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.
Here are the program notes for the other two pieces on my new CD on Bridge. (The first installment is here). The pictures below are of the Grammy winning soloists on the disc, Bill Sharp and Susan Narucki.
Dark the Star
Composing this cycle of songs began with my discovery of three poems in Susan Stewart’s collection Columbarium that I knew I must set to music. The deep, dreamlike wisdom of these poems haunted me, just as I had experienced with Susan’s poem “Cinder” that had served as the fulcrum of my song cycle Holy the Firm. Eventually, texts by Rilke and an earlier setting I had done of a psalm verse were drawn into the gravitational orbit of Susan’s poems. I ordered the texts in a nearly symmetrical pattern, with two poems set a second time in versions that shadow their first readings. This is partly for the sake of the formal design, but, more importantly, to re-examine the poems in the penumbra of what comes before. Rounding the cycle in this way reflects not only the circles and repetitions in Susan Stewart’s texts, but also the way in which, as Rilke writes, the things we have let go yet encircle us.
William Sharp and the 21st Century Consort premiered this cycle in 2008.
Holy the Firm
The little anthology of texts dealing with praise and mystery that I have assembled for this song cycle draws upon writings of three twentieth-century American women and a monk of the seventh century Sinai desert. It may be helpful to know that the fifth text is excerpted from a found poem based upon phrases culled from the Dictionary of Last Words edited by Edward S. Le Comte. The wide-ranging affects of the texts called forth a similar range of musical languages but there are many recurrences, both musical and textual, that bind the songs together.
The cycle’s title is borrowed from that of a book by Annie Dillard that also provided the words for the second song. In that book, Dillard writes: “Esoteric Christianity, I read, posits a substance. It is a created substance, lower than metals and minerals on a ‘spiritual scale’, and lower than salts and earths, occurring beneath salts and earths in the waxy deepness of planets, but never on the surface of planets where men could discern it; and it is in touch with the Absolute at base. In touch with the Absolute! At base. The name of this substance is: Holy the Firm.”
Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish gave the first performance of the original piano and voice version of Holy the Firm in 1999. I subsequently made this chamber version for Susan Narucki and the 21st Century Consort; those artists gave the premiere in 2002.
My new CD, Sacred Songs, is coming out on Bridge Records this Tuesday. Here are program notes for two of the pieces on the disc – notes on the other two pieces in tomorrow’s post. John Harbison’s booklet essay for the disc is here. That’s the soloist for these pieces, Susan Narucki, pictured below.
From a Book of Hours
This cycle of songs sets four poems from an early collection by Rilke entitled Das Stundenbuch, or in English, Book of Hours. Although the title refers to a medieval book of prayers for the various times of day and seasons of the liturgical year, Rilke’s texts occupy a position some distance from conventional piety. There is a melancholy to the spirituality expressed here, which speaks of an experience of God that is fragmentary, imperfect, and unattainable. The solitude evoked in the second song (as layers of busy activity are gradually peeled away) offers some solace, but the third song is very dark and fierce, filled with a desperate, even manic desire for God. The last song returns to the mood of the first, but now in a global rather than individual context. This song, like the set as a whole, speaks of our world’s brokenness, yet strives to stammer fragments of God’s name.
Originally composed in an orchestral version on a commission from the Chicago Symphony, this chamber ensemble version was prepared for Susan Narucki and the 21st Century Consort, with Christopher Kendall conductor, who gave the first performance in 2007.
Four Sacred Songs
When soprano Christine Schadeberg asked me to compose a new work for her 1989 Town Hall recital, she asked for something lighter in tone than my usual style, suggesting that I consider writing some folk song arrangements. I agreed to the idea of arrangements, but rather than folk songs, I chose three old sacred melodies; the idea of sharing with a concert audience a few of the musical riches that I had encountered in my work as a liturgical musician was particularly attractive. In 1990 I orchestrated these piano and voice songs, adding the second movement which exists only in the chamber ensemble version. The first performance was given by Christine Schadeberg with the ensemble Voices of Change.
The first song, “Jesu Dulcis Memoria”, is a strophic chant hymn with a text by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Cistercian monk and preacher.
I have set “Corde Natus Ex Parentis” using a somewhat free version of the medieval technique known as a mensuration canon: except for a few freely imitative phrases, all the parts have the same melody, but played at different speeds. For example, the low cello and harp notes mark out the tune at a pace six times slower than the voice.
The chant “Christus Factus Est” appears in the Liber Usualis as part of the Holy Week liturgy; the melody is unusually wide-ranging and highly melismatic. The text is part of St. Paul’s famous “Philippians Hymn”, and speaks of the mystery of Christ’s suffering and exaltation.
