Grand Celebrations of Finnish Culture


BIS- 9048 SACD

The choice of repertoire, performers, and the quality of their recordings make any BIS records release worthy of attention.  This two disc set is a fine example.  Three major choral/orchestral works which celebrate the justly proud Finnish culture are given very fine performances in this live recording from 2016.

The earliest work, Jean Sibelius’ Kullervo Op. 7 (1892) is one of the less recognized masterpieces by Finland’s best known composer.  Based on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, this massive symphony has acquired a bit of its own mythology.  Though several recordings of this work now exist the world world premiere recording by the late Paavo Berglund (1929-2012) from the early 1970s brought this neglected masterpiece to a larger listening audience.  The intelligent liner notes by Andrew Barnett (and Olli Kortekangas) document and dispel the myths that Sibelius suppressed all or portions of this work which was premiered in 1892 yet had to wait until after the composer’s death in 1957 to receive its first twentieth century performance.  

In fact it seems more likely that the large forces required along with programmers’ preference for the composer’s later masterpieces were responsible for the unfortunate neglect of the present work.  It was the more romantically inclined myth of mysterious oppression that greeted Berglund’s triumphant premiere recording and this reviewer recalls being both charmed and intrigued by it.  Whatever the story the music is now a recognized early triumph by its creator and it is given a gorgeous reading by Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä, (principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra which plays powerfully and definitively.

So why a second disc?  Well, Maestro Vänskä saw fit to commission a new work by contemporary Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas to serve as a companion piece to Kullervo and, then include a version with chorus of Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia.  Together these three works would very satisfyingly fill an entire concert program.

Olli Kortekangas (1955- ) chose poetry by Finnish-American poet Sheila Packa and composed a 7 movement work (three are interludes for orchestra alone) in celebration of the 150th anniversary of modern Finnish migration to the United States.  The work, Migration (2014), is similar in orchestration with its use of male chorus and two soloists backed by a large orchestra.  The composer’s style is a sort of 21st century romantic style with tasteful modern touches.  

The focus of this fine new work is an affirmation of Finnish culture and its impact on the United States.  It seems both fitting and satisfying then that this program conclude with the landmark work of Finnish pride and nationalism, Sibelius’ best known work, Finlandia (1899).  But rather than just another reading of this classic of the concert hall  Vänskä chooses to do a version with chorus.  This was not the composer’s original intent but this version fits remarkably well in the context of this album.  

This is a very enjoyable album, well conceived and executed in every way.  Soloists Lilli Paasikivi and Tommi Hakala sing their roles with skill and passion as does the YL Male Voice Choir.  The applause track at the end of the Finlandia performance echoed the emotional experience of this reviewer and will likely do so for anyone who chooses to avail themselves of this fine example of recording art.

Oh, No! Not Another Minimalist! John McGuire


When I posted my introductory article to the “Not Another Minimalist!” series I got the suggestion on Facebook from composer/writer Walter Zimmerman that I do a piece on John McGuire.  Many will remember Zimmerman for his important book of interviews called Desert Plants (1976) in which he interviewed a series of 23 American composers in the early to mid-1970s.  His choices virtually defined an era much like Robert Ashley’s Music with Roots in the Ether would later do.  He is also a fine composer in his own right and will be featured in a future essay on this blog.  I am honored to receive a challenge from him and I also thought it was a fine selection of a minimalist-type composer whose work deserves wider dissemination so I am using McGuire as my first article in the series.

Unfortunately there is precious little to be found on this American composer.  In Zimmerman’s book he gets only one page so I am essentially updating his earlier efforts.  However, even 38 years later, McGuire does not appear to have a web page and I have been able to find reference to only a few recordings of his music.

mcguire1r

Cover image from one of McGuire’s recordings.

John McGuire (1942- ) studied with Robert Gross at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he earned his BA in 1964, with Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and with Seymour Shifrin at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his MA in 1970. He also studied composition privately with Karl Kohn, composition and orchestration with Krzysztof Penderecki at the Folkwang Universität der Künste in Essen from 1966–68 and composition with Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Ferienkurse in Darmstadt in 1967–68. He then studied computer composition with Gottfried Michael Koenig at the Instituut voor Sonologie of the Universiteit Utrecht in 1970–71 and electronic music with Hans Ulrich Humpert at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz in Cologne from 1975–77.

