Academie d’Underrated: Ralph Shapey

The next repertoire I’m transferring from vinyl to CD is my collection of Ralph Shapey recordings: I believe I have every vinyl recording he ever produced. Shapey (1921-2002), whom I knew in Chicago, is not the kind of composer I’m supposed to like – his music is atonal, thorny, somewhat complex, relentlessly abstract – and I mystify some of my Downtown friends by championing him. But he was a tremendously misunderstood figure. He became grouped with a lot of the more academic composers, both because he taught at the University of Chicago from 1964 on – and because he wanted to be. He had no college degrees, was a little defensive about what he jokingly called his “iggerance,” and was very proud that someone of so little academic background (though superb musical training) could get a university job and associate with the musical “intellectuals.” But, to his credit, that’s not where he belonged.

The correct comparison figure for Shapey wasn’t Babbitt or Wuorinen or Elliott Carter, but Morton Feldman. Both Shapey and Feldman studied with Stefan Wolpe, both eked out meager livings in New York before getting university jobs, and both were closely associated with the abstract expressionist painters – Shapey even married one, his second wife Vera Klement. In superficial ways Shapey’s dissonance and complexity remind one of Carter or Davidovsky: major sevenths and minor ninths all over the place, unrelieved dissonances, triplets within quintuplets. As with Feldman and Messiaen, though, the unity of Shapey’s music is very much a unity for the ear, a unity based in sonorities, not something that works out best on paper.

I’ve defended Shapey on these grounds before, notably in the obituary I wrote for him a couple of years ago in the Voice. What moves me to write tonight is the stunning beauty, whose intensity I had forgotten, of his Fromm Variations, a set of 31 variations for piano gorgeously played on an old CRI disc by Robert Black. The “theme” is no more than a chorale of 20 four-note chords, uncompromisingly dissonant and undifferentiated. It’s not quite clear from listening what each variation has to do with the theme, except that the type of chord repetition in the theme recurs over and over. Shapey’s sonorities jostle back again and again with the same kind of familiar insistence as the chords in Cage’s middle-period works like the String Quartet. You can’t really figure out how the music works, but there’s a clear argument going on whose terms are continually brought back into play. Plus, Shapey sets each variation with a well-defined sense of rhythm that characterizes it, but also brings back rhythmic motives on unexpected offbeats so that you’re always surprised by the reappearance of what you recognize.

Most striking of all: each variation ends with the same final two chords as the chorale theme, and sometimes the last two or two-and-a-half phrases are left intact. It’s as though each variation digests part of the theme, sometimes more, sometimes less, but there’s always something left over at the end that’s recognizable. Those mysterious chord progressions mean nothing on first hearing, but they reappear like magical incantations and eventually create an amazing atmosphere, stern and granitic, but also mystical and meditative – not something your average American university atonalist felt called upon to do. I’m hard put to name another piece of such absolutely abstract, atonal, “difficult” music that engages you so directly and makes such ineffable intuitive sense.

And I’m afraid that Shapey – ignored by the Downtowners, mistrusted by the academics as insufficiently systematic, and with a bitter personality that could drive away would-be supporters – may fall through the cracks. His discography as currently represented at is discouraging in its paucity, and only of a couple of my vinyl discs are represented there as reissues, not including the Fromm Variations. I’m not a fan of all of Shapey’s music; he didn’t write too well for voice, in my opinion, treating it as though it were a clarinet, with unattractively awkward leaps. But his instrumental works, especially the Seventh String Quartet, Three for Six, and all the piano music I’ve heard, are magnificent, and much of his music remains unexplored. Programmatic concerts comparing Shapey, Feldman, and Wolpe would bring out some interesting affinities, and reveal more of an “abstract expressionist school” in music than most people suspect. (The Fromm Variations, 52 minutes long, would make a stellar companion piece to Feldman’s Piano or Triadic Memories.) I do hope there are musicians out there working to preserve Shapey’s uncompromising musical legacy.