow Black Mountain composer Allan Sly (who was the soloist for the Concertino premiere) describing his style as "(seeming) to flow from a deep well of Italian fecundity, with facility."  However, Sly noticed one day that one of Fiorillo's new works bore a striking resemblance to a composition sent to him by a German composer.  At that time a conductor, Fiorillo came into contact with a pair of German composers, Berthold Goldschmidt and Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who at that time were unknown in the U.S. and were struggling to get their work recognized.  New music was still a nascent market in the U.S., a near-vacuum that would be quickly filled in the decades following WWII.  Fiorillo claimed that if they sent him scores he would perform them stateside, and they enthusiastically obliged.  Goldschmidt recounted later that he was confused by the lack of follow-up correspondence from his American friend, and some time later was sent reviews of the premieres with the composer's name carefully removed.  Once he got his scores back he realized they hadn't been used in performance, and showed signs of being used for copying.  I don't know how many more composers Fiorillo did this trick with, but it didn't take long for Sly, Moe and other composers to uncover the truth.  Fiorillo was forced out of Black Mountain College in 1938, but that apparently didn't stop him from winning the Pulitzer Prize that year (a scholarship, as the Pulitzer Prize in Music didn't exist until 1943), or receiving continued support from Moe.

The Pulitzer award was won largely based upon his eighth symphony (of twelve!), and in researching him I found a fascinating and somewhat ridiculous newspaper article on the win from the May 26, 1939 issue of The Milwaukee Journal.  That picture at the top is the sensational headline, coupled by a sensational, Depression-hugging thesis of the symphony's genesis being the plight of a poor immigrant boy suffering in New York slums.  I have to assume all the information in the article came from the proverbial horse's mouth, so I can't be sure of what is real and what is not, so don't say I didn't warn you.  Fiorillo was the child of Italian immigrants, growing up in the slums to the companionship of dirt, noise, and darkness.  As the article says:

There are places in the slums where the sunbeams cannot enter because the houses are too close together.  But no place is too dark or too remote to be reached by the sound of music.

At first that sound had to be made by Fiorillo himself.  He was always looking for escape, and as a small boy made considerable trips in order to walk the "nice streets".  His father bought him a harmonium when he was seven, and he started learning music by ear, entering the Greenwich House Music School at age 14.  Miserable in his cello studies, he studied the works of the old masters and used the cover of practice time to write works of his own.  After some months he came into contact with Enrique "Hank" Caroselli, an Uruguayan immigrant and head of the school, and he was befriended by him along with many of his friends.  In addition to teaching them performance technique he insisted upon proper character and appearance, and his love and support was the inspiration for Fiorillo to go on in music.  The article stated that Caroselli wanted no praise, saying that his work was its own reward and that he was passing on the teachings of his own mentor, the Belgian violinist and composer César Thomson.  The article concludes with a similarly boil-in-the-bag inspirational close, seeing Fiorillo's example as a charge for the 335 lower-class students at Greenwich House:

They stand around in groups reading the newspaper clippings of the Pulitzer award on the school bulletin board.  The saw away at their fiddles and hammer the piano keys.

For Dante escaped from the slums through music.  May not they?

Despite his dubiously continuing success, Fiorillo's story comes to a close soon after.  In the late 40's he started a music publishing company, the Educational Publishing Institute Corp. (EPIC), which published a number of his own works as well as those of other now acutely obscure composers.  Considering that new music publishing, including works by foreign composers, and musical communication in general was better facilitated in post-WWII decades, the notion of Fiorillo continuing to plagiarize seems dubious, and plagiarizing pedagogical music is an extremely sad notion indeed.  An ad for some of their publications doesn't bode well, despite their "merit":

