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.

Getting the Oboe (et al) to Stand on Its Own, Catherine Lee


    Connections can be fascinating and not long after publishing my review of Emily Doolittle’s  release here I received, in addition to a stunning number of readers for that article, a CD by one of her fellow musicians featuring another of Doolittle’s interesting works alongside four other works for solo oboe (or English Horn or Oboe d’amore).  Though certainly kind and timely I did not relish the idea of being subjected to even this short CD single of a soloist with no accompanying musicians playing a series of unknown soliloquies.  My concern was that of having to endure the sincere efforts of a musician who is convinced of her instruments’ solo potentials and who labors to prove this to all but hardly gets past technical achievement like a recording I once heard of the Bach Cello Suites played on a Double Bass, interesting as a technical achievement but…

My fears were clearly unfounded as I listened to each track.  Patience turned to excitement and I think I’ve now heard a sort of new breed of instrumental specialist.  Lee plays oboe as well as the closely related English Horn and the very little known Oboe d’amore with expertise.  But she is not a specialist in the “period ensemble” genre per se. Rather her focus is on the potentialities of her instruments as vehicles for new music, improvisation and solo performances.  There seems to be little threat of a forthcoming rendition of the Telemann Flute Fantasies played on one or all of those.  Instead we have a gifted musician who seems poised to shepherd these instruments into new adventures in the 21st century.

The album consists of 5 tracks, all less than nine minutes in duration but each is a fully realized composition lovingly interpreted by this performer.  I am only familiar with one of the composers here, Emily Doolittle whose Social Sounds from Whales at Night (2007) is the only track which features any accompaniment.  It is a good example of Doolittle’s potentially groundbreaking work with animal sounds.  The other tracks manage to rise above the level of mere effects-ridden etudes to the level of compositions that define their own sound world and subjugate that world to artistic expression.  Very interesting listening.

From the first track it is clear that this is a musician with a deep understanding of the expressive possibilities of her instruments in both traditional and extended techniques as well as a clear sense of how to find music of substance.  Her playing sounds effortless suggesting that she puts a great deal of time into honing her virtuosity but she clearly moves beyond the technical to master the expressive range.
I would certainly be willing to hear just about anything Ms. Lee chooses to play including the relatively obscure repertoire for the oboe d’amore but I have my fingers crossed that we may get to hear her tackling concertos by Morton Feldman, Vincent Persichetti, Witold Lutoslawski and Hans Werner Henze, big projects that are nice to hope for but we do see that her ear for the smaller projects is clearly golden.

Notes From the Underground, A major new recording of Anthony Davis’ orchestral music


Album cover

Album cover

In March, 2014 the Boston Modern Orchestra Project released Notes From the Underground, a major retrospective recording of the composer’s work for large ensembles.  The recording includes Notes from the Underground (1988) a two movement work for orchestra, You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007) a concerto for clarinet and contra-alto clarinet and Kurzweil processor and a new recording of the piano concerto Wayang No. 5 (1984) with the composer as soloist.  The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is conducted by Gil Rose.

There are liner notes by the composer and also by the great musician/composer/historian George Lewis (and a frequent musical collaborator with Davis).  The notes are relatively brief but contain a wealth of information and provide useful insights into both the musical processes and the sociopolitical forces that drive Davis’ music.  Davis describes his compositional processes and Lewis, a frequent musical collaborator,  places the music in historic and sociopolitical contexts.

Only the Wayang No. 5 has had a previous recording.  It was one of the two works included on the Gramavision release which included the equally engaging Violin Concerto “Maps” (1988) written for and performed by violinist Shem Guibbory.  The concerto reflects Davis’ interest in jazz as well as his study of gamelan music from whence comes the title “Wayang”. Davis has written a series of compositions for various combinations of instruments titled sequentially Wayang No. 1, No. 2, etc.  The term refers to the shadow puppet theater of  Bali which are accompanied by a gamelan orchestra, an ensemble largely of tuned gongs and other percussion instruments.  Davis studied gamelan music and wrote six compositions (so far) titled Wayang of which the fifth is the piano concerto on this recording.

