main: February 2005 Archives

February is the shortest month, mercifully, and I'm going to leave all of John Luther Adams' music up on Postclassic Radio for a few more days at least as compensation. But I hereby proclaim Robert Ashley Composer-of-the-Months for not only March but April as well - on account of, I'm sick and tired of having classical musicians and even composers respond, "Who's Robert Ashley?" "I've never heard his music, what's it like?" And so if you've never heard his music you're going to hear it this month, and if you have, you may revel in it to your heart's content. I'm starting with his operas Perfect Lives and Improvement: Don Leaves Linda in their entireties, the longest complete works I've posted to the station. I'll add other pieces as the months proceed. Ashley is the greatest and most innovative opera composer of the late 20th century, yet his work is so unconventional in genre and medium that the classical establishment has hardly bothered to become aware of it. In fact, for me there are four composers whose innovations could provide enough of a working foundation for a new musical language to supply my generation and another one or two afterward: Conlon Nancarrow for rhythm; La Monte Young (or alternatively, Ben Johnston) for pitch; Morton Feldman for texture and continuity; and Ashley for the relation of text to structure and music. In the work of those composers we have a new American musical revolution, for those who want to take advantage of it. It's no exaggeration to say that my creative life has been a halting attempt to integrate what I inherited from the four of them.

Sorry, however, that I've been blogging about so little else besides the radio station. Paradoxically, I have too much time. Having stepped down as department chair, I now have time to pursue other projects, and so I've been composing, as well as writing loads of articles for print media, which leaves me little left to say. Blogging is a great spare-moment activity, and now I suddenly have too many spare hours to cut them up piecemeal.

February 28, 2005 11:02 PM | |

New on Postclassic Radio:

Lonesome Road: The Crawford Variations (1988-89), Larry Polansky's massive, 76-minute set of piano variations on Ruth Crawford's arrangement of an American folk song, played by Martin Christ

A few selections from Mikel Rouse's brand new album Test Tones, just out this week

Kevin Volans's String Quartet No. 4, "The Ramanujan Notebooks" (1990-94), played by the Duke Quartet, and based on music he wrote for a dance opera about the life of the Indian mathematician S. Ramanujan (1887-1920); and

Another string quartet, Phil Kline's The Blue Room and Other Stories, played by Ethel.

February 23, 2005 11:07 AM | |

My review of Eric Richards's recent concert has just appeared in the Village Voice. It used to be, you could input my name in the Voice search box, and a list of my articles would come up in reverse chronological order, so you could always find the most recent one. Now, the list comes up in seemingly random order. Very inconvenient, for me as well as anyone wanting to read me. Things change, but I never understand why things get worse without anyone seeming to benefit.

February 23, 2005 8:46 AM | |

I have an article today where you wouldn't think to look for it, in the Los Angeles Times. It's a feature on the postmod string quartet Ethel.

February 20, 2005 3:03 PM | |

Conlon Nancarrow, like all artists interesting to read about, was a fount of idiosyncracies. One was the tendency to bring out earlier music, often abandoned works from his early years, as brand new music. His most spectacular instance of this was renumbering his Player Piano Studies Nos. 38 and 39 as Nos. 41 and 48 because he was using them to fulfill commissions, and didn't want his patrons to know that they were paying for works that had already been completed prior to the commission. (No shame in this, by the way; Stravinsky did it as a matter of course, and recommended the practice.) As a result, in the complicated numbering of Nancarrow's 50-odd studies, Nos. 38 and 39 do not exist.

Now this personal quirk is occasioning some interesting wrinkles in Nancarrow scholarship, and I've spent the week unraveling some of the mysteries I wrote about last week. First of all, the Three Movements for Chamber Orchestra, his last work, since it's receiving it's US premiere with Alan Pierson and the Alarm Will Sound ensemble this Saturday, Feburary 19, at Columbia University's Miller Theater. Around 1993 Conlon received a commission from New York's Parnassus ensemble. Having already suffered a stroke, and not feeling up to conceiving a major work from scratch, he was rumored to have gone through some of his abandoned player piano works (of which there are dozens) and orchestrated them. Now, thanks to files Alarm Will Sound has sent me, I've been able to confirm this.

Trimpin labeled all the unknown piano rolls alphabetically, A through Z, then AA through ZZ, up through BBB. Some of these are mere sketches or jokes, some apparently early versions of studies you're familiar with, others entirely completed works he abandoned for some reason, and one of them remarkably Romantic in tonality, kind of Lisztian. The Three Movements for Chamber Orchestra is based on three separate rolls, marked R, AA 39 A (because either Trimpin or I once thought this had something to do with #39/48), and "UK Finished A," so labeled by Trimpin - "UK" meaning unknown, and "Finished" to indicate that it was clearly a completed work. (If memory serves, this last roll is one of the ones Trimpin presented at the Kitchen in 1993.)

