Secret Geometry is about the play of forms, and forms of play: composing, performing, listening, music making, reading, and again, composing. There’s news here about the music I write, as well as comments about concerts, recordings, books, and a few other things you might find of interest. For more information about my compositions, including a work list, score samples, and audio clips, visit jamesprimosch.com
With the imminent release of my “Sacred Songs” cd on Bridge records, I want to share with you the essay John Harbison graciously contributed for the CD booklet:
Vocal Music in the 21st Century: Is Anything Sacred?
A point of view, an address to both mind and heart, a passionate conviction – isn’t that what we hope for in a piece of music?
What we often get in these times is sophistication, attitude, polish, aggression. But recently, from an unexpected underground, outlier source, Sacred Music, we are starting to get a reinfusion of meaning, in which the composer and listener inhabit worlds both seen and unseen, in a vocabulary reaching from the oldest to the newest.
The music of James Primosch –– immediate and urgent, private and other-worldly –– invites us to travel with him into dangerous and beautiful territory, no less than a cosmic conversation –– dispute and reconciliation and doubt and accommodation –– with our Maker.
Even if we are holding out hope no Maker ever existed, we can’t help noticing the appearance, in these pieces, of major issues we can’t avoid.
Sacred music. Lord save us! What a scary sounding category. Orphaned, abandoned, archaic. Once music’s principal domain, the composer’s main livelihood: think of Josquin and Palestrina saturating their patrons and listeners with sound, while the painters filled the walls of the Sistine Chapel.
Bach was one of the last composers to write sacred music with confidence that it represented majority opinion. The Matthew Passion breathes that confidence, in and out. But while Bach was still alive, a secular culture was rendering his aesthetic obsolete. The Mozart Great Mass in C minor, Beethoven Missa Solemnis , Verdi Requiem, Fauré Requiem increasingly require shadings, demurrals, and edits to describe the composer’s relationships to the text.
The 20th century arrived with confidence that religious art had become an archaism, with occasional rear-guard exceptions –– Roualt, Kollwitz, Flannery O’Connor, the later Eliot –– only proving the case. But let’s pause for a moment to ponder Symphony of Psalms, Moses and Aaron, St. Francis. Devout, orthodox, inspired masterpieces by composers rooted in their religious traditions. And other great pieces by composers less anchored in that way –– Dallapiccola’s Concerto per la Notte di Natale, Poulenc’s Gloria, Martin’s Mass for Double Choir. And within the last few years, Passions of a widely disparate content by Adams, Golijov, MacMillan, music by Jonathan Harvey illuminated by his Buddhist faith, programs of music for the Synagogue by Wyner and Adler.
In James Primosch’s music you hear sacred music’s welcome to listeners of every imaginable stamp. He embraces age-old advantages: The composer of sacred music is not on the applause meter. He converses with God, with himself, and with listeners whose mind-set (at least in church) is not evaluative or critical. The envious colleague, the nagging teacher –– both have stayed home. The “professionals” are elsewhere.
Who is there? In Primosch’s experience it is people who wish to be reached, touched, persuaded, or given a space to meditate and reflect. At performances of the many motets he has composed for Boston’s Emmanuel Church I have heard members of the congregation tell him that the piece has comforted or calmed or excited or occasioned new thoughts. This is a pastoral function, not something that happens in a tuxedo or tails.
Primosch’s mature style bears the marks of a composer who has learned to come to the point, to speak clearly, thanks to a necessary encounter with his subject matter. Like Jacob, he wrestled with the Angel, lost, and has been made strong. His harmonic palette has been culled to make its signifiers more vivid. He builds it from old acoustic principles–– open fifths in the bass register, piled or intersected triads above, ancient modes linked together at chromatic crossing points. The fluent melodies sometimes harken back to plainchant. Grounded though he is in all the latest and most current, the surface of his music has become less “modern,” less local. This makes possible a more radical, pointed kind of emphasis. The music sounds like it intends to be remembered. Motives are felt, rather than just being useful. Quiet static moments are driven home, not just waiting for something to happen.
Because of its vivid, fervent expression, Primosch’s music has been taken up by some of our best performers, like the ones on this CD. They bring a set of four vocal-instrumental pieces (each of which exists also in voice and piano versions).
The first, From a Book of Hours, is the closest of these pieces to a song cycle. It is four balanced movements, each carrying forward a dialogue which is also a monologue.
Four Sacred Songs is a set of variations on given tunes, plainchant and folksong, very revealing of Primosch’s melodic sources as a whole.
Dark the Star is a through-composed cantata, the alternation between English and German never interrupting a continuous flow of verbal and musical discourse.
Holy the Firm is an unusual juxtaposition of disparate music and text, from contemplative ritual (Susan Stewart’s “Cinder,” a lapidary piece already in high favor as a separate recital piece) to dramatic-operatic scene (Dillard’s “Deathbeds”).