I came to know the work of John McGuire when I found a remaindered copy of a Largo CD containing his 48 variations for two pianos in the great though now sadly gone Rose Records  store in Chicago in the 1980s.  It was a gamble as I had never even heard of this composer but the album somehow spoke to me from the CD bin.

Variations for 2 pianos CD

Variations for 2 pianos CD

My gamble paid off because I had found in that piece a new take  on minimalism and pattern music.  It seemed to be closer to classical variation form than to strict process-oriented patterns but clearly there were rhythmic cells being subjected to development.  It clocks in at about 48 minutes and is a tour de force.

As it turns out McGuire makes use of minimalism as only one of his compositional techniques and has a distinctly different take on it which appears to be informed by the various techniques gleaned from his teachers.  After finding and bonding with this CD I began to look for more of this man’s music.

The intelligent vigilance of Richard Friedman and the Other Minds organization broadcast McGuire’s 1974 Frieze for 4 pianos and his 1985 Cadence Music for 21 Instruments in a RadiOM program dedicated to the composer’s music. Both recordings were broadcast from a 2 CD release on the RZ label.   Again the unmistakable sound of minimalism in a very unique approach.

The east coast equivalent of RadiOM is WNYC’s New Sounds hosted by John Schaefer.  The program of November 12, 2013 included McGuire’s Pulse Music III from 1978.  This is a great example at the composer’s facility with electronics.  This piece realized on tape was apparently originally for a multiple speaker installation  but is mesmerizing even in the stereo presentation which was broadcast.  Another inspired new music show, Kalvos and Damian did a program on the genesis of this music which remains available as streaming content.

McGuire spent 25 years living and working in Germany returning to the United States in 1998.  He then worked for Carl Fischer music as an editor and was a visiting adjunct professor at Columbia from 2000-2002.

I’m not sure I’ve been able to do much more than Walter Zimmerman did in his book but it is my hope that this article may spark interest in musicians, producers and broadcasters to keep this fascinating composer in mind for future projects and performances.

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Composers of Northern California, Other Minds 19


OM 19, the final bow.  Left to right: Charles Amirkhanian, Charles Celeste Hutchins, Joseph Byrd, Wendy Reid, Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell, John Schott, Mark Applebaum, John Bischoff, Don Buchla

OM 19, the final bow. Left to right: Charles Amirkhanian, Charles Celeste Hutchins, Joseph Byrd, Wendy Reid, Myra Melford, Roscoe Mitchell, John Schott, Mark Applebaum, John Bischoff, Don Buchla

This past Friday and Saturday the San Francisco Jazz Center hosted the 19th annual Other Minds Festival concerts.  This is the first year not to feature an international roster.  Instead the focus was on composers from northern California.  (Strictly speaking these composers’ creative years and present residence is northern California.)  It was not a shift in policy but a focus on a less generally well known group of artists who have not enjoyed the exposure of east coast composers but have produced a formidable body of work that deserves at least a fair assessment.  In fact these concerts presented a fascinating roster of composers from essentially three generations.

The first generation represented was one which came of age in the fabled 1960s and included electronic music pioneer Don Buchla, AACM founding member Roscoe Mitchell and proto-minimalist Joseph Byrd.  The second was represented by Wendy Reid, Myra Melford and John Bischoff.  And the youngest generation by Mark Applebaum and Charles Celeste Hutchins.

The program opened on Friday night with a sort of pantomime work by Stanford associate professor of music Mark Applebaum.  The piece, called Aphasia (2010) consists of an electronic score to which the composer, seated in a chair, responds with a variety of carefully choreographed gestures.  The result was both strange and humorous.  The audience was both amused and appreciative.

Applebaum's Metaphysics of Notation (2008) performed by the Other Minds Ensemble.  Left to right: Myra Melford, John Bischoff, Wendy Reid, John Schott, Joseph Byrd, Charles Amirkhanian and Charles Celeste Hutchins

Applebaum’s Metaphysics of Notation (2008) performed by the Other Minds Ensemble. Left to right: Myra Melford, John Bischoff, Wendy Reid, John Schott, Joseph Byrd, Charles Amirkhanian and Charles Celeste Hutchins

Applebaum’s graphic score Metaphysics of Notation (2008) was projected overhead while the ensemble played their interpretations of that score.  The ensemble, dubbed the Other Minds Ensemble, consisted of most of the composers who participated in the festival including Mr. Amirkhanian displaying his facility with  a percussion battery among other things.  (Presumably Roscoe Mitchell, who was reportedly not feeling well, would have joined the ensemble as well.)  Mr. Applebaum was conspicuously absent perhaps so as to not unduly influence the proceedings.

