When Politics and the Arts Clash, OM 22


Isang Yun (1917-1995)


The relationship between politics and music is complex and varied.  There are many instances of clashes between these two disciplines from the politics of state and church sponsored music to its repression by those same institutions.

After centuries of Catholic church sponsored music a decision was made in 1903 to repress the performance of anything but Gregorian chant and any instruments except for the ubiquitous organ.  The reasons for this decree have been discussed but the end result was less work for musicians.

More recently the Nazi “degenerate art” concepts and the later proscriptions on “formalist music” in Soviet Russia similarly put artists and musicians out of work.  In fact many were jailed or killed.  Shostakovich and Prokofiev were high profile musicians who endured bans on performances of their music based ostensibly on claims that it brought (or potentially brought) harm to the state’s political visions.

Even more recently the blacklist created by Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes perpetrated a similar assault on actors, directors and writers like Dalton Trumbo (recently dramatized in the excellent film Trumbo with Bryan Cranston leading the fine cast).  This sad chapter of history did not completely end until the 1970s and only recently have efforts succeeded in restoring suppressed screen credits to these films.  Many lives were destroyed or irreparably harmed.  One hopes, of course, that such travesties will not be repeated but the recent efforts to eliminate the NEA suggest that such struggles remain with us.

On February 18th Other Minds will present a centennial celebration of two composers’ births.  Lou Harrison certainly expressed some political themes in some of his music but did not incur state sponsored political wrath.  Unfortunately this was not the case with the other honoree of Other Minds’ 22nd season.

In 1967 Korean composer Isang Yun was kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers and taken to South Korea to face accusations of collaboration with the communist government of North Korea.  He was held for two years and was subjected to interrogation and torture based on information later acknowledged to have been fabricated.  Even so South Korea declined to allow the ailing composer’s request to visit his hometown in 1994.  He died the following year in his adoptive home in Berlin, Germany.

A petition signed by over 200 artists including composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze, Gyorgy Ligeti and conductors Otto Klemperer and Joseph Keilberth among the many was sent to the South Korean government in protest.  A fine recent article by K. J. Noh, Republic of Terror, Republic of Torture puts the incident in larger political context. It is a lesson sadly relevant even now in our politically turbulent times.

The concert will feature works from various points in his career, both before and after the aforementioned incident.  It is a fine opportunity to hear the work of this too little known 20th century master.  Conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies knew and worked with both Harrison and Isang.  It is so fitting that he will participate along with his wife, justly famed new music pianist Maki Namekawa, in this tribute to the the late composer.  This can’t right the wrongs but what better way to honor a composer than by performing his music?

The performance is at 7:30 PM at the historic Mission Dolores Basilica at 3321 16th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114.  Tickets available (only $20) at Brown Paper Tickets.

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Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


laradownes

Sono Luminus DSL-92207

The lovely cover photo for this album by San Francisco born pianist Lara Downes is reminiscent of any number of socially conscious folk/rock stars of the 60s and 70s. It would seem that this is no accident.  This delightful album of short pieces by a wide variety of American composers takes its title from the Langston Hughes (1902-1967) poem, Let America Be America Again (1935).  By so doing the pianist places this interesting selection of short piano pieces firmly in the context of black racial politics and the artistic expression of black America as well as those influenced by this vital vein of American culture (both musical and literary).  It is a graceful and deeply felt effort and I hope that the metaphor of the title of my review is not too tortured a one to reflect that.

This is also a very personal album.  Downes seems to share some deeply felt connections with her materials.  This artist, born to a white mother and a black father, invokes a careful selection of short piano pieces steeped sometimes in jazz and blues but also the political directness (and optimism) which was characteristic of the inter-war years that brought forth the Hughes poem.  There is both sadness and celebration in these virtuosic and technically demanding little gems (most apparently recorded for the first time or at least the first time in a while).  The pianist’s comments on each individual piece are also critical to the understanding of this disc as she shares the impact and meaning that the music has had for her.

There are 21 tracks by 19 composers in all and the selections themselves are quite a feat. They range from the 19th to the 21st centuries and are composed by both men and women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  All seem to share the sort of  populist charm befitting the idealized America yearned for in the poem which is to say that they represent a kind of idealized or hopeful nationalism.  Downes is well acquainted with a large variety of American music and recognizes no distinction between classical and so-called “vernacular” traditions.

In fact none of these things are atypical for this artist.  Her previous albums Exiles Cafe (2013) featured music by composers exiled from their homelands, A Billie Holiday Songbook (2015) celebrated the life of this iconic black artist and her American Ballads (2001) demonstrated her deep mastery and affection for populist (but not jingoistic) nationalism.  Her tastefully issue oriented albums define a very individual path and the present album appears to be a very logical and well executed next entry into her discography.

This disc shares a similar heritage to that of Alan Feinberg’s four discs on Argo/Decca entitled, The American Innovator, The American Virtuoso, The American Romantic and Fascinating Rhythm: American Syncopation.  Another notable antecedent is Natalie Hinderas’ groundbreaking two disc set of music by African-American composers.

And now on to the music:

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and conductor with a style informed by his study of jazz and blues in a vein similar to that of Bernstein and Copland.  He is represented here by American Caprice (1940).

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)  was a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was a modernist and an innovator in the promotion of non-western musical cultures.  His New York Waltzes (1944-1994) are three brief essays in that dance form.

