Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Oldrich Korte's Magic Lantern Music

In the heart of Prague sits a shimmering brass cube, and the cube is heart of Laterna Magika, arguably the most internationally important experimental theatrical organization in the word.  Founded in the wake of World War II, Laterna Magika's plays are entirely nonverbal, relying on pure incident and symbolism to tell their stories, and as such they've been able to tour worldwide without having to change their productions for language barriers and are a staple of the tourist scene in Prague.  Among its founding artists was Oldrich Korte, a man who survived being tossed in a concentration camp and whose career only rose from there.  That life arc - holocaust survivor co-founds the most famous experimental theater in the world - is so amazing that I want it etched onto my tombstone Royal Tenenbaums style along with my daring submarine rescues.  Heck, gaining any kind of wide reputation as a post-WWII Czech composer was hard enough if you still lived in the Homeland - Czechoslovakia was behind the Iron Curtain and as such the arts was regulated by a Stalin-influenced state.  I've actually seen works by a large number of postwar Czech composers and let me tell you, the environment is a very far cry from the Avant-Garde.  

While I can't say that Korte's music is Avant-Garde per se, it is quite distinctive, as Korte was a non-conformist through and through and his music reflects both a wise wordliness and a love of congenial clarity.  His music is fairly accessible for the time but is finely crafted and crosses genres only in the way that a mind unconcerned with musical fashions could produce.

His first major work is the Sinfonietta for large orchestra which, while inspired by the Neo-Classicism of the previous decades (such as Martinu's symphonies, especially so considering Korte also uses the piano to punch-up symphonic textures) is displays a naturally individual harmonic imagination and great formal prowess.  Rather than locking himself into one mode Korte uses different harmonic techniques to fit mood and flow, crunching through dissonances at the start and tossing in fanfaring quartal stacks and jazzy asides when it's the most gripping.  There's plenty of drama and excitement to be had and the instrumentalists are having a ball, and the more times I listen to the piece the more I wished I could hear someone like the Seattle Symphony *COUGH*WINK*NUDGE*HINT-O'-CLOCK*COUGH perform it live.  Unusually for a Sinfonietta Korte's Sinfonietta is neither particularly short, easy or written for reduced orchestration as the name implies.  In that same spirit, here's a sonata with only two movements:

The Sonata for Piano is Korte's real breakout piece and remains his most popular, getting a bunch of recordings across the 60+ years of its existence.  The moods and tricks range from happy outdoor jaunting to Bach-throwback arpeggio pileups and gravely hallowed chorales, each new idea more surprising than the last but combining to a satisfying whole as they're weaved together and re-keyed.  It's also nice that Korte can use the extreme parts of the keyboard with real grace, as the register plummets to the basement at the start of the second movement:

The monolithic, sad opening leads ominously into a closing "quasi fugato" section, and quasi is right as while there is a subject that gets repeated quite a bit there's little imitative counterpoint to be found and most certainly none of the traditional fugue structure - the section is more akin to a jig than anything else, what with its 6/8 meter and dancing pulse.  That applause left in at the end is quite appropriate, as the Sonata is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser without being condescending, a feat that you'd think would be more common but usually takes a lot of sifting to see.

If there ever was a concert forebear to Korte's work with Laterna Magika The Story of the Flutes would be it.  A "symphonic drama", Flutes is a piece of pure musical storytelling with two flute soloists starring against a symphonic backdrop.  Double concertos are uncommon for a good reason, and concertante solo parts of purposefully difficult to learn and getting two people to devote months to learning a concerto and get them in the same room at the same time is pretty tricky.  Unlike most concertos, the solo parts of Story of the Flutes aren't show-off pieces but rather lyric characters, playing off each other in conversation rather than shouting matches.  The story has light and darkness as any good story does but lacks everything else in terms of traditional narrative, laying gesture and arc bare.  It's also an interesting forebear to the works of Lutoslawski that I can't stop mentioning, especially his Cello Concerto, wherein a nervous, twitching soloist is on the run from the orchestra's cataclysmic witch hunt.  It's a grand idea with a wonderful payoff and I'm a bit peeved that nobody seems to have tried it since.  Except Korte, that is.