Ribbons strewn across the stage, a part of the Other Minds Ensemble's interpretation of the Metaphysics of Notation

Ribbons strewn across the stage, a part of the Other Minds Ensemble’s interpretation of the Metaphysics of Notation

The piece was full of minimal musical gestures, humorous events like ribbons strewn across the stage and the popping of little party favors that emitted streamers.  The ensemble appeared to have a great deal of fun with this essentially indeterminate score which they are instructed to interpret in their own individual  ways.  It was a rare opportunity to see and hear Mr. Amirkhanian (who is a percussionist by training) as well as an opportunity for the other composer/performers to demonstrate their skills and their apparent affinity for this type of musical performance.  Again the audience was both amused and appreciative.

Mark Applebaum performing on his invented instrument.

Mark Applebaum performing on his invented instrument.

Projection of Applebaum performing with view of the composer/performer stage right as well.

Projection of Applebaum performing with view of the composer/performer stage right as well.

The third piece by Applebaum featured the composer with his invented instrument and electronics playing on a balcony stage right with a projection of himself on the big screen.  He produced a wide variety of sounds from his fanciful computer controlled contraption that seemed to please the audience.  This is the kind of unusual genre-breaking events which tend to characterize an Other Minds concert.

The second composer of the night was the elusive Joseph Byrd who is perhaps best known for his cult classic album The American Metaphysical Circus by Joe Byrd and the Field Hippies from 1969.  A previous band, The United States of America released a self-titled album which received critical acclaim in 1968.  Both are apparently out of print but available through Amazon.

Joe Byrd studied music with Barney Childs and worked with La Monte Young, cellist Charlotte Moorman, Yoko Ono and Jackson Mac Low.  Byrd went on to produce a great deal of music by others and also wrote music for films and television but his own compositions have only come to light again recently with the release of a New World CD released in 2013 which presents his work from 1960-63.  Mr. Amirkhanian said that it was this disc that got him interested in inviting Byrd to Other Minds (Byrd also taught at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California.).

This is the sort of musical archeology for which Other Minds has become known.  Amirkhanian is known for his ability to find and bring to performance and recordings music which has been unjustly neglected.  Hopefully this appearance will be followed by more releases of Byrd’s other music as well.

Byrd was represented here by performances of Water Music (1963) for percussionist and tape with Alan Zimmerman (who was one of the producers of the New World album) played the spare percussion part which integrated well with the analog electronic tape.

Alan Zimmerman performing Joe Byrd's Water Music.

Alan Zimmerman performing Joe Byrd’s Water Music.

A second piece, Animals (1961) was performed by the brilliant and eclectic bay area pianist Sarah Cahill with Alan Zimmerman and Robert Lopez on percussion and the fiercely talented Del Sol String Quartet (Kate Stenberg and Richard Shinozaki, violins, Charlton Lee, viola and Kathryn Bates Williams, cello).  This was another piece with soft, mostly gentle musical gestures involving a prepared piano and predominantly percussive use of the string players.  It was interesting to contemplate how this long unheard music must have sounded in 1961 but it was clear that it communicated well with the audience on this night.

Animals (1961)

Animals (1961)

John Bischoff performing his work Audio Combine (2009)

John Bischoff performing his work Audio Combine (2009)

Following intermission we heard two pieces by Mills composer/performer John Bischoff.  The first was Audio Combine (2009) which featured Bischoff on this laptop producing a variety of digitally manipulated sounds.  It was followed by Surface Effect (2011) with creative lighting effects/animations that nicely complemented the laptop controlled analog circuitry.  Bischoff’s music is generally gentle and clear.  It belies the complexity of its genesis in state of the art computer composition and performance for which he is so well known.

John Bischoff performing Surace Effect (2011)

John Bischoff performing Surace Effect (2011)

All this led to the final performance of the evening by Don Buchla whose modular synthesizers were developed in the early 1960s with input from Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley at the legendary San Francisco Tape Music Center (which later became the Mills Center for Contemporary Music).  Buchla also designed the sound system for Ken Kesey’s bus “Furthur” which featured in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Don Buchla on the Buchla Bos and Nannick Buchla on the piano with film projection performing Drop by Drop (2012) in its American premiere.