He appears to have taught at the Eastman School of Music (possibly as late as 1953) alongside Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers, and that's pretty much the last information I was able to find on him.  He disappeared from the New York music scene in the 50's, 1950 exactly according to one source, and a suspicious-looking death date of 1955 from another source may be another eligible disappearance date, which would clear up room for the 1970 death date I found on his German Wikipedia article.  The presence of a German article but not an American one is fascinating to me, considering that this never happens with American composers.  Was it written out of spite for his copying of the works of such luminaries as Goldschmidt and Hartmann, or is it actually easier to find information on him in Germany than it is here?  The latter is ridiculous, but with the puzzling cloud surrounding Fiorillo and his work I'm open to any possibilities.  Considering that the article didn't link to a source for that death date and there are no details to go along with it, Fiorillo may as well have become a hermit in the Adirondacks or passed into another dimension for all the clues I've been given.

Want to know what his music sounds like?  I would too, because there isn't a single commercial recording of his work and only two archival performances, one the Yaddo Chamber Orchestra in the New York Public Library and the other by the Amerita String Orchestra at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the Library of Congress.  The latter dates from 1959, and it may be the last time anybody thought about his work.  As I'm no longer a university student my Interlibrary Loan abilities have been cut off at the knees, so it may be quite a while before I see any of his scores.  Considering that he was self-taught as a composer, and he gained his recognition in an era of American music that was open for pretty much anything, it's possible that the works he wrote himself didn't sound like anything else at the time.  The real kicker is that I found him purely by accident.  I was searching Worldcat for pieces for voice, violin and cello, and I stumbled across the four manuscripts of his in the New York Public Library donated by George Rochberg.  I don't know how Rochberg got a hold of them, but they are dated to 1942, and Rochberg was freshly out of college at that point, so it's not entirely implausible that he met Fiorillo around this time, even though he never attended either Eastman or Black Mountain and served in the Army during WWII.

One person who knew him and is still alive is the composer Walter S. Hartley, a man most famous for writing sonatas for every instrument of the orchestra as well as all the saxophones.  I found that he was a student of Fiorillo's while at Eastman, and I sent him an e-mail through his personal website.  Considering that Hartley is 85, I was worried that he didn't check his site's e-mail address frequently or at all, and that he may have forgotten Fiorillo entirely.  Fortunately he got back to me the next day:

Dante Fiorillo gave me private lessons in composition at his apartment on Bleecker Street, NY several times in Summer 1949 and 1950. As I remember they involved counterpoint, and were very helpful in my development. He was born in 1905 and died in 1995 (this is all I could find about his life). He was very intense and had strong opinions about fellow composers the nature of which I can't remember.

This lines up with a disappearance in the early 50's and trumps the other two death dates by a good 40 and 25 years respectively.  I don't know where Hartley got that 1995 date, but it's certainly a plot thickener.  It's always interesting when an artist is painted as being opinionated; that term more often than not causes images of cranky old men and disrespectful youth to arise, but is wide enough to include just about anything.  I wonder if anybody valued opinions that strong after he was found out, but it appears they didn't get a chance to after his disappearance.

Is the crime of plagiarism so vile that Fiorillo is worth forgetting?  Ultimately I can't say.  I founded these blogs on the belief that all art has some value, and there are many fine artists with unfortunate personal lives and regrettable personalities whose work is more important than their biographies.  The problem with putting Fiorillo in that pile is the uncertainty in what work is actually his.  It's not like he didn't have his difficulties in life, and his continually poor health is an important detail.  Was he under a lot of pressure and just couldn't make the effort to keep up with his previous pace?  Perhaps he requested those German scores under an initially pure intent, only later seeing the window and jumping through it.

