Friday, December 12, 2014

Happiness Month One-Off - Charles Villiers Stanford's The Bluebird

Christmas is unique among holidays in that it promotes Classical music like no other, with many people only listening to Classical music when attending Christmas concerts and having deep associations between Christmas and specific Classical genres like choral music and Baroque music.  As choruses get an enormous amount of exposure this time of year some works I was previously unfamiliar with have been popping up, and one that has me completely entranced is a secular song by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924).  One of the only Irish composers to gain international stature, Stanford was among a generation of British composers, including Hubert Parry and Alexander Mackenzie, whom scholars credit with revitalizing British Classical music and paving the way for younger, more popular and more influential composers like Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and an article on Stanford wouldn't be unwelcome on this blog.  However, the song of his in question flies far above the other works of his I've heard, and does so with the simplest of subjects - a bluebird.

The lake lay blue below the hill,
O'er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
The sky beneath me blue in blue,
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
It caught his image as he flew.

Part of a set of six song after words by Mary Coleridge, "The Blue Bird" draws some of the most intense yearning out of very few musical material, chiefly the use of a mid-chord pedal note held throughout its first major phrase:

The note is the root of the song's key, but holding it throughout the harmonic movement gives it a conflicted identity, threatening to drag down the work but, through the hushed volume and deft voicing, manages to illuminate it instead, a kind of gentle pressure on the heart.  Stanford sets aside one soprano as a soloist, at first intoning a single note, creating a tension out of its preciousness and fragility.  The song continues much the same, as tenuous as dream-silk, peaking with one of the most shockingly beautiful choral phrases since Allegri's Miserere Mei:

The music is repetitive only in being appropriate for the floating, haunted poem by Coleridge, its simplicity almost a question rather than an answer.  This emotional fermata is captured by Stanford's refusal to let his harmonies resolve, ending the piece on a minor vi chord without the fifth and featuring the eternal G-flat as its minor 7th.

I'm sure some of my readers will laugh at me for featuring a work as popular as this on a blog devoted to rarities, but "The Blue Bird" is rare in its own way, its writing out of its own time and place, seemingly existing in a faraway room with a single tree beyond its window.  It's also rare in that very few pieces can make me cry.  In a way there is a need within me for it to exist, much like I needed Bruce Simonds's Prelude on "Iam sol recedit igneus" to exist.  I was particularly moved by the recording below by the Finnish group Lumen Valo, and hopefully it makes for a worthy early Christmas gift for you all.  At the very least it makes me deeply happy, and for that kind of happiness to be inspired by a piece so modest is a great thing indeed.


You can view and purchase original art by the creator of the heading image here.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Happiness Month - Patricia Goodson's Strange Attractors album

This Thanksgiving was one of our lamest and most miserable in recent history, my parents and I all stricken with head-stuffing illness and being forced to skip out visiting local family in fear of transmitting heavy coughing and phlegm.  That's not to say we didn't have any food or had to go to the hospital, but it was most definitely not what we had in mind.  As a balm to this, I've decided to make December Happiness Month for my blogs, spotlighting not only worthy rarities but also artists and works that make me happy, including a few of my favorite things in the world.  I'm kicking off the month with a long-standing happiness supplier in my CD library, Patricia Goodson's Strange Attractors.

As it is easier and more profitable to market new music under a general banner rather than pitch an unknown name as being worthy of a solo album, modern composers have long relied on anthology albums to get their names out there, and sometimes those works included alongside others become their only successes.  In some cases, such as Susan Blaustein and the late, lamented Dennis Riley, the composers never get a solo album.  I always like scooping up these kinds of CD's, not only for their value as historical documents but also as ways of hearing works by composers that might not have gotten a better shot in their careers, and while I can't say the latter is overwhelmingly true with Strange Attractors the album does capture a distinct frame of mind in American music and has the bonus of having all good pieces, rather than the crapshoot these things can occasionally be.