The traditional folk song Shenandoah (apparently in the pianist’s transcription) is next.   This tune will be familiar to most listeners as a popular selection by choral groups and the melody is a common metaphor for things American.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first successful female American composers.  Her “From Blackbird Hills” Op. 83 (1922) is representative of her late romantic style and her incorporation of Native American (Omaha) elements in her music.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is a English composer with Creole roots, a black composer, known as the “African Mahler” in his day.  Deep River (1905) is his setting of this spiritual which also was one of Marian Anderson’s signature pieces.

Dan Visconti (1982- ) was commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival to write his Lonesome Roads Nocturne (2013) for Lara Downes.  It receives its world premiere recording in this collection.

Swiss-American composer and teacher Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is certainly deserving of more attention.  His At Sea (1922) is used here to represent the sea voyages of the many immigrants (willing and unwilling) whose journey defined in part who they were.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) mastered both the vernacular tradition (as one of the finest song writers of the 20th Century) and the classical tradition in his too few compositions written in his sadly abbreviated life.  His opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is contemporary with the Langston Hughes poem mentioned earlier.  Downes most arrestingly chooses the arrangement of “I loves you, Porgy” by the classically trained iconic singer, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).  Quoting from Downes’ notes (Nina Simone expresses what she knew) “…about being a woman, being black and about being strong and powerless all at the same time.”  Indeed one of the most potent lines of the Hughes poem reads, “America was never America to me.”

Angelica Negrón (1981- ) was born in Puerto Rico and  now lives and works in New York. Her Sueno Recurrente (Recurring Dream, 2002) is a lovely little nocturne which is here given its world premiere.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) held credentials as composer, conductor, teacher and ardent civil rights supporter.  His Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim (1988) is one of a series of Anniversary piano pieces he wrote.  Bernstein did much to help modern audiences (including this reviewer) comprehend the vital musicality of jazz and blues. Like Downes, he drew little distinction between popular and classical and celebrated all the music he believed was good.

David Sanford (1963- ) is a trombonist, teacher and composer who works in both classical and jazz idioms.  His work Promise (2009) was written for Downes and this is the world premiere recording.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a conductor, teacher and Pulitzer Prize winning composer (though not at all an advocate of ragtime, jazz or blues).  His brief but lovely piano piece Slumber Song (1915) is a nice discovery and one hopes that it will be taken up by more pianists.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was discovered largely due to the scholarship and recordings of musicologist Joshua Rifkin (who incidentally did some arrangements for folkie Judy Collins) whose three volumes of piano rags on Nonesuch records introduced this wonderful black composer’s work to a wider audience once again.  Marvin Hamlisch famously incorporated Joplin’s music into his score for the motion picture The Sting (1973).  Downes chooses the Gladiolus Rag (1907) to represent this composer.

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline 1888-1989) is another of the greatest song composers this country has produced.  In another characteristically clever choice Downes chooses the arrangement of this hugely optimistic song, “Blue Skies”(1926) by the great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956).

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a black female composer (the first to have one of her orchestral works programmed by a major symphony orchestra) whose work is only recently getting some much needed exposure.  Her Fantasy Negre (1929) is based on a spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”.  Price was involved in the New Negro Arts Movement of the Harlem Renaissance and was professionally connected with Langston Hughes among others.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps the most iconic American composer.  Dubbed the “Dean of American Composers” his earliest work has strong jazz influences and his later work created the American romantic/nationalist sound incorporating folk songs and rhythms.  For this recording the artist chose the first of the composer’s Four Piano Blues (1926) which also appeared on her 2001 album of American Ballads.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a composer and band leader whose sound virtually defined the Harlem Renaissance during his tenure at the famed Cotton Club.  Melancholia (1959) is the piece chosen here, again a nice little discovery.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was, like Copland, a populist but the Oklahoma born composer studied Native American music as well as American folk songs.  His American Ballads (1946) was included on Downes’ American Ballads album.  Here she includes an unpublished work from a projected (but never finished) American Ballads Volume II.  This piece is a setting of the spiritual, “Lil Boy Named David”.

The album concludes with one of the ultimate hopeful dreamer songs, Harold Arlen’s (1905-1986) Over the Rainbow (1939) from his score for The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The adolescent yearning of Dorothy for something better than her dust bowl farm life touched a chord in many over the years and it is a fitting conclusion to this beautiful and hopeful collection.

As mentioned earlier the insightful liner notes by Lara Downes complement this production and tactfully position its politics.  She shares a personal journey that is as American as the proverbial apple pie.  The album is dedicated to the artist’s ancestors in recognition of their struggles as well as to her children in hopes that dreams for a better future can become their reality.

This beautiful sound of this album is the result of work of Producer Dan Merceruio and Executive Producer Collin J. Rae along with Daniel Shores and David Angell.  The lovely photography is by Rik Keller and as with the previous release Skylark: Crossing Over (reviewed here) the graphic design by Caleb Nei deserves special mention for its ability to truly complement this disc.

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shamanic effort to raise consciousness and further socially progressive ideas.

Black Composers since 1964: Dreams Deferred?