I once read a biography of Ruggiero Leoncavallo, the one-hit-wonder composer of I Pagliacci, and it turned out to be a fascinating story of a mediocre artist whose ambition far outreached his talent and discipline and would string along publishers with false promises, taking long vacations based upon claimed ailments.  It's important to remember that creative figures, no matter how brilliant, are nothing more than human, and finding stories like Leoncavallo's are an affirmation of how tenuous the line between artist and layman truly is.  Was Fiorillo a good composer?  I may never know, and nobody is eager to find out for me.  He was certainly never short of friends, and his history of adoration and awards suggests a good fortune that eclipses his actions.  His behavior didn't stop his scores from entering university circulation, and if Rochberg had the capacity of charity to save a handful of his scores (four of only 20 that I know survived whatever wraths time threw at his large oeuvre), it's a testament to his art and life that warrants investigation more extensive than my own.  The only way historians can progress in their craft is to leave morality out of their work, ensuring a purity of truth, or as best a truth as they can muster.  If stories such as Fiorillo's fall through the cracks of music's past we'll be at a loss of learning experiences and at the very least some fascinating little episodes.  I don't think that this article is unwarranted in its charity, and it certainly wasn't a trial to write.  If anybody out there has more information than I was able to find I'd be more than happy to hear it, and if I wish for anything it's for more stories of music's singular figures to surface, the illustrious and the unpalatable.


Sources: The Arts at Black Mountain College by Mary Emma Harris; Black Mountain College: an Experiment in Art by Vincent Katz, Martin Brody, Robert Creeley and Kevin Power; Yaddo: Making American Culture by Micki McGee; Harpsichord and Clavichord Music of the 20th Century by Frances Bedford; "Escaped Slums with Music that Won Pulitzer Prize" by John Lear - The Milwaukee Journal, May 26, 1939; "Berthold Goldschmidt: Orchestral Music" by Colin Matthews - Tempo, New Series, No. 148 (Mar., 1984); John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation page (; personal correspondence with Walter S. Hartley

Saturday, September 14, 2013

One-off - Earl George's Intermezzo


A while back I wrote an article on Alice McElroy Procter, a student of Howard Hanson and Ross Lee Finney who attempted to start her own classical music publishing house in 1952.  Their flagship title was to be Panorama, collecting a who's-who of B- to Z-list American composers in the early 50's with the aim of cultivating a repertoire of pedagogical piano works worth listening to.  It's about high time some of them get recorded, as there are some quite nice pieces nestled in those pages (including an H. Owen Reed leaf I'll get to later).  Oddly enough, the first piece I've decided to record is one that actually escaped the confines of the American Music Company:  Earl George's Intermezzo.

(Click for larger view)

As per George himself, I've only heard two other pieces of his (Thanksgiving OvertureArioso for cello and piano) and they're just fine.  He authored a good 100 pieces in his life but never achieved wide recognition, getting washed away in a sea of American classical success in the 50's.  This is one of his earliest pieces, dating from no earlier than 1953 and harking back centuries earlier.  Using a simple binary form, the Intermezzo alternates between a minimalist, harp-like texture, with a 2-on-4 F Dorian ostinato ringing on top of a quartal, 3-note cell.  After eight bars the right hand jumps up to a mixed mode for four bars, returning to F Dorian as the left hand moves down a whole step.  The B section is a deceptively simple three-voice chorale, almost plainchant in its hallowed compression but working with contemporary harmonic tools, resulting in heartbreaking passages and resolutions.  The repeat of the piece is identical until the resolution of A2, a branching-off point for B2 to take us towards a smile-inducing final chord, an oddly tonal conclusion to a piece that had quietly reveled in the circle of fifths for so long.  It's no wonder this piece got picked up for re-publication - you may have noticed that Intermezzo isn't the title printed here.  Originally Little Prelude, it was plucked from the depths by Elkan-Vogel in 1955, receiving its new moniker.  I prefer Intermezzo, as the piece seems to have slid in from between the walls of much larger events in life.  It's far too delicate a work to accompany anything but itself, or possibly a pocket of airborne dust in a living room in an early Spring afternoon.  Whatever you make of the Intermezzo I hope I didn't make too much of a hash of things in my recording, my first Soundcloud submission in well over a year.


*Isn't that cover just wonderful?