Patricia Goodson isn't exactly a household name among pianists, but her two recording projects prove that she should get a few more shots at the limelight.  Aside from this striking album, whose contents comprise the only recordings of their works, she managed to record a five-CD retrospective of the piano works of Josef Bohuslav Foerster, an intriguing figure in Czech music that looks at the very least close to par with Dvořák and Suk if what I've seen has anything to say on the matter.  Anybody who cranks out a five-CD set and lives to tell the tale is worth our praise, and Goodson's work on today's album is consistently excellent, rumbling and ecstatic at one end and acutely sensitive on the other, both qualities well suited to American classical music of the 80's.

The high modernism of the 60's and 70's in American classical music left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths, and while many people rebelled against serialism's overarching reign by sinking into the flatly raging river of minimalism others found a new path.  Encouraged by the success of composers such as Joseph Schwantner and Joan Tower, a new kind of music emerged, informed by experimental techniques of the past but more concerned with bringing together rich pantonal harmonies and post-romantic passions, a kind of emotional core sorely missing from new music for some time.  This happy medium brought a whole new crowd to the audience that previously considered modern classical music an elitist monastic order with the occasional Cagian cook.  The message of the medium (apologies to McLuhan) is that classical music can speak to modern, non-cook audiences without soullessly pandering to simplicity or becoming a parody of itself, and in my opinion much of this music is destined to last for decades without appearing dated or embarrassing for its Passion Over Fashion attitude and formal freedom, once again proving that Charles Ives is the true father of American classical music.

While Strange Attractors does feature one of the demigods of this era the first composer on the docket is also the most obscure, Martin Herman.  A professor at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at CSU Long Beach, Herman's piece Arena remains the only piece of his to get a commercial recording (that I could find through research), and he was kind enough to send me a score when I asked nicely, proving again that most composers actually like hearing from fans and are more than willing to help performers.  Arena is a set of three concert etudes, and the first one takes its inspiration from this print by Robert Longo which I recall being used for a paperback edition of A Clockwork Orange:

As such, "Arena Brains" is quite violent but also reduced in its color range, mostly featuring two-note oscillations, accels and rits grinding against each other and no clear harmonic center.  It's a bravura start to any concert and pushes the pianist's physical presence to the forefront, requiring a lot of charisma to keep from becoming silly posturing (not to say the music isn't good, though).

"Sky, Blue Sky" is an elegy for open spaces, moving restlessly from sweet-'n'-sour, Romantic-throwback piano writing to galloping modal arpeggios, bearing its Impressionistic heart on its sleeve.  It's the kind of music that diminishes with extended explanation, so I'll step back for a few minutes and let whoever feels like listening savor the thing.

The finale, "Strange Attractors", is named after mathematical feedback loops (and please, PLEASE don't ask me to explain advanced mathematics) and is the closest Herman and the rest of the album gets to outright minimalism.  Starting with one note restruck insistently, the piece expands into a widely shifting screen of pealing sixteenth notes, wringing a lot of tension out of how well the pianist memorized the seemingly endless stream of music.  Herman is too good at his job to let the harmonies slip into post-minimal clichés, and as such "Strange Attractors" manages to double back and roil internally without letting the audience off the hook, launching the tension off into space at the exact moment when you think the piece isn't going to end anytime soon.  Really great stuff, making me wish more of Herman's work was available to the public.

The second piece is actually most of why this album is so dear to me, as it has become one of my favorite piano pieces to play.  Stephen Jaffe probably deserves a whole article on this site, as I'd love to feature such fine works as his impressive Double Sonata for two pianos and the nifty Spinoff for guitar, but todays a good enough day to feature my favorite work of his, the Impromptu for piano.  Written as part of a series of 13 piano pieces composed in honor of George Rochberg's 70th birthday (which seem to be largely unpublished, BIG PUBLISHING HOUSE DINKS), Impromptu is a variation set on a pavane that incorporates two gestures from Rochberg's second symphony, neither of which I could identify for you as I haven't heard that symphony.  No matter, as a lack of Rochbergian references won't take away from anybody's enjoyment of the piece.  This is a very bluesy pavane, anchored by a split-third G triad, progressing through ever-more-disparate elaborations and diversions that are at turns broadly singing and floating out of time and harmony.  The mist recedes and the pavane makes a bittersweet return, making a good case for composers never forgetting about the blues.