Wayang No. V is the earliest composition on the disc and consists of four movements.  Opening-Dance begins with an improvisatory section with the pianist playing over unresolved harmonies in the orchestra which then leads to the main section of the movement which is characterized by ostinati in the orchestra as well as on the piano.  There is a seamless transition to the second movement Undine, a slow movement with an impressionistic feel.  March also begins without pause from the previous movement.  It is a scherzo like piece where the polyrhythmic structures are quite clear.   The finale, Keçak, a reference to the monkey chant in the ritual enactment of a scene from the Ramayana where the monkey-like Vanara help Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana.  It begins with a long solo piano introduction followed  by a sort of dialog between the piano and several percussion instruments.  Davis demonstrates his virtuosity here in writing that is indebted as much to gamelan as it is to jazz and modernism from Schoenberg to Bartok, Stravinsky, Hans Werner Henze and Thelonius Monk.

This is a concerto that is more concerned more with expression than empty virtuosity though the piano part could hardly be called easy.  I am amazed that there have been no pianists who have added this wonderful piece to their repertory.  It is a very entertaining piece of music making.

The title track is the orchestral composition, Notes from the Underground (1988).  It is a two movement work dedicated to the writer Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), best known for his National Book Award winning novel The Invisible Man (1952).   The title evokes Dostoevsky’s existential 1864 novel as well as Ellison’s collection of essays, Shadow and Act (1964). The composer describes it as a “riff” on Duke Ellington’s Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue (1937).  It is, to this listener, a grand set of orchestral variations.

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first movement, Shadow, is described by the composer as one that introduces fragments which will be heard in the second movement.  It features a prominent solo for the percussionist.  The second movement, Act is the longer of the two and is described as being written in ten steps with an elaborate polyrhythmic structures described in more detail in the accompanying notes. The writing here probably comes as close to minimalist or process music as anything the composer has done.  It is not minimalism per se  but it is perhaps proto-minimalist techniques whose roots are at least partly in jazz as musicologist Robert Fink suggests.   It produces a ritualistic and meditative feel to this richly orchestrated, reverent and mysterious sounding piece.   It is a fitting tribute to a great American man of letters as well as to the great composer Duke Ellington.

The concerto, You Have the Right to Remain Silent (2007) is the most recent as well as the most overtly political piece on the album and it is a gem.  It is written for clarinet doubling alto clarinet and a Kurzweil synthesizer/sampler and orchestra.  Longtime collaborator, the wonderful J. D. Parran  plays the clarinets winding his way through a balanced hybrid of styles including bebop, modern classical and free jazz styles comprising rhythmic complexity and multiphonics.  One could hardly imagine a soloist better suited for this music.  Earl Howard plays the Kurzweil which intones sampled speech of words from the Miranda Rights which are supposed to be presented at the time of an arrest.  Here they are presented strategically in poetic dialogue with the music controlled by the keyboard player.

Here again the individual movements have their own titles poetically referencing the issues which the composer attempts to invoke in this piece. He says in his notes, “I tried to approach ‘silence’ as, rather than John Cage’s apolitical world of ‘white privilege’, a much more dangerous place.”  The first, Interrogation, is intended to evoke the clarinet as being interrogated by the orchestra.  The second, Loss  features an improvised duet between the Kurzweil and the clarinet.  It ends with an homage to Charles Mingus, a major influence on Davis.  The third, Incarceration includes more text from the Miranda and the Kurzweil processes both the words and the clarinet solo.   And finally, Dance of the Other, intending to evoke the fantasy and the feeling of otherness and presumably alienation.

It is a concerto in the classical sense of a dialogue between soloist and orchestra and it seamlessly blends various classical and jazz harmonies and techniques which challenge the expertise of the soloist.  All the while it clearly presents a political context which meditates on the inhumanities and inequalities inherent in our “correctional” system and in our society as a whole.  As political music it lies within a grand tradition taking a place beside earlier masterpieces of that genre like Henze’s Essay on Pigs (1968) and Rzewski’s Coming Together (1971).  And as a concerto it is a challenge to the soloist and a delight to the listener.