Written some 20 years after his breakout pieces, Philosophical Dialogues for violin and piano has a similar aim to The Story of the Flutes but on a much smaller scale and with more emphasis on miniaturism.  It's important to note that Korte's language didn't get much more dissonant or Avant-Garde even into the 70's, a decade mostly in a bet with itself to see how many Just Folk it could alienate (even in Eastern Bloc countries at that point).

The dialogues are broadly conceived and built to please, and once again help the cause of drama without language, this time explicitly stating that the music is the language.  As I was writing this I realized that another Czechoslovakian composer, Juraj Filas, had come to my attention in a similar form.  When I finally chose which college to go to for my undergraduate studies (University of Puget Sound) I attended a trumpet recital by Judson Scott, it's trumpet professor, and he performed Filas's A Very Short Love Story.  The Story was just as congenial as anything Korte wrote, though a bit less memorable, and was exactly within the "wordless musical drama" genre that I hadn't defined until now.  Full circle or just article-writing convenience?  With music this likable, who cares?

Korte's music is above all very, very likable, and even more likable because of its fine craftsmanship, variety and memorability.  I've always admired composers who found non-insulting solutions to composing under Stalinist artistic programs and Korte passes that test with ease and a wry smile.  It's nice that as we come into summer I can get the chance to spotlight a crowd-pleaser like Korte, even if the weather in the greater Seattle area right now is overcast and very wet.  As a cheap segue to the end, here's my consideration of my desire for sunny weather tempered with an overcast reality as illustrated by the last Dialogue, "Between Happiness and Truth".


Monday, May 4, 2015

Visual Music - Richard Wilson's "Sour Flowers"

Richard Wilson is a composer I've often considered for one of these articles - and I enjoy playing some of his works - but he keeps getting backburnered in favor of nuttier nutjobs.  I personally just think that a lot of his music falls into the same formulas, most certainly his own formulas, but formulas just the same.  However, if I had to pick a favorite piece of his I'd slap down my copy of Sour Flowers* with no hesitation, and I finally realized that I could feature it as part of my Visual Music series.

Sour Flowers (1979) is a piano suite in the form of a 15th-century herbal, a guidebook to useful plants that attributes many a dubious claim to their curative abilities.  It's a unique set among piano literature that is such a neat idea I'm surprised I hadn't seen it before, putting a spin on sets inspired by flowers to focus on what some would call weeds.  As its inspiration is drawn from early Renaissance documents, Wilson opted to have the pieces hand-engraved to give the illusion that printing hadn't quite been invented yet.  The "musical autography" was done by Frederic Woodbridge Wilson (no relation, as far as I can tell), curator of Harvard's Theatre Collection for 13 years, then a young musicologist who had recently gotten his degree from NYU and was deeply involved in choral conducting.  By all accounts his work makes me wish I was a much finer draftsman:

Each of the eight movements has one herb attached to it; all the herbs and their descriptions were drawn from herbals from the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and their names and descriptions are quaint and charming.  I find it interesting how the author precedes descriptions of the herb's effects with "The virtue of this herb is thus."  Not a colon, but a period.  All the herbs are claimed to have interesting uses, such as the "virtue" of Elena Campana:

As Sour Flowers is a suite, each movement has a standard character genre attached to it, such as "March", "Waltz", "Nocturne", and so on.  The musical language of these pieces is atonal but modest and highly reminiscent of classical phrasing, sort of like what Schoenberg did in order to introduce serialism in his Suite for piano.  The harmonies and mood are quirky and good-natured, combining with the extramusical context and handmade engraving to make a fresh, home-and-hearth atmosphere with a heavy dose of wry humor.  Wilson was fully aware of how the uses of these herbs was heavily tied up in folk magic and superstition, and the "Benediction" movement is attached to a use for St. John's Wort: "If it be put in a man's house, there shall come no wicked spirit therein."  It's a really nice balance between antique sensibilities and modern skepticism, and this is no more apparent than in the penultimate movement, "Prelude".  The herb is cinquefoil (spelled quinquefoil in the score), and it's description reads: "Stamp it and drink the juice of it in ale, and it will cease the aching and gnawing of man or woman."  Like the rest of us, Wilson couldn't help but see dark sexual overtones to that highly suggestive sentence, and as such the "Prelude" has the most complex, atmospheric and engrossing music of the set:

While this looks challenging all the pieces were written to be playable by students at a late High School or collegiate level, most likely the most accessible piano music he's ever written.  The fact that I haven't heard this on a single piano recital is a bit worrying, but at least it's not too much work to fit it in.  Here's a fine performance by the composer:

Now if someone could get around to writing music based on the Voynich Manuscript I'd be able to die happy.