And here we have the Shining Golden God* of the era, John Harbison, with the first four of his Occasional Pieces, none of which need much explanation.  "Gospel Shout" shows the best attributes of Harbison's third stream writing, a good warm-up for Three City Blocks and probably easier to play.

"Two-Part Invention" proves that you don't need more than two notes at a time to be really charming, and I wonder why this piece didn't show up in any of my piano lesson books when I was a kid.

"Thank-You Notes" is very quiet and more enigmatic than the others, leading the ear every which way but resolved.  If you thought the piece would get more conventional you're sorely mistaken, but there is a major chord at the end, albeit blurred.

"Standards" is a clever ode to bar piano music, adding a lot of atmosphere and shimmer to a usually burly and unsentimental genre.  Harbison gets a lot of mileage out of sustained notes left over from earlier chords, as we all should in most pieces.  All the Occasional Pieces are testaments to Harbison's wit and amiable nature and can fit most any occasion.

Augusta Read Thomas's Whites is one of her early works from where she was a Presser composer.  When she switched over to G. Schirmer almost all of her Presser-era works went out of print and weren't picked up for republication, including Whites and a quite good Sonata for solo trumpet, even leaving the works off the official worklist on her website, a move most likely done just to make me mad as I prefer her earlier works to her more recent, semi-populist stuff.  Based off of two six-note aggregates, Whites is a sonic exploration of "the equivalent to the visual exploration into the infinite variety of the color 'white'".  Thomas saw lots of potential in white, as the totally atonal piece finds many elegant and novel ways to gently swoop through diffusion.  It's an excellent piece of timbral adventuring and I'm pretty miffed it's out of print, and considering how hard it is to find used sheet music you're more likely to find blue moon dust than a copy (aside from this one).  I'm sure she thought disowning the piece to write etudes combining Bach and Thelonius Monk was a good idea at the time, but we'll just agree to disagree.

On a goofier note, the wonderfully-named Randall Woolf wrote Nobody Move to find "the common ground between the menace of the hard-core Hollywood villain and the fearless bravado of the virtuoso pianist."  Off-rhythm quartal chords and whole-tone scales abound, or rather apunch.  Another fine curtain-raiser, this is the most accessible piece on the CD but in my opinion the least rewarding on repeated listening.  The good news is that you can download the score for free here, so that way you have full opportunity to disagree with me.

The final piece, White Tigers by Robert Kyr, brings the mood back to the epic emptiness "Sky, Blue Sky", but setting its sights farther East.  White Tigers is based on a legend recounted in Maxine Hong Kingston's novel The Woman Warrior - "a young girl learns the ways of a woman warrior in part by emulating a white tiger - the wildest, most mysterious beast in the jungle - and goes on to liberate her people from oppression."  White Tigers is a long and winding journey through tonality and technique, starting with a single plucked note and eventually finds itself in the bowls of cluster glisses and the heights of circle-o'-fifths arpeggios.  Kyr has a fine lyrical imagination and supports it with deft and often quite original harmonies, Goodson brings out the Big Sky of the piece, illuminating whatever strange and forbidding land the listener can conjure in their mind.  Those last many chords are some of the more effective chords of the 80's, reminding me once again of the importance of emulating Dane Rudhyar in all things.  A fitting end to a wonderful album, and I'm glad I was able to show you all of it.

Happiness Month will continue on all my blogs, including focuses on a 19th-century Polish composer, a British string orchestra, Argentina's favorite son, one of my favorite rock bands and my favorite young adult movie ever.  I'm glad you can stay tuned.


*Apologies to Almost Famous, of course.