For Black History Month this year I have posed a question: How has the 1964 Civil Rights Act impacted black composers? I assumed, even as I posed the question, that there had been relatively little progress but I have been able to document an increase in recordings of music by black composers.  However what I am finding and expect will continue to find is far less than the dream envisioned by the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and others who are of that generation. I have received some responses, two of which I have published here, which are carefully diplomatic though not without a note of skepticism.  I have received other responses which are far less optimistic which I have agreed not to publish.  And I will continue to write on this subject even after this American 28 day annual celebration of Black History Month. I did receive the following less optimistic reply from a concert promoter named Bill Doggett.  He is the nephew of the late keyboard player whose name he shares.  The musician Bill Doggett played with various jazz and rhythm and blues groups.  The concert promoter who carries on a commitment to black music agreed to write a response to my question and asked that I publish it. Here on the last day of Black History Month is Mr. Doggett’s commentary:

As we mark the end of Black History Month 2014, The 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the critical new “My Brother’s Keeper”Initiative http://www.whitehouse.gov/my-brothers-keeper launched by the first African-American President, Barack Obama, the impact of these events on and for current and future contemporary African-American composers has promise
 
However, the promise is still a mixed one…
 
That is to say, while there was a major flowering and great showcase of programming and recording of music by contemporary black composers during the late 1960s-70s, i.e. Primous Fountain, George Walker, Adolphus Hailstork et al,   eager and invited programming of new music by black composers in symphony subscription concerts, much of that came to a screeching halt with the social conservatism that arrived during the administrations of President George H Walker Bush and with George Bush.
Adolphus Hailstork (1941- )

Adolphus Hailstork (1941- )

Primjous Fountain (1949- )

Primous Fountain (1949- )

The social political pulse of the country changed……from the heightened sense of social responsibility and accountability of the era of LBJ’s  “The Great Society”     If you will, there was a cultural “backlash” to the perception of “African-American” as synonymous with “welfare mother”, “food stamps”,”housing projects run amok”…and  “drugs”.  The social political tempo of the country was mirrored and linked to the iconic  Nancy Reagan motto “Just Say No” Anti Drug campaign.
Symphony orchestras stopped aggressively inviting and programming new music by Black Composers-except during February, Black History Month.
Yet, there were silver linings and sunshine in the dark clouds:  Anthony Davis’ 1986 landmark opera: X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X premiered at the recently closed New York City Opera,1995 Olly Wilson’s Shango Memory for Orchestra, commissioned for the 150th Anniversary of The New York Philharmonic,1997, Amistad: The Story of The Slave Ship Rebellion premiered at Lyric Opera of Chicago, the emergence of a new important generation of composers in the late 1990s including Jonathan Bailey Holland, James Lee III, Trevor Weston and Anthony R. Green.

Anthony Davis (1951- )

Anthony Davis (1951- )

The challenge in 2014 for Black Composers is one that was on full view at the recent Sphinx Con think tank conference in Detroit sponsored by Aaron Dworkin’s Sphinx Music  www.sphinxmusic.org
Anthony R. Green (1984- )

Anthony R. Green (1984- )

 Artistic administrators and the major symphony orchestras consist of  predominantly upper to upper middle class white male and female musicians who are not interested in notable change that embraces a deep commitment to diversity in the classical performing arts.   
As Dworkin as passionately stated, Black Musicians only make up at maximum 2% of the composition of America’s orchestras.  Institutionally, American orchestras and their administrations are comfortable in this ivory tower status.     The entrenched practice of holding auditions with screens actually makes it nearly impossible to advance the goal of making Symphony Orchestras more ethnically diverse.
Jonathan Bailey Holland (1974- )

Jonathan Bailey Holland (1974- )

This applies even more so to the world of The Black Composer. Black Composers’ music is in 2014 rarely programmed on subscription concerts, excepting special events: like  “A Black History Month Concert”
Worse, at Sphinx Con, one white male presenter declared quite openly and declaratively…. that because white men are in charge of most of the leading artistic organizations, that white male privilege…..reigned and Black and Latinos seeking more rapid diversity….needed to get over it 
 Worse still, the suggestion followed that  White Male dominated artistic organizations should be PROUD OF their “incremental change” of 1% or 2% improvements ….
THAT is not a recipe for creative collaboration with American orchestras that the established and emerging contemporary Black Composer need to embrace.
In this light, thank goodness for the progressive vision and work of Conductor, Leonard Slatkin and The Detroit Symphony for inviting a conversation about nurturing and developing Diversity in Classical Music.   On March 9/10 2014, there is a showcase of music by contemporary African-American composers and a related Symposium.      A similar new energy has found its way to The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with the hiring of African-American conductor, Joseph Young as Assistant Conductor and Music Director of The Atlanta Youth Orchestra.
Indeed, promise….is on the horizon.     Let us collectively ensure that we are called
to celebrate the truth of the old Negro Spiritual “This Little Light of Mine…Im gonna let it shine…”
Written by Bill Doggett, strategic marketer and rep for Black Composers at Bill Doggett Productions
I have articles currently in preparation on Anthony Davis, Primous Fountain, Jonathan Bailey Holland and Anthony R. Green among others.  If you don’t know these composers you should give a listen to their work.  I continue to welcome comments both on my question and on the composers and their music.

MLK, the Classical Playlist


President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin ...

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no doubt that rhythm and blues is the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement but in this, the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I am issuing a programming challenge to the classical music world.  Hey there all you classical music stations, both internet based and broadcast.   Hey there Spotify and Pandora.  Have you explored the music written for and about the Civil Rights era?  Well, here’s your chance.