Don Buchla on the Buchla Bos and Nannick Buchla on the piano with film projection performing Drop by Drop (2012) in its American premiere.

The conclusion of Friday’s program consisted of the American premiere of a Drop by drop by Don Buchla for Buchla 200e, electronically controlled “piano bar”  (another Buchla invention) and film projection.  The film was made in collaboration with bay area film maker Sylvia Matheus.  The sequence of images began with a dripping faucet and proceeded to a waterfall and then to emerging pictures of birds all the while accompanied by the various sounds from the synthesizer and the piano.

OM190028

Nannick and Donald Buchla receiving warm applause from the audience.

The Saturday night performances began with Charles Celeste Hutchins and his laptop improvising system.  Hutchins, a San Jose native, describes his system as related to Iannis Xenakis’ UPIC system and utilizes a live graphic interface which the computer uses to trigger sound events.

Charles Celeste Hutchins at his laptop performing Cloud Drawings (2006-9)

Charles Celeste Hutchins at his laptop performing Cloud Drawings (2006-9)

The drawings were projected onto the overhead screen.  There seemed to be a somewhat indirect correlation between the drawings and the resultant sounds and much of the tension of this performance derived from wondering what sounds would result when the cursor reached that particular drawing object.  The audience is basically watching the score as it is being written, a rather unique experience and the Other Minds audience clearly appreciated the uniqueness.

The projected graphic score for Cloud Drawings.

The projected graphic score for Cloud Drawings.

The Actual Trio: John Schott, guitar, Dan Seamans, bass, John Hanes, drums.

The Actual Trio: John Schott, guitar, Dan Seamans, bass, John Hanes, drums.

John Schott and his Actual Trio then took the stage to perform his own brand of jazz which seemed to be a combination of free jazz, Larry Coryell and perhaps even Jerry Garcia.  But these descriptions are merely fleeting impressions and are not intended to detract from some really solid and inspired music making.  After the conclusion of the set this listener half expected an encore.

But the program moved on toWendy Reid’s performance as we watched the stage being set up with music stands, some electronic equipment and a parrot in a cage.

Tree Piece #55 "lulu variations" with Tom Dambly, trumpet, Wendy Reid, violin and electronics and Lulu Reid on vocals.

Tree Piece #55 “lulu variations” with Tom Dambly, trumpet, Wendy Reid, violin and electronics and Lulu Reid on vocals.

Reid’s Tree Pieces are an ongoing set of compositions incorporating nature sounds with live performance.  This is not unlike some of Pauline Oliveros’ work in that it involves careful listening by the musicians who react within defined parameters to these sounds.

Lulu the parrot appeared nervous and did a lot of preening but did appear to respond at times.  The musicians responded with spare notes on violin and muted trumpet.  It was a whimsical experience which stood in stark contrast to the more declarative music of the previous trio but at least some of  the audience, apparently prepared for such contrasts, was appreciative.

Myra Melford performing selections from Life Carries Me This Way (2013)

Myra Melford performing selections from Life Carries Me This Way (2013)

The diminutive figure of Myra Melford took command of the piano and the hearts of the audience in her rendition of several pieces from her recent CD.  She played sometimes forcefully with thunderous forearm cluster chords and sometimes with extreme delicacy but always with rapt attention to her music.  Her set received a spontaneous standing ovation from a clearly roused audience.  She is a powerful but unpretentious musician who clearly communicates well with her audience.

Roscoe Mitchell, Vinny Golia, Scott Robinson and J.D. Parran  following their performance of Noonah (2013)

Roscoe Mitchell, Vinny Golia, Scott Robinson and J.D. Parran following their performance of Noonah (2013)

The finale of OM 19 was the world premiere of an Other Minds commission, the version for four bass saxophones of Roscoe Mitchell’s Noonah (pronounced no nay ah).  It is the latest incarnation of a piece of music that Mitchell describes as having taken on a life of its own.  It exists now in several different versions from chamber groups to orchestra.

The piece is vintage Roscoe Mitchell, a combination of free jazz and sometimes inscrutable compositional techniques which clearly enthralled the very focused performers.  What the piece seemed to lack in immediate emotional impact it made up in mysterious invention which was brought out grandly by the very experienced and committed players.

Mitchell, who was not able to attend on the previous night, appeared rather tired but played with a focus and enthusiasm that matched his fellow musicians.  Like all of Mitchell’s music there is a depth and complexity that is not always immediately evident but does come with repeated listenings and performances.