This is a wonderful disc, well recorded and performed.  It presents some amazing and substantial music by one of the living treasures of American composers.  Anthony Davis has had a long and influential presence on the American music scene in his jazz performances as well as his chamber and orchestral music.  His operas like X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986), Amistad(1997 ) and the more recent Wakonda’s Dream (2007) have been performed to critical acclaim. Hopefully this recording will introduce people to this composer’s works and remind those already familiar with the power and depth of Davis’ music.  Bravo to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project for bringing this music to the listening public.  I hope the major orchestras and theaters and recording companies are paying attention so we can hear more from this still too little known composer.

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Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain


Primjous Fountain (1949- )

Primjous Fountain (1949- )

I first encountered the work of this composer in 1982 in a broadcast concert of the Milwaukee Symphony that featured his Symphony No. 1. He was billed then as, “Primous Fountain III”.  I listened and, as was my obsessive practice, I recorded the work on a cassette tape so that I could listen again and not have the experience fade into obscurity.  I have listened many times to this wonderful piece and now in the age of social media one can find more of his music on his web page and his Facebook page.

Fountain was born in Chicago in 1949 where he attended Wendell Phillips High School and after graduation completed an orchestral piece Manifestation (1967) which was performed by the Chicago Symphony.  He has also had performances by the Boston Symphony and the New England Conservatory under Gunther Schuller.  I was fortunate recently to make the acquaintance of Mr. Bill Doggett who is a lecturer and marketing representative for black composers who is in touch with Mr. Fountain.  He informs me that Mr. Fountain is alive and well and living in his native Chicago.

Fountain with Hans Werner Henze

Fountain with Hans Werner Henze

Though largely self-taught he later studied with Hans Werner Henze and Gunther Schuller and these experiences seem to have been absorbed into the composer’s palette. In a 1972 interview with Charles Amirkhanian, conductor Harold Farberman and composer Charles Shere the then 20 something Fountain seems to react with disinterest to the apparently sincere  but rather uncomfortable efforts to address racial issues in music.  He speaks as though he feels his music to be so natural a part of his life that he reports his amazing abilities are simply normal to him. He seems unconcerned with the political aspects of being a “black composer”.   His instinct for complex things like orchestration are like walking or breathing, second nature.  His identity is in his music.

Fountain with Gunther Schuller

Fountain with Gunther Schuller

After hearing his youthful work Manifestation none other than Quincy Jones commissioned Fountain’s Symphony No. 2.  There is a performance by the Lugansk Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine under the baton of Miran Vaupotic available for listening on the composer’s web site as well as on You Tube which now sports a performance of the first two movements of his fourth symphony along with the second movement of his Cello Concerto and selections from other orchestral works.

His idiom might be called conservative in that it incorporates a standard orchestra and uses well-known forms such as Symphony and Concerto but his skill at writing is the point much as it is with other composers trained in schools like Julliard, Curtis, Berklee and the New England Conservatory.

His work sounds at times like a latter day Stravinsky with jagged rhythms and rich orchestration.  There is a passionate post-romantic intensity to the pieces I have heard.  I definitely want to hear more.

Fortunately there is now a YouTube channel dedicated to this composer’s work.  There are, however, no commercial recordings of this man’s music that I was able to find.  Here we see a prodigy who was embraced by many in the world of serious music and whose star appeared to have been rising.

But for all the love and attention that prodigies sometimes get it hardly guarantees exposure beyond their youth.  Fountain is not well-known but that has nothing to do with the quality of his music from what I have been able to hear.  And as sincere as the performances are in the MP3 and YouTube selections they are hardly the pinnacle of musical interpretation.  His music is complex and challenging to performers and I have no doubt that a major symphony orchestra with an insightful conductor could better demonstrate the power of his music.