I begin my programming day with Joseph Schwantner’s “New Morning for the World” (“Daybreak of Freedom”), written in 1982.  Comparisons to Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” are made due to the similarity in character and the use of a narrator.  The other work on this  Oregon Symphony CD under the late great James De Preist is  a work by an older composer Nicolas Flagello.  The cantata, “The Passion of Martin Luther King” from 1968, was composed in the shadow of the assassination of Dr. King and first performed in 1969.  Both works deserve more hearings for their musical accomplishments as well as for the subject of their dedications.

Description unavailable

Description unavailable (Photo credit: pennstatenews)

Moving on to the next segment I will move on to Adolphus Hailstork‘s 1978 “Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed”  followed by William Grant 1930 Symphony No. 1 “Afro-American”.  Still is rightfully known as Dean of Afro-American composers.  A contemporary of Aaron Copland, his accomplishments established without a doubt the place in classical music for black composers.  Hailstork acknowledges his debt to the older master.  He is the next generation of black musicians contributing to the repertoire.  I will conclude this segment with Hailstork’s Symphony No. 2 which contains his impressions upon visiting the slave market areas of western Africa, places where began the shameful history of black slavery.

And on we go now to Luciano Berio’s 1968 “O King”, a chamber piece later incorporated into his masterwork, “Sinfonia” of the same year.  I program the version from Sinfonia, it’s my favorite rendering.  The vocal parts of this piece are solely comprised of the name “Martin Luther King”.  Also from 1968 there is Michael Colgrass’ “The Earth’s a Baked Apple” which is subtitled, “A Musical Celebration in Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (psst, I have a bootleg of it).

We move on to afternoon programming featuring Anthony Davis’ opera, “X”, based on the life of Malcolm X.  This is  a work that deserves a new production.  Following this I will move on to Duke Ellington‘s 1943 “Black, Brown and Beige” Suite and then his “Three Black Kings” titled in French with rhyming wordplay as “Les Trois Roi Noir”.

Album cover

Album cover

The program would be incomplete without programming the wonderful Other Minds CD of Sarah Cahill’s album “A Sweeter Music” featuring a diverse collection of compositions written for her on commission by Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Kyle Gann, Carl Stone, Phil Kline, Yoko Ono and The Residents.  The title is taken from Dr. King’s Nobel Prized lecture in which he refers to peace as “a sweeter music”.

Dizzy Gillespie

Cover of Dizzy Gillespie

I will end my fantasy program with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Brother K’ and Hale Smith’s “In Memoriam Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”  But fear not I leave you with a useful reference I have recently discovered.  “A Catalog of Music Written in Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.” edited by Anthony McDonald.

Stay tuned for more on these subjects coming up during February for Black History Month.  Peace, Dr. King.

A mural painted on the side of the African Ame...

A mural painted on the side of the African American Museum depicts the Hough riots, the civil rights movement and a family looking towards a bright new future for the city and the community. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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Alvin Curran at 75, Experimentalism with an Ethnic and Social Conscience


English: The American composer Alvin Curran pl...

English: The American composer Alvin Curran playing the shofar in his composition “Shofar 3,” for shofar and live electronics (2007). Photo taken at a concert of Curran’s music in Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia

Alvin Curran (1938- ) is an American composer currently living and teaching in Rome whose career began as an expatriate artist working with the cutting edge improv electronics group Musica Elletronica Viva (MEV) in 1966. He turns 75 on December 13, 2013.

Curran was born in Providence, Rhode Island.  His father was a musician in a dance band and he learned to play piano and trombone early on.  He was exposed to big band music, jazz, traditional Jewish music and western classical music during his formative years.  Following his father’s example he also played in dance bands during boat crossings of the Atlantic.  He earned a B.A. in music from Brown University in 1960 where he studied composition with Ron Nelson.  He went on to complete his M.M. at Yale in 1963 were he studied with Elliott Carter and Mel Powell.

A 1964 Ford Foundation grant allowed him to go study in Darmstadt where he met the likes of Stravinsky, Xenakis, Berio, Yuji Takahashi, Andriessen, Remo Remotti, and above all Frederic Rzewski.  He joined with Rzewski,  Richard Teitelbaum and Allan Bryant, all fellow expatriate American musician/composers, with whom he formed the legendary ‘Musica Elettronica Viva‘ or MEV.  This was in early 1966 where their use of largely home made electronics in their improvisational ensemble live performances preceded the days of easily obtainable and operated electronic musical instruments. That wouldn’t begin to happen until about 1964 when Don Buchla, in collaboration with Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick and the San Franciso Tape Music Center created the first modular instrument, the “music easel” later known as the ‘Buchla Box’ and Robert Moog on the east coast developed the “Moog” synthesizer.  Curran crossed paths with many of these people during his tenure teaching (1999-2006) at Mills College in Oakland where the San Francisco Tape Music Center had been integrated into the Mills Center for Contemporary Music.

Curran says that during all his years in Rome he met and interacted with many in the Italian avantgarde and new music circles like Franco Donatoni and Guiseppe Chiari.  He was mentored by the reclusive (think Thomas Pynchon) Giacinto Scelsi who held regular salons at his villa.  It was in these days that Curran developed his individual style further.  He lived and taught in Rome from 1966 to 1999 and was very active on the European scene.  After his teaching stint at Mills College Curran returned again to Rome.