Thus concluded another very successful edition of Other Minds.  Now we look forward to the gala 20th anniversary coming up in March, 2015.

 

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Black Composers Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act


In this, the 50th anniversary year of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights act I have decided to do a survey of black composers who have come of age in the aftermath.  The push for equal rights in the way people are treated, given access to voting, education, business and financial opportunities was the spirit of that legislation.  Though many speak of a “post-racial” America it is clear from any fair analysis that we have a long way to go.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil R...

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, James Farmer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am beginning a series of articles in honor of Black History Month and in honor of this legislation which attempts to address this inequality. Each article will feature a composer or composers whose work I personally find interesting and worth promoting and which was written or premiered in or after 1964.  I will not necessarily limit myself to Americans both because that would be unnecessarily constricting and inconsistent with the spirit of Black History Month and because non-American black composers suffer similar obscurity and may have even benefited from the 1964 legislation.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whether the legislation has improved the opportunities for black composers is, of course, open to debate but the quality of these artists stand alone on their own merits.  They may have had opportunities not available to their predecessors and this may be a positive result of this legislation.  But the fact that awareness of their work is limited and promoted in relatively obscure contexts such as this blog suggests that true equality in the area of recognition of artistic merit remains elusive (though the availability of recordings of the music of black composers has certainly increased) .  Curiously the United States has chosen the shortest month of the year to celebrate Black History whereas England, who abolished slavery before the U.S., celebrates it in October.  Yes, it’s only 3 days, but the irony is hard to miss.

The pioneering work of musicologist Dominique-Rene de Lerma has done a great service in promoting the work of black composers internationally.  He was involved in the production of the landmark series for Columbia Records along with the great (now retired) conductor Paul Freeman recording a variety of music from black composers world-wide. I had discussed this set in a blog last year and it is worth mentioning that the complete set of recordings has been reissued on 9 vinyl discs as a result of a Ford Foundation grant and remains available through the College Music Society in Missoula, Montana for $35.  This beautifully produced box set deserves an honored place in any record collection.

This pioneering set has inspired similar series by Albany Records and Cedille Records which have made recordings available of some very attractive music of black composers which deserves a wider audience.  It is largely these sets and the writing of Professor de Lerma which serve as the source for the series I am doing on this blog.

The internet site africalssical blog is also a very useful resource which is updated frequently and reports the work of black musicians working in the so-called classical world.  It is difficult and perhaps superfluous to try to separate jazz and classical so I will include composers without concern for specific genre categories except, perhaps, pop composers whose work is well-represented in the mainstream.

Pioneering black musicians like Natalie Hinderas, Martina Arroyo, Marian Anderson, Dean Dixon, William Grant Still and their like paved the way for their successors such as Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Paul Freeman, George Walker and others whose stars became visible to the casual onlooker.  Of course there are fine black classical artists whose talents remain too little known.  How many people know Awadagin Pratt, Mark Doss, Michael Morgan and other active black musical artists?  It takes much more work for listeners to find and appreciate their talents.

It takes even more work to find black composers, especially if they are not also performers.  Most people, even most musicians, would have difficulty naming a single black classical composer.

I contacted several prominent black musicians to pose the question of how the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has impacted black classical composers.  To date I am pleased to say that I have received two gracious replies.  The first is from Michael Morgan who currently serves as conductor of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Sacramento Philharmonic and the Festival Opera in Walnut Creek.  He has numerous recordings to his credit as well.  Maestro Morgan replied as follows:

Michael Morgan (1957- )

Michael Morgan (1957- )

“I don’t believe the 64 Civil Rights Act has impacted black composers directly, however, the national conversation it inspired did cause performing arts groups (and their philanthropic supporters) to look for new ways to expand their audiences into communities not traditionally as well represented in concert halls. Orchestras are still making efforts (some more sincere than others) to connect with various minority communities. Unfortunately, rather than sprinkle such efforts throughout their seasons, some have opted for the annual Martin Luther King or Black History Month (or Cinco de Mayo, or Chinese New Year, etc. etc.) concert resulting in less sustained contact than might otherwise be possible. Such concerts have, however, been something of a boon for black composers, performers and conductors who find themselves at least included on orchestra programs on those annual occasions.