One hopes that the body of music of this American composer will find an audience in his native country some day but limitations of arts funding and the plight of the black minority composer suggest that this will not be an easy path.  I hope that some enterprising young musicology student might take on the cataloging and analysis of his work to help this process.  Any takers?

Maybe the people at Naxos records or one of the many fine and creative independent labels who have recorded so much neglected music might take on the task of bringing some of this music to classical audiences.  It would be a loss to allow it to languish under-appreciated and largely unheard.  We truly don’t know what we’re missing and I think that is a terrible shame.

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Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch über Schweine)


German composer Hans Werner Henze (1926-2012) left Germany in 1953 because of his dissatisfaction with German intolerance of both his leftist politics and his homosexuality. He settled in Italy where he lived with his partner and had a long, prolific career composing music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, theater, soloists and film. Much of his music was an expression of his politics.

The “Versuch über Schweine”or in English, “Essay on Pigs” of 1968 is scored for woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion, “beat organ” and electric guitar with vocal soloist. It was created at one of the composers most overtly political periods which included the Sixth Symphony (1969), El Cimarrón (1969-70) and Das Floss Der Medusa (1968). Indeed there was much political conflict in the world at this time.   The musicians have a challenging instrumental score to interpret but this is no ordinary vocal part as it calls for the extended vocal techniques of the singer for whom it was written. Henze was reportedly very impressed with having heard the Rolling Stones and this encounter appears to have influenced his musical sound as well.

As near as I can determine the work was performed only once on February 14, 1969 with Roy Hart and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by the composer and subsequently recorded with those forces. The vocalist in the Deutsche Gramophone recording is Roy Hart as well and he appears to be an early practitioner of what we now call ‘extended vocal techniques’. He precedes the likes of Cathy Berberian, Diamanda Galas, Julius Eastman, Joan La Barbara and Meredith Monk. Monk’s students like Robert Een, Andrea Goodman and Anthony De Mare (among others) also carry on the tradition but I know of no one who has attempted this piece since Hart.

English: Photo of Gaston Salvatore

English: Photo of Gaston Salvatore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Essay on Pigs is a setting of poetry by Chilean poet Gaston Salvatore (1941-  ) who collaborated with Henze on several works. The music reflects the angry and sometimes hysterical tone of the poetry making this anything but easy listening.

I recall a musicologist, Dr. Richard Norton, who had corresponded with Henze, playing this piece in its entirety (some 20+ minutes) during one of his classes (at the University of Illinois Chicago in the mid-seventies). I always felt that was a sort of revolutionary act to do that. From what I recall I think I was probably the only person in the class who was already familiar with the work. The reaction of confusion or stunned silence from my fellow students was what one would expect from anyone who had not heard the piece before.

I have been unable to find any critical reviews or reports of audience reactions to performances but this is a piece that has the potential to clear a room or provoke anger.  It must have been quite a show. The piece certainly deserves a revival and I think it is a very significant piece of political music whose expressionism reflects well the issues of the times.  The problem is finding a vocalist to navigate this highly unique and unusual piece..  Any takers?

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Political Classical Music in the Twentieth and Twenty First Centuries


My earliest listening adventures in new music, the ones that shaped my present interests, included the early Odyssey vinyl which contained Steve Reich’s tape piece of 1966, “Come Out”, Frederic Rzewski’s 1974 recording which contained Attica (1972) and Coming Together (1972) and the RCA budget disc of new music which contained Penderecki’s harrowing Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960). In addition to satisfying my fascination with new sounds they were also pointedly political in their messages.

In late 2008 or very early in 2009 I read of a recital to be held at Mills College premiering some of the pieces in a set of piano pieces commissioned by Sarah Cahill called, “A Sweeter Music”, a title taken from a speech by Martin Luther King. I was already familiar with Cahill’s fine pianism and her support of new music. Pieces had been commissioned from Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pauline Oliveros, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Paul Dresher, Carl Stone, Ingram Marshall, Jerome Kitzke, Phil Kline, Mamoru Fujieda, Larry Polansky, Michael Byron, The Residents, and Preben Antonsen. I think this was a significant set of commissions and I am happy to read on Cahill’s website that a recording will be forthcoming from Other Minds records.