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU

Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer at NYU (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In addition to electronics he uses acoustic instruments ranging from conventional instruments such as piano, strings, woodwinds, voices, etc. to the ancient shofar and environmental sounds including site-specific sound installations, multi-media works and film scores.  His works include the massive set of piano pieces ‘Inner Cities’ (1993-2010) which lasts about 6 hours in a complete performance, the early multi-media Songs and Views from the Magnetic Garden (1973), Maritime Rites (1984) written to be played by musicians in boats in various harbors incorporating, of course, the ambience of the given harbor’s acoustic properties.  Maritime Rites has been performed in its various incarnations in Central Park in New York as well as Philadelphia, Berlin and Sydney.

In a wonderful interview from 2003 with the ever vigilant composer/journalist Frank Oteri (published online at New Music Box) he was asked about the political and ethnic/religious content of his music.  Curran replied that he did not set out to express these things as aspects of himself, that the pieces  just happened due to an inspiration at the time.  He says that he is composing all the time and his influences are as wide ranging as his teachers and his milieu.  His style varies widely in part due to his many influences but also because a given style seems to work for the piece.  It sounds as though music is channeled through him.

Unfortunately, as with most expatriate composers, his music is generally less well known in his native country but there are quite a few recordings including some recent releases of some out of print recordings.  In addition there are quite a few videos on YouTube including pianist Kurt Jordan’s live performance of Inner Cities 1-13 from 2009 at Azusa Pacific University which is more than the previously complete recording by Daan Vandewalle who recorded 1-11 (as of 2010 there are 14 parts according  to Curran’s official web site).   As is frequently the case with much contemporary music YouTube provides a great resource, especially for the casual and/or cash-strapped listener.  It is a really good way to get familiar with this man’s diverse and fascinating music.

Not infrequently his music takes on sociopolitical issues as well as inspiration from the composer’s Jewish heritage.  His Schtetl Variations (1987), dedicated to Morton Feldman is an improvisatory meditation on these poor villages of eastern Europe and Russia (think of Fiddler on the Roof) which became the settings for the notorious anti-semitic pogroms. A later piano piece called 11 Schtetl Settings (1988) continues his exploration of this part of his ancestry.  Animal Behavior (1992) for sampler keyboard and optional percussion is a pretty transparent indictment of 1990s American politics.  And the list goes on.

His “Nineteen Eighty Five: Piece for Peace” (1985) involved three ensembles performing at 3 different radio stations in Venice, Amsterdam and Frankfurt (which was simulcast by all three countries) is a a sort of precursor to what is perhaps his most integrated and powerful political composition, his ‘Crystal Psalms’ of 1988.  Here the historical, sociopolitical, ethnic and even geographical are joined to the avant garde in a stunning sonic commemoration and condemnation of the fascism and genocide that characterized the horrors of the second world war.

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Interior of a Berlin Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Seventy Five years ago this November (9th and 10th) Jewish shops and synagogues were vandalized and looted over those two nights throughout much of Nazi Germany and Austria in a most extreme incarnation of the “pogroms” that became known as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass“.  It was one of the first major and overt expressions of Hitler’s genocidal plans then still being formulated. Unfortunately this event continues to be imitated by like-minded hateful individuals and groups worldwide. So the sociopolitical context of this musical work written for the 50th anniversary of that event sadly has an ongoing relevance for our contemporary world even 25 years after its creation.

At its most basic level this piece is a sort of concerto for six instrumental ensembles playing in radio stations in six different countries live mixed by the composer and broadcast throughout Northern Europe on October 20th of 1988. There is no text as such but the sounds of people praying and the apparently random Hebrew letters and German numbers are scattered throughout the piece along with environmental and found sounds on the tape Curran prepared which plays throughout the performance as a sort of political pedal point.

English: "Hebrew alphabet" in Hebrew...

English: “Hebrew alphabet” in Hebrew, modern serif typeface. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The liner notes of the recording describe the piece as “radio concert for six choruses; six sextets each including a quartet (violas, cellos, bass clarinets, bass flutes, trombones, tenor sax/tuba) plus accordion and percussion; tape.”  All were individually conducted with the conductors coordinated by a click track and mixed live by the composer. The recording on New World records is the document of that broadcast.

The effect is that of a collage connected by the electronic nervous system, the radio stations, which link the various performances.  The program is largely implicit here and listening to this piece evokes images that can vary from one listener to the next as any great piece of art provokes different experiences. The sound images here are not pretty and the work is very emotionally intense. Those images are guided by the tone of the music and fueled by the cryptic words and sounds mixed in with the live performances.  It is, in effect, his Mitzvah to the memories of the fallen.  You will not come away unmoved.

Kristallnacht occurred in November of 1938, a month before Curran was born but  the impact of that action continues to resound from that generation to this.  As a politically aware artist he was compelled to respond and he did so in a most emphatic, creative and powerful manner.  Perhaps it is the inherited duty of one generation to exorcise the demons and the atrocities of the previous ones.  Curran has certainly contributed most memorably to such an effort with this work.

Thank you, Mr. Curran, for your prolific and varied contributions to music and your efforts through your art to exorcise the demons of our collective past.  I wish you a happy 75th birthday and wishes for many more creative years to come.

Peace through “A Sweeter Music”


President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civ...