There may have been a more direct impact on the integration of some concert halls in particularly segregated cities, but the performing arts have historically been somewhat ahead of society in general in terms of promoting fully integrated events, at least in communities where there was significant acceptance of such integration.”

Morgan’s practical approach to programming is evident here and the point is well-taken that consistent programming of minority composers would result in a more sustained impact than simply having focused efforts during given months or weeks.  In fact this notion has convinced me that my blogs on the subject might be more effective if I were to spread them throughout the year, something which I will now incorporate.  My previous blog post on black classical conductors which included Maestro Morgan has been one of my most frequently viewed posts and I will expand on that subject in the months to come.

Adolphus Hailstork

Adolphus Hailstork

The second reply was from eminent composer Adolphus Hailstork who was the subject of my first blog post for black history month from last year.  He replied very thoughtfully as follows:

“Fifty Years After the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Having grown up in New York State and not experienced “legalized” segregation as practiced in the South, I had enjoyed as a youth, all the rights and privileges of American citizenship due me. There were no “colored” this and “white” that signs or classrooms, or lunch counters, etc. So the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not have a direct effect on my life at that time.

(I much later came to appreciate the value of the changes in the south when I came to live there as a working adult.)

Actually, it was the assassination of Dr. King that opened doors to my beginning my doctorate degree that same year when I got out of the army (1968).

Also, that tragic event influenced the unfolding of my career, because it led to an interest in the music of African-American classical composers for the honoring of Dr. King’s birthday celebration in January and, by extension, the heightened interest in such music during the February Black History Month observance.

I believe the history of African-Americans is tragic, heroic, triumphant, and, of course, filled with awesomely dramatic stories. It is an honor to attempt in some small way to pay tribute through music to our story.”

Clearly Dr. Hailstork notes the difference between his experiences in the north where he was born and was able to see the profound contrast he experienced working in the south at Old Dominion University in Virginia particularly during the early civil rights struggles and their aftermath.  The emotional impact of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in the same year he concluded his military service  is noted as a formative issue as well.

One can easily hear the deep emotional impact of which he speaks in works like his second symphony from 1999 which reflects his feelings after having visited the slave markets of West Africa and his American Guernica (1983) which is about the Birmingham 16th Baptist Church bombing which killed 4 little girls in 1963.  Other works such as his Epitaph for a Man Who Dreamed, In Memoriam Martin Luther King, Jr. (1979) also reflect the impact of these events on him personally and reflect what he describes as his feeling of honor in being able to pay tribute to these tragedies describing them aptly as “our story”.

I think it is important to begin to see the tragic and triumphant events of the civil rights era as our American story and not just as the story of black Americans.  Indeed these events are part of our collective history as human beings and as Americans.  These are stories that need telling and re-telling as a part of the healing process and the exorcising of the evil deeds of our collective past.

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Henry Brant?…never heard of him: A Centennial Sketch


Aerial photo: Santa Barbara, California

Aerial photo: Santa Barbara, California (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was sitting in the Sojourner Cafe, my favorite little restaurant/hangout just off downtown in Santa Barbara, California.  I was having one of many conversations with the great and interesting staff and patrons when I mentioned the name of Henry Brant, saying he lived in Santa Barbara.  “I never heard of him” came the response from Chris, a musician when not serving at the restaurant.  No one else showed any signs of recognition either.  I proceeded to tell him about the Pulitzer Prize winning composer.  It was then that flicker of recognition came across his face.  He told me that the frail figure using his walker was a familiar sight in the neighborhood, his eyes widened with interest as I told him about this major American musician.

Henry Brant

Henry Brant (1913-2008) was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada to American parents.  His father was a professional musician. Henry played violin, flute, tin whistle, piano, organ, and percussion at a professional level and was fluent with the playing techniques for all of the standard orchestral instruments.   Henry went on to study at McGill University and later in New York at a school later named Julliard.  He was the youngest composer mentioned in Henry Cowell’s anthology, “American Composers on American Music” to which Brant contributed an article on what he called “oblique harmony”.

Brant, who had an early connection and affinity with the American experimental music tradition, would go on to develop “spatial music” in which musicians were scattered around the performance space as an essential part of the composition and performance.  He began writing music in the sort of post modern style of the time as in his Symphony No. 1 (1945 rev. 1950) and pithy little jazz inflected pieces like Whoopee In D (1938, Rev. 1984), Jazz Toccata On A Bach Theme (Toccata On “Wachet Auf”) (1940) and Double-Crank Hand Organ Music (1933, Rev. 1984).