*I got Sour Flowers as a Christmas gift and upon opening it noticed that the composer had autographed it.  I remembered that the signed copy was one I had stumbled across on eBay some time earlier and wasn't priced any higher than a normal used copy - just another indicator that nobody gives to shites about classical composers signing things.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

CD focus - George Balch Wilson's Concatenations

When electronic music started gaining traction in the 60's and early 70's, the number of people interested in creating it outnumbered the machines that could do it and mostly didn't have anywhere near the money to buy, or rather create, the machines necessary to do it (unless your name was Ma Bell).  As such, the only places to make it consistently and with financial support were certain universities and the occasional new music foundation, such as Paris's IRCAM.  Pieces created in these labs were primarily musique concrete - meaning that they were all pre-recorded and the "performance" was pressing the play button - so the only way to hear the pieces was through recordings.  There were some electro-acoustic pieces written at the time but they were simply live instruments playing along with a recorded part (at the time reel-to-reel tapes, and a lot of those have probably rotted by now) and were a minor solution to the problem that still required a tape player and sound system, meaning that playing those works was even more trouble than simply playing the tape to an auditorium.  While the public's imagination had been caught in previous decades with instruments like the theremin (and would be caught once again at the same time by the new stuff Moog was coming out with) the music written in the labs was almost exclusively on the cutting edge of the Avant-Garde, and the combination of caustic, alien music and rare instruments still seen as a novelty meant that the market for these pieces was virtually nonexistent.  Sure, there were a number of electronic albums that became popular, such as LP's by Morton Subotnick and Walter Carlos (and later Isao Tomita), but those records were either recompositions of classical favorites or space music.  The customers for those records probably wouldn't be caught dead with anything by Stockhausen or Xenakis*.  All of this created an academic electronic music scene where composers toiled long hours in isolated laboratories to make music almost no one would hear, and for many young composers that meant that they would never get the recognition they probably couldn't have gotten by sticking to the usual suspects of Acoustica (just ask Vladimir Ussachevsky).

One of these composers is George Balch Wilson, professor emeritus at University of Michigan and founder of that school's electronic music studio.  I discovered him through this piece:

There's no recording of this, mind you - it was just an interesting-looking American string quartet from the 50's published by the Society for the Publication of American Music.  I know I bashed SPAM back in my Marion Bauer article but once American classical music found ways to be both sophisticated and accessible SPAM took note and started publishing worthwhile music, and the 40's & 50's were SPAM's heydays.  This String Quartet is the only piece of Wilson's to get published by SPAM, and after doing a bit of research I discovered that the number of his works to get formally published can be counted on one hand.  That's not exactly the fast-track to wide recognition, and for a long time only two of his pieces were available on commercial recordings.  In 2013 Equilibrium Records released the only full CD dedicated exclusively to Wilson's works, Concatenations, and lo and behold, the great Maria Sampen, husband of saxophonist John Sampen, daughter of composer Marilyn Shrude and one of my old professors at UPS, performed one of the pieces on it, practically obligating me to listen to it.  What I found was richly wrought and challenging music that deserved to get some wider recognition, enough so that I'm doing a whole article based on this one CD.