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, look on. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Album cover

Album cover

It is fitting that this CD, this music has been released in the 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington and just prior to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The series of 18 pieces in this major commissioning project by the wonderful bay area pianist, producer and new music advocate Sarah Cahill called “A Sweeter Music”, its title taken from a phrase in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1964 Nobel Prize lecture.  Though only 8 composers are represented on this recording this is a fine document of some truly wonderful and heartfelt music.  And Cahill’s introductory note indicates that there are plans to record the other ten pieces as well.

The project was planned to include video projections by Cahill’s husband, the skillful video artist John Sanborn.  The first formal performance took place on the Berkeley campus and the video projections across three screens added a dramatic perspective on the various pieces.  I was present at the first performance in Berkeley and later at a small multi-purpose hall in Point Reyes in the north bay.  At the smaller venue the projections were limited to a single screen but the images still added to the impact.  At the time of this writing Sanborn has posted some of these videos on You Tube ( http://www.youtube.com/user/sanborn707?feature=watch).

Still from one of Sanborn's videos.

Still from one of Sanborn’s videos.

Each of the recitals contained a selection of the pieces commissioned.  Sarah Cahill kindly provided the complete list which includes: Be Kind to One Another by Terry Riley, Peace Dances by Frederic Rzewski, There is a Field by Jerome Kitzke, Dar al-Harb by Preben Antonsen, The Olive Branch Speaks by Mamoru Fujieda, The Long Winter by Phil Kiline, Two, Entwined by Paul Dresher, War is Just a Racket by Kyle Gann, B’midbar by Larry Polansky, drum no fife by The Residents, Devotion to Peace by Michael Byron, Sonamu by Carl Stone, After the Wars by Peter Garland, A New Indigo Peace by Pauline Oliveros, Movement (Deep in My Heart) by Ingram Marshall, Study War No More by Bernice Johnson Reagon, toning by Yoko Ono and excerpts from Steppe Music by Meredith Monk.

The pieces represented on this recording are a diverse set including those by Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Yoko Ono, The Residents, Phil Kline, Kyle Gann, and Carl Stone.  Missing from this disc, and planned for a future release, are the pieces by Jerome Kitzke, Larry Polansky, Pauline Oliveros, Preben Antonsen,  Sanborn’s images definitely enhanced the experience of the music and this writer hopes that some day this music might be released in a DVD format with those images but the pieces here stand easily on their own merits.

The disc opens with Terry Riley’s ‘Be Kind to One Another (rag)’ (2008-10).  Riley takes his title from a statement made by Alice Walker which followed the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.  Rather than express an anti-war stance Riley harkens to the days of his youth when he played barrel house piano music while he studied composition.  This is a jaunty and entertaining but substantial piece which expresses the wish for kindness.  It is a challenging work to play but not to hear.

‘Steppe Music’ (1997) is apparently a reworking of a 30 minute piano piece (the piece at hand lasts about 8 minutes) commissioned by Sarah Cahill for another masterful pianist, Nurit Tilles.  Meredith Monk is of course best known for her extended vocal techniques and dance/theater pieces.  Little of her piano music has been recorded and one hopes that there will be more to come.  This is a less literal contribution which, the composer says, is about “color, texture, resonance, and gesture…”.  Like her performance pieces this is music about images which evoke emotion and it is unlike any of Monk’s recorded piano music.

The seven ‘Peace Dances’ (2007/8) were written by a composer/pianist well-known for his political statements in music as well as for his virtuosic music.  Frederic Rzewski is probably best known for his massive set of variations on the protest song ‘El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido‘ (The People United Will Never Be Defeated) commissioned in 1976 for Ursula Oppens.  His catalog contains a great deal of music with explicit and implicit political references.  Rzewski’s music sounds deceptively simple but is in fact very challenging to play.  These are part of a much larger set of compositions called “Nanosonatas”.  The dances here contain a variety of musical and political references that will entertain and frustrate musicologists for years to come but present the listener with some welcome additions to the repertoire.  Cahill plays them effortlessly and repeated listenings reveal more of the rich textures.  Rzewski’s inspiration, like that which inspired this series, is rooted in the same struggles as represented by Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger, gospel music and contemporary folk music.  The last of these dances was a birthday present for the 100th birthday of Elliott Carter.

Kyle Gann’s ‘War Is Just a Racket’ (2008) is written for speaking pianist.  He takes Christian Wolff’s ‘Accompaniments’, which was written for Frederic Rzewski in 1972 requiring the pianist to sing and speak as well as play.  It reminds this writer of Rzewski’s own ‘De Profundis’ of 1992 for speaking pianist using a text by Oscar Wilde.  Gann takes as his text a very interesting text by one General Smedley Butler who gave this speech in 1933.  Like Rzewski, Gann is no stranger to politics in his music.  This addition to the “speaking pianist” repertoire is spoken with feeling by Cahill as she pounds out the angry chords and melodies.  This is perhaps the most literal of the pieces on the disc and probably the least friendly to a conservative audience.

Sonamu (2010) was written by Carl Stone for piano and electronics.  It’s not the electronics your grandmother listened to either.  Stone uses a computer to perform “spectral convolution”, a process, the composer explains, which isolates various aspects of the sounds to “…shape and enclose the pitch and harmonies of separate voices…”.   The intention stated by Stone is to evoke ghosts and memories of the aftermath of war.  This most complex and abstract piece reminds me of the ghost electronics compositions by Morton Subotnick.  This piece requires repeated listenings and would no doubt be enhanced by Sanborn’s images.