He would write for unusual combinations of instruments such as Angels And Devils (1931), a concerto for flute and orchestra of flutes, Ghosts and Gargoyles (2002) also for flute and flute orchestra or Orbits (1979) for 80 trombones, organ and sopranino voice.  His first spatial composition, Rural Antiphonies (1953) predates Stockhausen’s famed experimental opus, Gruppen (1955-7).  In all he composed over 100 “spatial” works along with chamber music such as Homeless People (1997) for piano and string quartet.  His composition Ice Field (2001) commissioned by Other Minds and performed in Michael Tilson Thomas‘ “American Mavericks” series won him the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for music.

Brant had worked as an orchestrator and conductor in Hollywood assisting with scores by Alex North and with the likes of Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, George Antheil, Douglas Moore and Gordon Parks.  His extensive knowledge of orchestration led him to write his textbook (published posthumously) ‘Textures and Timbres’.  And one of his last musical works was the orchestration of Charles Ives‘ massive and complex Second Piano Sonata which Brant titled the “Concord Symphony”.  This major opus has been performed several times and recorded twice.  A series of recordings on the Innova label have begun to release new recordings, many of them first recordings, of Brant’s huge catalog of compositions.

Brant was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the recipient several prizes and honorary degrees.  He was and continues to be a great force in music as well as a connection the American experimental traditions of Ives, Cowell and their contemporaries.  There is much to do in researching and documenting the work of this now past master who would have been 100 years old on September 15th.  His archive of over 300 scores is now in the venerable archives of the Paul Sacher Institute in Basel, Switzerland.   But I am left with the image of the frail figure walking the streets of Santa Barbara no doubt followed by more of his industrious efforts when he got back home to his studio.  Happy Birthday, Henry!

So the Dead May Speak, a Function of Classical Political Music


English: Photograph of a Female Demonstrator O...

Photograph of a Female Demonstrator Offering a Flower to a Military Police Officer, 10/21/1967 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Giving a voice to the murdered, the martyrs, those who cannot speak for themselves is one of the ways in which sociopolitical music can function.  Witness the case of Sam Melville (born Samuel Joseph Grossman in 1934).  He worked as a draftsman for a company which assigned him to work on designing new offices for the Chase Manhattan Bank in the then apartheid Union of South Africa.  He became outraged at the inequality and quit his job there as a result.  He became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement the Weather Underground and the Black Panther Party.  He was arrested in 1969 for his involvement in 8 bombings.  He was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison.

sam-melville

He was transferred to Attica prison in upstate New York where he continued to work as an activist attempting to improve prison conditions for him and his fellow inmates.  He is suspected of being involved in organizing the prison riots which erupted there in 1971 which the state’s response resulted in the deaths of 39 people of which Melville was one.  Subsequent lawsuits for violations of civil rights resulted in the payment of $12 million dollars by the state of New York to the families of the victims.

The first recording of both "Coming Together" and "Attica", an iconic record for this writer.

The first recording of both “Coming Together” and “Attica”, an iconic record for this writer.

Later that year Frederic Rzewski wrote his piece for speaker and ensemble (the score is open as to instrumentation) “Coming Together”.  The title and the words the speaker repeats are taken from one of Melville’s letters:

“I think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. it’s six months now and i can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. i am in excellent physical and emotional health. there are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but i feel secure and ready. As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am i dealing with my environment. in the indifferent brutality, incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, i can act with clarity and meaning. i am deliberate–sometimes even calculating–seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. i read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.”

The text is repeated usually with dramatic license over a driving minimalist substrate which suggests the chaos that must have imbued that time.  The piece lasting about 20 minutes is a powerful experience, even more so when the listener comes to know the context.  It has been recorded at least four times.

A sort of companion piece, “Attica”, also written in 1971, uses the words of one of the survivors of that riot, Richard X. Clark, as he was being taken away from the prison:  “Attica is in front of me now.”  Mr. Clark, who was released from prison in 1972, wrote a book about his experiences and went on to work in social services as a case manager helping drug addicts recover.

This second piece (lasting about ten minutes) uses the minimalist style to create a calmer atmosphere, that of a man who is saddened but relieved to have this event over and to have survived.  This piece has also had several recordings and is frequently performed as a companion to “Coming Together”.

In future blogs I will include more music that speaks for the dead in this ongoing series of political classical music.