The recital was a very informal affair in a small concert room at Mills. Many of the pieces were in stages of rehearsal and none of them had the later added multi-screen video projections which were created by Cahill’s husband, the fine videographer and filmmaker, John Sanborn. The audience was small and only a few pieces were actually played but Cahill discussed the project plans and afforded the opportunity for the audience to examine the actual scores.

Needless to say I enjoyed the evening. I spoke with Ms. Cahill and asked if she knew of any books on the subject of political classical music. She concentrated seriously for a moment, searching her knowledge of the literature and replied, “No, I don’t know of any, you should write one.”

That idea has continued to intrigue me so I have decided to begin a series of blog posts on what I do know about contemporary classical music written with the intention of stating a political or social issue. It didn’t take much thought or research to know that this would be a big topic.

At some point I will need to construct a sort of taxonomy of the types of political music to more widely define the area. Fo)r now, though, I decided to limit my research to music written after 1950 by non-pop composers (much has been written about folk/pop political music) which was written with the intention of stating and/or influencing a political or social issue.

I found a great article by Kyle Gann (he always seems to know about music I like, including his own) which appeared in 2003. It is a fine starting point for these efforts.

I will begin by trying to construct a list of such music and, in addition to the pieces listed above, I would suggest  Rzewski’s magnum opus The People United Will Never Be Defeated (1975), Salvatore Martirano’s L’s GA (1968), Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968, Luigi Nono’s Intolleranza (1960), Hans Werner Henze’s Essay on Pigs (1968), George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970).

I am open to suggestions in the construction of this list and welcome comments as I attempt this project.

RIP Hans Werner Henze


I just learned last night that the great German composer Hans Werner Henze died on Saturday October 27th at the age of 86.  I have been fascinated by this man and his music since the mid 1970s.  While generally classified as a sort of neo-romantic these days I recall the man and the music of controversy.

Henze was, for me, one of the great political composers and stands with the likes of Luigi Nono, Hans Eisler.  His compositions like ‘Essay on Pigs’, ‘The Raft of the Frigate Medusa’, ‘El Cimmaron’, and the 6th Symphony stand out as some of the finest political commentary achieved in classical music.  The premiere of The Raft of the Frigate Medusa had to be cancelled due to political protests which broke out in the concert hall and among the musicians themselves.

Though he may be better known for his wonderful operas and film scores (which I like as well) I will always remember when DGG suddenly dropped Henze from their catalog in the 1970s due to how politically hot he was.  I recall his interview in Stereo Review, I believe, where he discussed his homosexuality and denigrated his German homeland for their discriminatory practices.  Henze had moved to Italy where he spent many productive years.

Much of his music has, for me, a sort of “in your face” quality that reminds me of the expressionism of Schoenberg and the sound world of Varese.  Pieces like the Essay on Pigs will still not fail to offend, repel and fascinate listeners because of it’s dissonant style and unusual extended vocal techniques as well as the political content of the text.  One of my favorite Henze pieces will always be the noisy and very dissonant 6th Symphony which he composed during a stay in Cuba.  And while his style mellowed somewhat after that his compositional approaches were frequently pushing the envelope using tape, spoken voices and dissonances that worked well in the context of his work.

The sweeping grandiose orchestral works include ballets, 10 symphonies, various concerti.  His operas are rather frequently performed.  And his chamber music, including 5 string quartets, deserve more attention.  It is clear as to why he is considered a sort of neo-romantic and I don’t think that that is at odds with his political convictions.  Henze seems to me to have been an idealist, supporting progressive and radical political ideas as a part of his grand and all embracing  style.  Harsh sounds did not need to be excluded from his sonic pallete.  He seems to have embraced a wide variety of techniques and sustained a long and productive career.  Perhaps he was the ideal post-modern romantic.

RIP, Hans.  We go on listening.  Thank you for the sounds.

henze