R is only a rhythmic canon using five pitches, and might have been presumed to have been written for Conlon's abortive experiments with a percussion machine in the 1950s; however, I'm not so sure of that, because the five pitches are spaced out at octaves, and the percussion rolls seem to used a chromatic scale over a much smaller range. Alan Pierson confirms that the first movement is only for percussion, and that the tempo relationships (which I couldn't quite figure out from the piano roll) are 75:96:105:120:126. This doesn't quite correspond to the roll, which seems to be 75:84:96:105:120; some change must have been made while arranging. Also, this is a remarkably complex ratio for Conlon, the kind of number series he used in his last few works, but never in his early music. I wonder if that suggests a more recent time period.

The second movement seems pretty literally based on AA 39A. The third starts off based on UK Finished A, but some notes are missing and altered, and I'm still curious as to how this differs from the original. UK Finished A contains a large canon, but one somewhat obscured by an additive process in which chromatic pitch gestures repeated over and over with one more pitch added each time. I've put up a MIDI version of UK Finished A here, if you'd like to listen and compare it with the third of the Three Movements being premiered this weekend.

As for the named earlier works for player piano cited by Helena Bugallo in her dissertation, she's kindly clarified their provenance for me. The Didactic Studies are all different versions of Study #2a, simply the same tune and ostinatos but with a variety of different tempo relationships. I had found these scores and piano rolls in Nancarrow's studio, and wrote about them, and they are almost certainly a product of the 1950s when he was first starting out. But apparently in a 1980 interview he referred to them by the title Didactic Studies and avowed an intention of publishing them as a set. Perhaps he really did return to this piece as late as 1980, but it seems odd. I think he had abandoned any such intention by 1988, because I looked at those scores then with his supervision, and he said no such thing. The other work, For Ligeti, was apparently presented publicly in 1988 (though he also never mentioned this to me either). This, according to Sacher Foundation archivist Felix Meyer, has been found to be an early study originally intended as Study #3, but withdrawn. I'm eager to get more information.

In addition, two readers wrote to inform me that, while several of the recordings of the Canons for Ursula contain only two canons, there are two recordings that include the third, or rather middle, canon. One was a 1996 recording by Joanna MacGregor which may soon be rereleased on her own label. The other is the brand-new Wergo recording by Helena Bugallo herself, on which, in addition to some player piano study transcriptions that she plays with her duo partner Amy Williams, she also plays all three canons. Sorry I missed this fact.

There are doubtless new Nancarrow works yet to come to light; a few years ago at a Nancarrow conference in Mexico City someone showed me a couple of brief 1940s piano pieces found among his papers, and I myself had discovered a movement for large orchestra apparently intended for an expanded version of his Piece No. 1 for Small Orchestra from about 1942. But I suspect most of what we have to look forward to comes from the piano rolls, and perhaps I'll have time to get some of my MIDI files of them into performance shape. If so, I'll post them to Postclassic Radio.

February 17, 2005 10:27 AM | |
You're probably not used to hearing anything strangely familiar on PostClassic Radio, but if some of the chord progressions ring a bell in coming weeks, it's because I'm playing some selections from CRI's disc The Alternative Schubertiade. On September 12, 1997, a bunch of the most incorrigible Downtown composers, invited by Phil Kline, got together at American Opera Projects to pay homage to good old Franz Schubert. I reviewed that concert, they recorded and released it, and I'm playing:

Nick Didkovsky: Impromptu in Eb Major, arr. Minsky Poplov
Annie Gosfield: Cram Jin Quotient
Roger Kleier: Sighted Sub, Sank Same
Kitty Brazelton: Fishy Wishy, and
David First: Thought You Said Sherbert

As I wrote at the time, "The cohesive logic of sonata form was never very congenial territory for Schubert anyway, and his weakest passages are those in which he dutifully fills out the repetitions and transitions of his Beethovenian heritage. The Downtowners liberated his melodies from sonata duty, and his shards of beauty shone just as bright without being glued together."

Also, to satisfy a request, Ben Johnston's experiment in endless melody, his String Quartet No. 6. Twelve-tone, but it doesn't sound like it, AND in just intonation at the same time. I do take requests! Sometimes.

UPDATE: And now, a mini-festival of Australians, Margaret Legge-Wilkinson and Ron Ford from Canberra, Alistair Riddell from Melbourne, and Ross Bolleter from Perth.

February 12, 2005 11:08 PM | |
In my book on Conlon Nancarrow I analyzed 65 of his works, which was everything known to me at the time. However, like Schubert, Conlon goes on producing music posthumously, and recently I’ve been getting information on three pieces I didn’t include. First, pianist Helena Bugallo, who has been performing his player piano works in piano duo arrangements, has just completed her doctoral dissertation at SUNY Buffalo, entitled Selected Studies for Player Piano by Conlon Nancarrow: Sources, Working Methods, and Compositional Studies. (It’s available from the ever-helpful UMI Dissertation Services.) She lists two works I’d never heard of, called Didactic Studies and For Ligeti, with dates 1980 and 1988 respectively, but neglects to mention what medium they’re written for. [2/14 UPDATE: They're for player piano. I'll be writing more extensively to give all the details soon.] These may have come from about 60 unnamed (and unnumbered) player piano rolls that Conlon had left in his studio as unfinished or abandoned works or sketches. Bugallo did her research in the Nancarrow archive at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, whence all of Nancarrow’s materials were moved before he died. I knew that a group of odd little piano pieces (for live player) had been found, but they were written clearly in Conlon’s 1940s style, and can’t have been the Didactic Studies referred to if the latter truly came from 1980.