Composer Phil Kline describes a process of using various musical fragments edited together to evoke images of living in a land under siege.  Kline was an eyewitness to the World Trade Center disaster and his personal experiences contained metaphorically in ‘The Long Winter’ (2009) have a memorial-like quality.  In the liner notes he describes his fantasy images leading to the realization that he (and we) do live in a land (or perhaps a world?) under siege.  The piece is in two sections ‘Crash’ and ‘Embers’.

Yoko Ono’s ‘Toning’ (2008) purports to be an effort to heal both performer and audience through sound.  As with much of her work this piece has an anti-art quality like the work she produced for the Fluxus performances.  This is perhaps the technically simplest of the pieces on this recording.  I think that reactions will vary to this music much the way that they vary to Ono’s oeuvre.  Those familiar with her work will see the threads that connect and others may simply dismiss her work entirely.

The enigmatic San Francisco based group “The Residents” aspire to anonymity as individuals in the hope that their audiences will focus on their art.  This is clearly one of their performance art pieces and is fairly explicit in its anti-war stance.  It consists of recorded voices and sounds in addition to the live piano performance and demonstrates the eclectic range involved in these commissions.

This CD was recorded at the recital hall at the University of California at Santa Cruz by Tom Lazarus.  It was released as another of the fine recordings of contemporary music on the Other Minds label with Charles Amirkhanian of ‘Other Minds’ as executive producer.  It is a major addition to the recordings of this political classical genre and a significant contribution to the solo piano repertoire as well as a snapshot of an eclectic range of contemporary music of the moment.  Highly recommended.

Right of Spring, Left of Spring but Not Necessarily in Spring


Disruptions, dissatisfactions and even stronger reactions are not actually that uncommon in classical concerts. But some of these disruptions have taken on a sort of mythical dimension while others remain lesser known. The significance of these disruptions is usually based on failure of expectation or fulfillment of a foregone conclusion. Either the audience is unpleasantly surprised by the music or they come with preconceived notions of the inherent difficulty and/or insignificance of modern music. I think that these events signal a revolution not so much in music as in hearing. Audiences’ horizons are being expanded and many rebel against being taken out of their comfort zones. It is much like the paradigm shifts in science delineated by Thomas Kuhn in ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. Indeed some of these concerts seem to signal aesthetic revolutions.

English: Kiss to the Earth. 2nd variant. Scene...

English: Kiss to the Earth. 2nd variant. Scenery sketch. 1912 (from a reproduction) For Diaghilev’s production, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1913 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

May 29th, 2013 will mark the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ at the then newly constructed Champs-ÉlyséesTheatre in Paris. The performance was a dance concert with the Ballets Russe with the mercurial Vaclav Nijinsky and with choreography by Serge Dhiagalev and sets by Nicholas Roerich with Pierre Monteux conducting the orchestra. The audience reaction disrupting the performance and the composer subsequently sneaking out the back way is the stuff of legend now (if not strictly truth). The public and the news media love anniversaries so it is no surprise that a great deal of writing, lectures and concerts fill this, the year of that anniversary.

The score went through several revisions (1921, 1926, 1929 and 1943). It is the 1929 score that is the one most performances now follow. Curiously the 1943 revision of the Sacrificial Dance has never been performed as far as I can determine. The Paul Sacher Foundation is making the 1913 version of the score available for the first time in celebration of the centennial.

The first work on that concert was a performance of Les Sylphides, a ballet consisting of piano music by Frederic Chopin orchestrated by Alexander Glazounov. For this concert orchestrations were commissioned from Anatoly Liadov, Nicholas Tcherepnin, Sergey Taneyev and Igor Stravinsky. It was followed by the Hector Berlioz 1841 orchestration of Carl Maria von Weber’s piano piece,’Invitation to the Dance’ (1819). This certainly satisfied mainstream expectations but provided a stark contrast for the next work which was the now infamous Rite of Spring. In the tradition of well-trained professional performers the musicians and dancers continued in spite of the disruptions and even concluded with another tamer work, the ‘Polovetsian Dances’ from Alexander Borodin’s Opera ‘Prince Igor’ (1887).

Musikverein - Dumbastrasse - Innere Stadt -Vienna-

Musikverein – Dumbastrasse – Innere Stadt -Vienna- (Photo credit: Million Seven)

Almost two months before on March 31, 1913 there was a concert in the Musikverein in Vienna by the RSO Wien (Vienna Radio Symphony) under the direction of Arnold Schoenberg. Alex Ross brought this incident to my attention in his blog. The music on the concert was Anton Webern’s ‘Six Orchestral Pieces’ (1909-13), Alexander Zemlinsky’s ‘Four Songs on Poems by Maurice Maeterlinck’ (1913), Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘First Chamber Symphony in E major Opus 9’ (1906, played in version with an augmented string ensemble of 1913), two (out of five) of Alban Berg’s ‘Altenberg Lieder Opus 4’ of 1912 (“Sahst du nach dem Gewitterregen den Wald”, op. 4/2 and “Über die Grenzen des All”, op. 4/3) and the last programmed (but not played due to the police shutting the concert down) first of Gustav Mahler’s ‘Kindertotenlieder’ (1904).

Photo of Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, bel...