Somewhere along the line the composer of sacred music is asked a question, by a fan, a critic, a historian. It is a question nowadays asked inadvertently with impertinence, a rough paraphrase being, “Do you really believe this stuff?”
The force of the question reinforces something that the composer already knew, that he is a cultural maverick. The answer, “Yes, as much as that is permitted to me on a given day.” At the very least, the composer is suggesting that he chooses to spend his day with such companions as Annie Dillard and John Climacus, and wishes to include us in that sojourn.
A word about the author: the catalog of distinguished American composer John Harbison includes numerous sacred works, including a Requiem, the motet Abraham, which was commissioned for the Papal Concert of Reconciliation, and the cantata The Flight Into Egypt, for which he received the 1987 Pulitzer prize. He has conducted Bach cantatas, worked as a jazz pianist, and taught at Tanglewood and MIT.
It was a fantastic concert of music by Mario Davidovsky in honor of his 80th birthday tonight at Merkin in NYC. There were several veteran performers on hand, players I first met in 1979 at the Composers’ Conference that Mario still directs, now at Wellesley College. All the musicians, longtime Davidovsky advocates or not, projected the scintillating and lyrical gestures of this music vividly, and with pinpoint precision. It was a pleasure to hear such commanding performances.
Hearing a string of Mario’s pieces in succession brought home to me just what a remarkable body of work he has created. The music is full of high contrast juxtapositions yet manages to convey a sense of long line. The point of view is consistently contrapuntal, but with aerated, economical textures. Always, there is an a exquisite sense of timing – none of these pieces outstay their welcome.
Here are a few pictures. Mario taking a bow, with cellist Chris Finckel at right:
Mario and I, after the concert:
Mario speaking with another Columbia classmate, Eric Chasalow (Nice hat, Mario!):
- I just hit send on an e-mail with the PDFs for my brand-new Meditation on “Amazing Grace”, the short work for trumpet, contrabass and piano that I have written for Network for New Music’s April 4 concert. Terell Stafford and Mary Javian will join me for the premiere.
- Tonight is the concert for Mario Davidovsky’s 80th birthday at Merkin Hall in NYC. I’ll be there, and I anticipate a good number of colleagues will also want to attend to pay honor to one of the great masters of our time.
- I have already begun sketching my new work for The Crossing, to be performed on a concert at The Icebox in Philadelphia on June 28. The piece will combine the Latin Ordinary of the Mass with poems by Denise Levertov inspired by the Mass texts. I’ve written numerous short motets over the years, but this will be my biggest a cappella piece by far.
There was an exceptionally warm and focused audience at last night’s recital at Penn. Linda Reichert and I offered an all-American program that bound together various programming threads – besides the American angle, there were three Philadelphia composers (Primosch, Levinson, and Persichetti); we heard French musical thought filtered through American voices (Levinson, Copland); and experienced the contrast of stream of consciousness (Persichetti) and aphoristic (Harbison) modes of expression.
I thought Linda did a great job on my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, with the slow movement called “Nocturnal Obsessions” being a highlight: subtly pedaled, exquisitely balanced (on a not terribly friendly piano), full of atmosphere and Chopin-esque languor.
It was a thrill for me to share the Copland Sonata with my listeners, especially such attentive ones – there was a nearly uncanny quiet in the room during the very soft passages in the finale of the Copland. The piece has its technical challenges, but it is not as pianistically difficult as some of the other great American sonatas (including Barber, Ives, Carter, Rochberg, Wernick, Harbison…). However, I find the emotional intensity of the Copland draining, intense in both its breadth and depth of feeling. The short movements of the Harbison – wry, cryptic, droll, graceful, brusque – offered a welcome contrast with the high drama of Copland’s long-lined narrative.
Now I really must finish up the little piece I am doing for Network’s April 4 Harbison concert so I can attend to my commission from The Crossing – blogging is going to stay infrequent for a while, folks…
Above, I am at the Steinway. Here are Linda and myself after the show (too bad iPhoto can’t do anything to make my sport coat lay flat):
In the first volume of his autobiography, Aaron Copland writes:
When I originally agreed to compose the Piano Sonata, I had asked [playwright Clifford] Odets (2 January 1939): “Is a dedication and a presentation of the manuscript worth $500 to you? It would take me about 2 months to write, I think.” Cliff agreed and promptly sent half the commission. One robbery, several interruptions, and almost three years later, the Sonata was ready.
The “robbery” referred to is explained as follows by Vivian Perlis, Copland’s collaborator for the autobiography:
One evening early in June 1941 Copland carried two suitcases down the four flights to his car parked outside the loft. When he returned after going back up for the rest of his luggage, the two valises were gone. One was filled with personal belongings; the other with music. Copland went directly to the 20th Precinct police station to report the theft. A reward was offered, and the Department of Sanitation was asked to be on the lookout for odd sheets of music paper… Before leaving for Lenox [Tanglewood], Copland listed his loss for the Great American Insurance Company: “Collected themes for Billy and The City in binding, Sorcery to Science – pencil, Piano Sonata – two movements in ink, 10 pages on thin paper…
Copland was forced to reconstruct the first two movements of the piece from memory, with the aid of pianist John Kirkpatrick, for whom he had played the piece. Although Copland began working intensively on the piece in 1939, the Sonata took even longer than three years, in that it utilized sketches going back to 1935. Copland himself gave the first performance while on a trip to South America in 1941.