The origins of the tune for “O Filli et Filliae” are obscure, and may be secular in nature. The words somewhat discontinuously narrate the Easter story, closing with a call to give praise and thanks to God.
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 isn’t entirely about picking up a pencil and staring at a blank sheet of manuscript paper, this composing thing. As a way of letting you know about some things that are happening soon, here is a list of stuff I have to do in the next 6 weeks or so:
- I have a considerable backlog of scores that are not in as nice shape, graphically speaking, as I would like, and I haven’t yet supplied the master copies of them (well, these days, PDF files) to Theodore Presser Co., my publisher. However, I am slowly addressing the issue with the help of master editor/engraver Ken Godel. Ken has recently sent me files of both the piano/vocal and chamber ensemble versions of my song cycle Holy the Firm, and I am proofing them one more time. I hope to finish this in the next few days.
- Bridge Records has sent me the first draft of the booklet for the CD of my vocal music they will be releasing soon. I need to proof this, not only for the content (texts of the songs, bio notes, etc.) but to offer suggestions on the graphic appearance and layout. This needs to be done by this coming Monday.
- The Folger Consort will be performing my Songs and Dances from “The Tempest” in January, and I need to get the score and parts to them by the middle of this month. The varied instrumentation of the piece (it is scored for a wide array of early instruments) will be handled by a different, larger array of performers than was the case at the premiere some 15 years ago, and parts have to be devised to reflect this division of labor.
- In January I will be playing the slow movement, a set of variations on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, from my Piano Quintet, with the Daedalus Quartet on a program at Penn. Again, that score needs to be cleaned up graphically – my Finale chops have improved a bit since 1996, as has the program itself, of course. The Daedalus wants to see the parts by the beginning of December. (By the way, the Daedalus gave a wonderful concert yesterday at Penn, with works by Schulhoff, Korngold and a rare performance of the Schoenberg Ode to Napoleon, with pianist Charles Abramovic and baritone Randall Scarlatta as narrator. It’s a remarkable piece. Charlie described it to me afterwards as being “as crowd-pleasing as Schoenberg from that period gets.” I had only heard the piece live once before, a performance at Columbia University, with, of all people, Wallace Shawn as narrator.)
- My new song for Lyric Fest on a text by Susan Scott Thompson is also due in December; I want to look it over one more time before sending it in – for once I finished something far enough in advance that I have time to make final adjustments after letting the piece rest for a bit. It’s amazing what you see when you come back to a score after even a few weeks.
I’m very happy to report that Bridge Records will be issuing a new CD of my music in early 2014. The disc, to be called Sacred Songs, will bring together four of my pieces for voice and ensemble:
- From a Book of Hours sets four poems of Rainer Maria Rilke in German.
- Four Sacred Songs comprises arrangements of old traditional sacred melodies – plainchant as well as metered tunes – with Latin texts.
- Dark the Star brings together texts by Philadelphia-based poet Susan Stewart, Rilke (in German), and a verse from the Psalms (in Latin).
- Holy the Firm sets texts by three American women – Denise Levertov, Annie Dillard, and Susan Stewart – as well as John Climacus, a monk of the 7th century Sinai desert.
While I am very grateful for every CD of my music, (visit the discography page to get the details on how much I have to be grateful for), this new Bridge project is especially meaningful to me. This is partly because it is the first disc devoted entirely to my vocal music, a medium that has been a major preoccupation of mine in the last two decades. It also documents an especially long-standing relationship with performers who have been among the most consistent advocates of my music. In fact, I think that over a period of more than three decades, Christopher Kendall has conducted and/or programmed my music more than any other musician anywhere!
There is a lot more to say about this album – the pieces, the performers, the process of recording with Curt Wittig and editing with George Blood, the booklet essays by Susan Stewart and John Harbison, and I will be writing about these things in future posts. For now I will leave you with the photo above. This is the interior of St. Henry’s Ecumenical Art Chapel, designed by the firm of Sanaksenaho Architects, and photographed by Jussi Tiainen. This powerful image will be used for the cover of the booklet accompanying Sacred Songs.
- I should have looked on YouTube for music by Melinda Wagner when I wrote that post about her Trombone Concerto. Only now did I think of doing so: here and here are excerpts from Four Settings, the vocal piece on the same Bridge CD as the concerto. Soprano Ilana Davidson is featured.
- Sorry I messed up the links in this post below – they are now fixed – you may want to visit it again.
Melinda Wagner‘s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra begins unpretentiously, with a delicate version of the composite attack/decay that is a standard opening ploy for so many pieces: a soft single note from the harp and timpani, with the decay provided by half the second violins, tremolo. Then the first phrase from the soloist is heard: pianissimo, curving up and then down. The pitches can be parsed into two octatonic scale segments, with that sustained tremolo note shared by the two segments. But what you attend to is not the harmonic structure, though that is what gives the phrase coherence; rather, what is most striking is the simple elegance of the shape, with its minor thirds to begin and end, with its highest pitch sounding like an upper neighbor, resolving down by step. Reiterations of the orchestra’s opening sustained note are fitted around the phrase at exactly the right time. For example, the highest note of the trombone phrase is also the longest note, so that’s the place for a fresh harp pluck. The rest of the second violins sneak in as the soloist reaches his cadencing minor third, and repeated horn notes affirm the end of the phrase. These opening bars are poised, suave, satisfying in a modest way. But what happens next raises the stakes.
It is an effect created by an different sort of composite sound: violas, cellos and contrabasses divided into a total of 8 parts, adding seven pitches to the sustained opening note, and bound together with the ringing sounds of piano, harp and a tam-tam stroke. It is as though the sustained note suddenly became three-dimensional, changing from a simple line to a geometric shape, heard in perspective – exactly the effect Mindy speaks of in her program note when she writes how she “tried throughout to imbue the orchestral writing with a sense of three dimensions – of space and the presence of a vanishing point.” The soloist enters as that low chord dies away, with a longer, more wide-ranging phrase, again beginning and ending with thirds, but this time one minor, the other major. The highest, longest note resolves downward again by step; in fact, the gesture is repeated – but one time with a minor second, one time with a major second. In both cases – the thirds and the seconds - the contour is maintained, the precise intervallic content varied. If you clump together the notes of this second phrase, you get not an octatonic structure, but a chromatic cluster, one that intersects with the little octatonic segment to which the opening sustained single pitch has grown. The final note of the soloist’s phrase turns the sustained octatonic segment into a chromatic one. It is as though the major mode has turned to minor. And yet the structure stays in the background where it belongs – the focus is on the soloist’s eloquent arabesque and the deep perspective opened up by the low chord; craft is at the service of poetry.
That is just the opening eight bars of the piece, recently released on a Bridge CD, in a magnificent performance by Joseph Alessi and the New York Philharmonic, led by Lorin Maazel.* The clarity, richness and deft subtlety of those opening bars are maintained throughout the piece. It’s a standard three movement form – fast, slow, fast, with a slow introduction to the first movement, and a chorale for the brass serving as an interlude between the second and third movements, returning (embellished and varied) in the body of the third movement – an effective formal touch.
Mindy has a genuine orchestral voice, commanding full-sized gestures that are devised with uncommon care. She enriches the “upward whooshes of sound, and spilling cascades” that she mentions in her program note by structuring them in overlapping waves – not just a single scale or arpeggiation upward, but layers of them played by different orchestral groups. Sometimes these take on a heterophonic character, with more or less simultaneous statements of a figure with small variations. She often deploys a counterpoint of gestures. This middle ground counterpoint – not motive against motive, but gesture against gesture – is an important part of what makes the piece so satisfying. Rather than one thing followed by another like beads on a single string, the musical discourse is more of a woven fabric encompassing many threads. In addition to these richly layered textures there are more direct moments, like the ear-teasing hocket-like passages where chords bounce around the orchestral choirs in rapid succession. The relationship between the soloist and the orchestra is varied, with the ensemble sometimes content to simply set the scene, sometimes closely echoing the solo lines with shadowy resonances. The trombone writing is eloquent and brilliant by turns, sometimes astonishingly brilliant. Mindy must have had a chart of trombone slide positions next to her drafting table, as well as consulting with her soloist.
The Bridge release also includes Mindy’s Four Settings, based on poetry of Robert Desnos, Denise Levertov and Emily Dickinson, and featuring soprano Christine Brandes with an ad hoc septet of superb New York instrumentalists, as well as Wick, written for the New York New Music Ensemble. Both pieces receive exemplary performances. I continue to be impressed by the uncanny, near telepathic precision exhibited by the NYNME players, thanks to their long experience working together.**
It is no small coup for an American composer to get a commercial recording of an orchestral piece by a top-flight American orchestra, and it must have taken a great deal of persistent fund raising to make the disc happen. It’s a pity, given the wealth of fine orchestral music being created in this country, that such releases are so rare.
*) This is the second of two superb concertos Joseph Alessi has premiered with the New York Phil, the first being that of Chris Rouse, which won him the Pulitzer in 1993.
**) Note that they will be appearing at Penn on April 4 with a program of Eric Chasalow, Rand Steiger, Yiorgos Vassilandonakis, and Zhou Long.
Theodore Presser Co. has issued my Piano Variations. Thanks to master engraver/editor Ken Godel, the score looks great – see if you agree by going here, scrolling down, and clicking on the link for sample pages.
It has been a long journey to this point. Back in the late 20th Century, pianist Lambert Orkis asked me to write him a piece for piano and synthesizer. This was for a milennium-inspired project he called “From Hammers to Bytes”, a recital program with a big sonata just for piano by Richard Wernick, and a big piece for piano and synth on the second half. Originally Lambert wanted me to write for piano and Clavinova, an instrument that I didn’t find particularly inspiring. We finally agreed on a Kurzweil, which would give me a vastly richer array of sounds to work with, compared with the Clavinova. The result was my Sonata-Fantasia, which Lambert gave a few brilliant performances and subsequently recorded for Bridge Records, along with the new sonata Dick Wernick had written for him. I knew the Kurz, like any other synth, would start to become obsolete the day I drove it off the lot, so to speak, and the more I took advantage of the capabilities of that particular synth, the more I increased the difficulty of playing the piece with some other keyboard. I very much wanted to write the piece for Lambert, but I also wanted to come out of the process with something that other musicians could play. I eventually devised a plan where a portion of the Sonata-Fantasia could, with some adjustments, live again as a solo piano piece. The first movement of the piece is a big set of variations, running about 25 minutes, and that became the now-published Piano Variations.
Lambert wanted me to think about the history of the piano while writing my piece. (You should know that in addition to being an astounding pianist, best known as Anne-Sophie Mutter’s recital partner, Lambert has an interest in historical keyboards, and has played and recorded on various old instruments, or modern reconstructions modeled on old keyboards.) We talked about the ability of the Kurzweil to emulate the sound of historic keyboards, and Lambert tracked down a set of impressive fortepiano samples. (One curious issue arose – when using the fortepiano samples, should I employ notes that are not actually on the fortepiano keyboard? I wrote in two different versions for that moment, one with bass notes lower than any fortepiano can play, one that sticks to the instrument’s actual range.) The stock harpsichord sample in the Kurz was attractive as well. Most of the Kurzweil patches I used are synth sounds of one kind or another, many percussive, some more atmospheric, and some used to modify the attack and decay characteristics of the acoustic piano. But given those samples of early keyboards, it was a short step from there to writing variations that would invoke earlier keyboard idioms – not earlier harmonic or melodic styles, but more matters of keyboard layout and texture. The harmony and melody in my piece remains rooted in the materials in my theme (see the score samples mentioned above), but, for example, there is a variation using a harpsichord patch that is laid out like one of the Goldberg Variations – two voices in canon and a third free voice. The fortepiano variation invokes one of the Schubert impromptus – this in honor of Lambert’s recording of the Schubert on fortepiano. (I permit myself the only actual quotation from an already existing piece in that movement.) The climactic variation has passages modeled fairly closely on the Chopin C-sharp minor etude from Op. 10, and there are other references throughout the piece to Chopin, Messiaen, stride piano, and even the 19th century pianist/composer Kalkbrenner, with a passage that employs his “three-handed” layout: a melody played by the thumbs surrounded by two-handed arpeggios. Contemporary composers are also in the background of some of the variations, with hints of textures you might associate with the music of three of my mentors: George Crumb, Richard Wernick, and Mario Davidovsky. The piece thus becomes not just variations on a theme, but a collection of varied approaches to the piano itself.
Practically speaking, the synth and piano are arranged at right angles to one another, in the manner of a piano/celesta doubling by an orchestral keyboardist. (Lambert is the principal keyboard for the National Symphony.) Lambert preferred this to the stacking of keyboards that pop performers sometimes prefer, since that arrangement puts significant restraints on conventional piano technique. I had Lambert switch back and forth between instruments a good bit, sometimes playing both keyboards at once. Since the synth was at the left of the piano, this meant there are a few passages where Lambert’s left hand was playing in a high register on the Kurz and his right hand in a low register on the Steinway – perfectly plausible, but seemingly impractical when you look in the score, since it appears the left hand is playing five or six octaves above the right! I remember checking with Lambert repeatedly to make sure we were in agreement about which side the synthesizer would be placed.*
I prepared the piano version of the movement in time for a 50th birthday concert of my music a few years ago, and the superb Stephen Gosling gave the first performance. I finally (thanks to Ken) got around to preparing a clean copy of the score more recently, and the result is there on Presser’s website. Thank you, Lambert, for commissioning the original version of the piece, and thanks to the MacDowell Colony, where a big chunk of the first movement was devised.
I will return to writing for piano in an upcoming consortium commission, about which more soon.
*) I didn’t want to run into the problem I once heard conductor Arthur Weisberg describe in connection with a performance of the Carter Double Concerto, where, before the first rehearsal, he carefully prepared the beat patterns he would need for the closing portion of the piece where the two portions of the ensemble are in different meters. He was startled when he arrived at rehearsal to realize the ensembles were on the opposite sides of the stage from what he expected.