Photo of Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, believed to be taken in 1948. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even before this there was the unwelcome reception of musicians and audiences to Claude Debussy’s 1902 opera ‘Pelleas and Mellisande’. Both the musical language and the frank treatment of sex in the libretto contributed to the initial hostile reception. Of course the work is now acknowledged as a masterpiece.

The 1926 première of George Antheil’s ‘Ballet Mecanique’ (1924) in Paris was promoted as radical new music seemingly to create another controversy like that of the Rite of Spring some 13 years before in the very same theater. As near as I can determine there was only one other work on the program (Symphony en fa) and it is not clear whether or not it was the first or last piece on the program (though I suspect it was last). The audience was clearly divided and perplexed by the music and likely also by the technical failures that occurred in this complex work whose demands on mechanically operated instruments wouldn’t actually be executable as the composer intended until the year 1999 . The première in Carnegie Hall New York in 1927, again a concert entirely of Antheil’s works also created controversy and supposedly the controversy continued outside the concert hall with some minor rioting in the street. This concert was duplicated by conductor/historian Maurice Peress and recorded on CD. That concert began with the 1925 Jazz Symphony (played by the W.C. Handy orchestra) followed by the 1923 Sonata for Violin, Piano and Drum and then the String Quartet of 1925. The second half of the concert contained the Ballet Mecanique. While both the Paris and New York premieres were significant and somewhat controversial they did not quite have the impact of the Rite of Spring.

English: Shiraz Art Festival: David Tudor (lef...

English: Shiraz Art Festival: David Tudor (left) and John Cage performing at the 1971 festival.(Photo courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation archive) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On August 29th, 1952 pianist David Tudor performed one of the most controversial musical pieces of all time. In Woodstock, New York audiences sat (mostly perplexed) as Tudor opened and closed the lid of the piano and marked time with a stopwatch. It was the première of 4’33” by John Cage in the aptly named “Maverick” concert hall. Kyle Gann writes in his book, ‘No Such Thing as Silence’ (written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the première) that, like the Schoenberg concert, the program consisted of other contemporary pieces. Morton Feldman’s ‘Extensions 3’ (1952) began the program followed by one of the pieces from Christian Wolff’s ‘For Prepared Piano’ (1951) and then the very complex Piano Sonata no. 1 (1946) by Pierre Boulez.

Cage’s was the penultimate work which was followed by Henry Cowell’s ‘Banshee’ (1925). The concert was followed by a question and answer session. There was no riot in the cool intellectual atmosphere of this concert venue but Gann states that one artist exclaimed at one point, “Good people of Woodstock, let’s run these people out of town.”

John Cage would have a much more unpleasant experience at the hands of the New York Philharmonic with the première of his ‘Atlas Eclipticalis’ (1962). On February 9, 1964 under the baton of Leonard Bernstein this piece was performed as part of a series of contemporary pieces played by the orchestra that year. Concert programmers sandwiched the work between performances of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and the Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony.

Benjamin Piekut, in his excellent book, “Experimentalism Otherwise”, investigated the circumstances surrounding this concert attempting to separate history from legend by interviewing some of the musicians who participated. He reports that there were technical problems with contact microphones, mixing consoles and amplification. But there was also rebellion by the musicians some of whom destroyed the contact microphones and/or declined to play the notes provided. These technical issues which occurred seem similar to the Antheil concert in that technology was behind the composer’s intentions but the willful destruction and misuse of the technology by the musicians themselves suggests an added level of hostility which of course did not help the audience’s reaction which was anything but favorable.

A 1971 concert by the Boston Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas included a work for 4 organs and maracas by Steve Reich. The piece, titled simply ‘Four Organs’ (1970) is a study in ‘augmentation’ the lengthening of notes and musical phrases, stretching time as it were. The maracas simply play steady 8th notes creating a pulse that the musicians can count. They wind up having to count up to 120 beats at times and concentration is paramount in a successful performance of this music.

The first recording of Four Organs

The first recording of Four Organs

The piece had been premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in 1970 and was reportedly pretty well received. The context of a new music concert in a non-traditional venue no doubt contributed to the more favorable response because the audience was expecting a challenge. Reich was skeptical about the presentation of this music in a more traditional venue and indeed he was correct in assuming that it would receive a different response.

The theme of the concert was ‘multiples’. The first piece on the program was the Sinfonia for two orchestras by Johann Christian Bach (one of the sons of J.S. Bach). It was followed by Mozart’s Notturno for four orchestras and the Bartok Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of 1936. Again the newest and most controversial piece would hold the penultimate position followed by Franz Liszt’s Hexameron Variations for six pianos.

English: Michael Tilson Thomas

English: Michael Tilson Thomas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Michael Tilson Thomas, who was at one of the farfisa organs (along with the composer, Ayrton Pinto and Newton Wayland), reports that there were wide differences in the reactions to the music, a great deal of noisy reactions both pro and con. Thomas appeared to like the music (and likely the reaction to it) well enough to program the piece again in 1973 in New York’s Carnegie Hall to an even more hostile response which, according to Thomas, included a woman who came to the stage and banged her head against it saying, “Stop, please, I surrender”. Clearly the issue here in not one of technology but definitely one of failure to meet expectations of many listeners. It was a very different sound especially in the context of the concert hall and programmed with far more conservative music preceding and following it.

These are just a few of the most prominent such responses in the twentieth century. One is left to wonder when and where such a strong reaction might occur again. It is one of the joys, I believe, of going to concerts. The audience response is a valuable part of the experience.