In the autobiography, Copland refers to the first movement of the piece as
a regular sonata allegro form with two themes, a development section characterized by disjunct rhythms and a playful mood, and a clear recapitulation in which the opening idea is dramatically restated.
While the movement’s form may be “regular” in terms of thematic layout, the key scheme is not regular, with Copland writing key signatures that suggest b-flat minor and g minor for the first and second themes respectively. There is no use of the dominant to prepare the recapitulation; the latter arrives simply as a high contrast to the preceding scherzo-like and relatively diatonic music. In fact, the drama of the piece is more about the tensions inherent in the chromaticism of the harmony (the b-flat minor/major cross relations of the opening, for example) and the play of highly characterized gestures (for example, the clangor of bell sounds, followed by a plunging scale near the end of the first thematic section) than about the key scheme.
The second movement is a scherzo, at once playful and nervous, with constantly changing meters. A more lyrical section, referred to by most commentators as the contrasting trio section customary in the scherzo form, is a foreshadowing of melodic material that will play an important part in the last movement. Howard Pollack writes of how this finale, described as “free” in form by Copland, is built from this material and from a simple hymn-like tune, embedded in tolling bells at times mellifluous, at other moments strident. Throughout the entire Sonata, Copland deploys the various registers of the piano with great care, and the exquisite layering of bells and hymn is an exceptionally fine example of this. The opening of the first movement returns at a climactic moment of the last, and is all the more emotionally shattering for being an unexpected return to the opening’s major/minor tensions. The ending of the movement is extraordinary: a long passage of quietly ringing, widely spaced bells, marked “elegiac” in the score, framed by quiet recollections of the Sonata’s opening chords. The music passes into a great stillness, ever softer and slower. In his autobiography, Copland quotes with approval the British writer Wilfrid Mellers’s description of the Sonata’s final movement as “the essential Copland… its relinquishment of the time sense… is a phenomenon of quite profound spiritual and cultural implication.”
The American quality of Copland’s voice is best known through his western and urban landscapes. But this Sonata’s closing pages, with their combination of deep calm and heartbroken elegy, are an essential complement to those extroverted expressions, affording a contemplative vision that is no less a part of what it is to be American, indeed, what it is to be human.
Here’s a program note on the Leonard Stein Anagrams by John Harbison that I will be playing on this Wednesday’s concert with Linda Reichert at U Penn:
Leonard Stein Anagrams
1. I’d learn tones
2. Note slid near
3. End tonal rise
4. Liar, send tone!
5. Listen, a drone (A silent drone)
6. Learns to dine
7. LA trend: noise
8. Rise tone, lad!
9. Linen ear-dots
10. Tender as lion
11. Rest: no denial
12. Earns toil-end
12A. Done: entrails
Pianist, conductor, teacher, and longtime assistant to his mentor Arnold Schoenberg, Leonard Stein (1916-2004) (pictured at left) was an important presence for new music in Los Angeles for decades. He directed the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC from its founding in 1975 until his retirement in 1991. In 1994 Stein founded the recital series Piano Spheres, and it was for this organization that John Harbison wrote his Leonard Stein Anagrams. Gloria Cheng played in the premiere in 2009. (Note that the last movement is labeled “12A” because of Schoenberg’s (and Stein’s) triskaidekaphobia.)
John Harbison writes:
It has been a privilege, melancholic and joyful, to make these Leonard Stein Anagrams for Piano Spheres, a chance to reflect on a rich twenty-year friendship.
Leonard Stein was a direct link to Schoenberg, and to all of the performers and composers of the Second Viennese School. He was also constantly alert to everything that was happening in concert music bringing his wit, critical intelligence, passion, and high standards to bear, in his disarmingly informal style. Just his voice on the phone could make the day—when he called to celebrate his mutual birthday with Rose Mary Harbison, or just to report west-coast news, with his unique blend of enthusiasm and scepticism.
During one of his appearances at the Token Creek Festival, Leonard was delighted to discover our tradition of making anagrams from names of the summer’s composers and performers. Leonard Stein (and Arnold Schoenberg) yielded nice results. When I began this piece, I found, in Leonard’s hand, six of them, based on his name, which he had discovered the old (pre-computer) way, repositioning the letters, crossing out each one he’d used. Naturally, I’ve used all six of his “finds” in the piece. At least four interesting ones didn’t go in, held perhaps for another piece.
These short movements, which are interrelated, use no letter-to-pitch correspondences. They react to the movement titles, assembling fleeting images of Leonard, present and absent.