We should start with the piece that has the best chance of becoming his best-known work, the Sonata for Viola and Piano from 1952 (the same year as the quartet, written when he was in his mid-20's.  His teachers had been Ross Lee Finney and Homer Keller, both well-entrenched in American Neo-Classicism (until Finney went serial), meaning that Wilson's early work, such as this Sonata, has a strong sense of form, organicism and balance.  The harmonic language has a fine mix of acidic polytonality with cords of octatonicism strung through the opening movement, but just enough yearning tonal chords to keep things anchored in the heart.  There are a number of cathartic and surprising moments to keep things from getting too academic but enough consistent flow to let things cook.  I kind of wish the performers would really commit to the emotional heaves and hos, as this recording is technically excellent but emotionally a bit flat.  The slow movement helps solve that problem, though:

This movement really brings out the dark tenderness that has made the viola a great solo instrument in its own right rather than just the violin's ugly sibling.  It's this kind of writing for the instrument as well as its genuine heart that made the Sonata a favorite among a line of viola teachers for a couple generations and should have at least kept the sheet music in print.  Part of the problem is that the work was published by the French firm Jobert rather than an American firm, a fate to befall a handful of other American composers (like Melville Smith and Joshua Fineberg) and keep their works from finding an accepting audience.  One of his works, Cornices, Architraves and Friezes for solo cello, was published by C. F. Peters, but one score on this side of the pond is hardly enough to establish a print reputation.  That, and Wilson spent a lot more time writing music like this:

Exigencies is the first of the two pieces to be previously seen on a commercial record, here reproduced with its original "performer".  The sounds and ideas here are both striking and very much in line with the trends of what the electronic music scene was tinkering with - dramatic stereo and quadrophonic effects, pre-fab sounds distorted into raw materials for new sounds, industrialism over naturalism, atmosphere over structure, noise over notes.  While a lot of this kind of music hasn't aged well Wilson has enough mastery over the sounds he's chosen here to make a real piece out of the material, though it's a somewhat fractured one, alternating between chaotic, almost improvisatory sound collages with eerie moments of calm not unlike Aphex Twin's ambient pieces.  It's certainly not unprecedented in the 60's, as this was around the time when guys like Lutoslawski and Penderecki realized that it was possible to make compelling atonal works out of pure gesture and drama.  Let's see how he applied these sensibilities to a piece using normal orchestral instruments, shall we?

I've heard a number of pieces like this for large chamber ensemble by now but I don't think I can remember one as wild and fun as this.  Scored for the unusual trio of amplified accordion, amplified classical guitar and drum set surrounded by the standard winds and strings, 1969's Concatenations (methinks Wilson likes fancy words) starts with a wacky schmear and charismas its way along from there.  Harmonic and formal clarity is thrown out the window along with the baby, the bathwater, the bathtub and a considerable loofah collection.  Sounds melt and vault through each other like a rooftop police chase.  Moments of relaxation are blitzed by accordion crunch blocks and weirdo humor, and the mood is closer to the soundtrack to the 60's Batman TV series than standard concert music.  The Batman reference is also apt considering how jazzy and unbridled much of the gestural and timbral decisions are.  It also helps that performers here, the University of Illinois Contemporary Chamber Players under the direction of Edwin London, really play the shit out of it, screaming through glissandi and anti-rhythms like they were riding rodeo with a nuke.  This is a piece I'd love to play, not just because of a balls-to-the-wall trumpet part but also because of the sheer nerve of the thing, and it's the kind of piece that audiences respond enthusiastically to even if they have no idea what in the Sam Hill just happened.  Check out his Wikipedia page and you'll see that he had a good run with bizarro installation pieces and musical assaults on an unsuspecting public, events I sorely wish I lived in the 60's to see.

The rest of the tracks on the CD (the third movement of the Sonata, Cornices, etc. and a Fantasy in Two Movements for violin and piano where the aforementioned Mrs. Sampen gets to shine) are excellent, though I'd like you to actually seek them out yourself and perhaps purchase the tracks, either in disc form or digital.  I'd also like to get in touch with Mr. Wilson if possible, as he apparently wrote some piano works and I'd love to shake them out of him.  In a better world this release would have gotten enough press to warrant the building of a website for his stuff, but that has yet to happen, which is where I come in.  It's nice to talk about current releases again, as it's been a couple years since I spotlighted Burr Van Nostrand and his performance and recording revival and there are times when writing these blogs make me seem dreadfully out-of-touch with current releases.  Wilson's a good egg, as well as the CD and the performers, and put together that's more than a dozen Grade AA eggs, I think.  Let's have more omelets, shall we?


*Though, if I'm being perfectly honest, I can't be seen with Stockhausen or Xenakis, either.  I do really love Xenakis's Charisma, though.