Something else Bugallo provides is a renotated complete score, recreated from the player piano roll, of Conlon's Study #47, the final score of which had been lost. Very welcome.

More excitingly at the moment, the chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound is giving the US premiere next Saturday, Feb. 19, at Miller Theater in New York, of Nancarrow’s Three Movements for Chamber Orchestra, supposedly his last work, written in in 1993. I had heard from Conlon’s assistant Carlos Sandoval that this was an arrangement of music from some much earlier player piano rolls. Nancarrow had a stroke (actually a stroke-like condition brought on by pneumonia) in January of 1990, and afterward his music became much simpler, almost naive, in a not unattractive way. He was commissioned by Parnassus for an ensemble piece, and - so the story I heard goes - had Carlos help him arrange something from an unnumbered player piano study, since he didn’t feel up to conceiving a major new work. (Some of the abandoned player piano rolls are complete multi-movement works, so this is plausible.) But I had also heard the work was a quintet, and virtually unplayable, and it turns out to be for three winds, three brass, five strings, percussion, and piano. So this is a mystery, and I’m eager to get it cleared up.

One further Nancarrow mystery, which I’ve never addressed in public: You’ll occasionally read references to Nancarrow’s “Three Canons for Ursula,” which he wrote for Ursula Oppens, but on the available recordings there are only “Two Canons for Ursula.” The third canon required the pianist to play four tempos at once. Conlon showed me its opening pages, but told me he had abandoned the piece as too difficult to play. So Ursula premiered the Two Canons, and in recent years the third canon has surfaced, and has apparently been played by a pianist in Europe. English composer Thomas Ades, in a review of my book, lambasted me for “hiding” the existence of this third canon, but Conlon had told me he was deleting it from his catalogue; I believe he hadn’t even finished it at the time, and didn’t plan to. Since I published my book while he was still alive, I felt that I should limit my assertions about his music to ones that he didn’t contradict. Now that he’s gone and the archive at Basel is being organized and mined by scholars, however, new Nancarrow music is coming to light, and it's certainly true that he wrote a lot more pieces than he officially acknowledged.

February 12, 2005 9:04 AM | |
Last night the American Symphony Orchestra played Brahms’s First Piano Concerto here at Bard, with Blanca Uribe as soloist. As you may know, the work starts off with an aggressive drone on D, above which the theme enters on a surprising B-flat major triad. Much later in the 22-minute first movement, in the recapitulation, the orchestra lands dramatically on that D drone again, only this time, the soloist slaps down the theme on an E major triad, a tritone away from the opening statement and thus the biggest harmonic shock possible; the D drone is the third of the B-flat chord but the seventh of an E dominant, so instead of the expected VI6 you get V2/V, as radical a reinterpretation as Brahms could have managed within his musical language, and a seeming brazen coup for the pianist. I had written the program notes and drew attention to this demonically brilliant moment, which may be my favorite in Brahms’s entire output.

This morning I dreamed about those B-flat and E entries as standing at opposite ends of human experience and encompassing all thought between them. The B-flat was feminine, the E masculine, one was radical and the other conservative, et cetera, a symbol for a whole philosophical system. And the dream went on for seeming hours, as I traveled through ancient and exotic lands, relating everything I came across back to some point in the spectrum defined by B-flat versus E in relation to some eternal grounding on D.

As you’ve guessed before, it’s pretty weird being me.

February 5, 2005 9:55 AM | |
It took longer than usual uploading everything, because his pieces tend to be epic, but John Luther Adams is Postclassic Radio's February Composer of the Month. Adams is the self-created composer of the Alaskan landscape, a painter of 60-minute-plus continuous orchestral canvases that shimmer and sparkle and hover in the air, often with little or nothing in the foreground. He's written an astonishing number of pieces that use only "white" notes, no sharps or flats, including his large orchestra piece In the White Silence, which I've posted in its gorgeous 75-minute entirety. (If you don't think there's any gap between Uptown and Down-, show a 75-minute score with no sharps or flats to some well-established New Romantic or 12-tone composer, and watch the look on his face darken.) I've also posted another of my favorite long works, Clouds of Unknowing, Clouds of Forgetting, and there are a few more selections to come, some of them not commercially available.

By the way, if you're ever looking for a way to distinguish the Nixon in China John Adams from the one described above, his middle name is Coolidge. (There's also an electronic composer John D.S. Adams, who got his start working in David Tudor's famous Rainforest installation. Surely it's time for some innovative entrepreneur to organize a festival of Adamses?)

UPDATE: Richard Friedman urges that I re-mention John Luther Adams' new book Winter Music, from Wesleyan Press, which I am all the happier to do since I wrote the introduction to it. I had written about it in September here.

February 1, 2005 5:50 PM | |

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