A new CD devoted to my music for voice and ensemble has been released by Bridge Records. Susan Narucki and William Sharp are the soloists; Christopher Kendall conducts the 21st Century Consort. It’s available at Amazon and at Arkiv Music. Scroll down for several more posts about the album.
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, see above for a work list. There are score samples and audio clips at jamesprimosch.com
I spent all day today working on my commission for The Crossing, took a break to look at Arts Journal, and saw the news of the death of Crossing member Jeff Dinsmore. My thoughts and prayers are with all concerned, including my friend Susan Narucki who is to be soloist in the same Andriessen performance with the L.A. Phil that The Crossing is preparing for. A message sent out by The Crossing tonight is here. Members of the ensemble talk about the group in this video.
My piece for The Crossing includes settings of poetry by Denise Levertov, including this passage:
O deep, remote unknown,
O deep unknown,
Have mercy upon us.
Posting will be very sparse in the next few weeks as I have to finish up my piece for The Crossing, Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. The piece sets portions of the Denise Levertov cycle of poems by that name, juxtaposed with the relevant portions of the Latin Mass Ordinary. The premiere is June 28 at The IceBox, part of the Crane Arts Center here in Philadelphia. Excuse me now while I pull down my visor and put my protective gloves back on…
I will be working on a violin and piano sonata in the not-too-distant future, so I have been feeding my ear with some listening, starting with the Anne-Sophie Mutter/Lambert Orkis complete Beethoven sonatas. These are extraordinary performances. The rhythmic unanimity of the pair is positively uncanny, especially given the judiciously flexible approach to pulse. Lambert is able to balance chords with stunning consistency and make broken-chord accompaniments hum discreetly, yet articulately. But these details are not the whole story – the larger scale forms are made transparent by the careful calibration of climaxes, by well-chosen tempi, by contrasts of finely delineated character. I recommend the set without reservation.
This is an album of 18 succinct free improvisations, some using a Schoenberg or Webern row as a jumping off point, and featuring the three artists in various combinations alongside solo piano tracks. The concision of the individual pieces (none of them longer than five minutes) is an important selling point of the disc – nothing self-indulgent here. Adding further to the appeal are the subtle hints of boogie-woogie or other traditional jazz piano idioms that Bley weaves into the solo pieces; the playing may be spontaneous, but not without a sense of history. Uncommonly focussed and coherent music-making throughout.
Network for New Music celebrated the work of John Harbison this past weekend with two concerts and a variety of talks and workshops. It was an exhausting and exhilarating experience.
The pieces by Harbison ranged chronologically from 1980′s Mottetti di Montale to the premiere of a 2013 work, The Right to Pleasure, commissioned by Network. The focus throughout was on song: instrumental pieces based on folk or pop songs either real or synthetic, as well as vocal settings of texts by Louise Glück, Jessica Fisher, and Eugenio Montale.
Songs America Loves to Sing, featured in Friday’s concert, arranges 10 familiar American tunes for “pierrot” ensemble, with the melodies either treated in witty contrapuntal constructions or as accompanied solos featuring one or another member of the group. It’s simply a delightful piece, wearing its compositionally virtuosic polyphonic garb casually. You would think the phrase “double canon by inversion with a free bass” is a description of a work by Bach, but it also describes Harbison’s arrangement of “St. Louis Blues”. The mensuration canons on “We Shall Overcome” sound similarly organic, not imposed.
The remainder of Friday’s concert was taken up new works by other composers, all based on pieces in the SALTS set. The commissioned pieces included my own Meditation on Amazing Grace; Anna Weesner’s starkly powerful take on We Shall Overcome; Terell Stafford’s Favor, memorable for his masterful performance and inspired by the renditions of “Amazing Grace” he heard in church growing up; Uri Caine’s typically polystylistic treatment of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”; and Bobby Zankel’s Will the Cycle Be Unbroken, built around the similarly named tune about a circle instead of a cycle. Winners of a Network-sponsored composition contest, Luke Carlson and Peter Christian, contributed attractive short works as well. It was a great privilege for me to play my own work and Anna’s with some superb instrumentalist colleagues: Terell Stafford and bassist Mary Javian in my piece, and trumpeter Eric Schweingruber, violinist Hirono Oka, and again Mary Javian in Anna’s.
Sunday was all Harbison, opening with the first six songs from his massive Montale cycle. Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley found the operatic qualities in this music, and coupled with Susan Nowicki’s intensely characterized piano accompaniments, the result was a musical setting that made the emotional world of the poetry legible in a way that mere reading could not. Bentley returned in similarly dramatic voice, this time accompanied by a string quintet, for the new work, The Right to Pleasure, which weds four darkly acute poems of Jessica Fisher to economical, tautly made music. The piece disturbs one’s thoughts long after the music has ended. The mood of the Glück settings in Crossroads, sung by Sarah Joanne Davis with great beauty of sound, is less dark, but similarly haunting. Hearing the line “My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer” in a setting by a seventy-five year old composer gives one pause. Not that Harbison was being manipulative – the piece may be concerned with mortality, but it remains clear-eyed in its compassion.
Two lighter instrumental works offered a nice contrast to the vocal pieces. The Fourteen Fabled Folksongs are not pre-existing melodies, but folk-like tunes devised by Harbison. Hirona Oka, violin, and Angela Nelson, marimba, caught the various playful moods of the set in their exceptionally well-etched playing. Thanks Victor, a medley of Victor Young songs arranged by Harbison for string quartet, was offered by young members of the Philadelphia Sinfonia – Stephanie Bonk, Benjamin She, Jamie Ye and Max Song – who played with stylish lilt.
Harbison continues to be one of my favorite composers, creating music with breadth of expressive means, profound musical intelligence, and touching emotional resonance. This is a spiritually nourishing body of work, and I am deeply grateful for its presence in my life.
Go here to stream an interview with Harbison heard on NPR’s Here & Now in which he talks about Songs America Loves to Sing.
-Gerhard Richter, quoted in Gerhard Richter: Paintings, by Roald Nasgaard.
Substitute “notes” for “numbers”.
The image is of Gerhard Richter’s painting “180 Colors”, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Quote found on PMA website.
There will be an interview with John Harbison on NPR’s “Here & Now” this afternoon between 2:45 and 3:00 pm. It’ll be heard on WHYY-FM in Philadelphia. He’ll talk about his music and his current trip to Philly to work with Network for New Music.
UPDATE: go here to stream the interview.
Scroll down for various posts about the concert and my participation in it as composer and pianist. Here’s a performance of Songs America Loves to Sing, Harbison’s work that will be heard this Friday:
I’ll be picking up John Harbison at the Philadelphia airport tomorrow as he begins his visit in connection with the concerts, talks, and workshops that Network for New Music is offering. The concerts will be on Friday, April 4, 8 pm, at Temple University’s Rock Hall; and Sunday, April 6, 7:30 pm, this time at the Curtis Institute. Go here for more complete information.
My new piece, Meditation on Amazing Grace, will be on the Friday program – here is my program note on the piece:
My reflection on this familiar tune is rather darker than the version I used to sing to my twins as a lullaby: here I have cast the piece in minor, and framed it with harmonies that imply a key, but not that of the melody. After an introduction, the trumpet takes us through one verse, followed by a repeated and expanded version of the introduction now serving to accompany fragments and embellishments of the melody.
The troubled light I have shone upon the tune was purely a musical thought; but perhaps it has to do with theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s contention that there is no such thing as “cheap grace”.
I posted the first two Network videos previewing the Friday concert here; Uri Caine and Terrell Stafford are featured in the third: