Mario at Merkin

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:

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Mario and I, after the concert:

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some Columbia classmates (l to r, Hayes Biggs, Sheree Clement, myself, Rick Baitz): IMG_3899

Mario speaking with another Columbia classmate, Eric Chasalow (Nice hat, Mario!):

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“Meditation” concluded; upcoming:

- 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.

Mario at 80

cpemcMario Davidovsky will soon be turning 80. His birthday, and his music, will be celebrated at an all-Mario concert, to be held in NYC at Merkin Concert Hall on March 4. The performers are first-rate and include several long-time advocates of his work:

Cygnus Ensemble
Elizabeth Farnum, soprano
Aleck Karis, piano
Curtis Macomber, violin
Barry Crawford, flute
Chris Finckel, cello
Lois Martin, viola

I had the privilege of studying with Mario in the 1980’s, and have always admired his music for its passion, wit, and exquisite craft.

Go here for a New Music Box interview with Mario.

The picture above shows Mario with colleagues at one of the studios of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center – I would say this is from the mid-sixties.  In the front row (L to R) are Milton Babbitt, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and Otto Luening; behind them are Bulent Arel, Pril Smiley, Mario Davidovsky, and Alice Shields. (For you gearheads: yes, that’s a Buchla that Milton is leaning his hand on; I think the 4-track that Otto is leaning against is an Ampex. The mixer is behind Pril and Mario, and is a custom-built device with rotary potentiometers, not sliders, and switches to direct a channel’s signal to various locations in the studio. The rotary knobs permitted tricks like doing a one-handed crossfade by fitting a rubber band around adjacent knobs with a twist in the band – turn one knob clockwise, the other would move counterclockwise. On the tape recorder behind Alice, the part sticking up above the device at a slight angle held an adjustable capstan. You could run the tape up to that capstan, which would permit you to adjust the distance between the recorder’s heads, resulting in longer or shorter intervals of time between attacks for tape echo.)

Network plays Chamber Concerto

Network for New Music gave an excellent performance last night of my Chamber Concerto. This is not an easy piece – I wrote it for the hyper-virtuosi of Speculum Musicae, with Allen Blustine as clarinet soloist – but the Network ensemble pulled it off in style. Soloist Ben Fingland had full command of the part, not only the rapid flurries of notes, but the most delicate nuances, including some uncannily soft high register tones. The players relished the jazzy parts of the last movement. My one small regret was that I don’t feel I tweaked some of the synthesizer patches quite properly; Linda Reichert covered the part just fine, but if the piece is done again I would make some of the patches a little more resonant, with longer decays and capable of a wider dynamic range. Besides Ben and Linda, the players were Paul Arnold, violin; Tom Kraines, cello; Mary Javian, double bass; Christopher Deviney, percussion; and Charles Abramovic, piano, with Jan Krzywicki conducting.

The other works on the program were performed to the customary high Network standard – Paul Arnold’s violin was alternately dancing and lyrical in Judith Shatin‘s Penelope’s Song; Hirono Oka, Burchard Tang and Thom Kraines were an exceptionally refined string trio in Paul Lansky‘s As If. (It’s odd to realize that I was a tech person for the premiere of the Lansky in 1981 at Columbia University – “tech” only in the sense of being assigned to move speakers around.)  Arne Running gracefully commanded the sleight-of-hand narrative of Mario Davidovsky‘s clarinet Synchronisms.

Network’s Third Space festival continues, with programs at Temple U on Sunday night, at Community College of Philadelphia on Monday, and with a reprise of the Sunday program at Haverford College on Friday. Read more details at the Network website.

In addition to tomorrow’s Network concert, you will want to be present for the premieres of works by Melinda Wagner and Richard Brodhead at Marcantonio Barone’s piano recital this Sunday, sponsored by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, and presented at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.

Matthew Greenbaum on Kickstarter

My colleague Matthew Greenbaum is raising money on Kickstarter for a concert by violinist Mari Kimura as part of Matthew’s Amphibian series in NYC on April 25 Kimura will play her own fascinating interactive pieces (using IRCAM technology, etc.), Mario Davidovsky’s 9th Synchronism, and premieres by Eric Chasalow and Matthew. The concert takes place at HiArt Gallery in Chelsea.  Go here to support the concert. Another post about Matthew here. Here is Mari in action with a robot guitar:

Secret Geometry in Birmingham

Pianist Jon-Luke Kirton (at left) will play my Secret Geometry for piano and electronic sound this Wednesday in the  Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatory. This is the first performance in the UK.

Secret Geometry was the first piece I made in the Presser Electronic Music Studio at Penn. It dates from 1993, and used the midi technology of the time, including a DX7, a Proteus, a few other synths, and a couple of samples triggered from an Akai sampler, including my favorite – the sound of hitting a metal music stand with a pair of pliers. Sequencing was done with what was then simply called Performer (now Digital Performer) and sounds were edited with Opcode’s Galaxy universal librarian/editor (would that there was a truly functional such program on the market today – I’ve been disappointed in Unisyn and MidiQuest.)

The piece is in three movements, sort of a short sonata. (Jargon Alert. Skipping to the next paragraph is perfectly reasonable.) The opening is a set of variations, and is the first time I tried a procedure that I subsequently used in a couple of other pieces: it’s a twelve-tone piece, with 12 transpositions of a row stated in an essentially monophonic texture. The same music is then counterpointed with a similar succession of derived rows, forming aggregates. This music is repeated one more time, but now with four rows going. From the point of view of the overall form, it is like playing three choruses of the same tune. Rhythm and dynamics are treated freely. All this is rather simple by the standards of  composers more seriously invested in 12-tone possibilities. The point is not that I think a bell goes off in your head when you hear the 12th note of an aggregate – I find that a little silly. Rather, it is a way of saturating the music with a few motivic cells. As George Perle said to us in class one day, Schoenberg’s Op. 33a isn’t about 12-tone rows, it’s about four chords. The second movement is not twelve-tone, but floats a few motifs over  slowly changing clustery chords that gradually expand in register, then contract. It’s back to a simple 12-tone procedure in the last movement, a toccata that is basically a very fast single line, with a few moments where the line coalesces into three-note chords.

My point of departure for the idea of combining piano and tape is the Davidovsky Synchronism model: a tight interweaving of electronic and live sounds.  I was not particularly interested in novelty of timbre for its own sake although I have tried to employ an attractive palette of colors.  The function of the electronic sound varies throughout the piece: sometimes it fuses with the piano; sometimes it provides a subsidiary accompaniment; sometimes it is an equal partner, like a chamber music collaborator or an orchestra accompanying a concerto soloist.   As I was working on the last movement, I felt a need to bump up the tempo, just to kick it along a little more. The new tempo (sixteenths notes at quarter = 180) that sounded pleasingly lively when played by the computer turned out to sound omigod fast when played by a live pianist. Aleck Karis, who premiered the piece, handled this challenge, indeed the whole piece, brilliantly. You can hear this on the CRI recording of the piece. CRI (Composers Recordings Inc.) is out of business, but theoretically New World Records has the catalog, and will burn the CRI cds on demand, though I have to say I haven’t tried this yet.

As for the title, the phrase “secret geometry” is used by art historians to describe the play of forms in certain paintings, referring to structural patterns that are employed to organize the pictorial elements.  Since the electronic medium permits a composer to focus on the micro-structure of individual sounds, as well as more customary concerns with patterns of pitch and rhythm, it seemed appropriate to choose a title that emphasizes the careful shaping of every compositional element.  But this is not to neglect the spiritual impulse of the work.  After all, the obscure motion of the Holy Spirit herself describes a secret geometry, what Thomas Merton called “a hidden wholeness”.

Boston Adventure, part two

After Saturday morning’s rehearsal with Emmanuel Music, I had a great lunch at 29 Newbury with Ryan Turner (Emmanuel Music Director) and Pat Krol (Emmanuel executive director). (Check out the tomato soup and the pulled pork sandwich.) After a long walk in the Public Garden (amazing tulips) I made my way over to Brandeis where the 2011 BEAMS Electronic Music Marathon was in progress. Twelve hours of electronic and mixed media works! I caught nearly half the event, arriving – regrettably – too late for music by some familiar names, among them: David Felder, James Dashow, William Coble, Kaija Saariaho, Hans Tutschku, and Dennis Miller – and some not so familiar names: Ferdinando De Sena, Jeremy Podgursky, Michel van der Aa, Malin Bång, and a good many others. The unfamiliar names were mostly European, and one of the good things about the mix of pieces was the inclusion of music from Europe that is not often heard in this country. There was a chronological mix as well including older pieces such as …sofferte onde serene… of Nono, from 1976 (has not worn well) and Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco from 1980 by Jonathan Harvey (still sounds fabulous, especially nice to hear it in a hall with a multi-channel setup). There were a lot of pieces that involved live processing, but much of this mostly just involved putting a live player through a laptop that served as a sophisticated stomp box providing variations on delay. There seemed to be a limited array of compositional options: either the processed version accumulates the notes as though the piano pedal was depressed (the homophony strategy); or something that was just played gets repeated, looped or not (sort of canon at the unison). Pieces for what we used to call “instrument and tape” – now the expression is “instrument and fixed media” – were also heard. Performances were at a very high level throughout the evening. A few standouts:

the forgotten dialect of autumn by Heather Stebbins – memorably lyric violin lines played by Krista Buckland Reisner, with live electronics.

Winter Fragments by spectralist master Tristan Murail – the Boston-based group Sound Icon playing with live processing, plus video imagery by Herve Bailly-Basin – mostly aqueous images, sometimes crystalline, mostly responding to the music in a direct way, and therefore suggesting a high end  iTunes visualizer. (Just as the laptop ends up being a fancy stompbox. Fancy technology does not always mean a fancy result.)

Rope and Chasm by Matthew Greenbaum –  Re’ut Ben Ze’ev, mezzo soprano, narrating, singing, and interacting with a video. The piece is based on Nietzche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra; one memorable moment was when the mezzo reached up her hand to a wounded figure in the video, casting her hand’s shadow onto the screen – a simple gesture, but quite touching.

Strange Autumn by Steven Kazuo Takasugi – a theater piece with narration, electronic sound and a percussionist making amplified noises with various pieces of paper. Something oddly moving about making a piece with such impoverished means.

Scuffle & Snap by Eric Chasalow – an heir to the Davidovsky tradition, Brandeis faculty member Chasalow, who curated the marathon, offered another one of his finely crafted studies in, as he put it in a program note, “building heightened dramatic structures around traditional instruments”. He continues, “I like to use a wide variety of sound sources, recontextualized, but very resonant with memories.” Chasalow’s work is important because he is not just an electronic music composer, he is an electronic music composer; the way he carefully shapes musical gestures and their interaction was a welcome contrast with much of the music heard that day.

The last piece I heard was Davidovsky’s Synchronism No. 12, played with her customary verve and lively array of colors by clarinetist Jean Kopperud. This is the most recent in the series of pieces for instruments and electronic sound by the original maestro of the medium. Here is Jean just before playing the piece:

By now it was getting close to midnight, and time for me to go get some sleep before the next morning’s church service with my motet at Emmanuel. More soon.

Bravo, Mario

Mario Davidovsky is best known for his work in the electronic medium, with his series of works for live instruments and electronic sound called Synchronisms serving as exemplary models for the genre. But Mario, who was my mentor during my days as a Columbia University doctoral student, has mostly worked in instrumental music for a number of years. There were samples of instrumental, vocal, and electronic works heard at Friday’s all-Davidovsky concert at Miller Theater in New York. The performances by the International Contemporary Ensemble were very strong, although the dry acoustic of Miller robbed their playing of some of its vibrancy. The ninth and twelfth Synchronisms were heard, played respectively by violinist David Bowlin and clarinetist Joshua Eubin. There were three purely instrumental works from the ’90s as well. All this music continues to dazzle, not just for the scintillating rapid gestures, but for the intensely lyrical lines that constitute the heart of the piece – “heart” both in the sense of telling affect, and of inner structure.

I think one reason Davidovsky’s instrumental music is less widely known than it should be is that his music resists ready labeling. Although he is usually bracketed with so-called “uptown” composers such as Babbitt, Wuorinen, and Martino, his music stands a bit apart from those masters because it is not really serial music – twelve-tone (fully chromatic), yes, but rather more non-systematic than genuinely serial works. (Or should I say “even more non-systematic”?) Good luck trying to trace rows, etc. in Mario’s music.* There are games with hexachords (go through the piano Synchronism), and strategies involving the deployment of registers. But Mario, though he admires the surfaces of various kinds of serial music, relies on different forms of rigor than someone more closely aligned with serial techniques.  It is a rigor that springs more exclusively from the play of forms, the interaction of motifs, from the fantastical patterns woven from vivid, passionate gestures.

The most memorable performance of the night was given by soprano Tony Arnold, who lent her clear, pure sound to Mario’s settings of Spanish folk poetry, Romancero. The final song in the set is about King David lamenting Absalom. Here the accompaniment is very spare, with hushed cantillation from the violin. Tony’s singing was utterly heartbreaking, all the more powerful for the restraint of Mario’s setting.

Interviews with Mario here and here. Three works can be heard at Art of the States. Picture above taken at last Friday’s concert.

*It is interesting that Joseph Straus omits Mario from his collection of short analyses of music by 37 twelve-tone composers in his recent book on the history of twelve-tone music in America; I would say he is the most important composer left out. Of course, Straus couldn’t cover everyone of importance, and if anyone can figure out the technical aspects of Mario’s music, Joseph Straus can. But still, I wonder if the non-systematic nature of the music played a role in Straus’s choice.

Wednesday afternoon miscellany

-The Pew Fellowships in the Arts, a program of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, has begun a blog. Check out the “100 Fellows” video here.

- Mario Davidovsky gets the Composer Portrait treatment – a full evening of his music – at Miller Theater on the Columbia University campus in New York this Friday. I’ll be there, will be blogging about it.

-Marilyn Nonken plays the music of Tristan Murail at Delaware County Community College in suburban Philadelphia this Sunday, March 6.

(at left: Mario Davidovsky)